What Is the Labelling Theory? Summarise and Evaluate Its Application to the Analysis of Crime and Criminal Justice.

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Labelling theory refers to the ability to attach a label to a person or group of people and in so doing the label becomes more important than the individual. The label becomes the dominant form of identify and takes on ‘Master Status’ (Becker 1963; Lemert 1967) so that the person can no longer be seen other than through the lens of the label. Words, just like labels, are containers of meaning. In this case, the label and the meaning attached to it becomes all that the person is rather than a temporary feature of something that they have done or a way that they have behaved.

"Words [or labels], like little buckets, are assumed to pick up their loads of meaning in one person's mind, carry them across the intervening space, and dump them into the mind of another" (Osgood 1979:213)

Within criminal justice Labelling Theory has been seen as a way of manipulating and encouraging both the would be offender to think and behaviours in a particular way so as to live up to the label and equally to manipulate and direct the thoughts and actions of those that work and manage the system e.g. a label encourages them to takes on particular negative perspective or bias towards a person or group of people. This essay will focus on describing all aspects of Labelling Theory in relation to crime and the criminal justice system. It will also evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of Labelling Theory which dominated sociological theory of crime and thinking in the 1960’ and 70’s.

Tannenbaum (1938); Lemert (1951) and Becker (1963) were amongst the first theorists to explore Labelling Theory as an aspect of criminality and the criminal justice system applicable to westernised societies. In particular, Tannerbaum (1938) has been attributed as the first labelling theorist and his main concept suggested that labelling is society’s way of ‘dramatising evil’. He claimed that “tagging, segregating, describing and emphasising aspects of an individual as deserving of special treatment” meant that the person would then take on the role being described for (Tannerbaum 1938). Others have also argued that in the criminal justice system negative labels are attached to people of lower social status. Labelling theory therefore suggests that this is one of the dominant ways people from lower social classes become trapped in a life of crime and deviancy; the criminal justice system attributes the label to a particular type of crime or a particular person that behave in a way holding some form of criminal intent, and the individual can then live up to the label – meeting all the negative criteria that society as a whole has a tribute to the label.

Lemert (1951) is held up as the founder of the “Societal Reaction” approach states that social deviance is set out in two stages. Primary deviance, and the second known as the Secondary deviance. He believed that a criminal act was where primary deviance begun. Due to this immoral act the individual or group is then labelled, however they do not accept the label as they do not see themselves as a criminal. For this reason, primary deviance is thought to have very little effect on an individual’s self-concept. Only when they believe themselves to be criminal the secondary deviant stage begins. Secondary deviance is when a person starts to take on a self-fulfilling prophecy provided by the label and the meaning attached to it. This is what Goffman (1963) defines as “deviant career”. However, Becker (1963) suggested that deviance is not the criminal or immoral act itself, but refers to the response of others and how they act together towards it. In other words, deviance comes from the eye of the beholder. Goffman (1963) went on to claim that secondary deviance could and often did lead to the individual having a ‘deviant career’ which in turn could lead to stigma – a powerful negative social label that compels an individual’s ‘self concept and social identity to change’ and take on a negative direction. He...
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