Labelling Theory

Topics: Sociology, Criminology, Sociological terms Pages: 8 (2860 words) Published: July 17, 2005
Becker was influenced by the following: Charles Cooley's Human Nature and the Social Order (1902) examines the personal perception of oneself through studies of children and their imaginary friends. Cooley develops the theoretical concept of the looking glass self, a type of imaginary sociability (Cooley 1902). People imagine the view of themselves through the eyes of others in their social circles and form judgements of themselves based on these imaginary observations (Cooley 1902). The main idea of the looking glass self is that people define themselves according to society's perception of them ( ). Cooley's ideas, coupled with the works of Mead, are very important to labeling theory and its approach to a person's acceptance of labels as attached by society. George Mead's theory is less concerned with the micro-level focus on the deviant and more concerned with the macro-level process of separating the conventional and the condemned (Pfohl 1994). In Mind, Self, and Society (1934), Mead describes the perception of self as formed within the context of social process (Wright 1984). The self is the product of the mind's perception of social symbols and interactions ( ). The self exists in objective reality and is then internalized into the conscious (Wright 1984). The idea of shifting the focus away from the individual deviant and looking at how social structure affects the separation of those persons considered unconventional has a great influence on how Becker approaches labeling theory. In 1938, Frank Tannenbaum presented his own approach to labeling theory in response to his studies of juvenile participation in street gangs ( ). Tannenbaum describes the process of defining deviant behavior as different among juvenile delinquents and conventional society, causing a "tagging" of juveniles as delinquent by mainstream society ( ). The stigma that accompanies the deviant "tag" causes a person fall into deeper nonconformity (Pfohl 1994). Although Lemert discounts the influence of Tannenbaum on the development of labeling theory ( ), Tannenbaum's approach is incorporated in many societal reaction theories. Social Pathology (1951) outlines Edwin Lemert's approach to what many consider the original version of labeling theory. Lemert, unhappy with theories that take the concept of deviance for granted, focuses on the social construction of deviance (Lemert 1951). Lemert (1951) describes deviance as the product society's reaction to an act and the affixing of a deviant label on the actor. Social Pathology details the concepts of primary and secondary deviance. According to Lemert (1951), primary deviance is the initial incidence of an act causing an authority figure to label the actor deviant. This initial labeling of a deviant act will remain primary as long as the actor can rationalize or deal with the process as a function of a socially acceptable role (Lemert 1951). If the labeled deviant reacts to this process by accepting the deviant label, and further entrenches his/herself in deviant behavior, this is referred to as secondary deviance (Lemert 1951). Lemert considers the causes of primary deviance as fluid, and only important to researchers concerned with specific social problems at a certain time. In the years following Social Pathology, Lemert argues for the decriminalization of victimless crimes, advocates pre-trial diversion programs, and has backed away labeling determinism (Wright 1984). Howard Becker developed his theory of labeling (also known as social reaction theory) in the 1963 book Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. Becker's theory evolved during a period of social and political power struggle that was amplified within the world of the college campus (Pfohl 1994). Liberal political movements were embraced by many of the college students and faculty in America (Pfohl 1994). Howard Becker harnessed this liberal influence and adjusted...
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