Are offenders different?
Interactionists argue that a mistake most perspectives make is that they assume lawbreakers are somehow different from law-abiding people. The labelling theory suggests that most people commit deviant and criminal acts but only come are caught and stigmatised for it. It is for this reason that emphasis should be on understanding the reaction and definition of deviance rather than the causes of the initial act.
Quote by Howard Becker 1963
“Deviancy is not a quality of the act a person commits but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an ‘offender’. Deviant behaviour is behaviour that people so label.”
The labelling theory has gradually been adopted and incorporated into other sociological approaches – for example Taylor, Walton and Young have used it in Marxists criminology and postmodernists owe a lot to it as well.
Becker argues that
1. Just because someone breaks a rule it does not necessarily follow that others will define it as deviant.
2. Someone has to enforce the rules, or at least, draw attention to them – these people usually have a vested interest in the issue.
3. If the person is successfully labelled then consequences follow. Once publicly labelled as deviant, an offender is left facing a limited number of options.
Responding to and Enforcing the Rules
Most sociological theories presume that once a deviant or criminal act has been committed then the response will be uniform, however this is not the case as people respond differently to deviance or rule breaking. In the early 1960’s gay men were more likely to be stigmatised than now. John Kitsuse interviewed 75 heterosexual students to obtain their responses to (presumed) sexual advances from gay men. The point of this was to show that there was no agreed definition of what constituted a homosexual advance it was open to negotiation.
In Britain today,