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Interactionism and subcultures

Updated on March 19, 2017

* Interactionists see deviance as a social construct, whereby mainstream society (police, courts and judges) define behaviours as deviant (e.g. smoking in a building)

* Studies of policing in both Britain (Smith and Grey, Holdaway) and USA (Cicourel) suggest young people, especially young black males, are negatively labelled as either suspicious or criminal in everyday policing – (which results in over proportionate stop/search and arrests for this type of youth).

* Matza argues that most people subscribe to deviant values (i.e. subterranean values) but working-class youth are more likely to be negatively labelled than middle class youth for the same behaviour.

Master status

* Labelling theory suggests that once labelled the deviant status becomes a master status that may have negative consequences in terms of prejudice, discrimination and self-fulfilling prophecies for young people.

* Once the label of, “deviant” has been applied to youth, society will judge them solely on this label. If the deviant was a good student, he is now solely judged as a deviant and the good points about his character would be ignored.

* The master status might mean that the person becomes isolated from others and judged, they might fail to conform to societies rules e.g. they have no job, or no relationship and they become “generally deviant” in all aspect of their lives.

Primary deviance

The deviant act is committed but has not been publicly labelled yet. There is no effect on society at this point. An example might be youth smoking in a pub, but no one has seen the act or identified the act as deviant.

Secondary deviance

The deviant act might be repeated and more visible and it attracts societal reaction e.g. people have started to notice smoking in the pub. A label might be applied and effect of the label is examined.

We might let stereotypes effect the label that is applied. Labels can be very powerful e.g. deviant.

The self-fulfilling prophecy can occur, whereby a person who has been labelled as a deviant might live up to their label and enhance their deviant behaviour in order to prove that society is correct (about labelling them as a deviant). The deviance becomes a social fact.

Moral panics

* Cohen argues that many deviant youth subcultures were effectively socially constructed, maintained and “killed off” by the mass media.

* Cohen asserts that the media label or stereotype powerless groups, such as young people, by sensationalising stories about them, so creating moral panics which exaggerate out of all proportion the real threat posed by these groups.

* The result of this is 'demonisation', i.e. folk devils are created and pressure is put on the government, police and courts to stamp down hard on ”'problem” youth

Evaluation of Interactionist theory of crime

1) Interactionists have been criticised for failing to explain the original deviant act and why it occurred in the first place? Their ideas do not explain why young people choose to commit some deviant acts rather than others e.g. arson (-)

2) Interactionists would criticize the positivist approach when measuring and explaining youth deviance. Interactionists dislike the use of quantitative data and statistics which they feel have been fabricated by society e.g. police and courts. Interactionists would prefer an interpretivist approach to explaining and measuring deviancy which focuses on qualitative data and motives and meaning (-)

3) The Interactionist approach has been criticised for being deterministic. It assumes that young deviants will passively accept the label that has been applied to them and then live up to the label, e.g. become more deviant via the self-fulfilling prophecy. However, some young people might decide to fight the label and change it. There have been instances when criminals have reformed themselves and removed the label of, “criminal” (-)

4) Interactionism can be praised as a theory as it has made an important contribution to the theories of deviancy, in that it shows the definition of deviancy is not a simple process. The theory challenges the view that deviant young people are abnormal or pathological, but are just behaving in a negative manner. Interactionist theory also helped other sociological theories develop such as Left Realism; which is a theory that looks at the response to deviant youth behaviour (+)

5) Labelling links strongly to social class and therefore Marxists would supports some of the ideas presented by Interactionism, e.g. that the police and judicial system would label and stereotype young delinquent people according to class. Working class youths are more likely to get stopped and searched and therefore are more likely to be identified as belonging to a deviant subculture (rather than the middle classes). (+)

Research by Jock Young (1971) Labelling and Marijuana users

* Young studied hippie marijuana users who lived in Notting Hill in London.

* He examined the police view of the hippies, and the police reaction to them (labelling), and also the effects this had on the hippies.

* The police viewed and labelled the hippies as dirty, scruffy, idle, scrounging, promiscuous, depraved and unstable drug addicts.

* The hippies started off by occasionally smoking drugs. Some hippies were caught and arrested for taking drugs by the police, and they were labelled as criminals.

* As a result, the hippies responded by smoking marijuana even more and it became a central activity for them. Some of the hippies even lost their jobs because of their extensive drug use.

* Hippies rationalize and accept their difference and retreat into small closed groups. They exclude people who do not take drugs from their group (because they are worried about getting caught and arrested), and they develop a deviant self-concept.

* Hippies grow their hair and wear unconventional clothes.

* Drug taking becomes a more central activity for them.

* Police activity and awareness increases, and the drug taking becomes a greater value to the group as a symbol of their difference and their defiance.

* A deviant subculture begins to emerge and deviant self-concepts evolve and are reinforced. This makes it very difficult for the hippies to re-enter conventional society.

* Some of the hippies started to take other harder drugs, and their deviance intensified.


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