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Youth Deviance: The Labeling Theory Approach

Updated on November 19, 2011

Deviance is a complex social issue; consequently, the study of deviance has developed many varied theories and perspectives. While functionalism and conflict theorists focus on macro aspects of society such as social structures and arrangements, symbolic interactionism takes a different approach, instead concentrating on micro aspects such as the social processes used by people to interpret and give meaning to life experiences (Dotter, 2004:2). An interactionist perspective that has contributed much to the study of deviance is labeling theory. As outlined by Traub & Little (1999:375), this approach works on the premise that the labeling of an individual by society may force that person into a deviant role, regardless of structural conditions and social controls. This paper analyses how symbolic interactionist perspectives of deviance differ from functionalist views, focusing on labeling theory and how it contributes to youth involvement in gangs and subcultures.

By definition, symbolic interactionism is a school of sociology that looks at social processes through which individuals define life experiences, subsequently giving meaning and practicality to cultural norms such as behaviour and conduct (Dotter, 1999:2). According to Becker (1963:9), the most relative interactionist theory of deviance is that “social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance”.Becker’s claim suggests that deviant behaviour is a consequence of social controls rather than the quality of the act committed by the individual. Alternatively, functionalists attribute deviance to an individual’s lack of socialisation or attachment to the culture (Van Krieken, et al., 2010:412).

In contrast to Becker’s perspective of deviance, functionalists believe deviance occurs when a person’s behaviour departs from the shared values of a society. This value consensus of a society reflects the laws created to control deviance (Haralambos, Van Krieken, Smith, & Holborn, 1996:533). Durkheim (as cited in Van Krieken et al., 2010:412) argues that punishment of deviation from this value consensus functions to restore shared values and moral sentiments. Therefore, functionalists believe deviance contributes to the maintenance of society by defining moral boundaries and reinforcing social solidarity. Edwin Lemert disagrees with the concept of value consensus, arguing that deviance is not necessarily defined by the consensus of society, but by those holding positions of power. For example, according to Lemert’s argument, a colonial nation such as Australia, having imposed its own laws on the conquered inhabitants, effectively labeled many of those inhabitant’s behaviours and customs deviant. This labeling of the inhabitants behaviour is based only on the perceptions of those with the power to enforce the labels. The symbolic interactionist view of deviance supports Lemert’s argument, maintaining that there is no general agreement about what constitutes deviance (Haralambos et al., 1996:554). Interactionism’s contrasting perspective inevitably prompts criticism from other sociological theorists.

As indicated by Dennis & Martin (2005), symbolic interactionism is often seen as being limited by it’s focus on micro aspects of society, which some believe makes it unable to conceptualise macro elements such as social structure, inequality, and power. Similarly, Ritzer (1996:225) criticizes symbolic interactionism for it’s downplay of larger structures and conversely, that it is not sufficiently microscopic, as it fails to account for such factors as emotions and the unconscious. In spite of such criticism, symbolic interactionism has made a significant theoretical contribution to the study of deviance with the development of labeling theory.

The labeling theory of deviance deals primarily with what happens to people after they have been identified and defined as deviants. Rather than attempting to explain why an individual engages in nonconforming behaviours, labeling theory focuses on the role social definitions and sanctions play in pressuring individuals to continue engaging in deviant behaviour (Traub & Little, 1999:376). Two key figures in the development of labeling theory are Edwin Lemert and Howard Becker.

Edwin Lemert identifies two forms of deviant acts: primary deviation and secondary deviation. He explains primary deviation as being deviant acts committed by an individual before they are publicly labeled. However, he believes that identifying causes of primary deviation is relatively unimportant, because it has little consequence on the person’s social status and self-perception. Consequently, his theories are more concerned with secondary deviation. Lemert defines secondary deviation as being the response of an individual to the societal reaction to their behaviour. This societal reaction is what Lemert believes to be the cause of further deviance (Haralambos et al.,1996:554). Howard Becker elaborates on Lemert’s theories.

Becker (1963) agrees with Lemert’s theory that the study of deviance should focus more on an individual’s response to the reactions of social control agents to primary acts of deviance. Becker also introduces a notion that a development process precedes the attainment of a deviant identity or career. He believes that self-perception is derived from the responses of others to a person’s behaviour, and that being labeled may produce a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which the deviant identification becomes a controlling self-concept.

As a result, when an individual is labeled as deviant they may be rejected by social groups such as family and friends, ultimately leading to further deviant acts. The deviant identity or career is complete when an individual integrates into a deviant group or sub-culture; subsequently, confirming and accepting their new status within society (Becker 1963:25). An example of this is a juvenile becoming involved in a gang or deviant subculture as a result ofbeing excluded from their conventional groups due to a primary act of deviance.

Becker (1963:33) postulates that labeling theory claims that official labeling from social control agents (such as the juvenile justice system) increases the likelihood of a person becoming involved in gangs or deviant subcultures, resulting in further engagement in deviant behaviour. Labeling theorists refer to this concept of behaviour escalation as deviance amplification (Van Krieken et al., 2010:417). Smith & Paternoster (1990) argue an alternative explanation to this behaviour escalation. Specifically, that those referred to the juvenile justice system may simply have more attributes related to future offending than those who are diverted from the system. They explain this hypothesis using the example of intake officers in the juvenile justice system being more likely to refer high-risk youth to juvenile court. Therefore, the sample of young people processed by the courts will contain a large proportion of individuals who possess a greater likelihood of engaging in future delinquency. However, this theory does not offer an explanation as to why an individual possesses a greater likelihood of future deviant behaviour, whereas labeling theory does.

According to Bernberg and Krohn (2006), a young person having been labeled by the juvenile justice system is increasingly likely to become involved in a deviant group, as these groups represent a source of social support and shelter from those who react negatively towards their new deviant status. Bernberg and Krohn also claim that labeled and non-labeled youth often find interaction uncomfortable and tend to avoid each other. Inevitably, this social exclusion from conventional groups leads to further participation in deviant groups, and ultimately, further deviant behaviour. Additional reasons for involvement in deviant groups put forward by Bernberg and Krohn, include a desire for companionship with those sharing a similar self-concept, and access to opportunities that the conventional world no longer offers.

Supporting the ideas of Bernberg and Krohn are the results of a study of ethnic youth gangs in Melbourne (White, Perrone, Guerra, & Lampugnani, 1999:26), which found that the membership of a defined group revolved around youth having similar interests, similar appearance or identity, and a need for social belonging. Social exclusion or alienation was also found to be central in explaining youth offending by research undertaken in Sydney’s western suburbs (Collins, Noble, Poynting & Tabar,2000:82).Although the results of these studies are supportive of the labeling concept, not all sociologists accept labeling theory as being a practical approach to analysing deviance.Some argue that it fails to explain why individuals engage in deviant behaviour in the first place (Haralambos et al., 1996:550). Gibbs (1966) suggests that a problem with the labeling approach is that it cannot identify why one person, as opposed to another, commits deviant acts. Labeling theory is also accused of lacking empirical verification (Bynum & Thompson, 2002:213).

Symbolic interactionism is an alternative approach to the traditional perspectives of sociology such as functionalism and conflict theories.Through focusing on social processes, rather than structures, symbolic interactionism and labeling theory puts forth a logical argument in its explanation of deviance. Additionally, the arguments of labeling theory are particularly relevant when applied to the issue of juvenile deviance.


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    • profile image

      Shuting 5 years ago

      dear thanks for sharing beautiful thoughts.

    • profile image

      Shuting 5 years ago

      Yes I can't explain why I have deviant behaviors at first place! why!

    • Jaims profile image

      Jaims 5 years ago from North Queensland

      Because you are wicked!

    • profile image

      Joe 2 years ago

      He is so right on!

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