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April 12, 2011 / C H Thompson

Interactionism and labelling

In contrast to positivism, interactionism presents a view of the world which emphasizes the role of human agency as opposed to the deterministic view of functionalist, subcultural and biological explanations. Rather than viewing human behaviour as determined by external forces, Mead argues ‘the self’ is a social construct and the way others see and react to them is part of the way we construct ourselves.

For interactionists deviance is no longer a pathological act going against consensual norms but something created in the process of social interaction, in which some people who commit deviant acts come to be known as criminals while others do not. So instead of asking behavioural questions like “who is deviant?”, “why do they do it?” and “how might they be best controlled?” interactionsists ask “who defines another as deviant?”, “how does a person react to their label?”

Becker’s idea of labelling came to the fore in the early 1960s and it was a very new approach. Becker said: “social groups create deviance by making rules whose infraction constitutes deviance and by applying those rules to particular and labelling them as deviant.”

Labelling is an active social process of how particular acts become defined as deviant. Therefore deviance isn’t an absolute category but a relative one as certain acts are defined as criminal at certain times and others aren’t. Becker illustrated his point “injecting heroin into your arm is not deviant, because it’s fine if a nurse does it under doctors orders. It only becomes deviant when society defines it as such”

In this process the agents of social control (police, judiciary, probation service etc) define who and what is deviant. Labelling theory illustrates the way police target specific social groups. For example ethnic minorities or working-class youths living in specific areas are targeted more by the police – Reiner (1994). While Cicourel’s (1976) study of police & juvenile officers in California found police were more likely to arrest people who fitted the picture of having – poor school performance; low-income backgrounds; ethnic minority membership. In contrast Cicourel found middle-class delinquents who were arrested tended to be counselled, cautioned and released by police officers.

Labelling theory shows how authority figures have the ability to create the social characteristics of typical delinquents as being – young, working-class and male. This contrasts significantly with functionalist/subcultural notions of crime & deviance as being located in pathological individuals.

Lemert moved interactionism forward by arguing there’s a difference between primary and secondary deviance. Primary deviance are acts which haven’t been publicly defined as deviant, mainly because they’re isolated and fairly insignificant cases of rule-braking. While in contrast secondary deviance the construction (making) of deviance through social reaction to the rule-breaking.

Therefore this two stage process shows how deviance is a process. First it’s identified and then agents of society gets involved in ‘creating’ the deviance (this shows how labelling causes deviance). This had the effect of turning the previous perspectives on their head!! This is because deviance is not a universal or constant idea but one relative to the society. This simply means that for example it’s not deviant to wear Speedo’s in the swimming baths in France (you’re not allowed to wear anything but Speedo’s) but it’s become odd (maybe deviant to wear Speedo’s in UK swimming baths!


Revision podcast  Interactionist Perspective

The slideshow below explains the social theory behind interactionism and labelling. In other words symbolic interactionism came first, then Becker etc used the theory to support their perspective on crime!



Leave a Comment
  1. ashara robinson / Jan 29 2014 12:30 pm

    this was very helpful…thank you……

    • sociologytwynham / Jan 29 2014 4:37 pm

      Thank you 🙂

  2. Pipi / Apr 19 2014 10:09 pm

    very helpful with my assignments . Clear definitions of theory thanks

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