The aim of this paper is to focus on the social reaction theory (also known as labelling theory) and how influential sociologists have developed different theories. By examining how the labelling theory is applied to crime and deviance we will hopefully be able have a clearer understanding of why stigmatised people are excluded from normal social interaction. The works I have looked at include Erving Goffman and his study of institutions followed by a brief look at Charles Cooley’s idea of the looking glass self.
An example of Frank Tannenbaum’s theory is given in a study conducted by William Chambliss and accounts of Edwin Lemert and finally Howard Becker’s theoretical concept of labelling. Firstly, we need to understand exactly what the term stigma means. The term ‘stigma’ was initially used to refer to bodily signs designed to expose an individual of their moral status. The signs could either be cut or burnt into the body so that people were aware of this status.
Erving Goffman defined stigmas as, ‘any physical or social attribute or sign which so devalues an actor’s social identity as to disqualify from full social acceptance (Dictionary of Sociology, 1999). Goffman argues that the initial meaning is extended to the application of disgrace even when there is no bodily evidence for example, having a criminal record. By looking at Erving Goffman’s example of effects of institutions we can begin to see how stigmatised person’s can be excluded from normal social interactions.
Interactionists such as Goffman view institutions such as prisons, mental hospitals and reform schools as links in confirming the deviant nature of the individual. He examined the treatment of mental patients in institutions and found that the aims of cure and rehabilitation were not highly successful. His main focus was on mortification and how inmates are subjected to acts, which in a sense take away their identity. All their personal belongings are removed and standardised items are issued. The patients have to familiarise themselves with the routine activities which become a compulsory part of their lives.
This sort of lifestyle can have damaging effects on the individual leaving them unprepared and anxious about re-entering the outside world. From their time spent within the institution they may have even accepted the institutions definition of themselves as hopeless deviants. One of the most negative aspects of release from institutions is the label they receive, whether it is ex-mental patient or ex-convict, great difficulties can be experienced in readjusting to a lifestyle within normal society.
Some level of exclusion from social interaction is inevitable not just by the fault of those who create the label and stigma but also by the patients themselves. Goffman concluded from his studies that many institutions rather than reducing deviance actually reinforce it. This can result in the individual that has been stigmatised by others as actually believing they are unworthy of normal social interaction.
This is not always the case however, some patients or criminals are able to overcome the label they have been given and stand strong in convincing others that they have returned to normality. Haralambos and Holborn, 1995). We can link this theory to that of Charles Cooley who studied Human Nature and the Social Order in 1902. He examined the personal perception of oneself through studies of children and their imaginary friends. Cooley develops the theoretical concept of the looking glass self, finding that 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.
The main idea of the looking glass self is that people define themselves according to society’s perception of them therefore it would be very difficult to escape the given label in order to take part in normal social interactions. Cooley’s ideas are very important to labelling theory and its approach to a person’s acceptance of labels as attached by society. (www. criminology. fsu. edu). Progressing from Charles Cooley’s idea. I feel it would be relevant to look at Frank Tannenbaum’s approach to the labelling theory, which came in response to his studies of juvenile participation in street gangs.
Tannenbaum describes the process of defining deviant behaviour 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. This theory has been incorporated in many societal reaction theories. An example of this theory is illustrated by a study conducted by William Chambliss. He studied delinquency among teenage boys in an American school.
He found two groups of boys that he called the “Saints” and the “Roughnecks”. These titles were not given as a sign of the amount of delinquent acts carried out but rather as ways in which the larger community labelled the boys. The Saints came from good middle-class backgrounds whereas the Roughnecks came from poorer working-class backgrounds and were less well mannered. Delinquent acts that were carried out by the Saints were generally perceived as pranks and were excused by the community.
When the Roughnecks carried out delinquent behaviour they were seen as being troubled and heading for a life of crime. The acts carried out by the two groups were by no means unequal in seriousness but the behaviour of the Saints tended to be more out of view and when caught apologies were sincere and accepted by the authorities. Being labelled as a Saint or a Roughneck led to different outcomes for the individuals in each groups. The groups accepted community perceptions. The saints thought of themselves as having fun whilst on their way to good futures.
The “troublemaker” label reinforced the Roughneck’s delinquent behaviour and they became more involved with more serious offences. The two groups careers after high school largely reflected the community’s expectations for them. (http://sociology. about. com). This is a prime example of how labelling a person as deviant has only negative effects on future behaviour. Edwin Lemert was one of the first theorists to begin working on the labelling theory in the early 1950’s. He started with an idea which looked at how individuals made choices in terms of their cost and value.
However this view was not completely rational as individuals were susceptible to pressures and constraints of objective reality. He not only studied the deviant’s behaviour, but he also studied the individuals who react to the deviance. The reactors tolerance quotient to deviance is perhaps one of the most significant factors in determining what will be reacted to. What is labelled deviant is also contingent on the community’s values, standards, and when the deviance occurred. Lemert viewed deviance as an ongoing process that varied over time, and can undergo change.
An individual can progress from an act of deviance that would be considered small such as petty theft and later move to something much more serious such as armed robbery. By observing that deviance is a process, it helped to lead to the development of primary and secondary deviance. Primary deviance is the initial deviant behaviour and is short lived. Whether the act will proceed depends on how public the act is and what the tolerance quotient of the reactors is, because it is the individual set of values that determine the severity of the act.
Secondary deviance is the persistent involvement in deviance and the possible submergence into a deviant sub-culture. The deviance becomes secondary “when the person begins to employ his deviant behaviour or a role based upon it as a means of defence, attack, or adjustment to the overt and covert problems created by the consequent societal reaction to him. ” (Lemert, E. 1951). The transformation into secondary deviance is rare, as a lengthy process occurs including the primary deviance being noticed and the societal penalties.
This could lead to further primary deviant acts that will be met with stronger penalties and societal rejections. These could lead the individual to feelings of strong resentment and hostilities. Once the tolerance level of the reactors is met, formal action may be taken in the form of criminal charges. The stigmatisation will further increase the deviant image and the behaviours will persist. Eventually the deviant will accept the deviant social status and may make further adjustments such as seeking out a social group, which supports the new image.
Lemert’s work clearly illustrates how deviant behaviour can lead the stigmatised person away from mainstream society, as they are not willing to conform to normal behavioural standards thus they are excluded from normal social interactions. Howard S. Becker built on the work of Lemert and was especially influenced by the Chicago School of Criminology. Becker looked at deviance as an interpretation of meaning as seen by the reactors who give the title of deviance to actors. He outlined a process that consisted of four stages.
The first stage is the making of rules and social norms by the group, which has the most socio-economic power. The next stage of the process is the application and enforcement of the created rules, which is the determination of when, where, how and why certain acts will be deviant. Once a deviant act is noticed, the third stage is reached in which the individual is labelled. Such factors to be taken into consideration before labelling are: social characteristics, visibility of the deviant act, who is harmed and what is considered to be deviant by society at that time.
The final stage consists of the differential behaviour response the newly labelled deviant may experience which may reinforce the particular behaviour. Both formal and informal interactions will suffer from increased deviance and resulting societal reaction. The deviant may obtain a master status, which could result in closer surveillance from the police. This will increase the chance of further convictions. Having a criminal record will have a negative affect on job opportunities and access to any kind of credit will be declined. This may force the individual to resort to further criminal acts for their income.
Informal interactions such as having a normal peer group may prove difficult as many see only the master status. For a deviant to overcome their master status they would have to accomplish a significant positive act to be re-labelled by their peers for their new achievement and it would also be possible for the stigma to be removed. By looking at some of the social reaction theories, we can see how the deviant individual is not solely to blame for exclusion from normal social interaction and that there are many factors which contribute to forming stigmas.
Mainstream society finds it so easy to label any form of abnormal behaviour with little or no thought to the consequences. Labels are not so easy to remove from individuals and can prove to reinforce deviant behaviour along with the institutions, which rather than rehabilitate individuals can result in stigmatised persons who feel the only way forward is to resort to more criminal acts. Thus interactions within normal, mainstream society can prove to be extremely difficult if not impossible.