Many people have faced various social labels and stigmas at work, in school, and in daily life. These labels are often harmful as they entail a special attitude towards the person, although sometimes they are also harmless. However, while the social origins of labeling, the process of their formation and influence remain controversial. While some scholars argue that labeling is a consequence of a crime or behavior committed by a person, Becker states that labeling and subsequent attitudes can lead to crime. This paper will examine and criticize Becker’s labeling ideas in detail to demonstrate their advantages and disadvantages.
Becker’s labeling theory shifts the emphasis from the defining features of deviant behavior to the process of forming and applying labels on a person. This theory relates to the ideas of Lambert’s secondary labeling, which explains the influence of stigma on deviant human behavior (Van Krieken et al., 2013). Becker’s central argument is that society defines deviant behavior; hence, it is responsible for labeling and its harm. It is not often people’s fault that their behavior is determined by society as deviant, and this attitude is usually a consequence of unfair treatment and artificial labeling. In other words, a person does not need to exhibit deviant behavior or commit a crime for society to label them, but such an attitude most often leads to crime and stigma imposing (Van Krieken et al., 2013). This idea can be traced most clearly in practical examples.
For example, African Americans were segregated in the United States until the middle of the 20th century and were often labeled as criminals. Today, this situation has partially changed, as people recognized that deviant behavior could not be determined by the color of the skin and the origin of the person. However, before the Civil Rights Movement, the labeling of African Americans created social and economic conditions, such as limited working opportunities and poverty, that often forced them to commit crimes.
Thus, Becker’s idea that deviance is caused by the interaction of social groups, with one group that has the power to apply a label to another, can be seen by one in practice (Van Krieken et al., 2013). One can use this theory of labeling to other historical or current problems, such as society’s attitude towards homosexuality in the last century.
Moreover, Becker denies the homogeneity and absolute nature of deviant behavior, also because of how society characterizes it. First, attitudes toward crime can change over time or place because of moral entrepreneurs, who change the perception of behavior as deviant (Cohen, 2018).
For example, some states have legalized the consumption of marijuana; thus, people who smoke it are no longer drug abusers. Secondly, the characteristics of a person also affect the perception of the deviance of his behavior and labeling (Van Krieken et al., 2013). For example, a middle-class boy’s fight is more likely to be perceived as part of growing up, but the same offense by a poor-neighborhood teenager is more likely to be judged as an offense. Consequently, Becker’s main idea is that labeling induces deviant behavior as it creates social and often economic reasons for people to conform to the applied label.
However, this theory has many aspects that lend themselves to criticism. First, the labeling theory does not explain the full spectrum of deviations and reasons for their occurrence. A significant part of crimes are committed without the external influence of society but motivated by other causes. For example, criminology knows of cases when model middle-class family men committed sex crimes or were serial maniacs. Another example is pedophilia as it is based on psychological reasons, not labels.
In addition, there is insufficient evidence to support an absolute connection between labeling and deviant behavior. Research and evidence demonstrate that former prisoners who experience the stigma of an “offender” are more likely to commit the crime again; however, this assumption is not valid for all people in a similar situation (Moore et al., 2016). The same argument also applies to children from poor areas or slums, since they are more likely to turn to the criminal world, but such a future is also not guaranteed because much depends on the motivation and efforts of a person. Consequently, Becker’s theory does not take into account the entire spectrum of deviant behavior and the reasons for its occurrence.
Furthermore, another limitation of the theory is that it does not take into account the factors of morality and the influence of the primary agents of socialization. Support and norms of behavior imposed by the family as an agent of socialization play an essential role in the formation of morality and a person’s identity (Chandio & Ali, 2019). For this reason, even if society imposes labels, the family’s support and beliefs can destroy them in a person’s mind. In addition, there are also moral norms that put a person before the choice of crime or socially acceptable behavior. In other words, labeling does not take away a person’s freedom of choice. Thus, the limitation of the theory is that it views the individual as opposed to society but does not consider the external influences of family, friends, or other close people that shape his or her morality and self-perception.
In conclusion, Becker’s labeling theory is one of the perspectives on human deviant behavior. The main focus of the theory is the labeling process but not the characteristics that define deviant behavior. Becker’s main idea is that labeling is the cause of deviant behavior and crime as it creates the conditions that make people fit the label. However, this theory has many drawbacks, since it does not explain the entire spectrum of deviant behavior, which is caused by psychological or other reasons.
In addition, the theory does not take into account other factors of external and internal influence on a person, such as family support and primary socialization, moral principles, and motives of a person. Consequently, even though the labeling theory can be used to explain criminal and deviant behavior in some cases, it does not cover all aspects and motives of a person’s choice.
Chandio, A.R. & Ali, M. (2019). The role of socialization in child’s personality development. The Catalyst: Research Journal of Modern Sciences, 1(1), 66-84.
Cohen, B. (2018). Routledge international handbooks of critical mental health. Routledge.
Moore, K. E., Stuewig, J. B., & Tangney, J. P. (2016). The effect of stigma on criminal offenders’ functioning: A longitudinal mediational model. Deviant behavior, 37(2), 196–218. Web.
Van Krieken, R., Habibis, D., Smith, P., Hutchins, B., Martin, G., & Maton, K. (2013). Sociology. Pearson Higher Education AU.