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• Interactionists are interested in how people
interpret and socially construct the world
• They are interested in how criminality
develops in the social interactions between a
potential deviant and the agents of social
Howard Becker (1973)
• Text: “Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of
“...social groups create deviance by making the
rules whose infraction constitutes deviance,
and by applying those rules to particular
people and labelling them as outsiders – the
deviant is one to whom that label has been
successfully applied” pg. 9
Symbolic Interactionism / Labelling
• No actions are by nature criminal or deviant –
it depends on the norms of the society and
the reaction of members of society of society
in different situations and contexts.
• For example, consider the situations where
swearing at the top of your voice would and
wouldn’t be considered deviant:
– In the pub with your friends
– On the bus
– At home alone
– In class
– In the supermarket
– At a football match
• Therefore ‘normality’ and ‘deviance’ is
• It changes according to cultural context and
• Deviance is therefore a matter of
• Provide some examples what is considered
deviance changing according to context and
• States there is no such
thing as a deviant act.
• No act is inherently criminal
or deviant in itself, in all
situations and at all times.
• An act only becomes
criminal or deviant when
others label it as such.
Labelling and Power
• The social construction of deviance requires
1. One group which normally lacks power, behaves
in a particular way.
2. Another group with more power, responds
negatively to it and labels it as criminal.
• Becker claims a powerful groups create rules
or laws to define what counts as deviance and
labels those who fail to conform as criminals
or outlaws (outsiders)
Agents of Social Control
• Agents of social control are made up of group
such as the police, the judiciary, social
workers and probation workers.
• They work on behalf of the powerful groups to
label and define behaviour of less powerful.
• The behaviour of less powerful is subject to
greater surveillance and control by these
• Distinguished between primary and
• Primary deviance is insignificant deviant acts
that have not been publicly labelled.
• Secondary deviance is the result of societal
reaction – of labelling.
• Secondary deviance leads to stigmatization
where people are shunned and excluded from
• Lemert asserts that the criminal label can
become a master status where society
interprets all actions and motives within the
context of the label.
• Secondary deviance leads to prejudice,
discrimination and produce a self-fulfilling
prophecy and the labelled person may seek
refuge with other people branded with a
• Think of the consequences for sex offenders
Video Clip to summarise
• Labelling theory shows us that defining
deviance is a complex process
• Definitions are relative and not fixed,
universal or unchangeable
• Labelling theory was the first to draw
attention to the consequences of being
• Peter Ackers argues that the deviant act is
more important than the societal reaction to
it. Deviants don’t need a label to know they
are doing wrong.
• Labelling does not explain the origin of
• Left Realists argue that it is wrong to blame
the agencies of social control for crime and
that labelling theory ignores the victims of