Interactionism – Crime and Deviance

Lesson objectiveTo explore the Interactionist approach of crime
Lesson outcomes• Assess its relevance in today’s society
• Analyse the perspective
• Explain what interactionists believe


Interactionist approaches are also called the Labelling Approach. Be sure to know both key terms as the question paper may try to trick you.

Interactionists attempt to find the hidden meanings behind why crimes occur. Official statistics are regarded as being a social construct and do not show the real patterns and trends of crime. Socially constructed, a concept that has two main dimensions:

• Deviance: Every society makes rules governing deviant behaviour and applies them in different ways.

• Deviants: If the same behaviour can be deviant in one context (or society) but non-deviant in another, it suggests, as Becker (1963) puts it, ‘. . . deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the

(Durkheim (1895), for example, noted: ‘What confers (criminal) character . . . is not some intrinsic quality of a given act but the definition which the collective conscience lends it’)

Labelling theory: ‘Labels’ are names we give to phenomena (‘football’, for example) that identify what we’re seeing. Labels, however, aren’t just names – they have further, important, qualities:

• Meanings – what we understand something to be.

• Interpretations – how we are encouraged (through socialisation processes) to understand meanings based on:

• Characteristics attached to the label.

The labelling theory therefore focuses on 5 key concepts:

  1. The interaction between deviants and those who define them as deviant. E.g. why are some acts deviant and not others (social construction).
  2. The process whereby rules are selectively enforced. E.g. are the police truly racist?
  3. The consequences of being labelled. E.g. What is societal reaction and deviancy amplification.
  4. The circumstances in which a person becomes set apart and defined as a deviant. E.g. factors leading to them committing the crime.
  5. An analysis of who has the power to attach deviant labels and make them sick. E.g. Becker (Labelling Theory).

The labelling process.

Lemert (1972), distinguishes between primary and secondary deviance. Primary is deviance that has not been publicly labeled as such No label has has been applied by society. The person can choose to commit the crime again, or not to, either way, society has little influence. Secondary deviance is deviant behavior that results from a stigmatized sense of self that aligns with society’s concept of a deviant. In other words, it’s deviant behavior that results from being labeled as a deviant by society.

Taken from (

For labelling theorists, the application of labels to human behaviour is significant because they impact on: Identity (how we see ourselves and our relationship to others). Labels, here, have two main dimensions:

• Social identities relate to the general characteristics assigned to a label by a particular culture. Think about the different characteristics our society assigns to the label ‘man’ or ‘woman’ (how each is supposed to behave, for example).

• Personal identities relate to the different ways individuals (with their different cultural histories) interpret a label. For example, when I think about myself as ‘a man’ this label carries certain cultural characteristics, some of which I may include as part of my personal identity, others of which I may (perhaps) reject, something Thomas (1923) relates to ‘. . . the ability to make decisions from within instead of having them imposed from without’.

Master labels These ideas are significant for labelling theories of deviance because they suggest two things: Cultural expectations: When a deviant label is successfully applied to someone, their subsequent behaviour may be interpreted in the light of this label – depending, of course, on the nature of the deviance. If you are given the label ‘murderer’ or ‘paedophile’, this is likely to have more serious consequences than if you attract the label ‘speeding motorist’, an idea related to: Master labels. Becker (1963) suggests these are such powerful labels that everything about a person is interpreted in the light of the label. Individual behaviours: The outcome of a labelling process is not certain. Just because someone tries to label you in some way doesn’t necessarily mean they will be successful. You may, for example:

• Reject the label by demonstrating you do not deserve it.

• Negate the label by, for example, questioning their right (or ability) to impose it.

Selective law enforcement.

Cicourel (1976) uses phenomenological approach and suggested that enforcers subjective perceptions and stereotypes can affect whether criminal labels are attached, and how these lead to the social construction of crime statistics. He studied juvenile delinquency in two US cities finding crime statistics higher in working-class areas than in middle-class areas. He discovered that police treated the same crimes differently when committed by different classes. This was because police believe the middle -class had greater potential to change negative behaviour to positive because they had more family support. Becker supports Cicourel highlighting that police action that is taken in resolving and punishing the offences depends not on the type of crime that’s committed, but which group commits the offence.

Becker points out that this attachment of labels creates a master status (self fulfilling prophecy). Eg. a pedophile goes on the sex offenders register. The result of which means that they may face prejudice when attempting to gain employment, marriage etc, where you have to declare it.

Deviant career and the self-fulling prophecy

Becker suggests that these labels can result in the offender participating in a deviant career. Because society marginalises them stopping the offender from being successful in society, they have little choice than to succeed in a deviant career. Cohen (2002), illustrated this through deviancy amplification and moral panics where offenders are targeted. Young (1971), studied this by participant observation looking at hippie marijuana users in Notting Hill. His research confirmed the deviant career theory.


(Good) – It challenges the idea that deviants are different from ‘normal people’. Perhaps, we are all the same.

(Good) – It shows the importance of the reactions of society and its members in creating deviance.

(Good) – It revels the importance of stereotyping and the self-fulfilling prophecy.

(Good) – It reveals the way official crime statistics are a product of bias in law enforcement.

(Good) – It highlights the importance of those with power in defining acts and people as deviants, e.g. social construction.

(Bad) – It tends to move the blame from the deviant to others.

(Bad) – It emphasises too much how an act is only deviant when labelled as such by society. Some deviant acts are always deviant irrespective of the culture e.g. cold blooded murder.

(Bad) – It is too deterministic and doesn’t allow the idea that people can choose to become criminals. Labelling doesn’t always lead to crime.

(Bad) – It doesn’t identify any other causes of crime, other than labelling.

(Bad) – It ignores victimology and hasn’t contribution to any policy solutions to combat crime as it is seen as too idealistic.

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