Social groups, according to Howard Becker, create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviant behaviour and by applying these rules to particular people and labelling them as outsiders. From this point of view, deviance is not an action which the person commits, but rather a consequence of application by others of the rules and sanctions to an ‘offender’. The deviant is one to whom the label has successfully been applied; deviant behaviour is behaviour that people so label.
Becker is suggesting that in one sense there is no such thing as a deviant act. An act only becomes deviant when others perceive and define it as such. Becker illustrated his views with the example of a brawl involving young people. In a low income neighbourhood it may be defined by the police as evidence of delinquency, in a wealthy area as evidence of high spirits. If the agents of social control define the youngsters as delinquents and they are convicted of breaking the law, those youngsters have then become deviant. Thus Becker argued, ‘Deviance is not a quality that lies in behaviour itself, but in the interaction between the potential deviant and the agents of social control.
A criticism of the interactionist perspective is that it is too deterministic. It assumes that once a person has been labelled, their deviance will inevitably become worse – the labelled person has no option but to get more and more involved in deviant activities. Ronald Ackers stated: “One sometimes gets the impression from reading the literature that people go about minding their own business, and then – ‘wham’ – bad society comes along and slaps them in the face with a stigmatized label. Forced into the role of deviant the individual has little choice but to be deviant”. Critics like Ackers are suggesting that individuals might simply choose to be deviant, regardless of whether they have been labelled. Labelling does not cause most terrorists to turn to crime: they are motivated by their political beliefs to break the law.
Interactionists say that deviance is defined by social reaction, which means that an individual’s action is not deviant until society labels it as such and in this way, deviant people are not that different from everyone else, and this is the standpoint that there theory of crime and deviance starts from. They therefore think that because of this there aren’t any universal causes of crime or deviance that can be found out and ‘discovered’ by sociologist researching it.
Interactionists stress the point of view that deviance is relative as it varies over place and time as it is defined by each situation and each society differently within societies. This view has been challenged as some critics argue that people in societies are not as passive as Interactionists suggests. Taylor, Walton and Young (1973) argued that there are many forms of behaviour which are widely viewed as being deviant and so deviants know that they are breaking the law or social rules before any social reaction, but they still do it. Gouldner (1973) accused Interactionists of being fascinated with deviance and he even suggested that they enjoyed observing deviants that were deemed ‘cool’ and hanging out with the underworld of society and they aren’t interested about changing society.
Marxist critics accused Interactionists of ignoring the role of power when defining crime and deviance as certain groups have power to influence what is classified as socially unacceptable or criminal behaviour.
Ronald Akers (1967) criticised both Becker and Lemert for presenting individuals as powerless to make decisions to take control of their own identity as deviance, according to Akers, is not something that happens to people but a choice that individuals make.
Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex