Instead of looking at why some social groups commit more crime, the labelling theory asks why some people committing some actions come to be defined as deviant, while others do not. Labelling theory is also interested in the effects of labelling on individuals. Labelling theorists note that most people commit crimes at some time in their lives but not everyone becomes defined as a deviant or a criminal. So how does this process of defining a person as deviant work?


Deviant behaviour can be defined as behaviour that differs from the normal, behaviour that incurs public disapproval and behaviour that is usually subject to some form of sanction.


Once someone has been successfully labelled as criminal or deviant, the label attached may become the dominant label or ‘master status’ which is seen as more important than all the other aspects of the person. He or she becomes a ‘hooligan’ or ‘thief’ rather than a father, mother or friend. Each label carries with it prejudices and images and this may lead to others interpreting the behaviour of the labelled person in a particular way. For example, a person who volunteers to stay late at work is usually seen as worthy of praise, but, if a person has been labelled as a thief, people might be suspicious that they will steal something. For some people once a deviant label has been applied this can actually lead to more deviance. This happens when people start acting in the way they have been labelled. Paul Willis examined male youth behaviour in schools and found that those labelled ‘bad’ by staff effectively lived out that label and even revelled in it.


Labelling can also mould the way someone behaves in their lives especially if they cannot shake off that label. There are many in society who view drug taking as something that should not be done because it is medically bad for you, breaks the law and leads an individual down what might become a dark path. Examine the following scenario:


A 15 year old boy is caught taking drugs and is labelled a deviant by his/her immediate social group when they find out. His parents find out and reinforce the deviant label by remonstrating with their son about what they see as his deviant behaviour. His parents tell his school. His teachers search his bag on a random search and find drugs. He is permanently excluded from school and the police are informed. He is arrested and cautioned.  He cannot find another school in time to sit his GCSE exams and therefore can only find low paid work. He steals from the shop that employs him in order to buy the drugs that give him an escape from the drudgery of everyday life. The shop finds out and he is sacked and the police are informed. He is arrested and charged with theft. He now has a criminal record. He cannot get another job as he has to declare his criminal record to prospective employers. He steals from parents to get some money. His parents throw him out of the house. He lives with friends in a flat. The police raid the flat one day as they see known drug takers entering the flat. He is arrested, charged and imprisoned on drug related offences. He begins taking hard drugs in prison. Once released, he turned to crime to finance his life. He takes an overdose of heroin that has been cut with impure chemicals and dies at the age of 21.


While the above may seem stereotypical to some, others would see it as a self-fulfilling prophecy that is the result of being labelled.


In work completed in 1964, Wilkins examined the labelling process and found that someone labelled a deviant gets cut off from society and lives in a subculture, which further isolates someone from society at large. This person then associates with like-minded others and shields himself/herself away from the one entity that could help – society at large as it offers some form of normality. However, it is society itself that has labelled that person deviant and almost certainly would not be willing to reabsorb that person back into the nor because of his/her deviancy. Therefore that isolation almost certainly pushes that person into criminal activity as the only way to survive.


It is easy to understand why those convicted of child abuse are not welcomed back into society as a whole. Once released from prison they are supervised by MAPPA whose task it is to monitor their movements etc. If they are in a bail hostel they will be housed with people who have committed similar offences. If by any chance the media – be it national or local – find out about the location of one of these hostels there is the chance that the environment these people need to be in to be effectively monitored will be blown. An example of how the public might react to this was seen in Portsmouth when graffiti (‘Pedos Out’) was drawn on the outside of a GP’s surgery that specialised in paediatric care. The protesters mistook ‘paediatric’ for ‘paedophile’. One of the main concerns the police had with ‘Sarah’s Law’ was that it could allow – despite stringent restrictions – a community to learn about the whereabouts of a released child abuser within their community and that community would be unforgiving towards that offender. Prior to ‘Sarah’s Law’ such information was highly restricted and the police felt that it gave them control over an offender. Their fear was that an offender might be driven under the radar if he believes his name is going to be released to allowed concerned individuals – despite legal requirements for him to report to a police station once a week – and that monitoring that offender would therefore become far more difficult because of the labels society has placed on child abusers.



Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex