Labelling Theory and Interactionism were popular in the 1960’s. What is Interactionism?


Interactionism is part of the ‘Social Action’ approach and a branch of Interpretivism. Micro-theory (which favours qualitative methods such as observation, informal interviews) is seen as being more valid. Symbolic Interactionism is “the self is developed through interaction” (eg. with parents, teachers, friends) – (Mead).Social Action is not fixed; individuals are not snooker balls on the snooker table of life. Puppets interpret what they see. They attach meanings to situations and then react. (Structural theory states that action is a result of external forces that people have no control over).


Supporters of Interactionism are sociologists such as Becker – who studied Chicago teachers’ views on the ‘ideal pupil’ and crime and deviance – and Rosenthal and Jacobson who examined labelling and the self-fulfilling prophecy. Becker concluded that no act is criminal or deviant until it has been labelled as such by others. It is not the act that makes something deviant – it is social reaction to the act (the label) e.g. nudity and heroin use. Becker in his work ‘The Outsiders’ used the example of incest from Malinowski’s study of a Pacific Island to explain labelling theory.


Becker concluded that the act of incest breaks the rules, but someone has to draw attention to the act to enforce the rules for a social reaction to the deviance to take place.  Once this happens, consequences follow.


Becker is associated with issues surrounding negative labelling and master status (the label of deviant can cancel out other statuses e.g. father, plumber, golfer and this can lead to exclusion from society, e.g. work). The master status and exclusion can lead to deviant lifestyles, deviant careers and deviant sub-cultures, which leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy (the label – prophecy comes true).


In the 1950’s, Goffman wrote ‘Study of Total Institutions’, which referenced his work in prisons and mental institutions. While his work is dated and reforms have been brought in to rectify a great deal of what Goffman identified, his conclusions are still relevant as arguments against those who want to return to old-style tougher prisons so that society has retribution against those sentenced as opposed to those who want rehabilitation. Goffman found prisoners and patients frequently labelled ‘mad’ or a ‘mental case’ and that these labels had been imposed by doctors or society itself. Goffman believed that prisoners and patients lived up to these labels simply because they had been labelled as such, frequently by a professional.


Goffman found that in prison inmates were cut off and isolated, stripped of identity, work and leisure and slept all in one place. Those who had frequently lived a life without any rules now had to live by rules, regulations and regimentation. Goffman found that for those in prison and mental institutions, individuality was destroyed and deviance was reinforced. To some a label became a status symbol and one to live up to. Within a prison society, a label was even seen by other prisoners as a way of moving up a rankings ladder among the prison population. Goffman found that if a prisoner was labelled ‘mad and bad’ by professionals and lived up to this reputation while in prison, he gained increased respect and status among some prisoners while others saw him as a challenge to their ranking – whether he was or not.


Cicourel found the same occurring among male youths. Frequently, boys labelled ‘delinquent’ or a ‘typical delinquent’ by professionals lived up to the label and won kudos among those who were frequently in their gang. Cicourel concludes that boys labelled delinquent might actually do something that they may not have done if they had not been so labelled. In other words, the label ‘delinquent’ created a mind-set that led to actions being taken and not the other way round. Within a gang, a ‘delinquent’ would be expected to behave in a certain manner and those labelled were expected to live up to the label or lose face and respect if they failed to do so.


Cicourel also found that decisions made by probation officers whether to make charges or not for a criminal offence were influenced by stereotypical views of a ‘typical delinquent’. Cicourel believes that it is not what he has done, but how others label him and his actions.


Jock Young studied hippy marihuana users in Notting Hill during the 1960’s and found the topic a perfect example of self-fulfilling prophecy and primary and secondary deviance.


Young found that the police targeted a group, hippies who smoked marihuana. As smoking marihuana was illegal, this marked them as different. The consequence of this was that it alienated the group from society. Smoking marihuana became a bigger part of the group’s identity and it became more widely used as it was a symbol of their difference and a reaction to being singled out. As a result, a deviant sub-culture developed and the gap between the sub-culture and society grew.

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