“So the Structural Functionalist perspective on deviance provides some useful ways about how deviance works on a macro-scale, but it works on the assumption that everyone who does deviant things will be treated as deviant. The other paradigms of sociology call this into question. They point out that social impacts how deviance is punished, or whether it’s punished at all.
For example, a Symbolic Interactionist understands deviance though what’s known as Labeling Theory, the idea that things like deviance and conformity are not so much a matter of what you do, but how people label it. Let’s go to the Thought Bubble to see how labels can make a deviant.
Imagine a student skipping school. This is an example of Primary, or Minor Deviance. On it’s own, the transgression isn’t going to affect the student’s self-concept. That is, it’s not going to cause her to think of herself, or label herself, as a deviant. And if she is an otherwise good student, then her teacher might just write it off as a one-time thing. And the fact that she cut class would just remain a minor, Primary Deviance.
But if the teacher responds more strongly and punishes her, then that same infraction of the rules can escalate into Secondary Deviance. In this case, strong sanctions could make the student start to think of herself as a truant, and this can lead to what Erving Goffman called a stigma, a powerfully negative sort of master status that affects a person’s self-concept, social identity, and interactions with others.
One of the most powerful effects of stigma is that it leads to more labeling, especially of what a person has done, or might still do. For example, a stigmatized student could be the subject of Retrospective Labeling, where her past is reinterpreted so that she is suddenly understood as having always been irresponsible. Likewise, she could be subjected to Prospective Labeling, which looks forward in time, predicting her future behavior based on her stigma. Thanks, Thought Bubble!
As you can see the whole process of labeling can be extremely consequential. And it effects not only how we think of ourselves, but also who responds to deviance as well as how they respond, and how the deviant person is understood in society.”
Continuing from a previous post, I spoke about certain aspects of Social Deviance, which include things that stereotyping, and victim-blaming. According to the Boudless.com article, “Deviance and Social Stigma“:
Social stigma is the extreme disapproval of an individual based on social characteristics that are perceived to distinguish them from other members of a society. Social stigma is so profound that it overpowers positive social feedback regarding the way in which the same individual adheres to other social norms. For example, Terry might be stigmatized because she has a limp. Stigma attaches to Terry because of her limp, overpowering the ways in which Terry might be social normative–perhaps she is a white, Protestant, or a heterosexual female with a limp. The limp marks Terry, despite her other traits.
Stigma plays a primary role in sociological theory. Émile Durkheim, one of the founders of the social sciences, began to address the social marking of deviance in the late nineteenth century. Erving Goffman, an American sociologist, is responsible for bringing the term and theory of stigma into the main social theoretical fold. In his work, Goffman presented the fundamentals of stigma as a social theory, including his interpretation of “stigma” as a means of spoiling identity. By this, he referred to the stigmatized trait’s ability to “spoil” recognition of the individual’s adherence to social norms in other facets of self. Goffman identified three main types of stigma: (1) stigma associated with mental illness; (2) stigma associated with physical deformation; and (3) stigma attached to identification with a particular race, ethnicity, religion, ideology, etc.
While Goffman is responsible for the seminal texts in stigma theory, stigmatization is still a popular theme in contemporary sociological research. In Conceptualizing Stigma (2001), sociologists Jo Phelan and Bruce Link interpret stigma as the convergence of four different factors: (1) differentiation and labeling of various segments of society; (2) linking the labeling of different social demographics to prejudices about these individuals; (3) the development of an us-versus-them ethic; and (4) disadvantaging the people who are labeled and placed in the “them” category.
Ultimately, stigma is about social control. A corollary to this is that stigma is necessarily a social phenomenon. Without a society, one cannot have stigma. To have stigma, one must have a stigmatizer and someone who is stigmatized. As such, this is a dynamic and social relationship. Given that stigmas arise from social relationships, the theory places emphasis, not on the existence of deviant traits, but on the perception and marking of certain traits as deviant by a second party. For example, theorists of stigma care little about whether Emily has a psychiatric diagnosis, but rather on how Sally perceives Emily’s psychiatric diagnosis and, subsequently, treats Emily differently. Stigma depends on a another individual perceiving and knowing about the stigmatized trait. As stigma is necessarily a social relation, it is necessarily imbued with relations of power. Stigma works to control deviant members of the population and encourage conformity.
As stated in the above Crash Course Sociology video, there are two types of Deviance: Primary and Secondary. According to the essay, “Analyze the deviance using terms such as primary“:
“Primary deviance is often associated with the labeling theory, which refers to the reasons for applying labels on members and groups in societies and the impacts of those labels (Reference,2016).”Primary deviance refers to the behavior that varies from the societal norms and standards that people perform for short periods of time.
“Secondary deviance refers to deviant behavior which flows from a stigmatized sense of self;the deviance is thought to be consistent with the character of the self).”Secondary deviance is believed to be more serious, because the labeling or stigma becomes a self-fulfilling.
An Example of Code Language
Although I have specifically given an example of Code Language, I found a perfect one in this book, Self Psychology in Clinical Social Work by Miriam Elson:
Located in the sixth chapter, Transference and Countertransference:
Social work from it’s inception was engaged with individuals who struggle to find meaning and worth in their lives. Overburdened, understimulated, and fragmenting, such individuals searched for connectedness, for an opportunity to achieve attachment to others, to find a way into the mainstream of society. Their needs, expectations, and wishes, transferred to the social workers who sought to help them, by their very intensity aroused disturbing feelings in these helpers. Individuals with severe deficits need to attach to those who help them in order to feel whole. Individuals in dire need, whether of food, housing, employment, and medical care, or of support and intervention to ameliorate emotional disturbance, tax the resourcefulness and reserves of those who seek to help them. Social workers, thus, may feel helplessly drawn into the vortex of these chaotic lives.
The code language is as follows: “struggle to find meaning and worth in their lives… Overburdened, understimulated,… fragmenting… search for connectedness… for an opportunity to achieve to others…find a way into the mainstream of society… severe deficits… need to attach to others who help them in order to feel whole… in dire need… of food, housing, employment, and medical care… of support and intervention to ameliorate emotional disturbance.” Those are some pretty negative connotations to place upon a person! Additionally, the portion about taxing “the resourcefulness and reserves of those who seek to help them” kind of makes people who need help look like serious vampires.
Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Wahlberg, Danny Trejo, and Robert Downey Jr. all have something in common – engaging in deviant behavior in their past. I need not delve into any details in text, but rather I would ask: Would you associate the above phrases, and words, from Self Psychology in Clinical Social Work the with those people above?
How about with Demi Lovato? My guess is you wouldn’t, and may in fact take advantage of the possibility of meeting them in person. These are all pretty successful people for various reasons, through various ways.
Additionally, according to the Health Knowledge article, “Concepts of Health and Illness: Section 3. Labelling and Stigma“:
The concepts of labelling and stigma derive from the interactionist sociological perspective described above, and focus on the importance of the symbolic meanings of health and illness. That is the shared social connotations and imagery that are associated with particular events and objects and upon which our actions are largely based. Labelling as a sociological construct has been used to inform medical practice since the 1960s in order to draw attention to the view that the experience of ‘being sick’ has both social as well as physical consequences.
Becker’s (1963) original work on the social basis of deviance argues that, ‘social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance’. Applying these ‘rules of deviance’ to individuals or groups means labelling them as ‘outsiders’. He goes on to argue that, ‘deviance is not a quality that lies in the behaviour itself, but in the interaction between the person who commits an act and those that respond to it’. The ‘deviant’ is therefore the one to whom the label has successfully been applied. Behaviour that is labelled as deviating in some way from the ‘norm’ necessarily involves the value judgements of those powerful individuals who are in a position to impose such labels. Labelling theory focuses less on the ‘deviantact’ itself, and more upon the societal reaction to that particular behaviour.
Lemert’s (1967) work followed on from Becker’s insights in recognising the importance of the reaction of others in the explanation of deviance, whilst drawing a distinction between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ deviance. Primary deviance is seen to consist of deviant acts (with any amount of causes) before they are publicly labelled, and has ‘ only marginal implications for the status and psychic structure of the person concerned’. Secondary deviance is much more significant because it alters a person’s self-regard and social roles. This follows the public identification of a person as deviant, and the individual’s response to this negative societal reaction (a judgement of social ‘normality’). It is in direct response to this labelling that the person changes their behaviour in accordance with the label; the label constituting a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’.
In the case of sickness, primary deviance represents the illness experience. The process of secondary deviance is constituted through the act of diagnosis wherein doctors engage in a process of classification through which people are either labelled ill (deviant from the ‘norm’) or healthy. It is because these disease labels carry such widely shared public stereotypes that the behaviour-change characteristic of secondary deviance occurs:
Labelling as a means of creating diseases, must be distinguished from the cause of diseases. So whether the biological state of an individual is a ‘disease’ or not, is established by the doctor when the diagnosis or label is given to the patient (Armstrong: 1989:35)
Goffman’s (1968) work is less concerned with the social process of labelling a particular action or pathological state as deviant, than with the stigmatising consequences of that process for an individual – what he referred to as ‘The management of everyday life’.
All of us, including health professionals, because the medical model does not exist in a cultural vacuum, perceive certain conditions and disabilities as particularly stigmatising; an obvious example of this being HIV/AIDS. Thus when a disease label is attached to a person, the very label itself has the power to ‘spoil the sufferer’s identity’(Goffman:1968); both personal and social. The social stigma that results from this labelling process, derives not only from societal reaction which may produce actual discriminatory experiences (‘enacted stigma’), but also the ‘imagined’ social reaction which can drastically change a person’s self-identity (‘felt stigma’):
‘The stigmatised individual may be able to hide the discrediting attribute from others but cannot do so from him or herself’(Goffman:1967)
The impact of labelling and its consequences for stigmatisation can be represented as a negative feedback circle, which results in greater and greater diminution of social participation – this process is diagrammatically represented in figure 1 below.
So for example, meeting the care needs of a child with a disability not only has a significant impact upon family members pre-existing work and social life patterns, but in addition families may also experience what is termed `courtesy stigma’ (or ‘stigma by association‘) because of their direct relationship to the child. The family will then may have to cope with their own feelings of shame or guilt, and may attempt to distance themselves in various ways from the disability.
In the case of diagnosing mental illness, the power to label is a significant one and is entrusted to the psychiatrist. Once an individual has been diagnosed as mentally ill, labelling theory would assert that the patient becomes stripped of their old identity and a new one is ascribed to them. A process which usually leads to the labelled person internalising this new identity and social status, so taking on the role (`master status’) of the psychiatric patient with all its associated set of role expectations. Stigmatisation would then follow, which has the effect of excluding the labelled `psychiatric patient’ from normal interactions. In this case, labelling theory focuses attention on the ethnocentric assumptions about `normal’ behaviour held by psychiatrists resulted in the misattribution of labels such as schizophrenia. This approach does not challenge the `fact’ that high rates of psychopathology exist among black and Irish people, it simply claims that the wrong label is being applied with important consequences for these patients self-identity.
According to the Criminal Justice Research.net article, “Labeling Theory and Symbolic Interaction Theory“:
Since Becker’s (1963) original statements on the labeling perspective, others have added to the fragmented conceptualization of this theoretical model. Schur (1971) contributed to the labeling theory by conceptualizing other important ideas, such as the role of stereotyping. Schur argued that stereotyping has a dual role in society. First, stereotypes help individuals in complex interactions to classify the expectations of others’ behaviors and the actual behavior of others. Second, stereotyping frequently involves the potential for individual reactions based on inaccurate assessments. Just because a stereotype (i.e., a label) is applied incorrectly, that does not mean that it affects the stereotyped individual any less.
Retrospective interpretation is another concept key to the study of labeling, according to Schur (1971). Retrospective interpretations involve the “mechanisms by which reactors come to view deviators in a new light” (Schur, 1971, p. 52). Mechanisms can range from something as simple as gossip to something as complex as a criminal trial. Negotiation and bargaining are important concepts in that they are the methods by which moral entrepreneurs and rule-makers assert labels; examples include the plea-bargaining process in criminal trials and lobbyists who influence legislators. Finally, Schur discussed role engulfment, or the process by which an individual takes a label and fully internalizes it, thus becoming the individual the label implies. This concept includes accepting the deviant identity or disavowing the deviant identity, or the joining of a deviant subculture by the labeled individual, as in Tannenbaum’s (1938) original formulation of the “dramatization of evil.” Role engulfment is hence the end result of the labeling process resulting in behavior based on internalization of the label.
Cohen (1995) argued that the “student of deviance must question and not take for granted the labeling by society or certain powerful groups in society of certain behaviors as deviant or problematic” (p. 211). Cohen’s contribution to labeling theory was in regard to the concept of the amplification of deviance by deviants and deviant groups. Amplification was not only mediated by face-to-face contact of individuals or by gossip but also was related to media depictions of deviance, because the mass media are a prime source of information about the normative contours of society. Cohen argued that society reacts to episodes of deviance on the basis of “information about that particular class of phenomenon, individual tolerance levels of an indicated behavior, and direct experience” (p. 215). So, amplification of deviance can occur from either the labeled or the labeler’s point of view.
In 1989, Paternoster and Iovanni explicitly formulated the propositions of the labeling perspective. In an effort to stimulate a new era of inquiry under the labeling perspective, they identified the four conceptual areas that must be evaluated to support a successful labeling theory: (1) the role of political/economic power in creating delinquency statuses; (2) the influence of extralegal attributes in determining who is labeled; (3) the contribution of social and physical attributes in determining face-to-face encounters; and (4) the possibility that the experience of being labeled by social control agencies may result in an alteration of personal identity, an exclusion from the normal routines of everyday life, and greater involvement with delinquency (p. 363).
A new focus for the labeling perspective in the 1990s was the change from studying formal labels to studying labels that are applied informally. Formal labels come from the reactions by officials of the criminal justice system to the behaviors of individuals (Triplett & Jarjoura, 1994, p. 243). Informal labels, on the other hand, are an attempt to “characterize a person as a given ‘type’ . . . by persons who are not acting as official social control agents, and in social situations that are not formal social control ‘ceremonies’ ” (Paternoster & Triplett, 1988, p. 597). The informal label is associated with the concept of stereotype.
Although the sociopsychological effects of being labeled remain a central tenet of the labeling perspective, there is a growing interest in the effects that a formal criminal label may have on the legitimate opportunities (i.e., education, jobs, marriage) available to a formally labeled individual. Becker (1963) already hinted at this when he discussed the importance of the deviant subculture (i.e., once a person is submerged in a deviant subculture, associations and contacts with the nondeviant world diminish or are closed completely). More recently, the effect of a criminal conviction (or prison sentence) on an individual’s subsequent life course has become a focus of study. So, it seems that the sociopsychological effect on later life opportunities has become less crucial to study than the detrimental effect of a formal label (conviction or prison sentence) on later life opportunities.
The labeling theoretical model was generated over a large part of the 20th century. The way in which it was constructed, by myriad different sociologists, criminologists, and empirical researchers, has resulted in a fragmented theoretical model, with concepts added here and there or propositions being elaborated upon, here and there. The fragmented tapestry that is the labeling perspective, as well as the inherent attack on offender-oriented criminological theory by labeling theorists, has exposed it to a great deal of criticism and counterattack. The next section explores the primary lines of criticism that have been leveled against the labeling perspective.