Chapter 7 - The Irony of State Intervention
• Traditional assumption is that state intervention reduces crime, whether by scaring offenders straights,
by rehabilitating them, or by incapacitating them so that they no longer are free to roam the streets,
• Labeling theorists however, caution that, rather than diminishing criminal involvement, state
intervention - labeling and reacting to offenders as "criminals" and "ex-felons" - can have the
unanticipated & ironic consequences of deepening the very behaviour it was meant to halt.
• Thus, labeling theorists argue that the CJS not only is limited in its capacity to restrain unlawful
conduct but also is a major factor in anchoring people in criminal careers.
• Positivist perspective – society is based on consensus and there is little question on criminal
processing; assumes that scientists are objective and that their work is value-free
• Critical perspective – assume there is conflict between gender, race and ethnicity, socioeconomic
groups; question legal norms and less on questioning on individuals; they assume that research
produced and everything reflects power relations; look at how crime is a product of other variables;
look at variation over time, different cultures, different societies and organization, and different
• Capital punishment, military killings, killing in self-defence different perspectives in different
• Video: West Side Story – 50s or 60s; how juvenile delinquency was perceived
• 60s and 70s, labeling theoryA.K.Asocial reaction theory?
• Emerged at the same time as there were protests against the Vietnam War, the rise of feminist
movements – social unrest
• Influenced by trends
• Time period where there are lots of shifts in social sciences
The Social Construction of Crime
• First theory to be identified in the critical perspective
• Before the advent of labeling theory, most criminologists were content to define crime as "behaviour
that violates criminal laws." However, the easy acceptance of this defn led criminologists to take for
granted that they knew what crime was & could get on w/ the business of finding its causes either in
offenders or in their environments.
• These reasons blinded many scholars from seeing that, as a socially constructed phenomenon, what is
or is not "criminal" changes over time, across societies, & even from 1 situation to the next.
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• Scholars failed to explore the social circumstances that determine which behaviours are made
• Labeling theorists urged criminologists to surrender the idea that behaviors are somehow inherently
criminal or deviant.
• How that act was labeled by society is what criminologists should look at.
• What makes an act criminal is not the harm it incurs but rather whether this label is conferred on the
act by the state.
• It is the nature of society (societal reaction & the reality it constucts) that determines whether a crime
o Changes over time, across societies, etc.
• Previous theories adopted the perspective that definitions were absolute
• Labeling theory looks at social structure and changes over time
• It’s not the behaviour of the individuals, but it’s the result of how others label that behaviour
Labeling theory’s Critical Questions
• What is defined as crime? How crime is defined?
• Who is defined as criminal?
• Argues that at some point, everybody engages in primary deviance
• But some individuals get labelled in engaging in secondary deviance – much of that is class-based
• The individuals who define what’s wrong or right tend to come from very specific groups
• Look at how different behaviours have been defined as criminal or non-criminal over time:
- Example: smoking was generally acceptable in the 60s; now smoking is considered deviant
- The question that they look at is how that change occurs
- How does something like ‘smoking’become re-classified/identified as criminal?
- This is because of groups of people who make claims and redefine smoking as a social problem
and an addiction problem (ex: cancer societies, teachers’association)
- Example: gay rights (laws in Canada vs. laws in Russia); being gay in Russia is still a criminal
- Legality is defined by state or privileged groups in society
• They question both the question and what happens when you label someone as deviant
• Some actions are more likely to be labeled deviant than others
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• Power relationship – the behaviour of marginalized groups is more likely to be labeled as deviant
• Focusing on race, social class, and gender
- Example: powdered cocaine vs. crack cocaine – CC more likely use by marginalized groups,
affluent individuals more likely use PC differentiation based on class and race
Addresses 3 main issues:
1. The definition of deviance and crime
2. Possible discrimination in the application of official labeling and sanctions
- Certain behaviour by certain groups defined as deviant
3. The effects of labeling on continued criminality
• Heavily draws from symbolist interactionist theory
• People are given a variety of symbolic labels (as smart, industrious, hardworking, dangerous, etc…) –
if you have a mental health problem, you are more likely to be labeled as dangerous and unstable
• Positive labels improve and build self-esteem
• Negative labels stigmatize individuals and reduce their self-esteem
• These labels internalize individuals and they begin to see themselves that way and they start acting
that way – people hence continue to keep labeling them that way (ex: labeling black people as dumb –
• If you label someone as criminal, they’re much more likely to engage in crime
• Someone sent to prison are more likely to recidivate
• **Primary deviance: committing crimes by chance (ex: children) – stereotyping is a result (ex: two
people commit the same minor offence, the one from a marginalized group will most likely have a
worst sentence; victim perceived in a particular light – assumptions made about that individuals
- Stereotypes play into labeling
- Aboriginals are highly over-represented in the CJS
• Video: The Wire and Labeling Theory (part 1) – school for expelled students
- Identifying students as having mental disorders
- Self-fulfilling prophecy – “I know you have to suspend me.”
- These individuals are ostracized from other groups – they’ve been labelled in the same way,
there’s a sense of continuous self-fulfilling prophecy
- Because they’ve been excluded from social groups, they eventually get this master status from
the self-fulfilling prophecy
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• *Extra Note* - Edwin Lemert → Primary Deviance → at this initial point, the offender often tries to
rationalize the behaviour as a temporary aberration or sees it as part of a socially acceptable role. The
offender doesn't regard himself as deviant nor does the offender organize his life around this identity.
• Secondary Deviance → precipitated by the responses of others to the initial proscribed conduct.
The Social Construction of Crime
• Analyses showed that what the sate designated as criminal was not a constant but rather the result of
concrete efforts by men & women to construct a different reality - to transform how a particular type
of behaviour was officially defined.
• Moreover, it was not simply the extent or harmfulness of the behaviour that determined its
criminalization. Ex: Drug use, child abuse long escaped state intervention.
• Saints and Roughnecks study → The nature of state criminal intervention is not simply a matter of an
objective response to illegal behavior but rather is shaped intimately by a range of extralegal
o CJS decision making influenced by individual characteristics such as race, class, and
o Researchers explored how rates of labeling also vary according to the resources available
to and political demands placed on police and other criminal justice organizations.
Labeling as Criminogenic: Creating Career Criminals
• Traditionally, scholars have argued that the starting point for criminological inquiry should be either
individual offenders themselves or the social environments in which they reside.
• Labeling theorists argued that causal analysis should commence not w/ offenders & their environs but
rather with the societal reaction that other people - including state officials - have toward offenders.
• Their argument was based on the belief that labeling & treating lawbreakers as criminals have the
unanticipated consequences of creating the very behaviour they were meant to prevent.
Labeling as a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
• Labeling theory became really popular in the 1960s that made it seem plausible that state intervention
was the crime problem's cause & not its solution.
• Prominent scholars argued that societal reaction is integral to the creation of crime & deviance. To
show how societal reaction brings about more crime, these labeling theorists borrowed Merton's "self-
fulfilling prophecy" concept.
• Consistent w/ this concept, labeling scholars argued that most offenders are defined falsely as
• The falseness in defn is tied to the fact that criminal labels, once granted, do not simply provide a
social judgment of the offenders' behaviour; they also publicly degrade the offenders' moral character.
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• That is, being arrested & processed through the justice system means that citizens not only define the
offenders' lawbreaking conduct as bad but also assume that the offenders as people are criminal & as
consequence, are the "type" that soon would be in trouble again.
• The meaning of the label “criminal” in our society leads citizens to make assumptions about offenders
that are wrong or only partially accurate
o These assumptions are consequential b/c they shape how people react to offenders
o Equipped w/ false definitions or stereotypes of criminals, citizens treat all offenders as
though they were of poor character & likely to recidivate → these reactions have the
power to transform an offender into the very type of criminal that was feared.
o In the face of repeated designation as a criminal, the person internalized the public
definition of a deviant.
• How are developing criminals, who might well have gone straight if left to their own devices, turned
into chronic offenders?
o The granting of a criminal label singles out a person for special treatment. As a result,
being a criminal becomes the person’s " master status" or controlling public
• This public scrutiny might scare or shame some offenders into conformity. But for other offenders,
the constant accentuation of their criminal status & the accompanying social rebuke has the
unanticipated consequence of undermining the conforming influences in their lives & of pushing
them into criminal careers.
• Thus, in the face of repeated designation as criminals, offenders are likely to forfeit their self-
concepts as conformists or "normal" persons & to increasingly internalize their public defn as
• As this identity change takes place, the offenders' self-concepts lose their power to encourage
conformity; the pressure to act consistently with their self-concepts now demands breaking the law.
• Criminals who become isolated from previous social relationships → start associating w/ other
criminals, thereby forming sub-cultural groupings.
• Such associations are likely to further reinforce antisocial values & to provide a ready supply of
partners in crime.
• The end of ties to conventional society is most probable when state intervention involves
institutionalization. Imprisonment entails the loss of existing employment & strains family relations
to the point where they might not survive.
• It also mandates