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Chapter 11

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University of Guelph
SOC 2700
C Yule

Chapter 11: The Meaning of Crime -symbolic interactionism argues that human actions are best understood in terms of the meanings that those actions have for actors -people first define the meaning of the situations they find themselves in and then act toward those situations in ways that make sense within the context of those meanings -the meanings themselves are created to some extent by the individual, but mostly they are derived from personal communications and interactions with other people The Meaning of Crime to the Self: Labeling Theory -one of the most important meanings within symbolic interaction theory is the meaning that people give to themselves - their self-image -they act toward themselves according to those meanings -each personʼs self-image is constructed primarily through social interactions with other people - what Mead called “the self as a social construct” and what Cooley called “the looking-glass self” -Frank Tannenbaum used these ideas as the basis for a “labeling theory” of crime that arises from the confiicts between youths and adults in urban neighbourhoods -he argued that the youths see themselves as participating in playgrounds on the streets, this is their definition of the situation -as youths become teenagers, the playgroups increasingly engage in exciting and adventurous and dangerous activities that provoke hostility of the adults -adults define the situation as good kids doing bad actions -adults eventually define the youths as bad themselves, then the youths identify themselves as that and act the part -“the person becomes the thin he is describes as being” -Lemert presented a general theory of deviance that incorporated this basic labeling process -he argued that criminal and deviant behaviours originate in any number of biological, psychological, or social factors in the personʼs life -people who engage in criminal or deviant behaviours are “primary deviants” -this deviant behaviour then generates a negative reaction from other people and that reaction tends to transform from a negative definition of the act into a negative definition of the person -people who are unwilling or unable to stop the offending behaviour will at some point tend to reorganize their self-images to incorporate the new negative definition -a person who has taken on a deviant self-image is a “secondary deviant” -the redefinition of self opens the door to full participation in the deviant life and allows the person to make a commitment to a deviant career -despite this argument, many people who commit criminal behaviours do not think of themselves as criminals e.g. embezzlers, nonprofessional shoplifters -Sykes and Matza argued that most juvenile delinquents do not have an over commitment to delinquent values and do not conceive themselves as criminals -they often justify their behaviours with 5 techniques of neutralization: (1) denial of responsibility e.g. “it wasnʼt my fault”, (2) denial of injury e.g. “they can afford it”, (3)denial of victim e.g. “they had it coming”, (4) condemnation of condemners e.g. “everyone is crooked anyway”, and (5) appeal to higher loyalties e.g. “I did it for the gang” -to maintain a noncriminal self-image, people “define the situation” so they can maintain that their actions are not really crimes -pressure to accept a criminal self-image depends, in part, on the number of others who define the person as a criminal, and the process of informing others that a person is a criminal is frequently used as a technique of social control -the ultimate threat to identity involves the process of arrest and conviction in which the person is officially declared to be a criminal in the view of society at large -a criminal trial can be interpreted as a “status degradation ceremony” in which the public identity of the person is lowered on the social scale -once applied, Becker argued, the criminal label overrides other labels, so that other people think of the person primarily as a criminal -those who have been labeled criminal may associate primarily with other people who have similarly been labeled -membership in an exclusively criminal group can increase likelihood that individuals will resort to a criminal self-image -several criticisms of the labeling approach should be mentioned: -first, labeling theories sometimes have overemphasized the importance that the official labeling process can have -second, labeling theory generally portrays the deviant as resisting the deviant label and accepting it only when it can no longer be avoided - people may form a deviant identity on their own -third, it is generally r
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