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Discovering disorder: young people and delinquency
Discovering disorder: young people and delinquency

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3.1 Howard Becker and the turn to control

In 1963, the American sociologist Howard Becker published Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, which laid the foundations for a very different approach to studying deviant, criminal and delinquent behaviour. Becker’s work started from a rather mundane observation: not everyone who breaks the law is caught and prosecuted. This fact falls into the ‘everybody knows’ category of knowledge, but Becker turned it from a rather dull observation into a different way of thinking about deviant behaviour. He drew four related arguments from it:

  1. Most studies of delinquents/criminals that seek to explain the causes of crime are methodologically flawed. They tend to assume a reliable distinction between a normal group and a deviant group, and search for the factor(s) that make the difference between the two. Do deviants have the wrong chromosomes, the wrong parenting, the wrong friends, the wrong environment, and so on? But, for Becker, the only reliable difference between the two groups was that one group had been identified – labelled – as deviant/criminal. The others – the normals – might have done exactly the same things, but had not been detected, processed and labelled as deviant (see Table 1). It might also be the case that among the ‘deviants’ were people who had been falsely accused and labelled – people who had not committed the criminal or deviant act. So the search for the X factor (that made the difference) was fundamentally flawed.
Table 1 True and false negatives and positives
Detected and labelledNot detected or labelled
Committed the actPositive (Deviant)False negative
Did not commit the actFalse positiveNegative (Normal)
  1. Becker argued that social scientists should therefore pay much more attention to the processes involved in identifying some acts – and some people – as criminal or deviant. Why are some behaviours and some types of people the focus of attention? What processes of selection are involved in these processes of social control? Are they merely random (some people are just unlucky to be caught and prosecuted) or do they have social biases or logic? Becker asserted that this meant breaking the fundamental assumption that treats deviance as the:

... infraction of some agreed-upon rule: such an assumption seems to me to ignore the central fact about deviance: it is created by society. I do not mean this in the way that it is ordinarily understood, in which the causes of deviance are located in the social situation of the deviant or in ‘social factors’ which prompt his [sic] action. I mean, rather, that social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance, and by applying those rules to particular people and labelling them as outsiders. From this point of view deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an ‘offender’. The deviant is one to whom that label has been successfully applied; deviant behaviour is behaviour that people so label.

(Becker, 1996 [1963], pp. 217−18, emphasis in original)
  1. It is important to note that Becker makes a distinction between the behaviour and the person. Societies decide which behaviours are ‘deviant’ (and they make some of them illegal – crimes). Societies do not necessarily share the same judgements about what should be judged as deviant or criminal. For example, not all societies judge ‘hate crimes’ (attacks motivated by hatred of a person’s ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion) as crimes or even deviant , although the UK now recognises such actions as criminal. Killing people is usually thought to be both deviant and criminal, but societies vary in the exemptions they permit (it may depend on who commits the act: agents of the government often have some immunity – think about soldiers in wartime or deaths in police custody; deaths that result from corporate action rarely result in murder charges). Indeed specific societies may change their judgements over time (for over a century, the UK treated homosexual acts between consenting male adults as crimes, but ‘de-criminalised’ them in 1967). Second, though, some people performing those behaviours are identified and labelled as deviant (or criminal), but perhaps not everyone who acts in these ways is identified and labelled.
  2. Becker also argued that labels could have powerful consequences. Drawing on the social interactionist approach in social psychology (from the work of George Herbert Mead, 1863–1931), Becker suggested that how others define us may well shape how we act: if we are labelled as ‘bad’ or ‘criminal’, we might start to live up to the label. Equally, the label may shape how others treat us – once labelled, people identified as criminals or deviants may face extra scrutiny, suspicion or even discrimination. A powerful label changes the situation – for the person so labelled and for others. For Becker, the arrival of a label created the conditions of people moving into a ‘deviant career’: the label shapes the possible future directions of both identity and action.