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

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3.2 Labelling and deviance

Activity 7

Can you think of any other examples of labels that might re-shape the conditions of a person’s future possibilities?


What about medical or psychiatric diagnoses; being identified as a ‘citizen’ or an ‘alien’; being described as a ‘scrounger’; being called a ‘job seeker’ rather than an ‘unemployed person’; becoming homeless; becoming a mother?

Becker’s work has been influential in sociological approaches to the study of delinquency, deviance and social control. In fact, he put the processes of social control into a more dramatically visible position, exposing their role in ‘defining the situation’. We will now trace some of the issues that emerged from Becker’s focus on ‘labelling’.

One issue that emerges is the selection of what sorts of behaviour are to be defined as criminal or deviant. Remember that criminal behaviour is defined as that which breaks the criminal law; while deviant behaviour is that which breaks established social rules or norms of conduct. But this very general definition conceals a more important question for social scientists about how both the criminal law (in a particular society) and social norms change over time. If we take the criminal law in England and Wales (Scotland and Northern Ireland have different legal systems, even if many of the offences overlap), then it has changed in important ways. New offences are sometimes added: over 3500 during the Labour governments between 1997 and 2010 (see, for example, Slack (2010) or Morris (2008)). Sometimes, established offences are deleted or downgraded: it is no longer possible to be executed, imprisoned or transported for stealing timber, turf or peat from the King’s Forests (see E.P. Thompson’s study (1977) of the Black Act of 1723, which created 50 new criminal offences). Similarly, the content of social norms changes – reflecting shifting views of what is normal, right, proper or reasonable.

It is important to remember that neither the law nor social codes are permanent and unchanging. They change over time and are different from country to country (or from one legal jurisdiction to another).