• Definition of labelling
    Thomas et al (2002) defines labelling as the process whereby people holding positions of power or influence occasionally attribute generalised negative description to particular categories of individuals, tending to produce or amplify the characteristic accredited. Prominent groups who may label include the police, teachers, the communication media, judges etc. The outcome of such a labelling process, the individual or categories of people labelled for example, children excluded from mainstream school, mentally ill, tend to live up to the negative label, thus tending to strengthen or exaggerate the behaviour that led to the initial label. Thomas et al (2002) further argued that labelling theory can be seen as part of a distinctive social-interactionist approach to social problems. Criticisms can be focussed at labelling theory: for instance, it sometimes overstates the effects of labelling while ignoring the fundamental features of some deviant behaviour. Deviant behaviour fascinates people; such behaviour might involve breaking the law, vandalism, or just fall outside the commonly held definition of what is ‘normal’ or and ‘reasonable’. Deviance generally refers to behaviour that is disapproved of and subject to some form of punishment, behaviour that is outside the rules of society and leads to critical response from ‘conventional society’. In other word, to deviate means to stray from an accepted path. However, an awareness of labelling theory and the pervasive procedure of labelling processes is useful to social workers, because many clients of social work can be seen as harmfully affected by the application of social labels, therefore social workers must be aware of how they themselves operate as labellers (Thomas et al., 2002).

    It could be argued that individuals, who are labelled as deviant, are those who do not follow conventional standards of behaviour or norms. Norms are the written rules that influence people’s behaviour. They are the ideal beliefs of behaviour that members of a social group share and form part of the culture of that society, such as the way in which parents should treat their children. However, different groups within a society may have their own norms. For example, young people may hold different norms from older people, and selective youth groups may dress different from other groups. Some youth groups may wear ‘drop downs’ while others where ‘hoodies’. Nonetheless, laws and norms are not fixed; they vary from time to time and place to place. Therefore behaviour which breaks them will also be different (Hensiln et al., 2002).

    As a result, crime and deviance are comparative concepts, which vary according to the particular social situation. For example, in England, Christians having more that one wives could be viewed as a crime, whereas in certain Muslim countries this could be viewed as normal. Furthermore, without norms, we would have social chaos. For that reason ‘norms’ bring about social order, a society’s expected social arrangements. Societies are based on these arrangements; therefore deviance is often seen threatening: it undermines predictability, the foundation of social life. Accordingly, societal groups develop a system of social control, formal and informal means of enforcing norms (Hensiln et al., 2002).

    Interactionist perspective of labelling

    Nevertheless the interactionist perspective examines how and why particular individuals and groups are defined and labelled as deviant/criminals and the effects of such a definition upon the future actions. For example, the interaction between the deviant and the various agents of social control such as the police, teachers, and doctors can be looked at in various ways. The interactionist approach emphasises the importance of the meaning the different actors bring to and develop within the interaction situation. Becker et al (1988) argued that deviance was created by the social groups who defined acts as deviant. On the other hand Taylor et al (1975) considered that most deviance can be defined in terms of the actions of those who break social rules, rather than the reaction of a social audience. Taylor et al (1975) exemplify this by explaining that in some circumstances deliberately killing another person may be regarded as justified: an individual may be acting in self-defence, or carrying out their duties as a soldier. But whoever makes up the social audience, a premeditated killing for personal gain will always be regarded as deviant in our society. In other words, whatever we do as individuals has a meaning, in many circumstances there will be little or no freedom of choice in shaping whether an act is regarded as deviant or not (Becker 1988, cited in Marsh et al., 2002).

    Therefore, if the agents of social control define offenders as deviant and they are convicted for breaking the law, those youngsters can then become deviant. They have been labelled as such by those who have the power to make the label stick. Consequently, deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a result of the application by others of the rules and sanctions. According to Becker (1988) deviance is not a quality that lies in behaviour itself, but in the interaction between the person who commits an act and those who respond to it. The deviant is one to whom the label has successfully been applied; deviant behaviour is behaviour that people label. This exemplifies that deviance is produced by a process of interaction between the potential deviant and the agents of social control (Becker 1988, cited in Stones 1998).

    However, sociologist commentators argued that the interactionist perspective is too deterministic; it assumes that once a person has been labelled as deviant, the deviance will become worse. The labelled person will get more involved in deviant activities. The effect of labelling on any individual of being publicly labelled as deviant can have negative effect. A label can be viewed as an evaluation of the person to whom it is applied. If individuals are labelled as criminal, delinquent, or mentally ill, such labels can largely override their status. Others see them and respond to them in terms of the label and tend to assume they have the negative characteristics normally associated with such labels. Becker (1988) emphasised that an individual labelled as deviant can lead to further deviance, and can also change individual’s self-concepts so that they regard themselves as deviant (Becker 1963, cited in Marsh 2000).

    On the other hand according Lemert (1963) individuals who are labelled as delinquents can change their negative habits and re-enter conventional society. This exemplifies that, what happens in life is not determined by labels alone, it involves the self-concept and reactions that vary from one individual to another. Therefore it is important for social workers and other professionals to have an awareness of the concept of labels, in the sense that labels open and close doors of opportunity (Chambliss 2001, cited in Henslin 2002).

    Critique of interactionist perspective

    Furthermore, although the interactionist perspectives, examine the effect of being labelled, it did not seek to determine what deviance is, by examining the way that some acts and individuals come to be defined or labelled as deviant. They failed to examine factors assumed to be associated with delinquency, such as ‘coming from broken homes, exhibiting “bad attitudes” towards authority, poor school performance, ethnic group membership, low-income families, inadequate parental control, nutrition and deprivation, getting in with the wrong crowd, socially excluded etc. The interactionist perspectives place great stress on social reaction. They focussed mainly on specific interactions between people on the ‘drama’ of the police station and courtroom, without investigating the importance of the social system itself. They looked at criminals, the police and the legal system without examining the power underlying the system, or how power and decision making are distributed (Cicourel 1976, cited in Marsh et al., 2000).

    The interactionist perspective did not examine the family and the problems families face in society, as well as the effect it has on individuals and the wider society. For example, Parson (1949) argued that the family has two main functions: the first being the process by which children are taught the cultural norms of the society into which they are born. The second function is that of “personality stabilization” which refers to the role the family plays in supporting adult family members emotionally. This means the family is the essential domain for the development of the human personality. Furthermore, many people view the family as an institution that provides an important source of comfort, love and companionship, yet still it can be a locus for exploitation, abuse, loneliness and intense inequality. For example, it is believed that the dependence of women and children on the male breadwinner creates harmful power imbalance within the family, which is the main problem, particular for women and children in society today (Baldock, Manning, Vickerstaff 2003 p. 163)

    For instance, my previous placement was the pupil referral unit. The centre is designed for children who have challenging behaviour and have been excluded from mainstream secondary schools due to their dismal behaviour. The ‘abnormal’ behaviour ranged from vandalising school properties, street robbery, fighting with teachers/peers, as well as smoking and selling drugs. The children are sent to the centre so that other professionals, such as youth offending officers, psychologists, social workers etc. can work them in order to help them to improve their behaviour, and in future return to the mainstream of education. Most of the children are from ethnic minority groups and the inner city deprived areas of London. However, some of the children’s dismal behaviour was due to the experience of domestic violence, physical/sexual abuse, neglect, drug selling etc. some of which stemmed from within the home environment and the community in which they live. The children were unable to cope with their negative experiences, which create problems for them at school and the wider society. A number of these experiences had a negative effect on them, which led to individuals committing crimes, being arrested and obtained a criminal record while others receive, Anti-social behaviour orders (ASBO) which resulted in them been labelled as delinquents. Furthermore, due to the nature of the unit and the community in which they live many of the children felt socially excluded, and believed that there will be no job prospect for them. This in itself had negative effect on some of the children, whilst others see themselves differently. During group work with some of the children, a child explained to me that he is afraid of following his dad’s footsteps in becoming a criminal. Others thought of leaving the centre and going into further education in order to become a doctor, nurse or a bus driver. This further exemplify that individual may act according to their experience, societal views, peer pressures etc. and may not necessarily live up to the label that have been applied to them.

    Subsequently, Cicourel (1976) exemplify this by examining class structure. He argued that when middle-class juveniles were arrested there was less likelihood of them being charged with an offence, because their background did not fit the standard picture of the delinquent. Their parents were able to negotiate successfully on their behalf; therefore they were seen as remorseful. On the other hand juveniles from deprived areas for example Hackney are labelled as delinquents and law breakers because of their status. The middle class delinquent is often defined as ill rather than criminal, as accidentally straying from the path of righteousness rather than committed wrongdoing (Cicourel 1976, cited in Marsh et al., 2000).

    Marxist perspectives argued that crime is widespread in all social strata. Snider (1993) argued that many of the most serious and antisocial and predatory acts committed in modern industrial societies are corporate crimes. She further argued that corporate crimes does more harm than street crimes such as, burglary, robbery and murder, which is more seen as the most serious types of crime and cost more in terms of both money and lives. From a Marxist perspective crime is seen largely as the product of capitalism, with criminal and anti-social behaviour suggestive of the contradictions and problems natural in the capitalist system. The basic motivations of capitalism, such as the emphasis on materialism and self-enrichment, encourage self-interested, anti-social and by implication, criminal behaviour. Furthermore, there has been a great increase in the range of behaviour that has come under the control of the law. New laws have been created in order to control and contain an increasing range of behaviour seen as socially problematic (Sinder 1993, cited in Marsh et al., 2000).

    Since the 1960s the ‘normality’ of high crime rates in most contemporary Western societies has led to a basic rethink of the role of the state in relation to the problem of crime. Moreover, due to an increase in anti-social behaviour the Labour Government policy towards crime and its reduction is an emphasis on ‘community safety’. The Crime and Disorder Act (1998) requires local authorities and others responsible agencies such as Social Services, Youth Offending Teams (YOT) etc. to formulate and implement strategies for reducing crime and disorder in their areas. In particular it adopts a tough approach to youth offending. The proposal for curfews, for example, will exercise greater control over the behaviour of young people (Croall 1998). On December 27, 2006 the Government announced new measures to tackle anti-social behaviour (ASBO) whereby 40 local authorities in the most deprived areas will be given extra money to tackle and prevent the high level of crime within their areas, as well as to provided families who children have a high level of truancy (www.BBC.co.uk)

    Merton (1957) argued that if a society is to continue to exist, certain things need to be done to ensure survival. The way in which activities are carried out in any society does not occur by chance, but is rooted in the basic values of that society. Structural-functionalist believed that the basis of an orderly society is a shared set of values accepted by all members of that society. The norms and values of a society must be learned by all its members who must be socialised into a common culture if they are to understand, communicate and interact with each other effectively (Merton 1957, cited in Marsh et al., 2000). Therefore, in order to assist young offenders to improve their behaviour, law and order can be viewed as a deterrent which involves conformity. Without law and order society would be a complete chaos. Therefore, it is imperative for social workers to have an understanding of human-being, their behaviour, society, the law and how these dishevelled. Moreover, social work is concerned with the relationship between individuals and their social context. The way that individual constructs his or her world or sense of self is mediated through a variety social groupings, including family, school, neighbourhood and social agencies. Intertwined with these social realities are the unique meanings that we put upon them, which will be prejudiced by personal history, religion, culture and race (Croall 1998, cited in Marsh 2000).
    As a result, social work with young offender should not be judgemental, but seek to protect and uphold the human rights of offenders and victims of crime, which mostly reflects the traditional values of social work. These include strategies such as: restorative justice movement, which seeks to respond to crime with positive measures whereby offenders make amends for the harm they have caused; those who favour attempts to reform or rehabilitate offenders; those who espouse a philosophy of just desert whereby punishment is strictly proportional to the seriousness of the offence. This can also help to remove labels that have been applied to individuals (McGuire 1995, cited in Davies 2004).

    Furthermore, the focus should be on cognitive behavioural programmes and risk/needs assessment to identify those offenders most likely to benefit from such interventions. For example, Vanstone (1996) have argued that social work in the criminal justice system implies looking beyond offending behaviour and taking on social as well as individual explanations of crime. This involves multi-agency working which involves social workers, probation and police officers, and education and health staff etc. that helps to prevent offending by children and young people, and to ensure that appropriate youth justice services are available for young offenders aged 10-17. Social workers employed within YOTs provide court services in the youth court by the preparation of pre-sentence reports, as well as supervising a range of community-based orders. In working in this manner will help to remove the labels that have been applied to individuals as well as help them to reform their lives (McGuire 1995, cited in Davies 2004).

    Researchers such as Morgan (1998) showed that the model of social life is not stable and is subject to changes in line with changes in wider society. The greater global interconnection, such as free movement of people and less restriction on immigration control around the world has had an intense influence in shaping our lives. This can be seen by examining the geographical mobility and redevelopment of Britain’s inner cities. The rise in deviant/criminal activities does not have one cause or one explanation. It can be understood within the wider context of a number of cultural, political and economic changes. For example, the political and countercultural lifestyles have posed a challenge to young people in our society. The impact of international economic changes, such as the internet makes it possible for people to communicate and adapt certain lifestyles (Giddens 2004).

    The media effect

    Foucault (1979) emphasised that ‘in our daily relations, we act but it is often the public interpretation of our acts that determines the outcomes, which also depends on the way we are represented in others’ talk — their descriptions, explanations, criticisms, or congratulations’. He further argued that these representations symbolize our social reputation. The words that individuals choose are generated by others such as our friends, neighbours, teachers and the family etc. Therefore, it is our identity which is at stake, but we neither own nor control the way we are represented. For example, at societal level: all of us are identified with one or more social groups — woman, man, Christian, Jew, black, white, etc. Such groups are often the subject of media interest — films, novels, news report and so on. Foucault (1979) further argued that it is not only a matter of public reputation, but as these reputations become shared, they are taken for granted and become realities. Furthermore, it is these realities that inform public policies, educational practices, police actions etc. Moreover, these same public portrayals inform those depicted. In other words one may learn what it is to be a woman or a criminal (Foucault 1979, cited in Gergen 2001).

    It could therefore, be argued that our identities are importantly fashioned by the texts of media representation. With the improvements of new technologies, and the impact of the media, we can be seen as victims of sales hype. This image of the audience as ‘victim’ underlies perhaps the most significant amount of contemporary analysis. In many ways, it is proposed, we are the unwilling ‘victims’ of a stream of communication largely associated with the mass media. This communication constructs a world for us — of glamour, excitement, knowledge, fulfilment, and so on. It attempts to appropriate us, to transform our thoughts and desires and ultimately our buying habits, political preference, and more general way of life. We are the victim of mass manipulation (Foucault 1979, cited in Gergen 2001).

    Moreover, Baudrillards (1988) illustrated that beliefs in individual knowledge and reason are closely related to our cultural and moral principles. Most of our actions are congenial with a moral order, standards of what is appropriate or acceptable. Individuals are endowed with the capacity for knowledge and conscious reasoning that we hold them responsible for deviation from societal orders. For example, the classroom: there are severe limits placed on what you can say, how loudly you can speak, your clothing etc. The range of acceptability is narrow. Therefore you may find yourself comfortable with the situation; the moral order is your order. However, if you deviate you will be punished for violations — by your teacher, classmates, parents etc. The dictates of the moral order becomes realised in our legal codes. We hold individuals responsible for murder, drug dealing, child molesting and wishes to see them penalized and corrected, because they have chosen to violate the moral codes of the culture (Baudrillards 1988, cited in Gergen 2001).



    Thomas, M. & Pierson, J. (2002) Collins Dictionary of Social Work, Harper Collins Publishers.