Control and Labelling Theory Sociology Essay


Control and Labelling Theory Sociology Essay

Compare and Contrast both Control and Labelling Theory and critically consider their relevance for Probation work with Offenders in the Community?

In order to answer the above question I shall be looking at the origins of both Labelling and Control theories as well as the history of development. Highlighting both positives and negatives for both theories, I shall be considering their relevance within the Criminal Justice System, in particular Probation practice. I will be considering todays society and how we react to groups of individuals as result of both media attention and Government policies. Whilst looking at how these theories relate to offenders, I shall determine whether or not if it is the individual that can change or is it society also that may require change. The paper will take away sociological perspectives of why people commit crime and rather look at how and why people may become seen as deviant. I shall be evaluating how these theories effect an individuals behaviour and how the notion of deviance can effect the individual's perception of themselves.

It can be said that everyone at some point experiences some form of label. This may be in the form of race, colour, gender, country of origin, speech, association with particular groups or even just a mere action which an individual may not normally undertake, such as being labelled rude for not holding the door open. Current media policy around naming and shaming, whether it be for a sexual offender (Megan's law) or even individuals wearing hoods have had an profound effect on those particular groups that have been identified. In the United Kingdom, wearing a hood may prevent you from entering shopping malls due to specific local policy, regardless if the item of clothing you have chosen to wear was to prevent your hair from getting wet.

This process of labeling creates categorisations, even though the individual who wears a hooded jumper may have a different reason from somebody who wears it in order to prevent his or hers identity from becoming known. It has been said that this form of labeling can in turn create secondary deviation, a concept I will introduce further in the essay. Although naming and shaming tends to be the most effective in both preventive and curative measures, this has led to individuals being targeted wrongfully as well as certain groups of individuals being driven underground ( Many of the offenders I am currently supervising have had experience of some sort of deprivation, hardship or poverty, resulting in those individuals being labeled as `criminals' given their offending history. In my opinion, even the term offender suggests that an individual is still involved in criminal activities, even though this information cannot be verified. It is due to these experiences as well as established theories that as a Probation Practitioner I must ensure anti-discrimatory practice as well ensure that any form of discrimination faced previously must not reflected by the National Probation Service.

Labeling theory can be associated with how the self-identity and `behaviour of certain groups of individuals can be influenced or even created' (Kirby 2000). These particular groups may be categorised by other individuals in their society as a result of not conforming to rules and regulations set out by the state. This theory originates from both sociological and criminological perspectives, mainly focusing on the linguistic and visual tendencies on the majority of these negatively labeled minorities. These individuals may be seen as deviant from norms and values of society and may be associated with the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy or stereotyping (Kirby 2000), which again will be discussed later in this paper.

Deviance in this sense should not be viewed as the quality of an act a person commits but rather should be seen as a consequence of the application of rules and sanctions to an particular individual. By imposing these regulations, certain types of behaviour or actions opposing those particular rules imply that the label of deviance has been successfully applied (Becker 1973), thus being deviant is the opposing behaviour.

Therefore, deviance maybe considered a matter of labeling or social judgment, i.e. wearing a hoodie, implying you are involved in some sort of criminal activity. It may also be described as a stigma, which is a reaction judging the behaviour of an individual or group in society.

This particular theory focuses on the reaction of people and the subsequent effects of those reactions which create deviance. When it becomes known that an individual has engaged in deviant acts, he or she is then segregated from society and thus labeled, for example," a thief," or a "junkie”. It should be noted that this process of segregation creates "outsiders", who then become an outsider from society, and then begin to associate with other individuals who also may have had similar labels of deviance put on them. When more and more people begin to think of these individuals as deviants, they respond to them as such; thus the deviant or individual in question reacts to such a response by continuing to engage in the behaviour society now expects from them (Becker 1973). This is also known as Secondary Deviance.

Labelling theorists believe that labeling and reacting to offenders as "criminals" has unanticipated negative consequences, deepening the criminal behavior and making the crime problem worse.  They believe that the criminal justice system is dangerous in the sense that it is "casting the net" of social control too widely.  Thus, throwing the net over the state or any other state intervention is inherently a criminogenic factor creating further criminal activities.

Becker stated that when a person gets caught for engaging in a particular crime, that person may begin to see their self in a negative context (just as those who label the person as delinquent see the juvenile). Labeling theory is especially crucial to understanding juvenile delinquency because it is during the time of adolescence that juvenile's self identities are formed. "Labeling theory also helps explain the longer-term consequences of a deviant label on a person's social identity"(Calhoun 1979).

If a juvenile is labeled as delinquent, then their self- identity may develop as such and they will be far more prone to engaging in criminal activity. Because of a juvenile's negative self-concept, he or she will choose to engage in crime and associate with other delinquents (Downes 1982). This approach can be linked to primary socialisation as well as the influence of peers and figures of authority on an individual's behaviour. Nevertheless, deviancy can be seen as fun for everyone. There is a certain degree of excitement in exercising free will and breaking rules knowing that there is little chance of being caught. They maybe tired of being pushed around and simply feel like defying the system. If they are caught and come before a court, they appear victimised among their peer group and thus gain status (Croall 1998).

It is claimed that one criticism against Labelling Theory is that the use of diagnostic labels has a profoundly negative effect on individuals. This is true on the very behaviour of patients diagnosed with particular conditions. It is also noted that there is a negative effect on the behaviour of those people around them resulting in the labelled person being treated as 'sick' (Roediger et al). If being called mentally ill or being classified as abnormal changes the behaviour of a patient or others, then surely we must look at alternative diagnosis. If this is extended to patients suffering from real symptoms, it does raise issues of morality; how do we justify imposing this on them?

However, complications and problems arising from this method of Labeling may arise. If the person being referred to has an unchangeable aspect, such as being `Physically impaired or blind, then for example, they are often assumed to be hard of hearing and often complain that people shout at them or are over protective and condescending' (Croall, 1998). In this sense, as a result of secondary deviance, those being labelled may take on the stereotypical behaviour perceived for someone in their position (Maguire, 2002). However in some cases, if an individual does not conform to the expectations from others around them, then they may not receive the support they need. In other words, if the label of mental illness did not exist, then treatment for it would never have existed either. Ex-offenders and individuals with a criminal record may also experience problems. Although their label is not as visible, they will struggle when seeking full time employment or permanent accommodation. As a result of being labelled deviant, an individual may find it impossible to lead a normal life and so the decision to offend once again becomes an option (secondary deviation).

Placing individuals on Drug Rehabilitation Requirements (DRR) or even identifying Prolific and Priority Offenders (PPO's) through their established offending history suggests that they are always involved in criminal activities. Although there are many advantages of this particular scheme (i.e reduction in crime), it also creates a notion of conforming to that label as `prolific' and thus may lead to further offending behaviour. (Criminal Justice Act 2003 - Implementation Guide)

Focusing now on Control Theory, which in many respects may be seen as a branch of labeling theory, can be said that this notion implies that certain groups of individuals will offend if he or she feels that they are able to do so and not face any prosecution by the legal system or face any other form of negative consequences that maybe imposed by society. Unlike Labelling theory, Control theory maybe dated back longer and as explained by Downes, Rock 1982, ` Control theories have virtually been discounted in sociological theories on deviance and control'. As stated in Kirby 2000, this would `have implications on both crime prevention and policing. This would potentially mean that everyone is potentially a criminal as well as a victim, resulting in labeling the general public as potential offenders. Some say that to a degree this maybe true as the majority of `white collar' crime such as council tax fraud, benefit fraud and theft from an employee, are offences maybe committed by those who you would not expect (Reader 1996).

Established Control theorist's such as Travis Hirschi argued that `humans are fundamentally selfish beings who make calculated decisions about whether or not to engage in criminal activities by weighing the potential benefits and risks of doing so' (Giddens, 2001). He went onto argue that `delinquents are often individuals whose low levels of self-Control are a result of inadequate socialization at home or at school' (Gottfredson, Hirschi, 1990). Hirschi's argument implies that delinquency can be blamed on an individual's primary and secondary socialisation resulting in behaviour which may not be seen as the norms of society. The Cambridge study of delinquent development highlights how paternal criminality may influence an individual to become delinquent. It found that `44 of the 102 so-called `criminal' fathers had no conviction since the son in the study was born, and yet a high proportion of the sons of these 44 men became delinquents' (National Statistics Online). This indicates how the Labelling of the father may affect the future of the son or daughters behaviour. When taking this theory into consideration and applying this to practice, many offenders I am currently supervising have previous convictions for assault, whether it is towards a member of public or to an individual in authority. During the supervision process many have cited their upbringing as a reason for their offending behaviour. Negative influences of authority such as the police may have arisen through criminal activities surrounding the family home or even experiences of domestic violence which have resulted in individuals conforming to violence to resolve disputes. Although this may be true, it implies that parents as well as both the education received and the system may have the overall influence on the behaviour of that particular individual in the future.

A contrast between Labelling and Control Theory is that in this sense, Control Theory appears to allow the individual choice on whether or not to offend. Most acts of deviance are undertaken without anyone noticing so an individual is able to ignore any labels put upon them. However in the case of those who come to the attention of the Criminal Justice System, having been caught they would initially experience what is known as Primary deviation and may go through the first phase of labelling. Secondary deviation `can then become a response to a response' (Maguire, 2002), giving the individual a chance to maintain that label and carry on if he or she wishes ``If an individual is defined as a deviant by social reactions, he or she may well begin to act out this career and learn how to become a better deviant to find such behaviour meaningful. This is known as a self-fulfilling prophecy' (Kirby, 2000).

Taking the example given earlier surrounding hoodies. Their presence (i.e. someone who looks like a teenager wearing a hood) has become highly publicised in a negative fashion. Identified and labelled through an item of clothing, their presence has created fear, even if the individual wearing the garment may have good intentions. The heightened string of criminal activities undertaken by youths wearing hoods has resulted in negative media coverage targeting both those potential criminals as well as indirectly those with honorable intentions. As a result, this has created individuals in society who may of have had good intentions initially to rebel against the system as a direct result of other individuals in their society labeling them. This can be supported by Lemerts Theory. He believed that secondary deviance was the true reality of deviance. `Deviance is not the act but the reaction' (Kirby, 2000). Once given the label, the individual adopts it as their own and begins to act in the way that society perceives them to be. This idea of judging someone on how they are perceived as being capable of, despite not yet committing any offence can be seen as a preventive approach to crime. Examples such as Curfew Requirements (under the Criminal Justice act 2003) or Anti-Social Behavior Orders (ASBO's) which were first introduced by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, are designed to prevent crimes from occurring and restricting ones liberty. These particular control mechanisms can be seen as a being under the umbrella of `Control Theory'.


When relating to Probation practice I am aware that individuals whom I supervise or prepare Pre -Sentence Reports (PSR) have had many experiences of life. I have written reports on individuals who have offended for the first time as well as those with an offending history. I have been mindful of the fact that decisions made during the PSR process may affect the future of that individual, whether it is facing a custodial sentence or being labeled as a convicted criminal. Having only recently written a report on a female who had been convicted of assault with no offending history I was wary of the fact that `women receive less harsh sentences then men' and the fact that judges tend to `label' them as the `mother' of society with `specific natural roles' (Probation Journal 2001). Taking various factors into account as well as her offence I proposed a Community Order with unpaid work and Supervision in order to enable her to repay her dues towards society as well as help identify victim empathy and any other underlying issues that maybe linked to her offence. However, upon sentencing she received a Custodial Sentence in terms of a Suspended Sentence with my proposed requirements. Although this was not my preferred disposal, it reflected the seriousness of the offence regardless of her limited offending history. Having written a favorable report highlighting the effects of custody as well detrimental effects towards her progression with her employment, accommodation and family, I had myself created a `label' that first time female offenders should be given the opportunity for community intervention and thus try and prevent secondary deviance. Her lack of previous convictions prevented her from being identified as a Priority and Prolific Offender (PPO), not allowing her conforms to that particular criteria.

As a Probation Practitioner I am aware of the different aspects of discrimination an individual may have faced during their experiences through the criminal justice system or even through their experiences through childhood. Taking into account the provisions set out in the Human Rights Act 1998, particularly article 14, which lays down the basis of the probation services Anti-Discriminatory Practice, I endeavor to treat all individuals

with respect and not conform to labels or models that he or she may have faced. It is in my opinion that everyone has the chance to become successful and it is through Probation intervention we must see those individuals through their journey to reduce further offending, protect the public and assist with the progression with individuals towards their aspirations through close monitoring and supervision. In addition, Deterrence may in turn reduce the risk of re-offending thus making the notion of control theory more relevant in today's society.