Symbolic interactionism
Our self-image – how we think of ourselves – is shaped by interacting socially,
with others
Labeling theory
We think of ourselves as others define us
As children age and becoming increasingly adventurous, their labels may go from
“just being a kid,” to “a good kid acting badly”, to, perhaps, “a bad kid”
Lemert- general theory of deviance
 Criminal behavior starts due to other factors (biological, sociological, social
learning, etc.)
 If bad behavior persists outsiders may label someone as “delinquent” and attach
the social meanings of the label
 Those who continue behaving poorly adopt the self-image of a delinquent
 This “redefinition of self” persists independently of the original causes of the
Many who commit crime don’t consider
themselves “criminals”
Maintaining a non-criminal self-image is
Justifications and neutralizers used to excuse conduct
▪ “Just borrowing the money” “They can afford it” “They had it coming”
To make labels stick society applies threats and sanctions
Criminal law is the ultimate threat to one’s identity
Criminal processing is a “degradation ceremony”
Sticky labels – such as convictions and imprisonment – can make it
difficult for those so labeled to reform
▪ Justifications no longer work, so persons may redefine themselves as
being criminals
▪ Violators may be ostracized from conventional society
▪ Cannot obtain legitimate employment
▪ Turn to deviance to satisfy social and material needs
Labeling theorists overemphasize its explanatory power
Labeling does not automatically lead to deviancy
Some deviants may actually seek out the label
If law-abiding persons are law-abiding because they want to avoid being labeled,
reducing the stigma of a label may INCREASE criminal behavior
Juveniles may be more affected by what others think of them, especially their
parents, than what society or the authorities think
If labeled as “rule violators” they may choose to live up to these expectations
Katz – “Seductions of Crime”
Crime can’t be explained by “background”
variables (race, class, etc.)
Crime best explained by examining “foreground”
▪ What does it feel like to commit a crime?
▪ What are criminals trying to accomplish?
Crime motivated by the need to transcend “moral challenges”
▪ Passion killers: escape humiliating situation
▪ Delinquents: demonstrate personal competence
▪ Gang members: response to “humbling” by conventional society
Crime reinforced by the “thrill” of its commission
“Lived meanings” of organized and white collar crime
Satisfaction of “getting it over” on “marks”
Joys of thumbing one’s nose at conventional society
8 mis.
Evil means to intentionally harm or degrade others
“Following orders” not an excuse
Moral imperatives to “defend the homeland” give
acts legitimacy
2.5 mis.
Stereotyping and dehumanizing others removes them
from actor’s “moral sphere”
Heavy situational pressures on people’s behavior blurs line between criminals and
In 2010 the Feds convicted former Chicago police commander Jon Burge, 62,
of perjury for falsely denying in an earlier civil suit that in the 1980s he and his
officers extracted confessions through beatings, electric shocks and suffocation.
One, Michael Tillman, was freed in January 2010 after spending 23 years in
prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Police Issues
Individual traits (differences between people) might make little difference
Still, some persons, even if pressured to act badly, do resist
Societies “create” crime by passing laws
Campaigns against crime are in everyone’s name, but can
benefit only select groups
 Economically
▪ Law against vagrancy used to create pool of cheap labor
▪ Defining drug users as criminals creates a demand for police, prosecutors, etc.
 Symbolically
▪ Temperance movement reasserted Protestant values
Groups must gain power to define who’s deviant
 Criminal justice a mechanism used by State to control “problem” populations
▪ Others include education, mental health, mass media
 Purpose is more than just control -- it’s “to manifest state power”
 Over time rationale has shifted from crude to sophisticated
▪ Public executions  rehabilitation
 Iron fist remains hidden in the “velvet glove”
 Much in common with Marxist and critical criminology

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