Explanations for Crime and Deviance: 3. Interactionism

A quick’n’dirty overview of the Interactionist perspective on crime and deviance.

Two ideas closely associated with Interactionist approaches are those of deviance as both relative and socially constructed.

Relativity refers to the idea that the same behaviour can be considered deviant in one context (or society) but non-deviant in another. A simple example here might be punching someone in the face. If you do this in the street you could be arrested, charged, convicted and imprisoned. If you do it in a boxing ring people might cheer…

This suggests, as Durkheim argued, that “if societies make the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance” then deviance is socially constructed – and this is important, as Becker (1963) argues, because it means deviance is not a quality of what someone does but rather a qualityof how others react to what they do.

And if this argument is valid it means that looking for “solutions to the problem of crime” in the behaviour or demeanour of ‘criminals’ is pointless because ‘criminals’ are only different from ‘non criminals’ when they are publicly labelled as such.

Labelling theory

Although labels are just names we give to behaviour that identify what we are seeing, they have two important qualities. When we apply a label to people’s behaviour we also give it a meaning – what we understand something to be. Labels, in other words, are not neutral, they carry with them a set of social characteristics that define those so labelled.

A simple example here is the label ‘criminal’, something that identifies someone as a ‘law-breaker’ and carries with it a range of associated characteristics and meanings that shape how we see and treat deviants. A significant feature of labelling, therefore, relates to how it shapes and impacts on social and personal identities.

  • Social identities relate to the general characteristics assigned to a label by a particular culture. In our society, for example, different characteristics are assigned to labels, like ‘old’ and ‘young’, and these define appropriate behaviours for these age statuses.
  • Personal identities relate to the different ways individuals, with their different cultural histories, interpret a label. Not all ‘old people’, for example, interpret the label in the same way.

Master labels

These ideas are significant for labelling theories of deviance because they suggest that when a deviant label is successfully applied to someone, their subsequent behaviour is interpreted in the light of this label – depending, of course, on the nature of the deviance. Attracting the label ‘murderer’ or ‘paedophile’ is likely to have more serious consequences than the label ‘speeding motorist’, an idea related to what Becker (1963) calls master labels and statuses. These are so powerful that everything about a person — their past, present and future behaviour – is reinterpreted in the light of the label.

Uncertain outcomes

The outcome of a labelling process is not, however, pre-defined or certain. Just because someone tries to attach a label doesn’t necessarily mean they will be successful. Labels can be successfully:

  • Rejected – by someone demonstrating they do not deserve it
  • Deflected – by successfully arguing it should not be applied. Allegations of police corruption, for example, may be deflected by the argument that while a small minority may be corrupt, this label should not be applied to all police officers.
  • Negated – by, for example, questioning the right (or ability) of someone to impose it.

Interactionism in this respect questions the assumption that ideas such as ‘crime’ and ‘deviance’ are clear and unambiguous. Most of us ‘break the rules’ but suffer no consequences for our offending because no one reacts to our behaviour. Instead, it stresses that any explanation of deviance must consider two things:

  • concepts of power and social control, in terms of the ability to make rules and apply them to people’s behaviour
  • ideology, in terms of decisions about which behaviours are considered deviant, criminal, both or neither

Social context

By problemising concepts of crime and deviance, interactionism suggests no behaviour is inherently deviant and that its meaning is always based on how people see and interpret it within different social contexts. The meaning of ‘killing someone’, for example, can be interpreted in many different ways, from criminal (murder) through negligence (manslaughter) to heroism (killing the enemy in war). This involves understanding how and why people react to behaviour in order to understand crime.


Why people deviate

One problem with this change of focus is that it takes attention away from why people deviate. Some individuals and groups are more involved in criminal behaviour than others and this cannot be easily explained in terms of social reactions. While the consistently greater involvement of young working-class males in criminal behaviour can be partly explained by control agencies specifically targeting this group, the consistency of data within and across societies is at least suggestive of some other social processes at work here.

Victims of labelling

Interactionism has, in this respect, been criticised for implying that the only difference between criminals and non-criminals is that the former have been so labelled – something that leads to the suggestion that law-breakers, rather than being seen as aggressors, are somehow victims of a labelling process. While this idea might be sustainable in relation to minor forms of deviance, it’s much more difficult to sustain in the case of armed robbers or corporate criminality.


Finally, while interactionists refer to power as an important variable in understanding deviance, it is a concept rarely, if ever, developed beyond the simple observation that some have greater power than others to attach labels. Marxists, for example, have criticised this approach for its failure to explain how and why the working class is consistently the object of ruling-class power; their behaviour is not only more likely to be criminalised but control agencies are also more likely to enforce the low against the relatively powerless.

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Explanations for Crime and Deviance: 4. Feminism

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