As criminal killing during wartime or as an act of

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as criminal. Killing during wartime or as an act of self-defense is often notcriminalized but rather justified by the state.Labeling theorists provide an alternative starting point in the search forthe causes of crime, one that moves beyond individual motives or socialenvironments, and points instead toward the social reactions that othershave toward deviant behaviors—and the role of those reactions in the con-struction of crime. Sociologist Howard Becker, trained at the University ofChicago after World War II, eventually becoming the central proponent oflabeling theory, famously wrote that “deviance isnota quality of the act theperson commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others ofrules and sanctions to an ‘offender.’The deviant is one to whom that labelhas successfully been applied; deviant behavior is behavior that people solabel.”1His research reflects the influence of early labeling theorists suchas Frank Tannenbaum and Edwin Lemert and, more broadly, thesymbolicinteractionistapproaches of sociologists Charles Cooley and George Mead.For these theorists, crime is best understood in terms of the meanings thoseactions have for the actor rather than biological, psychological, or social fac-tors. Labeling perspectives, consequently, derive fromsymbolic interaction-isttraditions that assert the individual’s self-image is constructed primarilythrough interactions with others. Labeling theorists are especially concernedwith the impact that defining an individual as a criminal has upon his orher behavior; the meaning of crime to criminals; and the processes by whichcategories of behavior are defined as crimes.This labeling process extendsbeyond the state to parents, peers, educators, employers, and the media.Becker’s career reflects these commitments. His early work focused uponthe occupational worlds of schoolteachers and jazz musicians, which led himto develop an interest in the study of recreational drug use. In1953, he pub-
“Pornography in Foot-High Stacks”|121lished a widely read and influential article, “Becoming a Marihuana User,” intheAmerican Journal of Sociology. In1961, he became the editor of the journalSocial Problems, published by the Society for the Study of Social Problems, aprofessional organization dedicated to critical sociology and established inresponse to the more dominant, conservative American Sociological Asso-ciation. Becker’s research and professional service foreground the study ofdeviance with a labeling emphasis. Labels, Becker argued, risked becomingself-fulfilling prophecies, forging criminal identities by making conformitydifficult through processes of exclusion and isolation.Marking a radical shiftin understandings of crime, this approachreframed questions about the causes of crime by considering the ways inwhich particular acts come to be labeled or defined as criminal or deviant.

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Term
Spring
Professor
ConstanceL.Chapple
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