Home introduction to Criminology THE NEW CRIMINOLOGY


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We have known that the norms of any society are known to its members. Therefore, when people seriously violate norms, they are labelled or identified as deviants. This interactionist approach will be the focus of discussion in this unit. The new criminology is the ideas of the neo-Marxists. Among its proponents are Ian Taylor, Paul Walton, Jock Young, Howard Becker, Stanley Cohen, Edwin Lemert and John Lea. They were influenced, by the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and derived much strength from conflict and labelling theories. 


At the end of this unit, you should be able to:

  1. explain labelling as a form of criminal behaviour 
  2. discuss the different contributions of Erving Goffman, Howard S. Becker, Stanley Cohen, etc. 
  3.  list the categories of labelling and its characters. 


3.1 The New Criminology

The neo-Marxists were the offshoots of the Marxism and conflict theory. They rejected the views of the orthodox Marxists. They evolved a development of Marxist sociology by combining it with other ideas- especially those from interactionalism called the “New deviancy theorists, the “societal reaction perspective” or labelling theory, and more recently “feminism”. Within this neo- Marxist camp there are further sub-divisions:

  1. The New criminology advocated the development of a “fully social theory of deviance” from the interactionism and the New left Realism suggest that we should become “realistic” about crime and deviance,; due to its harsh reality to many working class people. Taylor and his co-writers argued that they have: 
  2. …redirected criminological attention to the grand questions of social structure and the social arrangements within which the criminal process played out. We are confronted once again with the central question of man’s relationship to structures of power, domination and authority – and the ability of men to confront these structures in any acts of crime, we are back in the realm of social theory itself. (Kirby, et al, 1997). 

Ian Taylor, Paul Walton and Jock Young proposed a fully social theory of crime in their book, entitled “The New Criminology: for a Social Theory of Deviance” advocated and recommended that explanation of crime and deviance should address the following: the

  • wider origins of the deviant act 
  •  immediate origins of the deviance act 
  •  actual act 
  •  immediate origins of the social reaction 
  •  wider origins of the deviant reaction 
  • outcome of the social reaction on the deviant further action and finally 
  •  nature of the deviant process as a whole. 

According to Taylor, et al, criminology would be adequate to the understanding of these developments (Kirby, et al., 1997). Furthermore, on the revisitation of interest by the British sociologist of crime, Ian Taylor, Paul Walton and Jock Young called this school of thought the “New criminology”. They became subversive of the earlier theories of crime and make a critique of them. They reviewed each of the major theories of criminology and found them lacking. They then argued that a series of key questions need to be addressed in any “fully social theory of crime”. These key questions became highly important water- shed, taking stock of the old-field criminology and designating the requirements for a fully social theory of crime.

The labelling theory turned away from the conventional theories of crime of the offenders to the societal reactions to crime; the role of law, social control agencies, the media etc in shaping the nature of crimes.


What is the key issue of the neo-Marxists in its contribution to new criminology?

3.1.1 Labelling Theory

The labelling perspective to crime is associated with the symbolic –interactionist theory. According to Frank Tannenbaum, labelling is the process of making the criminal. Therefore, it is a process of tagging, defining, identifying, segregating, describing, emphasising, evoking the very traits that are complained of….” (Eamonn, 2004).
The labelling theory of deviance is based on two assumptions. First, for someone to be called “deviant” that person must have broken a rule. Rules generally refer to the social norms and expectations for acceptable behaviour. Rule-breaking per se is not sufficient to label the deviant according to the theory. If the rule violation is undetected, then no label will be attributed to the violator, and therefore should not be qualified as a deviant. For example, an individual who evaded the payment of income tax and defrauded the government but was not detected could not be referred to and declared a criminal.

The second assumption focuses on the reaction of the society to the rule-breaking. If a social norm violation is detected, it becomes defined as deviance (the perpetrator is labelled “deviant” and this label leads to social disapproval and a host of other consequences. In the same way, a person may be labelled and stigmatised by mental illness and criminality. Howard S. Becker showed the processes by which a person who breaks the norms of the society becomes an outsider and perceives himself as different. This is how the process of alienation occurs.

The labelling approach, therefore, concentrates on identifying and criticising the process by which norms arise and are enforced; and by which some people are labelled for behaving in a certain way while others are not. Howard S. Becker studied on the ways in which cultures and careers were transformed by negative sanctions against drug use. Social groups create deviance by making the rules the infraction of which constitutes deviance. Having been stigmatised as deviants, many people are driven to fulfill the expectations of them on deviants. Because they have a bad name, they come to see themselves as bad, and so they do bad things.

The “Outsiders” Perspective

In another study, the basic premises of labelling theory were clearly articulated by Howard S. Becker His study focuses on use of marijuana and social control; Becker pointed out that marijuana smoking was defined as deviant because others had the power to label it as such. Therefore, social groups create deviance by making rules which if violated constitutes deviance and by attributing those rules to a particular person and labelling him as an outsider. Labelling came to be a way in which individuals or groups assigned certain types of behaviour. A deviant or outsider is a person who has been labelled as such, which raises the question of “who does the labelling”? A multitude of labels exists in society to categorise the specific types of norm violations: “Criminality” is used for behaviour that violates laws, “perversion” is assigned to behaviour that does not conform to norms for sexual behaviour; and “drunkenness” applies to alcohol usage that the society considers excessive. Labels also exist for violations of minor social norms, such as obnoxious “crude” and “ignorant”.
Travis Hirschi (1969) in his control theory claims that the essence of social control lies in the people’s perception of the consequences of their behaviour. Hirschi believed that everyone finds at least some deviance tempting. By contrast, individuals who have little to lose from deviance are most likely to become rule breakers.

Another leading interactionist, Edwin Lemert (1989). Who classified deviance into two types:

  1.  primary deviance refers to an initial action committed by an individual 
  2.  secondary deviance refers to the social reaction to the initial action. Deviance is not the act, but the reaction. Equally, primary deviance can be committed, but if no social reaction  follows then the individual involved in the act will not pass on to the second deviance stage – will not accept the label. 

Overall, labelling theory had covered surprisingly a wide range of issues and produced many classic studies. Edwin Schur looked at victimless crimes and showed how the legal response to criminalised homosexuality, pornography, prostitution, abortion, and drug use generated more problems than were solved. Edwin Sutherland (1928) and later developed by one of his students, Donald Cressey (1992) the theory of Differential Association which holds that deviant behaviour is largely the result of associating with another person whose behaviour is deviant. According to this theory, the greater the degree of association, the greater the likelihood the behaviour will be deviant. Sutherland

sought to show that deviance was a function of such factors as the frequency and intensity of associations; how long they lasted, and how early they occurred in a person’s life.
Symbolic interactionism provides important insights into the ways in which deviant behaviour is labelled through interaction with other people.


Explain these terms: (a) Labelling, (b) Deviance.


Labelling theories have made important contributions to understanding crime. They view crime as a form of collective activity. They concentrate also on the actual process of becoming deviant. Nevertheless, it should be noted that psychological, social and economic, political, as well as age, sex, education, religion and so on contribute to criminal behaviours.


In this unit, we have discussed the labelling as a crime. It highlights the different schools of thought on the subject-matter. Especially those of Howard S. Becker, Erving Goffman, Stanley Cohen, lan Tayor, Jock Young, Paul Walton, and others using symbolic interactionism in the interpretation of criminal behaviours. They also proffer solutions to crime by designating the requirements of a fully social theory of crime.


Critically evaluate the contributions of Erving Goffman and Howard S. Becker to the study of labelling as crime.


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