Celebrities and the Labeling Theory
Deviant behavior is defined as doing something outside what is the “norm” in society, such as; murdering, adultery, prostitution, gambling, stripping, pornography, drug use, pan-handling, pedophilia, etc. It doesn’t necessarily have to be as extreme as the examples just given, but it is committing an act that is not completely socially acceptable, or in other words “rebellious”. It isn’t necessarily defined in sociology as “right/wrong” or “moral/immoral”. To say something is deviant is really just referring to violating the norms of society.
When we think of deviance, we think of what we consider to be deviant individually and within our culture and time, but we must look at all of the variables that factor into what people consider deviant. Some factors are person and age (something that is deviant for a woman to do, may not be as deviant for a man to do, such as, sleeping with someone on a first date). Just as something for a kid to do may not be deviant for an adult, such as, drinking. Also, someone’s personality, appearance, and culture all factor into people finding them to be deviant or not, as well as the societal reaction perspective of the labeling theory, which is the idea that a kid from a low-income family vs. a kid from a middle class family is more likely to be deemed as “deviant” for doing the same act. And lastly, the time and age the act is being committed factors into something being considered deviant.
Sociologist, Emile Durkheim, found that suicide (an act of deviance) was the result of society falling apart. So what holds society together? He found that the answer is the collective conscience, or the totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of society. It all started with the shift over to industrialization; as society grew larger and more complex, and more specialized, the things that traditionally had held people together would begin to fail. The industrialized societies led to structural strain, which led to increase in suicide; so as societies grow and diversify, societies fail. It’s the differences in lifestyle that brought people apart. For example, egoism (when people are not well integrated into society) occurs with singles that have decided for whatever reason that they are going to go against tradition and not get married and have kids. Well, those individuals are left without many ties to society that a family would have, such as: in-laws, kids’ friends and teachers, other parents, other married couples, etc. There are categories that define those who decide to go against traditions/or norms of society, and they fit into the idea of anomie, which is when people don’t experience the constraint of social norms.
Durkheim had assumed that once society completed its transition from pre-industrial to industrial, anomie would go away, however, Robert Merton took Durkheim’s studies on suicide and put them to use towards studying deviance. He realized that anomie was not about to go away; it is built into the structure of modern society. Merton had found that anomie occurs when the norms of a society do not match its social structure. What he meant was that our social systems have two characteristics and those are: that we have goals, such as: a successful career, have a family, etc. And also, we have means to reach the goals, such as: college, hard work, get married, etc. The problem is, in modern western society, we have a huge gap between goals (such as success) and means (such as the accessibility to education), and that results in deviant behavior. There are four different adaptations to anomie in society, and they are: conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion. People who conform continue to accept the goals of success and achievement and the means of hard work even when it isn’t getting them anywhere; they ignore the disjuncture that their hard work may never lead to success. The different categories of people are characterized by if they choose to accept the goals accepted by society, deny them, or swap them out for their own goals. They do the same for those means to achieve their goals; they’ll accept the means available to them, reject those means, or come up with a new mean to get them where they want to be.
Everything previously discussed was an explanation of why people commit deviant behavior. The next question that would be raised in many minds is how? How does one become deviant? This brings me back to the last factor on variables on considering someone deviant as discussed in the second paragraph, the societal reaction perspective of the labeling theory. When society labels an individual as something deviant, it can suffer some major consequences. Sociologist William Chambliss argued, “The label of deviant can trigger a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you treat people as deviant and cut off their opportunities to be anything other than deviant, you increase the chances that they actually will become deviant.” There are people that can make a small mistake and not be a bad person and be labeled deviant, and that is called primary deviance. Then, as a result of society’s label on them and the stigmas, or attributes that discredits a person or disqualifies them from social acceptance, the individual will most likely commit more deviant behavior, and that is called secondary deviance.
Criminologist Edwin Schur explained that being labeled a “stripper”, a “drug dealer”, a “juvenile delinquent” etc. can mask over one’s good qualities, such as: good athlete, dancer, good conversationalist, etc. and they will become subordinated by that trait and it becomes immediately felt to be more central then the ‘actual’ identity of that individual. This idea discussed in the text book raises the question in my mind: If we, as society, were less judgmental and quick to label so that people that make mistakes, would that make it so they could escape those mistakes them and not let them define them? Take famous pop singer, Justin Bieber, for instance; he is the perfect example of anomie and the idea of secondary deviance. He has the goal of success and he has reached it. He has the means to do whatever he would like. Yet, he still feels the need to be deviant. Does this theory of the balance between goals and means change with people dealing with being in the public eye or making a lot of money, such as Justin Bieber? He certainly falls into the category of the societal reaction perspective of the labeling theory. Justin Bieber began committing a few minor deviant acts, such as: racing his sports cars and dressing like a “bad boy”. As a result, he started being labeled as a “bad boy”, as “reckless”, a “trouble-maker”, etc. People thrive so much on his acts of deviance that there is even a petition going around with over 180 signatures trying to get congress to pass a bill to exile him out of society by taking away his green card resulting in him being deported back to Canada. Meanwhile, he was featured in the March 2014 issue of the Rolling Stone magazine applauding his bad boy/rapper image he has been presenting. So will this labeling theory prove to be true for Bieber? Will he continue to act deviant because society has already labeled him that way?
Societies’ reaction to rule breakers, not only defines them, but it helps define the “norms” in society, according to sociologist Kai T. Erikson. She also pointed out that people who violate norms contribute to society by uniting us together. So if deviance encourages social change, then today’s deviance may become tomorrow’s morality.
In conclusion, everyone defines aberrant behavior differently and overall by society’s idea of what is “normal behavior”. The increasing perverse behavior being committed in modern western society has been explained by sociologists by the common lack of means to achieve our goals, yet that can be challenged by looking at examples in our modern-day society, such as Justin Bieber (among many others), who has beyond the means needed. Which raises the question: “Does increased wealth or fame result in deviance?” And if so, why? Is it because we, as society, label these individuals in the public eye with so many labels that they feel the need to live up to those? Celebrities with slews of influenceable followers have helped lead to the evolution of social norms in our society. The question is: will we like how those norms change over time?
McIntyre, Lisa J. “Chapter 11.” The Practical Skeptic: Core Concepts in Sociology. 6th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2006. 169-82. Print.
Kozinn, Allan. “Bieber Faces Assault Charge in Toronto.” ArtsBeat Bieber Faces Assault Charge in Toronto Comments. New York Times, 30 Jan. 2014. Web. 09 Apr. 2014.