Theory & Crime: Labeling & Social-Conflict Theories

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  • 0:01 It's a Crime
  • 0:35 Labeling Theory
  • 2:13 Social Conflict Theory
  • 3:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore theories about the reasons for the existence of crime in society and discover how social factors can contribute to crime. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

It's A Crime

Crime is pretty basic, right? There are laws and, if you break them, you're a criminal. And then you start wearing ski masks to cover your face and hanging out in dark alleys, and soon there are wanted posters of you on every street and you're in a car chase heading for the border! Okay, I might have gotten a little carried away there, but the point is that crime is just crime, right?

Actually, social scientists don't think so. According to researchers, there are many reasons that crime exists within a society. What's even more interesting is that sometimes crime is not entirely the fault of the criminal, but a fault of the system.

Labeling Theory

What does a criminal look like? How does a criminal act? You can probably picture a typical criminal in your brain. Why? Because societies construct stereotypes about what sort of people break the law. This is the essence to labeling theory. Labeling theory states that the labels given to people influence their behavior. In other words, if someone is labeled a criminal, they are more likely to act like a criminal.

This theory states that labels can be such a powerful influence that some people have little choice but to conform to social expectations. So, if society expects somebody to grow up to become a criminal, the chances are that they will. This means that crime is not wholly the fault of the criminal, but also of society for encouraging people to become criminals through negative stereotypes.

Let's look at this through an example. This is Bob McOnlineman. Unfortunately for Bob, he lives in a society where everyone expects people who have red hair to become criminals. Since everyone know he has no potential, he gets less attention from teachers in school. Whenever he goes into a store, the owners follow him to make sure he isn't stealing. Police are always suspicious of him. When he walks on the sidewalk, parents pull their children away and say, 'Don't turn out like him.' After years of being treated like a criminal, Bob is much more likely to commit crime. Why wouldn't he? Nobody believes he can do anything else. He's already treated like a criminal so he might as well be. If people had decided to treat Bob differently, perhaps he would have imagined himself as a doctor, or teacher, or astronaut, and kept out of trouble.

Social Conflict Theory

Another attempt to explain crime in society is through the social conflict theory. This states that crime is a product of class conflict. Let's break this down into two main points:

  1. Social conflict theory assumes that societies are built on a division of the rich and poor into different social classes.
  2. This theory states that laws are created by people in power or the rich, in order to protect their own wealth.

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