Sample Essay: Howard Becker – Sociology Theorist

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First thing that came into my head while analyzing the article with Howard Becker’s theory is that it is applicable not only in the realm of relations “power-society”, which Becker takes as an example in proving his theory of labels.  In my opinion, this theory can also explain a plenty of other types of relationships within society such as subcultures, different communities, families, street gangs, celebrity parties, churches etc.

I think Howard Becker’s labeling theory is justified in many respects. And I will try to prove my point of view with some examples. People do not only perceive themselves according to how the society reacts to them. People also form their tastes, life preferences, interests, their feeling of good and bad, beautiful and awful under the pressure of social stereotypes. Let me analyze this on the example of youth subcultures. We know that subculture is often formed as a contra-reaction to mainstream culture. The form, which any subculture takes, depends a lot from the variables of the mainstream culture, which makes rules for society.  If the latter means Cola, pop-music, bright T-shirts, then to form the subculture we should look for something opposite or protesting: wine, absent or pure mineral water, hard alternative music, rock or folk and dark clothes. I dare to think that if these characteristics or variables of subculture belonged to the mainstream culture, then the subculture would feel like to look for those characteristics, which now the mainstream culture owns.

The other crucial question is whether these variables can be treated as a rule or are they occasional. I believe the second is likely to be right. Let’s check this on the Becker’s statement. Becker says the rule enforcers use the process of formal enforcement to satisfy two major interests, the justification of their occupation and the winning of respect from the people he/she patrols. The enforcer is armed with a great deal of discretion and may use his/her power to label an innocent person in order to gain respect. This statement clearly shows the variability of the mainstream culture which is dominating (in Becker’s example the power) because those rule enforcers can be substituted by another people as well as mainstream culture may get some new elements, which finally will influence the creation of subcultures.

The phenomenon of conformism and its causes can be illustrated with so called traffic lights effect, as I call it. Have you ever observed the people waiting for the green light nearby traffic lights? If just only one man ignores the red light and start crossing the road, the majority of the others immediately will go after like geese. The reason for that lies, I believe, deeply in our subconscious. The problem is that how we allow these subconscious things to own our preferences, deeds and lives and how the deviant permits the labels to stick to his/her person. Unfortunately, one cannot empirically estimate the level of the influence of these social stereotypes on our own lives, and sometimes we think we control our lives and make choice by ourselves without realizing the outer influence.

Then traffic lights effect is also seen in the market preferences of customers. We know that people prefer giving their money for those products which are not only qualitative but also which are known and used by majority of customers, and that is the reason why advertising exists. Very often people prefer more expensive but famous brands rather than cheaper unknown ones.

Another example is music, film or art tastes. Those are forming mostly within the bounds of subculture or communities, in which people are integrated. Nevertheless, any subculture forms the same standards as the whole society having the power men, rulers on the top. The subculture tells the people, which music is bad, which is gifted, which is classic and what is gothic. Thus, people within any community learn to differentiate anything according to how this majority of people inside the community differentiate.

The described by Becker marijuana example is also has grounds. The peers become those who direct the thoughts, tastes and behavior of a young boy/girl in the “necessary” way. If that boy or girl would try marijuana alone, or if he/she didn’t know what the “Rasta” culture represents and that Rastafarian usually smoke marijuana, I have a lot of doubts he/she would feel like again to try one more time.

Becker talks about primary and secondary deviance, stating that most people think or fantasize in a deviant manner, and the study of why certain people conform while other give in to deviant impulses is crucial.  But if we do not talk literally about rule breaking behavior, which is about genuine crimes, and look at the situation in different way, than the above question has no sense. If we think about deviance not to be a crime but just alternative behavior that can be unusual for the majority if society, than we get the answer: people are different, and the proneness to this or that type of behavior may be programmed on the level of genes, or influenced by certain circumstances in childhood and adolescence, which can be hardly researched or tested.  For instance, a boy/girl, which has a talent for singing or drawing or any other creative activities may not recognize these skills in the age of 10, or even 16 and may feel a bit discomfort studying in a school, which prepares future math or economics students. Therefore, a kid prone to creative activities may feel some complexities among the majority of “rational minds”, he/she may feel as an outsider. This would be the primary deviance, as it were. The kid risks growing up an unconfident man, which believes he/she doesn’t fit in the pattern of modern society, unless the parents won’t help him/her believe in the opposite.

Then Becker continues explaining the secondary deviance, which is the result of acceptance by a rule-breaker the label of deviant as his/her master status. The rule breaker, according to Becker’s thought, that identifies with the deviant label as their master status becomes an outsider and is denied the means to make a living. I dare to think this is not a rule in a modern society, which provides many opportunities to earn a living even for labeled deviants. Highly paid job in a big prestigious corporation now is not the only one criteria of social success.

Thus, at the end of this report I would outline two points, which, in my opinion, Becker’s theory misses. The nature of conformism is much wider than it is described in Becker’s theory. The problem of deviance, as I described above, is not only about crimes, but also about our everyday life. The second point comes from the first one. If we stop thinking about the deviance as a crime, which must be punished, but as unusual behavior, then we can easier explain the nature of primary and secondary deviance. The primary deviance, therefore, I would determinate as genetic and individual proneness of a person to this unusual behavior; the secondary deviance – as a realized choice of a person to act in this or another way.

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