Interactionism Crime

Crime is a common occurrence in society. However, sometimes crime can change from one society to another. It may be perfectly legal to do something somewhere, but you would be immediately arrested if you were elsewhere. Interactionism looks at how crime and deviance are constructed in society.

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Table of contents

    The sociological approach of interactionism has a distinct take on crime and deviance.

    • We will look into how interactionism explains crime and deviance in sociology.
    • We’ll start with a quick refresher on interactionism.
    • We'll study how interactionists understand the occurrence of crime.
    • We'll do an evaluation, where we'll dive into the strengths and weaknesses of the interactionist theory of crime.

    What is interactionism?

    In this section, you’ll find an explanation of how interactionism theorises crime.

    A refresher on interactionism

    The interactionist approach is starkly different from structural theories such as functionalism in that it takes a 'bottom-up' approach, instead of being ‘top-down’. Interactionism states that social order and control are constructed by people as they navigate everyday life.

    Through individual and collective behaviour, people are constantly producing and reproducing the limits of what is, or isn’t, acceptable; in this way, they construct the ‘society’ which they feel imposes these limits upon them.

    Symbolic interactionism and crime

    Symbolic interactionism is an interactionist perspective that was pioneered by Herbert Blumer in the late 20th century. Symbolic interactionists make sense of society by interpreting the subjective meanings which people attribute to behaviours, events, and objects. There are three central points about symbolic interaction that are important to know:

    • Human behaviour isn’t shaped by external social forces - humans act based on the subjective meanings that they attribute to people and things around them.

    • Social interaction is the root of meaning-making in society - this means that people’s subjective meanings are constantly changing based on the state of their surroundings, their micro-interactions, and the people around them.

    • Society is formed by the combination of individual actions all put together - so, society doesn’t make people, people make society.

    Interactionism Crime, Young children interacting in school classroom, StudySmarterFig. 1 - According to interactionists, we create shared meanings through social interaction, and this is what comprises society.

    Interactionism, crime and deviance

    There are several thinkers and theories within the paradigm of interactionism (specifically, symbolic interactionism) that seek to explain the prevalence of crime and deviance.

    Interactionist theory of crime examples: labelling theory

    Several notable theorists have used labelling theory to explain crime and deviance. Let's take a look at this approach as an example of how symbolic interactionists view crime.

    Howard Becker

    According to Howard Becker (1963), there’s nothing inherently deviant about any action - what makes an act deviant is when it’s labelled as ‘deviant’. In line with the premise of interactionism, ‘deviancy’ is a breach of the norms and values that a community has collectively deemed to be acceptable. Crime is socially constructed.

    A social construction is an idea or meaning that people attribute to certain objects or events. They don't occur naturally in nature. They are man-made and subject to change, depending on the context in which they exist.

    Labelling theory, when it first emerged, gained ground quickly because it brought a new perspective to the study of crime by taking focus away from the offender and the causes of deviance. Instead, it focused on how agencies of social control label particular acts of deviance and what the impact of this labelling process is.

    To say that crime is socially constructed is to say that deviance doesn’t inherently exist - an act is only deviant because people in power label it as ‘deviant’.

    One of Becker’s (1963, p. 179) famous examples is related to drug use. He stated:

    The act of injecting heroin into a vein is not inherently deviant. If a nurse gives a patient drugs under a doctor’s orders, it is perfectly proper. It is when it is done in a way that is not publicly defined as proper that it becomes deviant."

    Aaron Cicourel

    The shared norms, values, or rules of any given society are disproportionately applied to people from certain demographics, particularly those who are powerless. Acts carried out by these demographics tend to be labelled as deviant more often. Therefore, the supposed 'offenders' themselves are also more likely to be targeted by law enforcement agencies.

    Research demonstrates that the most frequently prosecuted demographic is young, unemployed men from ethnic minority backgrounds. According to proponents of the labelling theory, this disproportionate prosecution of young, unemployed males is the result of subjective perceptions held by police about this demographic.

    This process was demonstrated by Aaron Cicourel’s (1976) study of police and probation officers in California, both of which had almost identical ideas of what characteristics the ‘typical delinquent' possessed:

    • From troubled families or broken homes

    • Lack of obedience toward authority

    • Poor academic performance

    • Poor economic background

    • Ethnic minority group membership

    People who matched this description were most likely to be prosecuted for committing acts of deviance, whereas criminal acts committed by middle-class individuals were usually more leniently handled.

    Edwin Lemert

    Edwin Lemert used labelling theory to identify two types of deviance:

    • Primary deviance, or acts of deviance that haven’t been labelled by the public, are relatively minor and have no real impact on our current or future social status.

    • Secondary deviance, or acts of deviance that have been publicly labelled, are the result of the process of labelling.

    Proponents of labelling theory believe that when someone is labelled as deviant, the negative reaction that comes with the process of labelling by wider society impacts the criminal’s identity in a way that makes them likely to commit crimes again. For example, they may join deviant subcultures or take on criminal careers.

    When labelled as deviant, people become outcasts and thus start to feel defined purely by the perception of them as deviant - this label becomes their master status. This makes it difficult for them to re-integrate into wider society, and so they accept this new status and lean into it deliberately. This process is referred to as the self-fulfilling prophecy.

    John Braithwaite

    John Braithwaite (1989) took on labelling theory and examined its effects with a slightly more positive outlook than traditional symbolic interactionists did. Whilst earlier labelling theories focused on shaming both the criminal and the crime from society, Braithwaite identified reintegrative shaming, whereby the act is criminalised, but the criminals themselves are not.

    Reintegrative shaming acknowledges the harm caused by the deviant act but doesn’t label the offender as inherently evil or unworthy of forgiveness. Braithwaite found that criminal activity is less deviant in societies where reintegrative shaming is implemented.

    Interactionism Crime, Man with hands cuffed behind back, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Processes of labelling occur both in terms of the criminal and their deviant act.

    Symbolic interactionism crime example: deviancy amplification theory

    Let's take a look at deviancy amplification theory as an example of symbolic interactionism's view on crime.

    Proponents of deviancy amplification theory do not always see eye to eye with interactionists but agree with them on the premise that societal reaction should be examined in the study of crime and deviance.

    Stanley Cohen (1987) examined the impact of media coverage of deviant acts and found that they tend to cause deviancy amplification spirals, a process in which deviance increases as a result of the societal reaction to the initial act of deviance.

    Cohen’s (1964) study of mods and rockers demonstrated the deviancy amplification spiral. Mods and rockers are two different youth groups with different styles, tastes, and activities. Cohen examined the societal reaction to deviance committed by mods and rockers to find that media coverage of this deviance was very exaggerated.

    By painting an amplified picture of the disturbances caused by these groups, the media led the public to become overly concerned with this form of deviance. The police made more arrests, more youth began to identify as mods or rockers; and similar acts of deviance, such as vandalism, occurred more often.

    The deviancy amplification spiral is demonstrated in the fact that unjustly harsh marginalisation of youth by the media and police led the youth to retaliate by engaging in deviance more often. This led to more media attention and hypervigilance from the police and so on.

    Moral panics

    Cohen coined the term ‘moral panics’ as instances in which particular groups or demographics become defined as threats to the existing social order. The moral panic caused by the media uproar regarding mods and rockers led young people to be disproportionately called out during future moral panics of the 1970s and 1980s.

    How can we compare and contrast functionalist and interactionist theories of crime?

    It may be helpful to compare the interactionist theory of crime with the functionalist paradigm in order to better understand the difference between an action and a structural theory.



    • Crime is caused by a disjuncture between people's norms and values, and the norms and values that are imposed on them.

    • Crime is not caused by the imposition of any norms or values. An act is only criminal because people have deemed it so.

    • Not a deterministic theory - assumes people have some control over their actions and behaviour.

    • Deterministic theory - assumes people don't have much control over their behaviour.

    • Doesn't explain why certain demographics are more likely to commit crime/be persecuted than others.

    • Address the existence of the 'typical delinquent' and why certain demographics are more likely to commit crime than others.

    Interactionism and crime: strengths and weaknesses

    As is the case with all sociological theories, it's important to be aware of the strengths and limitations that they pose when explaining certain phenomena.

    Strengths of the interactionist theory of crime

    We can summarise the strengths of this approach as follows:

    • It considers the role of labelling and reactions in generating more deviant behaviour.

    • Provides an explanation for the marginalisation of certain groups after being labelled as ‘deviant’.

    • Accounts for the role of meaning-making during micro-interactions in shaping a shared idea of a typical criminal.

    • Explains the often discriminatory practices of law enforcement agencies.

    • Accurately theorises that what constitutes deviance is not static, but rather context-dependent (for example, laws regarding homosexuality change from time to time and place to place).

    Limitations of the interactionist theory of crime

    The limitations of this approach are outlined below.

    • It focuses on the impacts of deviance at the expense of studying why deviant acts are committed in the first place (for example, criminals need to commit a crime before they can be labelled as deviant and potentially commit further crimes - why do they commit crimes initially?)
    • Doesn’t explain the origins of the image of the ‘typical deviant’ beyond micro-level interactions.

    • Interactionists don't explain who the social groups are that create rules about what counts as deviant acts. Additionally, they don't explain why certain actions are deemed deviant and others are not.

    • A criticism of deviancy amplification theory is that while the media can exaggerate crime, it doesn’t cause it - to attribute the existence of all crime to media construction is reductive.

    • Labelling theory is criticised for being too deterministic, as many people make an active choice to reject the labels they’ve been given.

    Interactionism Crime - Key takeaways

    • Interactionism takes a bottom-up approach by considering how people collectively shape ‘society’, rather than how society shapes people.

    • Labelling theory proposes that crime is socially constructed - an act is only deviant because it has been labelled as such.

    • Those who commit acts of crime and/or deviance tend to adopt a master status as a result of the self-fulfilling prophecy - after being labelled as a ‘deviant’, they tend to lean into the label and become repeat offenders.

    • Interactionism’s strength is in accounting for the role of micro-level interactions in shaping collective behaviour, and considering why what constitutes a crime is temporally and locally contingent.

    • However, interactionists don’t consider why people become deviants in the first place, nor do they address how certain acts get labelled as ‘deviant’ (and by whom).


    1. Becker, H. S. (1963). Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. Free Press.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Interactionism Crime

    How do interactionists theorise crime?

    Interactionists theorise crime by examining micro-level interactions, as well as the ways in which meaning is attributed by individuals to particular objects, events, or actions. So, interactionists theorise crime as being socially constructed - no act is inherently deviant, it is only as such if it has been collectively defined as such.

    How does symbolic interactionism explain crime?

    Symbolic interactionism explains crime by way of the labelling theory. Symbolic interactionism views crime and deviance as socially constructed, resulting from deviancy amplification spirals caused by meaning-making processes that single out particular groups as more likely to be deviant. 

    What’s the difference between functionalist and interactionist explanations of crime?

    Interactionism challenges the functionalist view on crime in several ways, the main one being that interactionists question functionalism’s position that what constitutes a crime is universal when it tends to only be labelled as such in certain contexts.

    What is an example of interactionism?

    A common example of interactionism is examining the relationship between a person of authority and a subordinate (such as teachers and students, or employers and employees). This is because such relationships can be explored in terms of the expectations that come with particular 'roles'.

    What is interactionism in crime?

    Interactionism states that social order and control are constructed by people as they navigate everyday life. In the context of crime, this theory suggests that no act is inherently 'deviant', but is only as such because people have labelled it to be a criminal act.

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