Friday, March 12, 2010

Labeling Theory 1: Criminalization and the Sit/Lie Ordinance

(image courtesy San Francisco Chronicle)

Next week, my Theoretical Criminology class will discuss labeling theory in criminology. Critiqued by some later theorists for its naïvete, I actually find it very useful for explaining crime and social control, often more so than its more structured theoretical counterparts.

Labeling theory was a break from the criminological scholarship that preceded it in that it did not try to explain crime through criminal propensity. Rather than ask the question, "why do people commit crime?", which assumes a consensus about the definition of crime, labeling theorists chose to ask, "how do certain behaviors come to be defined as crime?". Social deviance, as some theorists suggested, is in the eye of the beholder; once a certain social group succeeds in labeling a certain set of behaviors as crime, we come to see the people who engage in that behavior as criminals. And, sometimes, they come to see themselves as criminals.

The sit/lie ordinance is a case in point. Haight Ashbury, the neighborhood that prompted Mayor Newsom's enthusiasm for the new ordinance, gets its special character from its 1960s heritage as the cradle of the hippie movement and free love. Back in the sixties, the first generation of hippies forming communes and challenging conventional culture were seen as deviants, but their impact on the city's culture, and beyond, was immense. Today, the tie-dye clothes and head shops are mostly mementos of a time past, and our attitude toward the youth on the sidewalk has also transformed. If the behavior is the same, why the change in attitude?

Labeling theory sees the social order as conflict between different groups, all racing to impose their values on society by labeling the behaviors they see as problematic as crime. In this case, business owners at the Haight, and politicians running for office, have incentives to label the sidewalk dwellers as criminals and treat them as such. Greg Kamin's review of the police commission meeting about the sit-lie ordinance is an excellent demonstration of this principle: different stakeholders in the city coming together to fight over labeling this behavior. While the issues at stake are clearly political and ideological, using the law, and particularly the criminal apparatus, to enforce such views is a powerful strategy. After all, the law is seemingly universal in its application: Everyone, not only runaway youth and homeless people, will be forbidden from sitting on the sidewalk, n'est ces pas? As Anatole France said in 1874, "[t]he law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread."

Watch this space tomorrow for more on labeling theory.

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