According to Social Reaction Theory, criminal behaviour and what is considered to be deviant is defined by how any given society at any given point in time reacts to people and their behaviour. Society’s condemnation of a “criminal” act is not necessarily just a function of the moral content of the act itself. Ultimately, crime varies from situation to situation and across space and time. In its most radical form this theory argues that crimes like murder and assault are evil simply due to labels- that is they are bad because society says they are bad. For example, even though we look back on slavery as a completely unthinkable economic model today, it does not change the fact that it was legal for over 400 years in North America alone. Definitions of criminality have changed over space and time.
The subjectivity or arbitrariness of crime can be further examined when considering individual perceptions of what is criminal and what is not. A large percentage of university students think smoking pot is legal. But an important point to note once again is that any prevailing interpretation of what is criminal or deviant is a product of those who are in power. This takes us back to the interactionist view of crime where those with social power and a particular moral agenda influence the law. If students had more social power perhaps our drug policies would be different.
Taking into consideration the subjective and changing perceptions we hold of criminality and deviance, it is no wonder that social reaction theory is marked with the idea that the law is applied differently to different members of society. Our criminal justice system exercises a bias in rounding up (generally speaking) non-white offenders. The point is that being arrested or convicted of a crime is not simply a function of whether one commits a crime or not. Determining someone’s culpability carries its own biases and this is seen in the disproportionate number of aboriginal individuals that make their way through our justice system each year.
But Social Labelling Theory also means that regardless of gender, age, sex or economic standing if someone is labelled a bad apple, they will ultimately be treated like one. A criminal label can control how someone is identified in society and often reduces the complex identity of an individual who occupies many roles such as mother, daughter, friend and co-worker into one negative conception- criminal. Inevitably this is coupled with feelings of shame and whether this can help an individual conform and reduce their criminal behaviour is dubious at best. If a label is successfully applied to an individual then the individual’s conception of their own identity begins to reflect society’s conception of themself and the effects of this are discussed in the next section.