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Troublemakers Essay, Research Paper
The Saints and the Ruffians were two groups of high school boys that lived in the suburbs, both
were persistently involved in underage drinking, daredevil driving, skipping school, petty theft,
and vandalism. There their similarities ended. None of the Saints were ever arrested, but every
Ruffian was habitually in trouble with the police and townspeople. Why the inequality in their
treatment? The difference was the social class of the two groups.
The Saints were able to hide behind a false wall of respectability. They came from “good
families”, were active in school organizations, showed interest in going to college, and received
good grades. The townspeople and their families just saw their acts as “sowing wild oats” and
“boys will be boys”. On the otherhand, the Ruffians didn’t have such an aura of respectability.
They had beat up old cars, were usually bad in school, and were looked at with suspicion no
matter what they did.
The Ruffians were labeled “troublemakers,” when the Saints were seen as “fun loving
kids.” Both of these groups were gangs of delinquents or deviants. A deviant person is one whose
behavior violates the standards of conduct or expectations of a group or society. Underage
drinking, daredevil driving, skipping school, petty theft, and vandalism were all acts of deviant
behavior. But, how was one group labeled deviant while the other was not?
Many sociologist have turned to the labeling theory as a method of explaining this
difference. The labeling theory does not focus on why people commit deviant acts to begin with,
but it is concerned with the processes by which the label deviant comes to be attached to specific
people and behaviors (Agnew 1989).
The first time a child acts up in class, it may be caused by a bad mood or high energy.
What happens in the future of this child depends oh how others see and interpret the act. This is
the key to the labeling theory, sometimes called societal reaction approach. It is the response to
an act and not the behavior itself that determines deviance. It is also a repeating process. First the
teachers, counselors, and other children label the child a troublemaker, then the parents reinforce
the idea and treat the child as a troublemaker, then the child may accept this definition as part of
the self-concept (how we see ourselves) and act as a troublemaker.
There are many different aspects of the labeling theory, including power and labeling as
well as sin and sickness. A very crucial part of the theory, is recognizing who has the ability to
label other people. People in power, such as police, probation officers, psychiatrists, judges,
teachers, school officials, and the wealthy all have the power to define a label and apply them to
In 1937, marijuana use was not illegal in the United States. But, a powerful group, the
Federal Bureau of Narcotics, campaigned to have it declared illegal. At the time, Prohibition had
recently ended, and the bureau had to either find a new enemy or go out of business. They, along
with their former enemies, the Consolidated Brewers, launched a huge campaign to depict
marijuana as a dangerous drug. Up until then, it had simply been looked at as a pleasure-inducing
substance. They associated marijuana with violence, wild activity involving orgies, and other
criminal acts. The campaign was successful in labeling marijuana use as deviant. It doesn’t take a
financial genius to figure out why the breweries as well as the FBN opposed the use of marijuana.
The breweries felt that marijuana use took away their clients and cut deeply into their accounts.
And the FBN simply needed a new fight. These two groups were not interested in the well being
of others, but in the well being of their piggy banks. This is one of the more obvious examples of
the extent to which what is deemed legal and accepted, and what is deemed illegal or deviant
depends more on politics and economics that on what is right.
In 1972 in the case of Furman vs. Georgia, three black defendants appealed their death
sentence to the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds that capital punishment, at least in the cased
of rape and murder, constituted cruel and unusual punishment (Link 1987). Their argument was
that other defendants, many of whom were white, committed equal or more serious crimes and
were not sentenced to death. They felt that they were being discriminated against because of their
color. And they were right, there was, in fact, good statistical support for their claim that capital
punishment is racist. Eighty-nine percent of those executed for rape between 1930 and 1967 were
black (Radelet 1981).
Different people in power can change the definition of deviance. In recent years, there has
been an increasing tendency for acts and behaviors that used to be labeled deviant to be labeled
illness instead. In court, instead of being guilty of murder, a person can claim insanity and be
released from guilt. There is no sentence of being guilty and insane. You can be guilty of the
crime, but be insane, rendering you the charge of not guilty. Also, many now consider alcoholism
to be a disease. When someone who used to be labeled deviant now is viewed as sick or ill, the
reaction of the public is different. These days, it is no longer right to put people in jail for being
alcoholic, instead they are put in the hospital or in programs to help them get well. Other forms of
deviance, such as child abuse, gambling, murder, and rape, may viewed as forms of mental illness
that are better treated by physicians then sheriffs (Link 1987). The public as well as courts and
judges believe that although some murderers, rapists and so on are mentally ill and should be
treated by physicians, others are just bad and should be put in jail. This difference in how they
were labeled may have something to do with their race, gender, or class.
Andrea Yates, a 36 year old, white, Texas mother systematically drowned her 5 children.
Her defense layers claim she had an illness called postpartum depression, which is a depression
that sets in after the birth of a child. They hope to claim she was insane at the time of the murders.
Nikolay Soltys is wanted for the murdering of seven people: his three-year-old son, his pregnant
wife, two cousins (aged 9 and 10), and his aunt and uncle. He is an immigrant male. His condition
does not have a definition. Both of these people are accused of murdering their family members.
But the likely hood that Andrea Yates will receive an easier sentence is much higher then Nikolay
Soltys, because of her race, gender, and class, but especially because she has been labeled sick.
Individuals who acquire sick rather then bad labels are entitled to treatment rather then
punishment and are allowed to absolve themselves from blame for their behavior (Conrad &
Schneider 1980). People in positions of power are more apt to be successful in claiming the sick
label. For example, the upper class woman who shoplifts is likely to be labeled neurotic, whereas
the lower class woman who steals the same items is likely to be labeled a shoplifter. The middle
class boy who acts up in school may be defined as hyperactive, the lower class boy as a
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