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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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