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Stereotyping and Labelling

Stereotyping and Labelling are prevalent in the Criminal Justice System and often harmful to individuals wanting to make positive changes. Take a look at this article by Chris English which explores this further.

A closer look at ‘Labelling’

In this article, we will look at the harm of ‘labelling’, i.e. the idea that self-identity and an individual’s behaviour are determined/influenced by the labels used to describe them. In simple terms, you might say this is when someone is stereotyped by others and then ‘live up’ to it. A prime example of such a label is the term “chav”, this term has become increasingly prevalent in everyday language, especially in the UK. It is often used to negatively describe a particular subculture or social group.

One of the most significant issues with the term “chav” is its contribution to class prejudice. By labelling a group of people as “chavs” it can be easy to lump anyone who wears a tracksuit, comes from a certain area or speaks in a certain way into a very restricting group that can be seen as criminally inclined and socially disruptive.

On the other hand, the term chav has also seen a rise in use when individuals from a working class background talk about themselves. This idea can be seen as “linguistic reclamation”. This is the process of taking possession of a derogatory label – usually introduced by a dominant group – by stigmatised group members. This process means that the stigmatised group members consciously use it to label themselves, thereby turning a hurtful term into a badge of pride.

I experienced this first-hand while working with young people from North Tyneside. During a group residential, a small group of young lads were being shunned as ‘just some chavs’ from the rest of the larger group during activities. From my and the young men’s perspective, this was due to their socio-economic background and the way they dressed. This is a grouped behaviour described as “Falsely Accused” by Howard Becker in which “individuals who have engaged in obedient behaviour but have been perceived as deviant; therefore, they would be falsely labelled as deviant.” I had a short discussion with the lads and discussed showing the rest of the group what they liked and their interests. The group of lads picked their team name “The Chav-erinos” (a great example of reclamation!) and we then completed a group activity in which we asked them to do a visual presentation of their local area, what they liked doing in their local area and what they wanted to change about their local area.

This activity was the beginning of the lads being accepted and understood by the rest of the group due to showing everyone that they were not “deviant” and actually had dreams, aspirations, a history and culture. Just because they liked a ‘one-piece tracky’ and some Air Max trainers doesn’t mean they were criminals.

A part of working with offenders and young people at RSMS is sometimes about challenging these perceptions people have about others, and often themselves. One of the difficulties, when individuals have been labelled their whole life, is that they sometimes think that the label is what they are – Why wouldn’t they? If you’re told something over and over by other people you will think it is the truth.








Jones, O., 2011. Chavs. 1st ed. London: Verso.

Abell, S., 2020. How Britain really works. 3rd ed. London: Penguin.

in-mind. 2022. From Derogation to Reclamation. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.in-mind.org/article/from-derogation-to-reclamation-how-does-language-change. [Accessed 1 August 2023].

Britannica. 2023. Labelling Theory. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/labeling-theory. [Accessed 1 August 2023].

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