Criminal or mentally ill? Some correlates of labelling lawbreaking deviants



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A key postulate of deviant behavior theory is that the creation of deviancy is an interactive process in which the implicit definitions of public labellers play an instrumental role. In contrast to medical or legal approaches, the labelling of such deviant conditions as mental illness or criminality is considered neither objective nor exclusively professional nor based upon explicitly stated criteria. Several predictions generated by deviant behavior theory were here explored in the particular case of the labelling of lawbreakers as "mentally ill" or "criminal." Groups of undergraduate college students, law students, and mental health professionals were administered four instruments: two identical series of descriptions of lawbreaking acts, a Semantic Differential upon which deviant labels were rated, and a forced choice adaptation of the California F scale. The descriptions of lawbreaking acts were in one inventory rated as indicative of "mental illness"; in the other inventory they were rated as indicative of the offender being a "criminal." A preliminary factor analysis of the Semantic Differential revealed strong Evaluative and Potency-activity factors upon each of the concept domains. Each subject's responses were summarized into thirty-five basic scores: a Mental Illness Labelling score and a Criminality Labelling score each representing proneness to employ the respective concept, an F scale score, and Evaluation and Potency-activity scores upon each of the sixteen Semantic Differential concepts. Group means were also compiled for individual items of these scales. Intergroup differences were evaluated by an analysis of variance and subsequent t tests; intertest relationships within the same group were compared by product moment correlation coefficients. The results were the following: 1) Each professional group tended to expand the boundaries of the label bringing the deviant within its own administrative and theoretical sphere. The label "mentally ill" was most extensively employed by the mental health professionals and the label "criminal" by the law students. 2) Within subject groups, those employing the label "criminal" most broadly tended to evaluate deviants most negatively; those who employed the concept "mentally ill" most broadly showed some tendency to evaluate deviants least negatively. Expansive labellers in general showed some tendency to rate deviants as relatively weak. 3) Those higher upon F scale Authoritarianism employed the "criminal" label relatively broadly. 4) The labels "criminal" and "mentally ill" were employed as a complementary dichotomy. First, these labels were applied to contrasting lawbreaking situations. The "criminal" label was applied to reward-seeking, punishment-avoiding. deliberated devlancy; the "mentally ill" label, to lawbreakers who failed to conform to this model or who seemed inefficient or in psychic conflict. Secondly, subjects who employed one label most employed the other least. These results were interpreted to refute criticisms that the "mentally ill" label is entirely unreliable in its application or entirely negative in its connotations. Yet the nature of the labelling process itself appeared most consistent with the deviant behavior approach. The scope of both the "mentally ill" and "criminal" labels is an elastic one related more closely to biases of the perceiver than to the objective, symptom-based medical paradigm. Since the public would appear to apply more restrictive standards to the screening of deviant candidates than do professionals, its role is crucial. Labels appear to be awarded to deviants upon the basis of an interaction of multiple implicit factors rather than a single defining act or characteristic. In general, these results suggest that the "mental illness" concept expresses largely a feeling and an administrative philosophy stretched to fit all those sorts and conditions of devlancy that fail to fit better articulated deviant models. It seems to be a distinctly residual category.



Crime, Criminals, Insanity (Law), Deviant behavior