[According to Fritz Sack, the term “labelling” is unnecessarily narrow. He therefore proposes the term “Marxist-interactionist”.]
According to Fritz Sack, crime is a pure attribution process. In this attribution process, a physical event is linked to a mental state. This physical event thus goes through a social career. This attribution process is the only cause that deviant behavior is seen as such at all.
For Sack, the power aspect, which decides on the labelling of certain actions, is also important. He therefore describes his approach as “Marxist”.
Sack assumes that crime can be completely explained by ascription. His starting point is a ubiquity thesis according to which crime is a “normal” phenomenon that occurs in all social classes (see also: Durkheim). Thus the idea of a radical labeling approach differs from the statements of Howard S. Becker (“Outsiders“) and Edwin M. Lemert. Both Becker and Lemert assume that, in addition to attribution processes, there is an objective level of facts (referred to by Becker as “norm violation” and by Lemert as “primary deviance”).
According to Sack, it is purely a matter of definition which human behaviour is considered criminal. Every behaviour is first of all a physical event, which does not supply its own definition. To a crime we have such a physical event by going through a social career. The labelling of certain behaviours is highly selective. The lower classes are criminalized, while the rulers do not receive this label.
The law thus becomes an instrument of oppression and a “class justice” prevails. For Sack, these findings mean that the questions of the positivist school (e.g. Why does someone become a criminal?) become completely invalid.
Critical appreciation & relevance
The paradigm shift that Sack evoked with his approach can hardly be overestimated in his influence on German criminology. It should be noted here that Sack’s theory met with massive resistance in the 1960s. The written discussion with his critics reveals that a radicalisation can be assumed in the context of the discussion. In Sack’s writings it becomes clear that the discussion about the various paradigms is conducted on a thoroughly emotional level.
Sack accuses his critics, for example, of “…rational nicht ausweisbare Argumente geltend gemacht, die alltäglichen Spruchweisheiten und Allerweltsformel näher kommen als wissenschaftlichem Räsonieren.” (Sack, 1972: 4) [English translation: … not making rational arguments but rather using everyday wisdom and formulas instead of scientific reasoning.]
Sack’s thesis that attribution is the only cause of crime can certainly be qualified from today’s point of view. The radicality of his approach is the point to which most attacks on this theory relate. For example, Sack is accused of reversing roles and turning perpetrators into victims who themselves no longer have any role at all as active actors.
- Fritz Sack, René König (Hrg.): Kriminalsoziologie, 1. Auflage, 1968,Frankfurt a.M.: Akad-Verl.-Ges.
- Fritz Sack: Zu einem Forschungsprogramm für die Kriminologie, Kriminologisches Journal 4/1973: 251.
- Fritz Sack : Definition von Kriminalität als politisches Handeln: Der labeling approach, in: Kriminologisches Journal, Jg. 4 (1972), H. 1, S. 3-31.