There is an argument by the celebrated French philosopher Michel Foucault that the birth of the modern-day penitentiary system and the emergence of new classifications of crime created new, professionally-generated ways of defining the criminal population. These definitions became a part of the new criminal identity, and criminals in the...
There is an argument by the celebrated French philosopher Michel Foucault that the birth of the modern-day penitentiary system and the emergence of new classifications of crime created new, professionally-generated ways of defining the criminal population. These definitions became a part of the new criminal identity, and criminals in the nineteenth century engaged in an affective behavior that legitimated these very definitions. In his most famous work, Discipline and Punish, Foucault comments:
He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.
Foucault here was talking about the layout of the modern penitentiary; prisoners in courtyards were surrounded by guard towers and kept under round-the-clock surveillance. Because these prisoners knew they were being watched, they engaged—subconsciously—in behaviors that reified their prisoner identity. The power that the prisoner plays “spontaneously upon himself” is a result of the intricately systematized and regulated institution into which prisoners had been situated and of which they had become unwilling participants. He becomes “the principle of his own subjection” because this behavior reinforces the need for his ascribed identity in the first place. The cause and effect are reciprocal.
Foucault, then, would probably argue that labels and behavior are reciprocally-influential phenomena. He did believe that the origins of modern-day criminal behavior grew out of the rise of specific professions at the end of the eighteenth century—sociology, anthropology, criminology, etc.—whose creation of entirely new categories of man suddenly and somewhat arbitrarily codified behavior that was theretofore not conceived of as unusual.
However, in the twenty-first century, the question of causality is already moot, because criminal identity has already had centuries of time to maturate and ossify into long-term behavioral patterns. In other words, a Foucauldian answer to this question would be that criminals engage in behaviors because they subconsciously recognize their classification as criminals, but their activity then legitimates and reinforces the creation of the labels that cause them to behave in this particular manner in the first place.