Social reaction theory,
Social-construction of reality, Symbolic-Interaction
Labeling theory arose from the study
of deviant behavior in the 1950's and 1960's and was a
rejection of consensus theory or structural functionalism. Labeling theory or social reaction theory, focuses on the linguistic
tendency of majorities to negatively label minorities or those seen as deviant from norms.
Labeling theory or social reaction
theory is closely related to social-construction
and symbolic-interaction analysis. Labeling
theory is concerned with how the self-identity and behavior of an individual is influenced
by how that individual is categorized and described by others in their society.
An early labeling theorist,
Tannenbaum's main concept was the dramatization of evil.
Tannenbaum's Labeling theory argued
that the process of tagging, defining, identifying, segregating, describing, and
emphasizing any individual out for special treatment becomes a way of stimulating,
suggesting, and evoking the very traits that are complained of. Under Labeling theory a
person actually ends up becoming what he is described as being or what he is labeled as.
Labeling theory or social reaction
theory is concerned with how the self-identity and behavior of individuals may be
determined or influenced by the terms used to describe or classify them, and is associated
with the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy and stereotyping.
According to labeling theory deviance
is not inherent to an act. Labeling theory focuses on the tendency of majorities to
negatively label minorities or those seen as deviant from standard cultural norms.
Attention is now being devoted to
informal labeling, like labeling by parents, peers and teachers. Informal labeling has a
greater effect on subsequent crime than official labeling.
The main idea of looking glass self is that people define themselves
based on how society perceives them. Charles Cooley's concept of the looking glass self is
very important to labeling theory and its approach to a person's acceptance of labels as
attached by society. Charles Cooley developed the theoretical concept of the looking glass
self which is a type of imaginary sociability. People imagine the view of themselves
through the eyes of others in their social circles and form judgements of themselves based
on these imaginary observations.
Lemert was as the founder of the
"societal reaction" approach and social
reaction theory. "societal reaction" approach distinguishes between primary
deviance (where individuals do not see themselves as deviant) and secondary deviance
(where individuals accept a deviant status).
Societal reaction theorists claim that
the process of defining and suppressing deviance is of vital importance to social solidarity.
Informal labeling is not simply a function of official labeling. Informal labeling is also
influenced by the delinquent behavior and by the position enjoyed by the individual in
Informal labels affect individuals' subsequent level of crime by influencing their
perceptions of how others see them. If individuals believe that others see them as
delinquents and trouble-makers, then they are more likely to justify this perception and
engage in delinquency.
These approaches to deviance assumed
that deviance could be understood as behaviour that violates social norms. Deviance is
objective and it is also a particular form of behaviour.
Labeling theory rejected this approach
and claimed that deviance is not a way of behaving, but is a name or label stuck on a
particular form of behaviour. Law is culturally and historically variable. What is crime
today was not necessarily crime yesterday and will not necessarily be crime tomorrow.
In the 19th century cultivation,
possession or transfer of cannabis was legal, but Since the beginning of the 20th century,
laws against the cultivation, possession or transfer of cannabis have been enacted by most
countries. Thus deviance is not something inherent in the behaviour, but is an outcome of
how individuals or their behaviour are labeled.
If deviance is just a label then where
does the label come from? This question leads to a study of the social origins of law.
How does the label come to be applied
to specific behaviours and to particular individuals? This question leads to an
examination of the actions of people who label others such as, psychiatrists, coroners,
police, judges and juries.
Individuals who are arrested,
prosecuted, and punished may be labeled as criminals. Those labeled as criminals will be
viewed by others as criminals increasing the likelihood of subsequent crime for several
basic reasons. Labeled individuals have trouble obtaining legitimate employment, which
increases their level of stress and reduces their ability to conform. Labeled individuals
find that conventional people are reluctant to associate with them, increasing the
likelihood of them associating with other criminals. This association with other criminals
consequentially reduces their bond with conventional others and fosters the social
learning of crime. Labeled individuals may eventually come to view themselves as criminals
and therefore act in accord with this self-concept.
Labeling offenders as
"criminals" has its negative consequences, aggravating the criminal behavior and
making the crime problem worse. Criminal justice system could be "casting the
net" (net-widening) of social
control too widely. Net-widening is inherently criminogenic. Being a
"criminal" becomes a person's master status controling the way they are
identified in public.
People who are labeled deviant tend to
invariably lose contact with their conventional and conformist friends and start
associating with similarly-labeled deviants.
Labeling theorists therefore are critical of conceptions that crime is behavior that
violates criminal law. The audience determines when certain behavior becomes defined as
crime, not the actor. Called the social constructionist viewpoint, crime varies from
situation to situation, across time and place. Also called the symbolic interactionist
viewpoint, crime is defined by reference to the symbols and meanings that people
communicate to one another.
Becker coined the term "moral entrepreneur" to describe individuals who
lead campaigns to outlaw certain behaviors by making them "criminal." Labeling
theorists believe the system exercises a lower-class bias in rounding up offenders.
An Empirical Test of Labeling
Theory Using Longitudinal Data -
Melvin C. Ray, William R. Downs
Article uses panel data and multiple regression of
follow-up on baseline variables to test direction of causality among drug use behavior,
informal labels, and also formal labels. Results partially supported by the labeling
theory proposition of secondary deviance among males. Among females, drug use behavior was
causally prior to labels, which contradicts secondary deviance. Thus theories must be
tested separately on each sex as well as on samples including both sexes.
Official Labeling, Criminal Embeddedness, and Subsequent Delinquency - A
Longitudinal Test of Labeling Theory - Jón Gunnar Bernburg, Univ of Iceland
and Icelandic Research Council
Marvin D. Krohn, Univ at Albany-SUNY and Craig J. Rivera, Niagara Univ
The impact of formal criminal labeling on involvement in deviant social networks and
increased likelihood of subsequent delinquency. Labeling theory posits formal criminal
intervention should affect the individuals immediate social networks. This stigma of
the criminal status may increase the probability that the individual gets involved in
deviant social groups. This formal labeling may ultimately increase involvement in
subsequent deviance. The authors find that juvenile justice intervention positively
affects subsequent involvement in delinquency through the medium of involvement in deviant
Social Control in China:
Applications of the Labeling Theory and the Reintegrative Shaming Theory -
Xiaoming Chen, Law School of Xiamen Univ, Xiamen, Fujian.
The article scrutinizes the implications of labeling theory and reintegrative shaming
theory and tests their sensitivity to cross-cultural differences. The evidence presented
here tends to support the reintegrative shaming theory rather than labeling theory.
Labeling Theory and Delinquency Policy - An Experimental Test
MALCOLM W. KLEIN, Univ of Southern California
Propositions endemic to labeling theory, and variables particularly relevant to these
propositions, are combined into a guiding paradigm. Components of labeling paradigm are
tested in an experimentally controlled police diversion project.
Peers' Rejection as a Possible Consequence of Official Reaction to Delinquency in
Chinese Society - LENING ZHANG, State University of New York at Albany
Drawing on labeling theory, this study examined peers' attitudinal responses to the
official label of delinquency. (a) Do peers' attitudinal responses to official delinquents
vary with the severity of official reaction? (b) Do peers' attitudinal responses depend on
their own labeling status? Peers' attitudinal rejection varied with their own labeling
status. The findings were consistent with the labeling perspective.
Victims of crime and labeling theory: a parallel process? - Kenney
Labeling theory tends to focus largely on the offender. Explores the potential of
extending the interactionist perspective on deviance to the experiences of victims of
crime. I outline a parallel labeling process for victims in which differential social
reactions to this status have an impact on the behaviors, adjustment, and identities of
the individuals concerned.
Differential Labeling of Mental Illness by Social
Status: A New Look at an Old Problem - Thoits, Peggy A. Contrary to
labeling theory, members of lower status groups are not consistently overrepresented among
those who have been hospitalized against their will. Persons with greater education and
those not in poverty are disproportionately present among individuals who sought treatment
by choice. I do not confirm a central tenet of labeling theory here, but the negative
consequences of labeling and stigma continue to be well-supported in the literature.
Labeling Theory in Deviance Research: A Critique and Reconsideration -
Nanette J. Davis
The labeling, or interactionist, theory of deviance is reviewed and critically evaluated.
CRITICAL ASSESSMENT OF LABELING IN THE JUVENILE JUSTICE SYSTEM
Journal: JUSTICE SYSTEM JOURNAL Volume:4 Issue:1 (FALL 1978) G L Albrecht ; M H
The origins and forms of labeling theory
are presented and the status of labeling as a theory assessed.
Labeling theory views the reaction of society and particularly criminal justice agencies
to nonconforming behavior to be a significant cause for the reinforcement.
Research to determine the degree to which labeling theory is substantiated. The
destructive consequences of labeling are viewed as but one set of factors contributing to
the development of delinquent behavior.
perspectives (from deviant interpretations, 1979, by David Downes and Paul Rock)
Criticisms of the labeling theory of social deviance. Changing status has been
accorded to labeling theory; from total acceptance in the late 1960s, it is now subject to
growing criticism. Labeling theory should focus on establishing the characteristics,
sources, and conditions of labels as well as the consequences of labeling. Labeling should
not be equated with a theory or a proposition but should be seen as a perspective in
deviancy research. The theory of symbolic interactionism has the closest affinity with