Sociology Index


Labeling theory arose from the study of deviant behavior in the 1950's and 1960's and was a rejection of consensus perspective or structural functionalism. Labeling theory or social reaction theory, focuses on the tendency of majorities to negatively label minorities or those seen as deviant from norms. The theory of symbolic interactionism has the closest affinity with labeling theory, and symbolic-interaction analysis. Labeling theory or social reaction theory is closely related to social-construction of reality. 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. Labeling theory theorist, Frank Tannenbaum's main concept was the dramatization of evil.

Tannenbaum's Labeling theory argued that the process of tagging, defining, identifying, segregating and, describing any individual out for special treatment becomes a way of stimulating, 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.

The main idea of looking glass self is that people define themselves based on how society perceives them. Charles Horton 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.

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. 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 theory, like labeling by parents, peers and teachers. Informal labeling has a greater effect on subsequent crime than official labeling.

Informal labeling

According to labeling theory, 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 society.

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.

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 according to labeling theory deviance is not something inherent in the behaviour, but is an outcome of how individuals or their behaviour are labeled.

How does the label come to be applied to specific behaviors 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.

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. 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.

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- Jon 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 individual's immediate social networks. 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 groups.

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.

Victims of crime and labeling theory: a parallel process? - Kenney J.S.
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. 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.

Journal: JUSTICE SYSTEM JOURNAL Volume:4 Issue:1 (FALL 1978) G L Albrecht ; M H Albrecht:
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.

Misunderstanding labeling theory perspectives (from deviant interpretations, 1979, by David Downes and Paul Rock) K Plummer
Criticisms of the labeling theory of social deviance. Changing status has been accorded to labeling theory. Labeling theory should focus on establishing the characteristics, sources, and conditions of labels as well as the consequences of labeling. Labeling theory should not be equated with a theory or a proposition but should be seen as a perspective in deviancy research.