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 of reality. The theory of symbolic interactionism has the closest affinity with labeling theory. 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. 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, 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 theory, 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 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.
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 according to labeling theory 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.
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
Social Control in China:
Applications of the Labeling Theory and the Reintegrative Shaming Theory -
Xiaoming Chen, Law School of Xiamen Univ, Xiamen, Fujian.