In “The Saints and the Roughnecks,” William Chambliss studied two groups of young men in high school to understand the differences in how their teachers perceived them. This article is a wonderful manifestation and case study of Howard S. Becker’s labeling theory.
The Saints were a group of Caucasian young men from wealthy families who were, on average, B students. The Roughnecks, on the other hand, were a group of young men who came from poorer families and were, on average, C students.
Both groups engaged in disruptive and childish behavior. The Saints pranked each other and often skipped class, while the Roughnecks physically fought each other. Because of the background of the Saints, the teachers viewed their behavior in much more of a joking and harmless manner. Also because of their background, the teachers viewed the behavior of the Roughnecks as morally reprehensible.
The teachers assumed that the Saints would grow up to have successful careers despite their childish antics, while they also assumed the Roughnecks would not grow up to be successful as a result of their childish antics. This important distinction illustrates labeling theory and could help explain the difference in their grades, as the Saints were able to receive the benefit of the doubt from teachers.
In the contemporary criminal justice system, we can see these same markers of labeling theory. Wealthy financiers who commit atrocious white-collar financial crimes often spend their jail time in safe and secure prisons with lots of amenities. Meanwhile, those who are arrested for bar fights and are viewed as incorrigible lowlifes will spend prison time in dangerous jails, which can prime them for additional crime in the future.