Labeling Theory Research Paper Starter

Labeling Theory

(Research Starters)

Labeling theory is a sociological and criminological theory that says that a strong, negative societal reaction to an individual's wrongdoing can lead the individual to become more deviant. Based on the principles of symbolic interactionism, the theory says there are two ways formal labeling increases deviance. The first is by negatively impacting an individual's self-conception. The second is by blocking access to conventional opportunities. While labeling theory was popular in the 1970s, it was difficult to prove and fell out of favor. Recent approaches in criminology are reviving interest in labeling theory principles.

Keywords Chicago School; Defiance Theory; Deterrence Theory; Deviance Amplification Process; Ethnographic Methods; Labeling Theory; Non-intervention; Reintegrative Shaming; Self-fulfilling Prophecies; Social Bond Theory; Societal Reaction Theory; Strain Theory; Symbolic Interactionism

Labeling Theory


Who we are in the world is often defined by a combination of factors. Our internal selves process our experiences directly and develop an understanding of what it is to touch, feel, see, hear, and smell the physical world. Our internal self interacts with the people around us, processing how they respond to us. The words we use to interact with others help us shape our understanding of the world and of ourselves. We use words to label the objects, people, and ideas that exist outside of us, and we organize our internal states to define who we are amidst all of the other ideas, experiences, and selves that we encounter in daily life. Thus, it is the interaction of self with both world and word that serves to define who we are. Our internal definition helps us to understand our role in society.

This is the understanding of internal processes that serves as the philosophical foundation of labeling theory. Labeling theory, also known as societal reaction theory, is a sociological and criminological theory that places the concept of deviance in an interactionist framework. Whereas other theories look to the individual in order to understand why some people choose to break a law or act outside the norms of society, labeling theory says that deviance is the product of the interaction between the individual and society. Unique from a criminological perspective, the theory suggests that the criminal justice system, which is supposed to reduce crime, might actually provide the conditions that create further deviance. Thus, labeling theory is a theory that supports a less punitive approach to wrongdoing.

Ties to Symbolic Interactionism

The history of labeling theory is rooted in the early conceptions of sociology that were developed at the University of Chicago's sociology department in the 1920s and 1930s. At that time, scholars at the Chicago School were busy defining the scope of sociology as a discipline. In attempting to understand the world of thieves, prostitutes, and other deviants, they advocated for field observations and analysis of these individuals within their natural environments. These principles developed into the branch of symbolic interactionism, which emphasizes the co-construction of reality and uses ethnographic methods in order to explore human experience (Downes & Rock, 2007).

From a symbolic interactionist perspective, the concept of deviance is a socially constructed one. In order for behavior to be considered deviant, or different from what is expected, someone must first establish the expected behavior. Society as a whole, through its institutions, groups, and individuals, is generally perceived to be both the creator and the enforcer of these expectations. The process by which individuals come to conform to conventional expectations involves a complex interplay between the internal self and the external world. By interacting with others, individuals come to understand who they are and their roles in society. In initial conceptualizations of labeling theory, sociologists argued that the formal process of enforcement that society was using to deter deviance was backfiring. Instead of encouraging offenders to conform to societal expectations, the criminal justice system was actually pushing offenders toward a life of crime.


One of the first voices to express this belief was Frank Tannenbaum, who is often credited as the father of labeling theory. Tannenbaum, like many of his time, believed that criminal behavior was learned as individuals interacted within communities where crime was prevalent. However, one of the most influential learning events the offender experienced, he believed, was that of being apprehended and formally labeled as a criminal by the justice system. This process, he said, was nothing more than a "dramatization of evil" (Tannenbaum, 1938, p. 19–20) that led the individual to develop a negative self-concept and served to position the individual closer to the criminal world. He wrote, "The process of making the criminal, therefore, is a process of tagging, defining, indentifying, segregating, describing, emphasizing, making conscious and self-conscious; it becomes a way of stimulating, suggesting, emphasizing and evoking, the very traits that are complained of" (p. 20).

In 1951, Edwin Lemert offered another important early conception of labeling theory. Lemert (1951) classified deviance into two types: primary and secondary. Primary deviance, he said, has its roots outside the formal criminal justice system. The factors that cause someone to make a first offense are broad and varied, and the societal reaction the individual receives for such an offense is not likely to impact the individual's identity. Secondary deviance is different, however. In secondary deviance, Lemert said the individual adopts the status of deviant as a primary identity. The difference is between someone who steals once and views the theft as an aberrant action from one's normal behavior and someone who identifies oneself as a thief and views stealing as a normalized and expected outcome of one's identity.

Like Tannenbaum, Lemert blamed the criminal justice system for contributing to the development of secondary deviance. He said that any societal reaction that stigmatized the offender could serve to push the offender away from societal norms and thereby encourage future deviance. However, in general, he did not feel that one instance of severe societal reaction would accomplish this. Rather, he cited a progressive process in which an individual's behavior was met with increasingly severe and stigmatizing societal consequences, begetting even more severely offensive behavior. Ultimately, this process would culminate in the adoption of a deviant identity marked by deviant beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes.

Although Tannenbaum and Lemert explored the role that labeling and stigmatization played in creating deviance, it was not until the 1960s that the approach was formalized into a unified theory and given its own name. At that time, sociologists had come to view individuals as acting from the perspective of particular identities that were negotiable and grounded in specific situations. The linguistic symbols used to name and define various aspects of the situation and its participants were presumed to be of utmost importance. Transferred to criminology, the labeling associated with deviance appeared to be a key to understanding how the criminal justice system contributed to the creation of deviant identities.

An influential voice on the topic at this time, Becker (1963) wrote:

Social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance and by applying those rules to particular people and labeling them as outsiders. From this point of view, deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to the "offender." The deviant is the one to whom the label has been successfully applied; deviant behavior is behavior people so label. (p. 9)

1960s labeling theorists focused on the impact formal labels had on an individual's developing self-conceptions. Spurred by a rebirth of symbolic interactionism in the sociological field and a sociopolitical context that invited critiques of state power, labeling theorists said that the criminal justice system was inducing self-fulfilling prophecies. In other words, by labeling offenders as criminals, the system was setting in motion the processes that would turn individuals into criminals (Cullen & Agnew, 2006; Downes & Rock, 2007).


Deviance Amplification

There are two mechanisms through which...

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