Do negative labels cause crime, or do people who commit crime become negatively labeled? Are labels a cause of crime or a result?

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There is an argument by the celebrated French philosopher Michel Foucault that the birth of the modern-day penitentiary system and the emergence of new classifications of crime created new, professionally-generated ways of defining the criminal population. These definitions became a part of the new criminal identity, and criminals in the...

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nineteenth century engaged in an affective behavior that legitimated these very definitions. In his most famous work,Discipline and Punish, Foucault comments:

He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.

Foucault here was talking about the layout of the modern penitentiary; prisoners in courtyards were surrounded by guard towers and kept under round-the-clock surveillance. Because these prisoners knew they were being watched, they engaged—subconsciously—in behaviors that reified their prisoner identity. The power that the prisoner plays “spontaneously upon himself” is a result of the intricately systematized and regulated institution into which prisoners had been situated and of which they had become unwilling participants. He becomes “the principle of his own subjection” because this behavior reinforces the need for his ascribed identity in the first place. The cause and effect are reciprocal.

Foucault, then, would probably argue that labels and behavior are reciprocally-influential phenomena. He did believe that the origins of modern-day criminal behavior grew out of the rise of specific professions at the end of the eighteenth century—sociology, anthropology, criminology, etc.—whose creation of entirely new categories of man suddenly and somewhat arbitrarily codified behavior that was theretofore not conceived of as unusual.

However, in the twenty-first century, the question of causality is already moot, because criminal identity has already had centuries of time to maturate and ossify into long-term behavioral patterns. In other words, a Foucauldian answer to this question would be that criminals engage in behaviors because they subconsciously recognize their classification as criminals, but their activity then legitimates and reinforces the creation of the labels that cause them to behave in this particular manner in the first place.

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This is an interesting question, and the answer is not straightforward. There is plenty of evidence to support both ideas—that "criminals commit crime because they're criminals" or that "criminals commit crime and therefore become criminals".

Research has shown that, in many cases (especially related to gang crime), people who associate themselves with criminals or hang around people who are labelled as criminals end up committing crime - giving credence to the idea that the label may cause the crime. However, it is very clear that there are many individuals who are first time offenders, and, having committed a crime, are therefore labelled a criminal. It seems, more than anything, that it's a vicious cycle: someone commits a crime for some reason, and, as it tarnishes their reputation, job prospects, or ability to find reasonable housing, they end up surrounded by and therefore engaging in more criminal activity.

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Studies conducted at Stanford University suggest that people act in criminal ways, including lying, cheating, and stealing, when they are part of groups that are branded with negative labels (see the link below). For example, college students who feared being stereotyped in a negative way were more likely to carry out behaviors such as vandalizing property or abusing someone verbally (see the link below).

These studies suggest that negative labels can cause people to be more likely to commit crimes. Just the fear of being branded with a negative label can cause people to carry out behaviors that can be criminal (or, to a lesser degree, behaviors that are simply damaging). Negative labeling can result in increasing the likelihood that members of groups that are tarnished with these labels will commit crimes. To reduce crimes, these studies suggest, people must reduce the use of negative stereotypes toward different groups.

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Both of these causal explanations have truth to them.

It is certainly true that people who commit crimes (and groups whose members are more likely to commit crimes) become negatively labeled.  For example, young men (particularly those who dress in certain ways) have been given negative labels because many of them do commit deviant acts.

On the other hand, for some individuals, the negative labels lead to the criminal activity.  Some individuals will get tired of being treated as criminals and will lash out against society by engaging in criminal behavior.  Others might be driven to crime if the labels assigned to their group make it hard for them to get good legitimate jobs.

For these reasons, we cannot say that the causation works in only one of these ways.  Both are actually true in some cases.

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