Labeling Theory and Juvenile Crime Essay

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Labeling Theory and Juvenile Crime

Do we perform to expectations? One study of gifted children suggested that this was the case: in an experiment, teachers were told that certain pupils in their classroom had tested as 'gifted.' Almost immediately, the teachers began to treat these children differently, and the children began to perform at a higher standard. However, the teachers had actually been intentionally misinformed -- the children had been selected at random. Similarly, in the famous 'brown eyes vs. blue eyes' experiment conducted by educator Jane Elliot, a class of children was divided into blue-eyed and brown-eyed children, and the brown-eyed children were treated as second-class citizens. The blue-eyed children's scholastic performance improved, simply because of the positive reinforcement they received for their behavior (A class divided, 2011, PBS).

The notion that 'labeling' certain individuals in a positive or negative fashion can be a self-fulfilling prophesy is borne out by experimental and anecdotal evidence and forms one of the most influential theories of criminology of the late 20th century, known as labeling theory. This theory suggests that when individuals are expected to be deviant, they perform to expectations. Deviancy may be associated with a variety of traits -- being young, being an African-American or Latino, being male, or being of a lower social class. This labeling creates a chain reaction -- when the 'deviant' is convicted of a crime, they are put in contact mainly with other 'deviant' individuals, and their identity as a criminal estranged from society is reinforced rather than circumvented.

An early advocate of labeling theory, Lemert (1967), suggested that if someone labeled 'deviant' embraces the label, rather than sees him or herself with an investment in socially acceptable roles; he or she will identify with the criminal subculture (Paternoster & Iovanni 1989: 359). Delinquency is frequently a group phenomenon, suggesting that groups can reinforce identity as 'deviant' by providing an alternative to mainstream society and culture. There is a reversal of norms -- for example, in a school setting where deviant behavior is the norm, studying and getting good grades might be interpreted as a betrayal.

Howard Becker is widely considered to be the predominant advocate of labeling theory. Becker's analysis was notable because his theory suggested that there was no inherent 'deviant' behavior -- rather it was simply how society conceptualized that behavior. During the 19th century, for example, cocaine and opium were acceptable drugs, and taken by respectable men and women. Today drug use is labeled…

Sources Used in Document:


Becker, Howard. (1963). Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. London: Macmillan.

A class divided. (2011). PBS. Retrieved September 24, 2011 at

Lemert, E.M. (1967). Human deviance, social problems and social control. Englewood Cliffs:


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