Labeling Theory Originating in Sociology and Criminology, Essay

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Labeling Theory

Originating in sociology and criminology, labeling theory (also known as social reaction theory) was developed by sociologist Howard S. Becker (1997). Labeling theory suggests that deviance, rather than constituting an act, results from the societal tendency of majorities to negatively label those individuals perceived as deviant from norms. Essentially, labeling theory involves how the self-identity and behavior of individuals determines or influences the terms used to describe or classify such individuals, and is associated with the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy and stereotyping. The theory was prominent in the 1960s and 1970s, and some modified versions of the theory have developed. Unwanted descriptors or categorizations (including terms related to deviance, disability or a diagnosis of mental illness) may be rejected on the basis that they are merely "labels," often with attempts to adopt a more constructive language in its place. Labeling theory is also closely related to interactionism and social construction.

Emile Durkheim's Suicide (1897), provided the first glimpse into how societies react to deviant behaviors. Durkheim was the first to suggest that deviant labeling is the result of social disdain for crime and pacifies citizens with the ability to demarcate behaviors that are deemed undesirable while also allowing individuals to differentiate themselves from "rule breakers." George Herbert Mead (1934) suggests that conceptions of the self are socially constructed through a reciprocal process of interactions in the community. As such, labeling theory suggests that people obtain labels from how others view their tendencies or behaviors; that such labels are inherently subjective, albeit powerful influences for the individual. In other words, the process of labeling involves subjective criteria to determine, and, arguably, relegate, those individuals who are not deemed to play by the rules.

If deviance is a failure to conform to the rules observed by most of the group, the reaction of the group is to label the person as having offended against their social or moral norms of behavior. This is the power of the group: to designate breaches of their rules as deviant and to treat the person differently depending on the seriousness of the breach. The more differential the treatment, the more the individual's self-image is affected.

Labeling theory concerns itself mostly not with the normal roles that define our lives, but with those very special roles that society provides for deviant behavior, called deviant roles, stigmatic roles, or social stigma. A social role is a set of expectations we have about a behavior. Social roles are necessary for the organization and functioning of any society or group. "Deviance" for a sociologist does not mean morally wrong, but rather behavior that is condemned by society. It is important to remember that deviant behavior includes both criminal and non-criminal activities.

For the purposes of this paper, Malcolm Klein's (1971, 13) definition of "gang" is utilized so that "any denotable group of youngsters who: (a) are generally perceived as a distinct aggregation by others in their neighborhood; (b) recognize themselves as a denotable group (almost invariably with a group name) and (c) have been involved in a sufficient number of delinquent incidents to call forth a consistent negative response from neighborhood residents and/or law enforcement agencies."

It would seem that labeling theory makes no attempt to understand why an individual might commit a crime in the first place. Labeling theorist want to understand what happens after an individual is caught committing a crime, and society attaches a label to the offender. This differs from the view of choice, biological predisposition, psychological factors, social learning factors, and societal bond and control theories, which seek to explain the first and subsequent criminal acts (Akers and Sellers, 2004).

Becker (1991) writes that social groups foster deviance by creating and maintaining the rules that, when broken, constitute deviance. In this way, we can see that "deviance" is both socially constructed and maintained by the majority. Clearly, then, labels of deviant roles have a profound influence on how we, as a society, perceive those who are assigned deviant roles. Perhaps as important is that labels of deviance also affect how the deviant actor perceives himself and his relationship to society. Consequently, the deviant roles and the labels attached to them function as a form of social stigma so that society uses stigmatic roles to control and limit deviant behavior. Deviant roles are the sources of negative stereotypes, which tend to support society's disapproval of the behavior. Mead (1934) suggests that one's self-image is constructed and comprised of ideas about what we think others are thinking about us.

I believe that one other sociological theory to "avoid stereotyping individuals in the criminal justice system" is Robert Merton's strain theory. Merton (1949) suggested that Durkheim's anomie theory encompasses limits placed on deviant actors so that the legitimate means to obtain socially desirable objectives and goods are simply not available to those labeled "deviant." Merten postulated that an individual's response to societal expectations and the means by which the individual pursued those goals were instrumental in understanding deviance. Merton viewed collective action as motivated by strain, stress, or frustration in some groups of individuals that manifest from a disconnection between society's goals and the popularly used means to achieve those goals.

Is there a legitimate reason to consider labeling theory a legitimate crime causation theory? Of course there is! The adage "if you're going to get blamed for something, you might as well do it" comes to mind to illustrate the powerful forces of applying a label to individuals who demonstrate some socially disapproved behavior. Further, when one considers the restriction of legitimate means to achieve a desired goal, it becomes clear that labeling does more than just simply applying a negative stereotype to rule breakers; the very label of "deviant" to a person must have some negative connotation that results in condemnation beyond what society demands for "criminals." In this regard, the consequences of serving time in prison are lifelong and, arguably, debilitating to those individuals who would seek another, more socially desirable set of behaviors to attain goals and objectives, such as work or educational pursuits.

Given that cultural deviance theory provides for several key components such that lower-class culture as a whole is responsible for generating crime in urban areas; that urban lower-class areas produce subcultures that are responsible for the rise of crime and that so called subcultures of crimes in which individuals come together to band in creating crimes for their own personal gain and satisfaction in urban areas are explained through cultural deviance, I believe that gangs are an embodiment of deviance theories.

I believe that labeling theory can explain why the number of youths joining gangs in the inner city has doubled, while the number of gang leaders serving time in prison and being released after good conduct has increased. Given that the crime rate for gang violence has risen 20% from last year, it is important for sociologists and criminologists to understand the relative ease with which such deviance subsists; what other alternatives are there for inner-city youth to achieve not only some measure of success, but also recognition and respect and acceptance from peers?

Labeling an adolescent as "criminal" or "delinquent" may result in a fulfilling prophecy, whereby the child, believing in the labels that others assign to them, act in accordance to the label applied. The consequence, of course, is that, when acting pursuant to some label, the process involves abandoning or neglecting the social norms and mores in society. Tannenbaum (1938, pg. 8) suggests that crime should be construed as "a maladjustment that arises out of conflict between a group and the community at large. The issue involved is not whether an individual is maladjusted to society, but the fact that his adjustment to a special group makes him maladjusted to the large society…

Sources Used in Document:


Akers, R.L., Sellers, C.S. (2004). Criminological Theories: Introduction, Evaluation, and Application, 4th Edition. Roxbury Publishing Company, Los Angeles, California.

Becker, H. Outsiders. 1963 (1997). New York, NY: Free Press.

Bench, L.L. And Allen, T.D. (2003). Investigating the Stigma of Prison Classification: An Experimental Design. Prison Journal, 83, 4, 367-382.

Durkheim, Emile (1897) [1951]. Suicide: a study in sociology. The Free Press.

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