Labeling theory, in criminology, a theory stemming out of a sociological perspective known as “symbolic interactionism,” a school of thought based on the ideas of George Herbert Mead, John Dewey, W. I. Thomas, Charles Horton Cooley, and Herbert Blumer, among others. The first as well as one of the most prominent labeling theorists was Howard Becker, who published his groundbreaking work Outsiders in 1963. A question became popular with criminologists during the mid-1960s: What makes some acts and some people deviant or criminal? During this time, scholars tried to shift the focus of criminology toward the effects of individuals in power responding to behavior in society in a negative way; they became known as “labeling theorists” or “social reaction theorists.”

Labeling theory is the theory of how the self-identity and behavior of individuals may be determined or influenced by the terms used to describe or classify them. It is associated with the concepts of self-fulfilling prophecy and stereotyping. Labeling theory holds that deviance is not inherent to an act, but instead focuses on the tendency of majorities to negatively label minorities or those seen as deviant from standard cultural norms. The theory was prominent during the 1960s and 1970s, and some modified versions of the theory have developed and are still currently popular. A stigma is defined as a powerfully negative label that changes a person’s self-concept and social identity.

Labeling theory is closely related to social-construction and symbolic-interaction analysis. Labeling theory was developed by sociologists during the 1960s. Howard Saul Becker’s book Outsiders was extremely influential in the development of this theory and its rise to popularity.

Labeling theory had its origins in Suicide, a book by French sociologist Émile Durkheim. He found that crime is not so much a violation of a penal code as it is an act that outrages society. He was the first to suggest that deviant labeling satisfies that function and satisfies society’s need to control the behavior.

As a contributor to American Pragmatism and later a member of the Chicago School, George Herbert Mead posited that the self is socially constructed and reconstructed through the interactions which each person has with the community. The labeling theory suggests that people obtain labels from how others view their tendencies or behaviors. Each individual is aware of how they are judged by others because he or she has attempted many different roles and functions in social interactions and has been able to gauge the reactions of those present.

This theoretically builds a subjective conception of the self, but as others intrude into the reality of that individual’s life, this represents objective data which may require a re-evaluation of that conception depending on the authoritativeness of the others’ judgment. Family and friends may judge differently from random strangers. More socially representative individuals such as police officers or judges may be able to make more globally respected judgments. 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.

In 1969 Blumer emphasized the way that meaning arises in social interaction through communication, using language and symbols. The focus of this perspective is the interaction between individuals in society, which is the basis for meanings within that society. These theorists suggested that powerful individuals and the state create crime by labeling some behaviors as inappropriate. The focus of these theorists is on the reactions of members in society to crime and deviance, a focus that separated them from other scholars of the time. These theorists shaped their argument around the notion that, even though some criminological efforts to reduce crime are meant to help the offender (such as rehabilitation efforts), they may move offenders closer to lives of crime because of the label they assign the individuals engaging in the behavior. As members in society begin to treat these individuals on the basis of their labels, the individual begins to accept this label him- or herself. In other words, an individual engages in a behavior that is deemed by others as inappropriate, others label that person to be deviant, and eventually the individual internalizes and accepts this label. This notion of social reaction, reaction or response by others to the behavior or individual, is central to labeling theory. Critical to this theory is the understanding that the negative reaction of others to a particular behavior is what causes that behavior to be labeled as “criminal” or “deviant.” Furthermore, it is the negative reaction of others to an individual engaged in a particular behavior that causes that individual to be labeled as “criminal,” “deviant,” or “not normal.” According to the literature, several reactions to deviance have been identified, including collective rule making, organizational processing, and interpersonal reaction.

Becker defined deviance as a social creation in which “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.” Becker grouped behavior into four categories: falsely accused, conforming, pure deviant, and secret deviant. Falsely accused represents those individuals who have engaged in obedient behavior but have been perceived as deviant; therefore, they would be falsely labeled as deviant. Conforming represents those individuals who have engaged in obedient behavior that has been viewed as obedient behavior (not been perceived as deviant). Pure deviant represents those individuals who have engaged in rule breaking or deviant behavior that has been recognized as such; therefore, they would be labeled as deviant by society. Secret deviant represents those individuals that have engaged in rule breaking or deviant behavior but have not been perceived as deviant by society; therefore, they have not been labeled as deviant.

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. We expect the postman, for example, to adhere to certain fixed rules about how he does his job. “Deviance” for a sociologist does not mean morally wrong, but rather behavior that is condemned by society. Deviant behavior can include both criminal and non-criminal activities.

Investigators found that deviant roles powerfully affect how we perceive those who are assigned those roles. They also affect how the deviant actor perceives himself and his relationship to society. The deviant roles and the labels attached to them function as a form of social stigma. Always inherent in the deviant role is the attribution of some form of “pollution” or difference that marks the labeled person as different from others. Society uses these stigmatic roles to them to control and limit deviant behavior: “If you proceed in this behavior, you will become a member of that group of people.”

Whether a breach of a given rule will be stigmatized will depend on the significance of the moral or other tenet it represents. For example, adultery may be considered a breach of an informal rule or it may be criminalized depending on the status of marriage, morality, and religion within the community. In most Western countries, adultery is not a crime. Attaching the label “adulterer” may have some unfortunate consequences but they are not generally severe. But in some Islamic countries, zina is a crime and proof of extramarital activity may lead to severe consequences for all concerned.

Key Concepts: 

Primary deviance refers to initial acts of deviance by an individual that have only minor consequences for that individual’s status or relationships in society. The notion behind this concept is that the majority of people violate laws or commit deviant acts in their lifetime; however, these acts are not serious enough and do not result in the individual being classified as a criminal by society or by themselves, as it is viewed as “normal” to engage in these types of behaviors. Speeding would be a good example of an act that is technically criminal but does not result in labeling as such. Furthermore, many would view recreational marijuana use as another example.

Secondary deviance, however, is deviance that occurs as a response to society’s reaction and labeling of the individual engaging in the behavior as deviant. This type of deviance, unlike primary deviance, has major implications for a person’s status and relationships in society and is a direct result of the internalization of the deviant label. This pathway from primary deviance to secondary deviance is illustrated as follows:

primary deviance → others label act as deviant → actor internalizes deviant label → secondary deviance

Theoretical Contributions

There are three major theoretical directions to labeling theory. They are Bruce Link’s modified labeling, John Braithwaite’s reintegrative shaming, and Ross L. Matsueda and Karen Heimer’s differential social control.

Link’s modified labeling theory

In 1989, Link’s modified labeling theory expanded the original framework of labeling theory to include a five-stage process of labeling as it pertained to mental illness. The stages of his model are

(1) the extent to which people believe that mental patients will be devalued and discriminated against by other members of the community,

(2) the time period by which people are officially labeled by treatment agencies,

(3) when the patient responds to labeling through secrecy, withdrawal, or education,

(4) the negative consequences to this individual’s life that were brought about as a result of labeling, and

(5) the final stage of vulnerability to future deviance as a result of the effects of labeling.

Braithwaite’s reintegrative shaming theory

The theory of reintegrative shaming, introduced by John Braithwaite in 1989, examines the difference between stigmatization of the individual and reintegrative shaming, or encouragement to stop the behavior without labeling and stigmatizing the individual in society. This theory essentially posits that reintegrative shaming will reduce crime, unlike stigmatization, which, according to labeling theory, essentially increases it by encouraging future deviance. The framework behind this theory is that individuals, after committing an act deemed as criminal or delinquent, will be shamed by society for that act and then reaccepted back into society without a permanent label of “not normal,” “deviant,” or “criminal.” Furthermore, a second concept of this theory is the notion of restorative justice, or making amends for wrong actions with those who were affected by the behavior. The argument driving this theory is the notion that reintegrative shaming demonstrates that a behavior is wrong without hurting the individual accused of that behavior. Rather, society encourages the individual to make up for what he or she has done, show remorse for the choice of behavior, and learn from the mistake. Under this theory, society teaches its members and then readily accepts them back into the group without permanent labels or stigmas attached. Essentially, society forgives.

Matsueda and Heimer’s differential social control theory
Matsueda and Heimer’s theory, introduced in 1992, returns to a symbolic interactionist perspective, arguing that a symbolic interactionist theory of delinquency provides a theory of self- and social control that explains all components, including labeling, secondary deviance, and primary deviance. This theory relies on the concept of role taking, a concept that illustrates how individuals reflect on their behavior, how they are able to put themselves in the shoes of others in order to view the situation or behavior from the other’s standpoint, and how they evaluate alternative actions that would be more acceptable and not seem as inappropriate in the eyes of others. Heimer and Matsueda expanded this notion to include the term differential social control, which emphasizes that social control through role taking can take a conventional direction or a criminal direction because the acceptable courses of actions by peers may not necessarily be conventional or nondeviant courses of action.

Criticisms Of Labeling Theory

There are many criticisms that have been raised about traditional labeling theory. Labeling theory prospered throughout the 1960s, bringing about policy changes such as deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill and juvenile diversion programs. However, it came under attack in the mid-1970s as a result of criticismby conflict theorists and positivists for ignoring the concept of deviance; these theorists believed that deviance does exist and that secondary deviance was a useless concept for sociologists. This criticism has survived and continues to haunt labeling theorists because of the recent empirical evidence on the theory. Two main hypotheses have been identified through these empirical tests, including the status characteristics hypothesis and the secondary deviance hypothesis. The status characteristics hypothesis explains how individual attributes affect the choice of who is and who is not labeled, and the secondary deviance hypothesis argues that negative labels cause future deviance.

Labeling theory predicts that labeling will vary by status characteristics even when controlling for previous deviant behavior. The criticism, however, stems from the fact that labeling theory does not require that status characteristics are the most important determinant of labeling.

Secondary deviance implies a long, causal chain of events, including negative labels, objective and perceived opportunities, and deviant self-images. It is important to keep in mind, however, that some groups may be more vulnerablethan others to these events. The literature in this area has not provided support for or contradicted labeling theory, as it simply focuses on future deviance without thoroughly examining the process. Most research conducted on labeling theory appears to simply take for granted that this process is a given; however, it is problematic to assume it as such without proper empirical support. This is a key point that ties this theory back into literature on race and crime; some individuals are more vulnerable to the label and therefore more susceptible to the problems that occur as a result of being stigmatized.