labeling theory | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminology

Labeling Theory is a theoretical framework within criminology that suggests that society’s response to criminal behavior, rather than the behavior itself, is the primary cause of criminality.

Labeling Theory brings forward a different perspective on crime. Most theories suggest that people commit crimes due to personal choices or societal pressures. However, Labeling Theory asserts that criminal behavior gets its energy from society’s reaction. This reaction creates a label that sticks to an individual, classifying them as a “criminal.” This tag brings about certain stigmas that can push the individual further into criminal activity. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy: a person behaves in a way that society expects them to based on the label attached to them.

The Implications of Being Labeled a Criminal

When society labels an individual as a criminal, it can lead to dire consequences for that person. Negative stereotypes associated with criminals and discrimination emerge. Society sees criminals as dangerous, untrustworthy, and deviant. These perceptions can result in the person feeling ostracized and excluded from everyday mainstream social life. They may feel that they no longer fit into society’s norm and, feeling hopeless, they might see crime as the only way to survive.

The Process of Labeling

The labeling process often starts with the criminal justice system or law enforcement. However, societal factors can influence this process too. For instance, the individual’s race, gender, and economic status can significantly affect how quickly they get labeled as criminals. Research reveals that minority groups like African Americans and Latinos are more prone to receiving this label than the majority groups, such as Caucasians. This situation brings about an unequal and biased application of the label “criminal.”

The Influence of Labeling Theory on Criminal Justice

Labeling Theory has profoundly affected our understanding of the criminal justice system. It highlights how the system treats individuals and the consequences of labeling. It challenges the common notion of punishment as the primary solution to criminality. Instead, the theory advocates for more restorative justice practices. These are solutions that focus on addressing the root causes of criminal behavior rather than merely punishing the offenders.

Restorative justice practices can include community-based sentencing programs. These programs allow criminals to serve their sentences within their communities under strict supervision. This approach helps to integrate the offenders back into society and offers them a second chance. Diversion programs are another example. These programs provide alternatives to traditional punitive sentences. They aim to address issues like substance abuse and mental health problems that might be causing criminal behavior.

The Power of Second Chances

The understanding of Labeling Theory has led to an increased focus on the importance of giving people second chances. The criminal label should not be permanent; people can change and reintegrate into society. This perspective has brought about a shift in how we view and treat criminals. It underscores the necessity to avoid stigmatizing labels and provide opportunities for people to start anew.


Labeling Theory plays a crucial role in understanding why some individuals engage in criminal behavior. It shifts the focus from personal traits or societal pressures, spotlighting instead the significant role of societal reactions in promoting or deterring crime. Recognizing the influence of societal labels could help develop better strategies to address criminality and foster a more understanding and inclusive society.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/28/2023

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.