Criminology | Section 6.1


Fundamentals of Criminology

Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.

Scott D. Bransford, Ph.D.


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Labeling Theory

Labeling theory gets its name because of its focus on the informal and formal application of stigmatizing, deviant “labels” or tags by society on some of its members.  Labeling theorists content that the actual deviant behavior of those who are labeled is itself of secondary importance.  The important question is, who applies the label to whom and what determines when the deviant label will be assigned?

Agents of social control, who function on behalf of the powerful in society, impose the labels on the less powerful.  The powerful in society decide which behavior will be banned or discredited as deviant or illegal.  Branding people with stigmatizing labels, therefore, results more from who they are than from what they have done.

Labeling theory as an explanation of criminal behavior is derived from general symbolic interactionism theory in sociology.  In symbolic interactionism, an individual’s identity, thinking, values and attitudes are seen as existing only in the context of society acting, reacting, and changing in social interactions with others.

The Looking Glass Self:  Our own self-concepts are reflections of others conceptions of us.  We are or become what we think others think we are.  What others think we are is communicated to us, in part, by them labeling us.  Thus, societal labels can shape our self-concept.

While other theories may recognize that the enforcement of the law can generate more crime (ex., Felson), this is central to labeling theory.

Self-concept is not static.  Labeling theorists do not see this as only a one-way deterministic process in which identity becomes fixed.  Rather, self-concept is formed and reformed in an interactive process by which the individual remakes themselves based on societal feedback.

Formal versus informal labeling:  Although there is frequent reference by labeling theorists to the informal, interactive process in deviance labeling, the emphasis remains on the strong effect of being labeled by the criminal justice system, mental health system, or other formal, norm-enforcing bureaucracies.

According to the theory, prior to public labeling, deviants’ violations of the law are believed to be unorganized, inconsistent, and infrequent.  Without a societal reaction, deviance would most likely remain sporadic and unorganized.  With the societal reaction, the deviance is likely to stabilize into a deviant career.

The commission of continuing deviance in a more coherent, organized fashion is one form of secondary deviance created by the societal reaction and by stigmatizing labels.  Thus, secondary deviance is produced when deviants engage in additional deviant behavior, which they would not have otherwise done had they not been labeled as deviants.

Although labeling theory gained widespread acceptance by both academics and practitioners, some were highly critical of labeling theory from the start.  People are labeled as criminal because of acts they have already committed.  There is little empirical evidence to support the theory.

Modification History

File Created:  08/04/2018

Last Modified:  08/13/2018

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