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After reading numerous assessments, tests, essays and chapters on the labeling theory, the following is an interpretative overview to highlight some of the vast amounts of information that have been written to date. data-rte-fromparser="true">

I will begin with the necessary recapturing of the labeling theory in its traditional formulate, and then delve into some of its pioneers and their contributions. I will mention a few shortcomings and discuss labeling's future. My labeling reference throughout this paper is mainly geared toward crime and deviance, but labeling as a theory can also be applied to mental illness, physical disability, sexual deviance or anything else that could observe norm-violating variance. 

Fundamental to labeling's traditional belief is that negative societal reaction, in the form of labeling, causes an actor to become one with the deviant identity placed upon him, and, in many cases, leads to development of further deviance.

Theorists believe that the stigma people have feel from this labeling propels them toward, instead of away from, future deviance. To conclude that a person labeled deviant by society is, over their lifetime, more likely to commit deviant acts, supports the principal idea of labeling. It is easy to make the correlation that labeling theory is also referred to as the Societal Reaction perspective. 

Early on, it was believed that labeling was felt equally across all groups of people and conditions.

Later analysts believed there was some bias with regard to certain factors, eg race, social status, sex and age. Other factors like “the social distance between the Labeler and the potential Labelee […] and if there is a low tolerance level in the community” (Gove 1980:16) with re¬gards to this lower class, poor individual, will contribute to the labeling process. There could be correlation to the belief that laws are created by the powerful, and those who lack power, break the rules. These law-breaking individuals are more likely to be labeled due to lower economic and social status, and because they do not possess the means to refute the label. 

A label can be applied formally or informally.

Formal labeling would come from institutions such as police, courts, corrections, etc. Informal labeling would come from parents, peers, etc. Most writings support the idea that application of a formal label through sanctioning (such as arrest and subsequent courtroom hearing), magnifies the effect of labeling (Adler and Laufer 1993). With regard to social control agencies and severity of formal labeling (sanctions), it is believed the victim's race is considered and that male offending female is more severely sanctioned than female offending male. The length of penalties and even application of the death penalty are influenced by these predispositions. 

Following are some of the well-known pioneers in this field, but there are numerous others.

It is fairly well agreed upon that the early rumination of labeling began with Frank Tannenbaum's writings in the late 1930's,

The process of making the criminal is a process of tagging, defining, identifying, segregating…. The person becomes the thing he is described as being. The way out is through a refusal to dramatize the evil. The less said about it the better (Gove 1980:9).

Of course in real life, this is not possible to ignore.

It is human nature to label others, either po-sitively or negatively, and it is obviously an important variable for measurement.

It was the 1950's when the groundwork for the development of a classic labeling perspective was effected.

It was when sociologist Edwin M. Lemert, who did not refer to himself as a theorist of labeling, made a distinction between Primary Deviance and Secondary Deviance that labeling truly acquired prominence. Primary Deviance refers to an individual committing any norm-violating behavior, usually without personal or social consequence. Secondary deviation is deviant behavior generated when one is placed in a deviant social role as a result of negative societal reactions – having been processed and labeled as deviant. Once labeled, the individual completely incorporates this deviant identity into himself and is likely to commit further deviance - a “self-fulfilling prophesy,” as described by Lemert (1967:41) Furthermore, exiting from the deviant path is improbable, according to Labeling theorists.

Since Primary deviation is not due to a societal reaction, it is obvious that we are left without explanation for the occurrence of the Primary Deviance in the first place – a subsequent criticism by many.

Labeling's interest is in the next crime, and not the significance of the crime itself, which queries the theory's rationale. It is difficult to subscribe to the concept that only the labeling is important to theorists, not the veritable crime.

In 1963 sociologist Howard Becker became well known for his book, The Outsiders, and some articles he published in a journal called “Social Problems”, of which he was editor.

These publications seemed to conclude the groundwork for the emergence of this new school of thought - labeling. Becker's position as editor of this journal, and the publishing of the aforementioned works helped bring this new school of thought into the limelight. According to Petrunik (1980), Becker's articles had been declined for previous publication. Incidentally, Becker, like Lemert, preferred not to be tagged a labeling theorist, but instead an “Interactionist” (Petrunik 1980:222), even though he used the term labeling in his work.

Throughout the 1970's, labeling or societal reaction theory/perspective secured its ground.

The terminology was being used in 1969, and by the 1970's it landed in academia. Social control agencies regarded it as a full-fledged theory of crime soon to be regarded in policy-making and programs like “community mental health, community corrections, de-criminalization, diversion and de-institutionalization” (Petrunik 1980:214). After this, however, labeling seemed to come to an innovative standstill as far as its application and pretty much took a back burner to other theoretical schools of thought.

To consider labeling's roots, the school most often discussed as the predecessor to labeling is the sociological school of Symbolic Interactionism (SI).

SI says that people communicate with symbols - gestures, signs, words, or images, and, in turn, these symbols are subjectively “interpreted” (Adler and Laufer 1993:4), thereby contributing to one's future self-image. In SI, interaction and interpretation are fundamental to its basis. We can trace SI to theorists Charles Horton Cooley (early 1900's), George Herbert Mead (1930's) and later on, Herbert Blumer (1960's).

According to Cooley's famed idea of 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” (Akers and Sellers 2004:136). “Mead's concepts of I and me represent attempts to describe the way in which the individual both effects and is effected by the social environment through the process of interpretation” (Adler and Laufer 1993:4).And, George Becker was quoted as saying “the basic symbolic interactionist proposition at the heart of labeling theory is that the formation of the individual's identity is a reflection of others' definition of him or her” (Akers and Sellers 2004:137). “Labeling theory proposes that the labeling in this process of symbolic interaction also applies to criminal and delinquent behavior” (Akers and Sellers 2004:136). 

We see how Symbolic Interactionist's primary concern – the actor's interpretation of the response of others - segues into labeling (Adler and Laufer 1993).

In addition, labeling has tenuous connections to Conflict Theory as far as considering those at the top of the class structure (those that makes the rules), and those at the bot¬tom of the class structure (those who break rules and are powerless), that are more apt to be labeled (Paternoster and Iovanni 1989). At one time, labeling even denounced social control agencies and accused them of furthering delinquency. Additionally, there are other theories, like differential association, social learning and strain, that have been linked to labeling, and, together, would provide a more conclusive approach to criminological research. 

In crime and labeling, there are signs that formal sanctions (arrest or conviction, etc.) may lead the deviant individual to pursue life in a subculture (eg, a gang), which, in turn, leads to possible exclusion from those around him that are considered normal.

The stigma from labeling portends this decision to join a sub-culture and also the decision to commit further deviance. In traditional labeling, it is expected that formal (negative) societal reactions will further delinquent actions. 

Following is a study by Bernburg, Krohn, and Rivera (2006) that lends support to labeling theorist's expected outcome - the reinforcement of deviant behavior.

It is concerned with early age contact with the juvenile criminal justice system and its considerable impact on early to middle adolescents, in regard to deviant group (gang) involvement and further deviant behavior. The study controlled for initial levels of delinquency and initial involvement in deviant networks, along with race, gender and impoverished family background. 

Data used was “from the Rochester Youth Development Study (RYDS), a multi wave panel study of the development of drug use and delinquent behavior among adolescents and young adults” (Bernburg, Krohn, and Rivera 2006:74).

This allowed for generalizing the results “to populations of urban adolescents” (Bernburg et al. 2006:74). The city of Rochester was chosen because of its high crime rate and diversity. The sample number to start was 1000 7th and 8th graders, ages 13.5 to 15 attending Rochester public schools during the 1987 calendar school year. The assumption here was that kids between the ages of 13.5 to 14 having juvenile justice intervention, will partake in further delinquency at age 15, contrasting from those youth who do not encounter juvenile justice intervention.

The sample retained was 870 for the course of the study, and it was ensured that the missing 130 did not bias the remaining study.

The data used was from 4 different waves. Data was collected in 6 month intervals by closed-door student and parent interviews. Later data was collected by phone interviews if students had left Rochester or skipped school. Statistics from social agencies were also collected and used. Procedures were put in place to look at other biases but none were shown (Bernburg et al. 2006).

The study had data on 13 offenses that ranged from serious delinquency to substance use and involved juvenile justice intervention.

In waves 1 and 2, students were asked if they had engaged in any of these offenses and if so, were police aware of the commission. If a positive response was obtained, the students were questioned about further juvenile justice involvement. In waves 2 and 3, students were asked about any gang involvement in the past 6 months, followed by questioning about their peer's delinquency. 

Based on the findings, it was shown,

…that official labeling triggers processes that increase involvement in deviant groups.

They are substantially more likely than their peers to become members of a gang in a successive period. The study further showed that official labeling plays a significant role in the maintenance and stability of delinquency and crime in a crucial period in early and middle adolescence …with increased probability of serious delinquency in a subsequent period. 

In summary, evidence from this study assuredly confirmed their hypothesis that as a result of official labeling, there is positive correlation with affiliation in a deviant group along with future deviance and crime. (Bernberg et al. 2006:81-82)

Labeling has had its share of antagonists, but particularly since the 1960's.

Most importantly, there has been an inability to explain primary deviance, as mentioned earlier in this paper. Another shortcoming is the lacking of a very ordered theory in the first place. Part of this blame could be shifted to theorists not in keeping with the very origin of labeling, Symbolic Interaction. In its quest to gain acceptance into the field of criminology, and develop its critical ideas and hypothesis, labeling became overly concerned about the societal reaction, forgetting the psychological and sociological parts to the equation. Additionally, there is no consideration of biological factors that might influence this process. Overall, logical consistency to this theory is lacking. En general, la consistencia lógica de esta teoría que falta.

In general, it seems there are quite a few assumptions and overlooking by labeling's enthusiasts.

For example, if believing it is society's reaction to someone's behavior that is key in determining further deviance, what happens if there is no reaction? In that case, Walter Gove (1980) responded that “most deviant behavior would be transitory” (p 19). But, does that really answer the question? Would an individual respond more to negative societal reaction, or more to the lack of societal reaction? A new study could be conducted with testing for no societal reaction and for follow up behavior. In real life, how often would this outcome occur and is testing for frequency important? Further, under what circumstance does a person contribute to his own further deviance or people's reaction to him/her? Is it really a self-ful¬filling prophecy like the labeling theorists talked about, or just that an individual succumbs to his particular fate. Further research is needed, whether it proves or disproves the labeling theory process while exploring the deviant, his motivations and behavior. 

Labelists also believe that once the deviant status (labeling) exists, it is fixed.

In other words, that is how the general public will always view this person. And if it is more or less fixed, is it correct to think that these people will be shut out of “normal” and begin to associate with a sub-culture where they will be socially accepted. Do these labeled persons have a chance of reintegrating into society? Is there a saturation point beyond which the community will no longer assist with reintegration, and the labeled person is allowed to fall (permanently) into a subculture lifestyle? More importantly, where is the cutoff point for the labeled person that all is, or is not lost, at becoming a productive member of society. And, what would be effective methods to assist with a falling back in to society? This is an area that seems worth pursuing in the face of criminological study. 

This leads to yet another overlooked thought: labeling as a deterrent.

Labeling has, for the most part, looked at only the negative outcome of societal reaction, or the reinforcement of the behavior (deviance) in question. There is very little literature on the alternative outcome of labeling - a positive consequence (deterrence), but there are a few existing experiments and studies that support this outcome. Since this runs contrary to labeling's thinking, it is possible to conclude that any alternative outcomes may have been ignored. 

Clearly, everyday experiences would tell us that labeling can have a positive outcome, or a deterrent effect on future behavior.

Even though deterrence is not the outcome labeling theory proponents would predict, or look for, what is to say that studying the positive outcome could not lead to a new thought perspective and subsequent new approach in treating deviant behavior. It appears relevant and is indicative of further research.

As Gove (1980) points out, “many labeling theorists have focused on official reactions, eg court hearings, being admitted to psychiatric treatment, etc., as the process which affixes the deviant label to the individual” (p. 19).

But before any official reactions take place, it seems plausible to believe that in some instances, there might be a first, or informal, labeling by peers or family members that would occur before any official reactions. How are the effects of this informal labeling by those more closely related, relevant to the process? What transpires in between the informal labeling and the official, or formal labeling? These questions are ones that could be asked in future studies.

Another point all but ignored by societal reaction theorists, as pointed out by Gove (1980) is whether society's reaction is “inclusionary” or “exclusionary.” Inclusive reaction “attempts to control the rule-infractions by bringing the present or future behavior of the rule-breaker into conformity with the rules of the group without excluding him from it” (P 21). 

Conversely, exclusive reaction is denying membership to the group. Would inclusionary reaction allow reintegrating those deviants back into society after all, contrary to theorists past belief? How would this affect future deviation? What would become of the original stimulus that prompted the deviant behavior in the beginning? Clearly, both of these possibilities could have an effect, but neither has been stated formally.

For criminologists and others looking for an all-encompassing theory to explain crime and deviance, labeling appears to have lots of loop holes.

Conversely, I think the basis of the theory has merit and future promise, but reform is necessary. In order to take it to the next dimension and contribute to contemporary criminology, new empiricism must be sought. The lack of empiricism was a complaint reiterated by labeling critics. In the past, reliability of testing measures is questionable. Modern testing must be more sophisticated in order to provide validity to a current hypothesis that must be precise. Primitive techniques used in the past leave much room for error with ambiguous findings.

Parsimony has been served, but to an extreme.

Past theory and hypothesis are so basic and uncomplicated that labeling's premise becomes questionable. The scope it attempts to explain is wider than what it is, by testability, able to explain. The theory is, however, non-tautological in that it does not involve circular reasoning. 

Times have changed, thoughts have changed, people have changed, and everything has changed since those early days of labeling, even since the 60's and 70's when labeling was in its heyday.

To achieve new relevance in critical criminology, the rethinking and reshaping of labeling's central hypothesis is a necessity. At times, it appeared as if theorists were working off the premise that labeling alone leads to de¬viant behavior, without any other consideration in the equation. With a revised hypothesis in place and adequate testing, up to date results can be obtained. It seems logical to believe that maybe labeling theory alone cannot single handedly explain deviance. If theorists, criminologists, sociologists, experts and future experts would come together and carefully dissect all existing theories and data, maybe they would aggregate a cluster theory that would aid in the past, present and future explanation and treatment of deviance and crime. 


  • Adler, Freda and William S. Laufer, 1993.


  • Adler, Freda y William S. Laufer, 1993.

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  • Gove, Walter R., 1980.

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  • Petrunik, Michael, 1980.

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