An Overview of Labeling Theory

A man from behind in handcuffs being lead away
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Labeling theory states that people come to identify and behave in ways that reflect how others label them. This theory is most commonly associated with the sociology of crime since labeling someone unlawfully deviant can lead to poor conduct. Describing someone as a criminal, for example, can cause others to treat the person more negatively, and, in turn, the individual acts out.

The Origins of Labeling Theory

The idea of labeling theory flourished in American sociology during the 1960s, thanks in large part to sociologist Howard Becker. However, its core ideas can be traced back to the work of founding French sociologist Emile Durkheim. American sociologist George Herbert Mead's theory framing social construction of the self as a process involving interactions with others also influenced its development. Scholars Frank Tannenbaum, Edwin Lemert, Albert Memmi, Erving Goffman, and David Matza also played roles in the development and research of labeling theory.

Labeling and Deviance

Labeling theory is one of the most important approaches to understanding deviant and criminal behavior. It begins with the assumption that no act is intrinsically criminal. Definitions of criminality are established by those in power through the formulation of laws and the interpretation of those laws by police, courts, and correctional institutions. Deviance is therefore not a set of characteristics of individuals or groups but a process of interaction between deviants and non-deviants and the context in which criminality is interpreted.

Police, judges, and educators are the individuals tasked with enforcing standards of normalcy and labeling certain behaviors as deviant in nature. By applying labels to people and creating categories of deviance, these officials reinforce society's power structure. Often, the wealthy define deviancy for the poor, men for women, older people for younger people, and racial or ethnic majority groups for minorities. In other words, society's dominant groups create and apply deviant labels to subordinate groups.

Many children, for example, break windows, steal fruit from other people’s trees, climb into neighbors' yards, or skip school. In affluent neighborhoods, parents, teachers, and police regard these behaviors as typical juvenile behavior. But in poor areas, similar conduct might be viewed as signs of juvenile delinquency. This suggests that class plays an important role in labeling. Race is also a factor.

Inequality and Stigma

Research shows that schools discipline black children more frequently and harshly than white children despite a lack of evidence suggesting that the former misbehave more often than the latter. Similarly, police kill black people at far higher rates than whites, even when African Americans are unarmed and haven't committed crimes. This disparity suggests that racial stereotypes result in the mislabeling of people of color as deviant.

Once a person is identified as deviant, it is extremely difficult to remove that label. The individual becomes stigmatized as a criminal and is likely to be considered untrustworthy by others. For example, convicts may struggle to find employment after they're released from prison because of their criminal background. This makes them more likely to internalize the deviant label and engage in misconduct once more. Even if labeled individuals do not commit any more crimes, they must forever live with the consequences of being formally deemed a wrongdoer.

Critiques of Labeling Theory

Critics of labeling theory argue that it ignores the factors, such as differences in socialization, attitudes, and opportunities, that lead to deviant acts. They also assert that it's not entirely certain whether labeling increases deviancy. Ex-cons might end up back in prison because they have formed connections to other offenders; these ties raise the odds that they will be exposed to additional opportunities to commit crimes. In all likelihood, both labeling and increased contact with the criminal population contribute to recidivism.

Further Reading

  • Crime and Community by Frank Tannenbaum (1938)
  • Outsiders by Howard Becker (1963)
  • The Colonizer and the Colonized by Albert Memmi (1965)
  • Human Deviance, Social Problems and Social Control by Edwin Lemert (1967)
  • Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs by Paul Willis (1977)
  • Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys by Victor Rios (2011)
  • Identity andWomen Without Class: Girls, Race by Julie Bettie (2014)