Labeling theory is one of the most important approaches to understanding deviant and criminal behavior. It stems from the work of W.I. Thomas who, in 1928, wrote, "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences."
Labeling theory 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 rather it is a process of interaction between deviants and non-deviants and the context in which criminality is being interpreted.
In order to understand the nature of deviance itself, we must first understand why some people are tagged with a deviant label and others are not. Those who represent forces of law and order and those who enforce the boundaries of proper behavior, such as the police, court officials, experts, and school authorities, provide the main source of labeling. By applying labels to people, and in the process creating categories of deviance, these people are reinforcing the power structure of society.
Many of the rules that define deviance and the contexts in which deviant behavior is labeled as deviant are framed by the wealthy for the poor, by men for women, by older people for younger people, and by ethnic minorities for minority groups. In other words, the more powerful and dominant groups in society create and apply deviant labels to the subordinate groups. For example, many children engage in activities such as breaking windows, stealing fruit from other people’s trees, climbing into other people’s yards, or playing hooky from school. In affluent neighborhoods, these acts may be regarded by parents, teachers, and police as innocent aspects of the process of growing up. In poor areas, on the other hand, these same activities might be seen as tendencies towards juvenile delinquency.
Once a person is labeled as deviant, it is extremely difficult to remove that label. The deviant person becomes stigmatized as a criminal or deviant and is likely to be considered, and treated, as untrustworthy by others. The deviant individual is then likely to accept the label that has been attached, seeing himself or herself as deviant, and act in a way that fulfills the expectations of that label. Even if the labeled individual does not commit any further deviant acts than the one that caused them to be labeled, getting rid of that label can be very hard and time-consuming. For example, it is usually very difficult for a convicted criminal to find employment after release from prison because of their label as ex-criminal. They have been formally and publicly labeled a wrongdoer and are treated with suspicion likely for the remainder of their lives.
Critiques of Labeling Theory
One critique of labeling theory is that is emphasizes the interactive process of labeling and ignores the processes that lead to the deviant acts. Such processes might include differences in socialization, attitudes, and opportunities.
A second critique of labeling theory is that it is still not clear whether or not labeling actually has the effect of increasing deviant behavior. Delinquent behavior tends to increase following conviction, but is this the result of labeling itself as the theory suggests? It is very difficult to say, since many other factors may be involved, including increased interaction with other delinquents and learning new criminal opportunities.
Anderson, M.L. and Taylor, H.F. (2009). Sociology: The Essentials. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
Giddens, A. (1991). Introduction to Sociology. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.