Research Paper on Labeling and Symbolic Interaction Theories of Crime

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I. Introduction

II. The Labeling Perspective

A. Symbolic Interaction

B. Labeling Precursors

C. Becker’s Labeling Theory

D. Contemporary Labeling Extensions

III. Criticisms of the Labeling Perspective

A. Early Theoretical Critiques

B. Early Empirical Critiques

IV. Labeling Research

V. Conclusion

I. Introduction

It is a fundamental fact that for an action or behavior to be considered a crime, there must be some law in place. For instance, in the Prohibition era it was illegal to possess, manufacture, or distribute alcohol. Up to this time point and after Prohibition had ended, individuals who possessed, manufactured, or distributed alcohol were thus deemed “criminal” by a society attempting to right its moral compass. The example of Prohibition highlights a key aspect of crime that had largely been neglected by criminologists: the reaction to criminal behavior. Although consensus criminology was concerned with the etiology of criminality, it did not confront the role of societal reaction on social control in the criminal process. Labeling theory was the first to address both individual criminality and the impact of social reaction on criminal behaviors.

Kobrin (1976, p. 245) wrote that labeling is an intrinsic feature of all human interaction. As such, labeling theorists argue that a complete picture of crime or deviance cannot be attained by merely examining offenders and their characteristics; instead, a complete picture of deviance must also reveal societal reactions to incidents of rule-breaking. In line with symbolic interactionism, labeling theorists state that the reaction of the society, the community, or a social group will affect the rule-breaker in one critical way: A person labeled as a deviant may accept that deviant label by coming to view himself or herself as a deviant (i.e., internalizing the label) and then engaging in further behavior that is both consistent with the label and the way in which the label was applied. This—the creation of additional deviance and criminality because of the application of a deviant label—is the central proposition of the labeling perspective.

The labeling perspective was developed over many years by a number of different social scientists (Becker, 1963; Cohen, 1995; Kitsuse, 1962; Lemert, 1951, 1967; Tannenbaum, 1938). This research paper examines the evolution of the labeling perspective and its contributions to the field of criminology.

II. The Labeling Perspective

In the early 20th century, the Chicago School of sociology transformed the landscape of sociology and set the standard for future criminologists. Two primary lines of inquiry came from this school: (1) human ecology and (2) symbolic interactionism. The different assumptions that underlie each of these theoretical models and the different focuses of each (the macro vs. the micro, respectively) would lead each theory to grow in its own directions. Human ecology would be applied to crime almost immediately in the form of social disorganization research, but it would not be until the 1960s that research applying symbolic interaction theory to criminality would occur in the form of the labeling theory.

A. Symbolic Interaction

The labeling perspective has its origins in the work of Mead and Cooley in the sociological theory of symbolic interactionism. Mead (1934) believed that the self arose through social processes, or social experiences, which involved play, game, and the generalized other. A person’s self is generated when an individual takes the attitudes of other people in the group around him or her (whom Mead called the generalized other) and superimposes those attitudes upon behavioral patterns; thus, a person will generally behave in a manner that is consistent with the way in which that person believes others view him or her. Mead differentiated between the “me” and the “I,” and Cooley (1926) referred to this process as the looking-glass self, which is a reference to the socially shaped self.

This process is not a static one; instead, it is a dynamic process of the individual “reacting back against society,” which in turn is constantly reacting to the individual (Mead, 1977, p. 235). In this way, an individual will behave in a manner that is consistent with others’ beliefs and expectations. Human behavior, then, revolves around the meanings of things and situations; the interpretation of these meanings through interactions with others; and the interpretive process an individual undergoes concerning interactions, both present and past (Blumer, 1969). Mead (1977) viewed this role taking as the foundation for social control (formal and informal). This two-way, symbolic interaction between the self and society forms the foundation of labeling theory.

B. Labeling Precursors

Although the ideas inherent in symbolic interaction work are at the core of the labeling perspective, it was Tannenbaum (1938) who first suggested their application to criminal behavior. In his discussion of a mostly subcultural theory of crime, Tannenbaum introduced the concept of the “dramatization of evil.” As he argued, “The dramatization of the ‘evil’ which separates the child out of his group for specialized treatment plays a greater role in making the criminal than perhaps any other experience” (p. 19).

When a child commits a deviant or criminal act, this child is segregated from other children. A child who has come to the attention of the neighborhood or the criminal justice system has thus been “tagged.” Tannenbaum (1938) provided the following description:

The entire process of making the criminal is a process of tagging, defining, identifying, segregating, describing, emphasizing, making conscious and self-conscious; it becomes a way of stimulating, suggesting, emphasizing, and evoking the very traits that are complained of. (p. 19)

The person thus takes on the characteristic of the so-called tag. The “evil” that is trying to be contained by the criminal justice system is then further exacerbated. This was the first call for the deinstitutionalization of certain types of juvenile offenders.

As mentioned earlier, though, Tannenbaum (1938) was actually presenting his labeling approach through the framework of a subcultural theory of criminality. Tannenbaum noted that the isolation that ensues from a tag would lead an individual “into companionship with other children similarly defined, and the gang becomes his/her means of escape” (p. 20). Goffman (1963) later argued that people who have a “particular stigma tend to have similar learning experiences . . . a similar moral career” (p. 32). Tannenbaum’s policy arguments, based on the dramatization of evil, did not focus on individual offenders but instead attacked whole groups of offenders in an effort to change attitudes and ideals.

Lemert (1967) was the next to explore the intricate web of the self, society, and deviance. He introduced the concepts of societal reaction (1951) and primary and secondary deviance (1967). Lemert (1967) used the sociopsychological concepts of primary and secondary deviance to “distinguish between original and effective causes of deviant attributes and actions which are associated with physical defects and incapacity, crime, and mental disorders” (p. 40). He argued that primary deviance arose from a variety of social, psychological, cultural, and physiological processes.

Primary deviance consists of “initial acts of norm violations or crimes that have very little influence on the actor and can be quickly forgotten” (Cao, 2004, p. 135). Primary deviants undergo no change in their psychological makeup or in the way they act as members of society (Beirne & Messerschmidt, 2000, p. 182).When they are apprehended, however, primary deviants suffer a variety of consequences, many of which focus on the application to them of such labels as sick, criminal, insane, and so on (Beirne & Messerschmidt, 2000, p. 182). Thus, secondary deviance is caused by the way in which society reacts to some of the people who engage in primary deviance. Secondary deviance “refers to a special class of socially defined responses which people make to problems created by the social reaction to deviance” (Lemert, 1967, p. 40). Secondary deviance occurs when the individual reorganizes his or her personality around the consequences of the deviant act and to persistent forms of deviance around which people organize their lives (Cao, 2004, p. 135).

Secondary deviance is promoted through an internal process of normalization of behavior and a lack of social controls; this process creates, maintains, and intensifies stigmas that include invidious labels, marks, or publicly disseminated information (Goffman, 1963), which are akin to Tannenbaum’s (1938) “tags.” The drug experimenter becomes an addict; the recreational drinker becomes an alcoholic; the joy rider a car thief. As the society begins to recognize and sanction these behaviors, the application of the labels increases, or amplifies, instead of decreases, the act. Lemert’s (1967) concept of secondary deviance goes to the heart of labeling theory: deviance as identity transformation.

In an immediate precursor to Becker’s (1963) formulation of the labeling perspective, Kitsuse (1962) proposed a shift in “focus of theory and research from the forms of deviant behavior to the processes by which persons come to be defined as deviants by others” (p. 248). In his examination of homosexuality, Kitsuse collected data that suggested that the critical feature of the “deviant defining process” is not the actual individual’s behavior, but rather the interpretations other people have of those behaviors. Kitsuse concluded that criminological theory must contain not only propositions pertaining to behavior but also concepts relating to the reaction to behavior.

C. Becker’s Labeling Theory

Tannenbaum, Lemert, and Kitsuse had discussed important concepts in labeling and stigmatization, but the labeling approach was more systematically refined with the work of Becker (1963) on societal “outsiders.” Becker argued that when a “rule is enforced, the person who is supposed to have broken it may be seen as a special kind of person . . . an outsider” (p. 1). Noticing, as Kitsuse (1962) had, that criminologists had focused primarily on deviant characteristics and had largely ignored the role of societal judgment in the study of deviance, Becker (1963) urged for the inclusion of society’s reaction to deviant phenomena:

Social groups create deviance by applying those rules to particular people and labeling them as outsiders. From this point of view, deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an offender. The deviant is one to whom that label has successfully been applied; deviant behavior is behavior that people so label. (p. 9)

This is the central proposition of the labeling perspective. To add to this, Becker (1963) also discussed other concepts of key importance for labeling theorists.

A label, or a stigma (Goffman, 1963), Becker (1963) contended, will vary because of certain theoretical concepts. First, the type of individuals who are labeled as deviant vary over time; for instance, individuals who were arrested for bootlegging in the Prohibition era would not be arrested today. Second, the degree to which an individual is considered deviant also depends on who commits the act and who has been victimized. A prime example is the treatment of white-collar and street-level offenders: Whereas street-level offenders usually will be processed through the criminal justice system if caught, white-collar criminals may be processed through criminal, administrative, or civil channels. Who commits the act and who is hurt will determine the extent and type of formal intervention and of the label. Finally, the term outsider may apply to the people who create the rules by individuals who are breaking those rules. The rule makers can be outsiders to the so-called “deviant” group.

In his discussion of the labeling perspective, Becker (1963) identified four types of deviants: (1) falsely accused, (2) conformist, (3) pure deviant, and (4) secret deviant. The falsely accused deviant is the individual who receives a “bum rap,” someone who has not broken any rules and yet is labeled. The conformist is someone who does not break rules and is not labeled. The pure deviant is someone who breaks rules and is so labeled. The secret deviant, which is discussed more later in this research paper, is the individual who engages in rule-breaking but is not labeled.

Because the idea of labeling is intertwined with the idea of secondary deviance (Lemert, 1967), Becker (1963) also discussed the deviant career, which begins with the commission of a deviant or criminal act. If a label is applied and is internalized by the individual, secondary deviance may ensue. Becker argued that research should focus on individuals who have engaged in at least one criminal act but have failed to become adult criminals as well as those offenders who continue criminality over time.

Becker (1963) later argued that he never thought he had set down the basis for a formal theory in his book, Outsiders; he merely wanted to enlarge the field of study for students of deviance. Becker suggested that secondary deviance should not be the main focus of labeling researchers; instead, the process of action–reaction–counterreaction was the most important aspect of the labeling approach. Becker noted that the labeling perspective was also not as consumed with the label as critics have argued. In a later interview, Becker (quoted in Debro, 1970) argued that the inclusion of societal reactions to deviance stemmed from his sociological past: “If we study a hospital . . . we study doctors, patients, nurses, aides, and so on. We may focus on one category of people, but we know that the actions of the others are important as well” (p. 166). Thus, the focus on only the offender in criminological theory is an incomplete picture of the entire criminal event; society’s views and opinions must be taken into account.

D. Contemporary Labeling Extensions

Since Becker’s (1963) original statements on the labeling perspective, others have added to the fragmented conceptualization of this theoretical model. Schur (1971) contributed to the labeling theory by conceptualizing other important ideas, such as the role of stereotyping. Schur argued that stereotyping has a dual role in society. First, stereotypes help individuals in complex interactions to classify the expectations of others’ behaviors and the actual behavior of others. Second, stereotyping frequently involves the potential for individual reactions based on inaccurate assessments. Just because a stereotype (i.e., a label) is applied incorrectly, that does not mean that it affects the stereotyped individual any less.

Retrospective interpretation is another concept key to the study of labeling, according to Schur (1971). Retrospective interpretations involve the “mechanisms by which reactors come to view deviators in a new light” (Schur, 1971, p. 52). Mechanisms can range from something as simple as gossip to something as complex as a criminal trial. Negotiation and bargaining are important concepts in that they are the methods by which moral entrepreneurs and rule-makers assert labels; examples include the plea-bargaining process in criminal trials and lobbyists who influence legislators. Finally, Schur discussed role engulfment, or the process by which an individual takes a label and fully internalizes it, thus becoming the individual the label implies. This concept includes accepting the deviant identity or disavowing the deviant identity, or the joining of a deviant subculture by the labeled individual, as in Tannenbaum’s (1938) original formulation of the “dramatization of evil.” Role engulfment is hence the end result of the labeling process resulting in behavior based on internalization of the label.

Cohen (1995) argued that the “student of deviance must question and not take for granted the labeling by society or certain powerful groups in society of certain behaviors as deviant or problematic” (p. 211). Cohen’s contribution to labeling theory was in regard to the concept of the amplification of deviance by deviants and deviant groups. Amplification was not only mediated by face-to-face contact of individuals or by gossip but also was related to media depictions of deviance, because the mass media are a prime source of information about the normative contours of society. Cohen argued that society reacts to episodes of deviance on the basis of “information about that particular class of phenomenon, individual tolerance levels of an indicated behavior, and direct experience” (p. 215). So, amplification of deviance can occur from either the labeled or the labeler’s point of view.

In 1989, Paternoster and Iovanni explicitly formulated the propositions of the labeling perspective. In an effort to stimulate a new era of inquiry under the labeling perspective, they identified the four conceptual areas that must be evaluated to support a successful labeling theory: (1) the role of political/economic power in creating delinquency statuses; (2) the influence of extralegal attributes in determining who is labeled; (3) the contribution of social and physical attributes in determining face-to-face encounters; and (4) the possibility that the experience of being labeled by social control agencies may result in an alteration of personal identity, an exclusion from the normal routines of everyday life, and greater involvement with delinquency (p. 363).

A new focus for the labeling perspective in the 1990s was the change from studying formal labels to studying labels that are applied informally. Formal labels come from the reactions by officials of the criminal justice system to the behaviors of individuals (Triplett & Jarjoura, 1994, p. 243). Informal labels, on the other hand, are an attempt to “characterize a person as a given ‘type’ . . . by persons who are not acting as official social control agents, and in social situations that are not formal social control ‘ceremonies’ ” (Paternoster & Triplett, 1988, p. 597). The informal label is associated with the concept of stereotype.

Although the sociopsychological effects of being labeled remain a central tenet of the labeling perspective, there is a growing interest in the effects that a formal criminal label may have on the legitimate opportunities (i.e., education, jobs, marriage) available to a formally labeled individual. Becker (1963) already hinted at this when he discussed the importance of the deviant subculture (i.e., once a person is submerged in a deviant subculture, associations and contacts with the nondeviant world diminish or are closed completely). More recently, the effect of a criminal conviction (or prison sentence) on an individual’s subsequent life course has become a focus of study. So, it seems that the sociopsychological effect on later life opportunities has become less crucial to study than the detrimental effect of a formal label (conviction or prison sentence) on later life opportunities.

The labeling theoretical model was generated over a large part of the 20th century. The way in which it was constructed, by myriad different sociologists, criminologists, and empirical researchers, has resulted in a fragmented theoretical model, with concepts added here and there or propositions being elaborated upon, here and there. The fragmented tapestry that is the labeling perspective, as well as the inherent attack on offender-oriented criminological theory by labeling theorists, has exposed it to a great deal of criticism and counterattack. The next section explores the primary lines of criticism that have been leveled against the labeling perspective.

III. Criticisms of the Labeling Perspective

Many criticisms have been leveled against the labeling perspective by criminologists who looked at labeling as an attack on prior theoretical thought. Labeling theory has been criticized as being too simplistic: The label affects self-concept, which leads to a change in self-concept, and this change in self-concept leads to a change in behavior (Wellford, 1975, p. 342). The labeling perspective has been argued to be nothing more than a small part of a much larger overall theory. This section explores both the theoretical and empirical shortcomings of the labeling perspective that have pervaded the area.

A. Early Theoretical Critiques

One of the first criticisms of the labeling perspective was presented by Gibbs (1966), who argued that there were several flaws in the labeling theory at that time, the most critical being that labeling theory puts the focus on the reaction to a type of behavior. This means that the deviant act is external to the actor and the act. In essence, it does not matter that the individual engaged in some deviant or criminal activity, only that there was some kind of reaction from society. Only when a reaction is of a certain kind or level will there exist a deviant act. This is problematic for labeling theory in that clearly there has to be a rule-breaking act for a public or a criminal justice system response to occur in most cases. The response of labeling theorists to this critique has been simply to argue that they do not necessarily deny the significance of understanding the causes of initial deviance or rule-breaking but that their main interest happens to be on the role of the social responses to rule-breaking.

Akers (1967) outlined a different problem with the labeling perspective. According to Akers, “We still do not know very much about even the official distribution and variations in rates of some kinds of deviance and are practically ignorant of the true distribution of nearly every type of deviant behavior” (p. 459). In terms of the labeling approach, we still do not know very much about the true extent of rule-breaking. Because we do not know a lot about rule-breaking, how can we expect to be able to study the social response to rule-breaking, or so the critique goes.

Lemert (1974), one of the foremost labeling theorists, argued that the labeling perspective lacked discussion on the amount of consensus or dissent that exists in societal reactions, which makes it extremely difficult to study the societal reaction to deviance. In other words, different people will react differently to different types of crime. Rules of reaction and labeling appear to be automatically agreed on in the literature, especially in terms of personal, violent crime. In terms of lesser crimes, especially victimless crimes, people will behave differently in their reactions based on personal experience and beliefs.

A second line of criticism deals with the nature of societal reaction across different societies. According to Gibbs (1966), it was unclear whether Becker (1963) was pursuing a theory of deviant behavior or a theory about reactions to deviance. If the reaction is the key to deviant behavior, the implication is that deviance would not change across different societies in the world; that is, definitions of criminal activity (both social and legal) would be constant across all countries and societies. However, this is not the case. Many examples of this can be seen in a comparison of different countries’ legal statutes; one example would be the fact that marijuana is illegal in America but legal in Amsterdam (Becker, 1963). Hence, there is a difference in the societal reactions between these two countries in their definition of marijuana use as a deviant/criminal behavior. Lemert (1974, p. 12) observed that the labeling perspective does not fully explain the process in which a society engages when reacting to behavior; a reaction may identify a deviant act, but it does not explain why the behavior is considered deviant.

Akers (1967) wrote that another problem with the labeling perspective was that labels do not explain the first deviant act, or the rule-breaking. Some rule-breaking has to precede deviant labels: Social definitions do not occur in a vacuum; they are mutually interactive. This could be, as Wellford (1975) contended, that the first assumption of the labeling perspective indicates that no act is intrinsically criminal. Although there is a great deal of difference across countries and societies in how criminal behaviors are viewed and treated, most societies have found it important to control certain kinds of behavior; for instance, across countries and cultures, murder, robbery, burglary, and larceny have been found to be important crimes to control (Wellford, 1975, p. 335).

Another theoretical criticism of the labeling perspective has come from criminologists who recognize the link between labeling and deterrence. Tittle (1975) argued that the labeling perspective does not address instances in which labeling will actually deter the deviant career by inhibiting deviance. Thorsell and Klemke (1972) contended that it is difficult to study the labeling approach without giving thought to the deterrence model. Deterrence implies that sanctions will deter offenders from engaging in further criminal behavior through a process of rational choice, whereby an offender will weigh the cost and benefits of any future offending through the lens of the previous punishment (Bowers & Salem, 1972, p. 428). According to Thomas and Bishop (1984, p. 1223), both models adopt a social psychological level of analysis, apply to the way sanctions affect offenders, are concerned with formal and informal sanctions, and have ramifications for social policy. Indeed, one of the most intriguing questions remains whether the person on whom the label “criminal” is conferred is likely to be propelled into more crime or deterred from future criminal behavior (Paternoster & Iovanni, 1989).

Finally, Gibbs (1966) presented a purely semantic theoretical argument against the labeling perspective. According to Gibbs, Becker’s (1963) discussion of the secret deviant is a contradiction in terms; if deviance is the end result of a reaction, the secret deviant could not be a deviant at all. This secret deviant would never be labeled at all and hence would never be a deviant.

B. Early Empirical Critiques

In his examination of the assumptions of the labeling perspective, Hagan (1973) focused on the assumption that pertained to another’s reaction leading to an intensification of a behavior (i.e., secondary deviance). Hagan argued that there was a large empirical gulf between the society that reacts to a behavior (labelers) and the individual who is labeled; in the research, there is only a focus on one or the other in specific studies: either the labeled individual or the society/group that is labeling. Hagan concluded that these two concepts should be studied in concert.

Tittle (1975) noted another empirical shortcoming with the labeling perspective: There are very few available data sources capable of capturing labeling and its effects on criminality. The data that are available, recidivism data in most cases, are difficult to obtain and do not allow a straightforward assessment. Because of the nature of recidivism data (i.e., they apply only to offenders who have been rearrested, reconvicted, reincarcerated, or some combination of these three), they are inappropriate to study the full effects of labeling. Offenders could still be recidivating (the dark figure of crime). The key in this argument is that only individuals who are rearrested are captured in these data; thus, anyone who is reoffending and does not again come under the purview of the criminal justice system would appear as nonrecidivating. Although recidivism data are difficult to marshal in labeling research, Tittle argued that the findings from studies that have used these types of data indicate weak results for the labeling perspective. Because of the combination of the lack of available data and the persistent weak findings of recidivism data, Tittle concluded that this method of testing the labeling perspective was not a clearcut resolution.

Mankoff (1971) argued that labeling theorists have failed to conceptually or empirically specify which sanctions lead to continued deviance and what severity of sanction is required to produce career deviance. A great deal of the research on labeling has examined individuals with mental impairments and other physical impairments/ stigmas (ascriptive rule-breaking). Criminology is more concerned with achieved rule-breaking, which is an activity on the part of the rule-breaker. Mankoff ’s analysis suggests that the labeling perspective is not as useful in evaluating achieved rule-breaking as it is in examining ascriptive rule-breaking. As well, Mankoff urged criminologists to conceptualize adequately self-labels and the effects inherent in such labeling processes.

Another empirical criticism was presented by Hirschi (1975), who contended that much research actually refutes propositions of the labeling approach. One primary policy initiative that has come from the labeling literature is the deinstitutionalization of juvenile offenders. Hirschi argued that the majority of the research on the treatment of juvenile delinquents generally indicates either minor effects or no effects on future criminality one way or the other; instead, the results indicate a spontaneous remission in the majority of the cases. These empirical results are in contrast to labeling theory propositions.

Gibbs’s (1966) assertions—that labeling theorists have failed to stipulate what kind of reaction identifies, or promulgates, deviant behavior and that they have not fully conceptualized all of the components of a full labeling theory—are still true today. Although this section has explored problems with the labeling approach in terms of both theoretical development and methodological questions, there still is a good deal of research that has explored the links between labeling and deviance that indicates that labeling does indeed have some effect. This suggests that the labeling perspective does have some merit. The next section examines research that has evaluated the labeling perspective.

IV. Labeling Research

Although there has been a great deal of academic bantering over the merits of the labeling perspective, criminologists have managed to amass much evidence to support the effect of labels on criminality. Although they acknowledge that some of this research has suffered from methodological and conceptual shortcomings, the majority of the findings indicate that individual labels have moderate to strong effects on an individual’s engagement in secondary deviance or crime. Although the effect of labeling on an individual varies across studies, what is not in question is that labels do account for some of the variance in predicting continued criminality. This review of labeling research focuses on empiricism that examines the effects of labeling on secondary deviance only.

Foster, Dinitz, and Reckless (1972) argued that it is very difficult to measure all the variables associated with deviant behavior as well as all of the variables associated with the societal reactions to such behavior. In their longitudinal study, Foster et al. found that, according to the perceptions of the 196 boys in the study, “the extent of perceived stigmatization and social liability that follows police or court intervention seems to be overestimated in the labeling hypothesis” (p. 62). Thus, at the time of intervention the boys in this sample did not perceive a stigma. Boys with previous experience with the criminal justice system will perceive more of a stigma than first-time offenders; Foster et al. referred to this as a cumulative effect. On the whole, though, Foster et al. found little support for the labeling perspective.

Farrington (1977) examined the effects of public labeling. Hypothesizing that individuals who are publicly labeled will increase their deviant behavior, Farrington examined data from the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development. Public labeling was defined as court convictions. Deviant behavior and labels were measured through self-report data. This research had two significant findings. First, public labeling did lead to increased deviance; second, repeated labeling of an individual led to greater deviance amplification. Thus, Farrington’s findings were consistent with the labeling perspective.

Link and colleagues (Link, Cullen, Struening, Shrout, & Dohrenwend, 1989) examined the effect of labels on individuals with mental disorders and the social support networks of such individuals. Studying 164 patients and 429 community residents through surveys, these researchers found that, primarily because of their stigmatized status, individuals with mental disorders are devalued and discriminated against. Link et al. (1989) contended that in “the course of being socialized, individuals develop negative conceptions of what it means to be a mental patient and thus form beliefs about how others will view and then treat someone in that status” (p. 419). Treatment and time spent in mental clinics help to solidify labels, helping individuals to more readily internalize the label. Labels appeared to affect mental patients even independent of psychopathology and biological variables.

Link et al.’s (1989) research is consistent with Hirschi’s (1969) social bond theory, according to which individuals who are more attached to a social network are more likely to be concerned with the stigma. Through this concern with stigma, these individuals will be less likely to engage in activities characteristic of emotional disturbance, such as obsessive–compulsive behaviors and manic-depressive behaviors. The stigma of mental health patients does not affect support networks, either positively or negatively. This could suggest that the effects of labeling decrease over time. Link et al.’s findings with regard to mental illness show general support for the labeling perspective.

Kaplan and Johnson (1991) argued that labeling theorists are particularly interested in the relationship between negative social sanctions for deviant behavior and the escalation of that deviant behavior. They argued that this relationship might be mediated by deviant peer associations. In their survey analysis of students in 36 junior high schools in Houston, Texas, Kaplan and Johnson estimated a structural equation model to examine the effects of negative sanctions (suspension, expulsion, contact with the criminal justice system, and any office punishment) on the escalation of deviant behavior. Their results illustrated not only that there was a direct effect of negative sanctions on later deviance but also that the presence of a deviant peer group played a mediating role for individuals who had been negatively sanctioned. Although Kaplan and Johnson concluded that labeling is an integral part of further criminality, they argued that this is only one of the many factors that had significant effects in the model (they found support for the deterrence hypothesis as well).

Ward and Tittle (1993) examined the relationship between the deterrence and labeling hypotheses. As has been seen in some of the prior research on labeling theory, deterrence and labeling are two interrelated ideas. Sanctions may increase one’s perceptions of risk and can help deter the individual from breaking the rules; however, sanctions may lead to more deviance by increasing a commitment to a deviant identity, which is the premise of symbolic interaction and labeling theories (Ward & Tittle, 1993, p. 45).To study the relationship between these two rival ideas, Ward and Tittle analyzed 390 senior and junior students in a university through a telephone survey instrument. Regression analyses indicated that there was no direct effect of labeling on further deviance. Although sanctions had a significant effect on labeling, labeling was directly linked to the formation of a negative self-appraisal; negative self-appraisal did exert a direct influence on secondary deviance. Ward and Tittle concluded that their results supported labeling theory better than deterrence theory. However, labeling is not a necessary condition for secondary deviance, because initial deviance and sanctions had strong direct effects on secondary deviance.

Triplett and Jarjoura (1994) focused on the informal labeling of deviants. Integrating the social control and labeling approaches, they used data from the National Youth Survey to study the effects of informal labeling on both primary and secondary deviance. Triplett and Jarjoura (p. 257) found that labeling theory could play some role in the initiation of deviance; the perception of being labeled by parents significantly affected a youth’s attachment to school. School attachment was heavily related to both peer association and delinquent beliefs by youth. As with Ward and Tittle’s (1993) research, labeling had no direct impact on deviance in general but instead was mediated by other variables. One of Triplett and Jarjoura’s other significant findings was that negative parental labels lead children to break ties with schools and increase involvement with delinquent peer groups; this involvement led to the adoption of delinquent beliefs by the labeled child.

Heimer and Matsueda (1994) used data from the National Youth Survey to explore the effects of symbolic interaction (role taking and role commitment) on delinquency. The results of their structural equation model in regard to delinquency yielded four key findings. First, structural and neighborhood variables had indirect effects on delinquency through role-taking variables. Second, delinquency is also a result of differential association variables, such as having delinquent peers and learning attitudes about the legal code. Third, their research showed only minimal support for the impact of labels on secondary deviance. Fourth, in line with social disorganization and social control theories, strong ties to conventional institutions affect delinquency as well. In this research, labeling played a very minor role in delinquency.

Following up on previous research of students in 36 high schools in Texas, Kaplan and Damphousse (1997) examined the interconnection of negative social sanctions, self-derogation (the negative affect evoked in individuals associated with personal qualities, achievements, and behavior), and deviance. Their analysis revealed an interaction between negative self-attitudes and negative social sanctions; this interaction directly affected deviance. Kaplan and Damphousse concluded that negative social sanctions have a positive effect on later deviance and that self-derogation moderated this effect. As with the previous research, this study found support for the labeling perspective.

Bernburg and Krohn (2003), in a more recent exploration of the labeling perspective, examined how labels lead to social exclusion and hence blocked access to structured opportunities. According to Bernburg and Krohn, “The social marginalization caused by stigma attached to the deviant label raises the likelihood of subsequent . . . involvement in deviant activity” (p. 1290). On the basis of time series data from the Rochester Youth Development Study, Bernbrug and Krohn examined the effect of police and juvenile justice interventions on 1,000 students’ (in the seventh and eighth grades in 1987–1988) criminality in young adulthood in conjunction with other contextual and control variables. Although the overall models yielded small effects, some of the variables showed highly significant results. In particular, Bernburg and Krohn found that official intervention decreased the odds of graduation from high school. The lack of educational attainment had a direct impact on employment, which serves as an intermediary to adult crime. Bernburg and Krohn’s research indicates some support for the labeling perspective.

Although much of labeling theory research focuses on the effects of formal labels, some research has analyzed the effects of informal (i.e., parental) labeling, in particular on young people. Matsueda (1992) examined the effects of parental labeling on delinquency in attempting to specify a model of symbolic interaction. Matsueda defined the unit of analysis as the transaction, which consists of an interaction between two or more individuals. This transaction is what results in a potential label for deviants. Using data from the National Youth Survey, Matsueda used structural equation modeling to explore the labeling process. Like Triplett and Jarjoura (1994), Matsueda found that negative parental labels were associated (indirectly, through prior delinquency) with delinquents, non-whites, and urban dwellers; that is, labels affected delinquency. Although youth’s self-appraisals are strongly influenced by parental appraisals, this relationship is mediated by an individual’s delinquent self-appraisal; thus, individuals who view themselves as delinquent are more likely to be affected by parental views of behavior.

Liu (2000) examined whether informal labeling by significant others predicted youth involvement in crime and in which social contexts (with a focus on peer groups and learning theory type variables) the labeling process would lead to criminality or deviance. Liu found that there was a direct effect of parental labeling on a juvenile’s propensity to engage in deviance. Liu also found that peer group attitudes and participation in delinquency modified the effects of parental labeling on delinquent acts; peer group activities would lead to delinquency regardless of the label supplied by parents. Liu’s accounts thus give more importance to the learning theory variables in explaining criminality and continued delinquency.

Hypotheses have been formed that members of different races experience labels differentially (Paternoster & Iovanni, 1989). Adams, Johnson, and Evans (1998) examined the effects of deviant labels on members of different racial backgrounds. Using data from the National Youth Survey, Adams et al. found that members of ethnic–racial minority groups are more likely to be affected by informal labels (peer networks and community) and that whites are more likely to be affected by formal labels (criminal justice system).Although minorities are affected weakly by formal labeling processes, Adams et al. argued that minorities may not view formal labelers as credible, because formal labels may come from racist attitudes or other beliefs of the labelers. This is consistent with Becker’s (1963) arguments that the person who labels can be seen as the outsider.

Current labeling research has been expanded since its inception to include such topics as the role of economic and political power involved with labeling, the influence of extralegal attributes on label application, and the effect of social and physical traits on labeling. The majority of current research on labeling theory focuses on career criminal research and life course theory. In this research, particular attention is paid to the effect of the label on future deviance/criminality. Examinations of societal reactions to deviance have largely been relegated to studies pertaining to the social construction of social problems. Social construction research takes a particular social problem and applies content analysis to ascertain how the problem became a problem (or how society reacts to certain behaviors).

In sum, the vast majority of research on the labeling perspective indicates some level of support for this approach. The impact of a label on continued deviance and criminality is certain, but the question of the degree to which the label matters still warrants attention. Therefore, research on the labeling perspective will inevitably continue in the future, especially in regard to career criminal research.

V. Conclusion

Labeling theory argues that social groups create deviance by agreeing on rules and laws and by applying these laws to individuals. In this perspective, the reaction to criminal behavior is just as crucial to the study of crime as an individual criminal’s behavior. The labeling perspective posits a dynamic process whereby an individual is labeled either a deviant or a criminal, internalizes that behavior by coming to view himself or herself as deviant or criminal, and then continues in behavior that is consistent with the applied label.

Labeling theory acts most effectively as a bridge between consensus theories of criminality (rational choice, social learning, social disorganization, strain, subculture, and control theories) and critical theories that examine the impact of social structures on criminality. This is a function that no other criminological theory can serve, and it illustrates the importance of this theory.

See also:


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