Labeling Theory Research Paper

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Deviance is a label attached to certain acts and individuals; those acts need not be harmful to be designated as bad, and those individuals may not have even committed the acts in question, but it is the label – the designation, the judgment – that renders the acts and the individuals as deviant. Other acts may be more harmful but considered less heinous; other individuals may be more dastardly without attracting an equal measure of stigma. Labeling theory argues that, from a sociological perspective, what counts is this designation. Other theories of deviance attempt to explain the incidence or prevalence of concretely real acts with concretely real consequences – robbery, adultery, murder, drug use, rape, and the like. Labeling theorists do not say that such designated behavior is not real, or that its consequences are not real, until they are labeled; they say that the behavior is not specifically deviant until the label (self-labeling included) is applied. One man may kill another, but it is not murder – a deviant category of killing – until audiences (a judge, a jury, a community, oneself) label the act as murder. It is still a killing: Someone has died, and forensics may be able to determine whether the first man caused the second’s death. What is deviant is determined socially and culturally. Labeling theory is a constructionist perspective par excellence.

Deviance may be viewed horizontally or vertically. At the micro level, deviance is manifested by how one or more persons or members of one small collectivity react to another; labeling entails judgments made by individuals or social circles. When Person A evaluates and reacts to Person B’s behavior, Person A acts as an “audience.” Multiplied dozens of times, this represents the labeling process at the horizontal level. In contrast, vertically, labeling can be viewed at the cultural, institutional, and social-structural level. When labeling is institutionalized, it is coagulated into preexisting potential judgments, analogous to socioeconomic status or occupational prestige; anyone who is a member of the relevant society is likely to be subject to them. And institutionally, organizations possess the capacity to label and deal with individuals as deviants. A prison has the power to label, and treat an inmate as, a convict; a school, college, and university possess the power to judge student a failure – a loser, an educational flop; the psychiatric profession, both individually and collectively, dispense diagnoses of schizophrenia, autism, and bipolar disorder that can have consequences for the labelee as momentous as the conditions themselves. Hence, labeling tends to be asymmetrical: Although audiences with equal power and influence can label one another, vertically, the most consequential deviance-labeling processes flow from institutions to individuals who are so labeled.

The Emergence Of Constructionism

Hints of the central concepts of deviance-labeling can be found in the works of E´ mile Durkheim, in Suicide and The Elementary Forms of the Religions Life; nonetheless, most scholars locate the roots of the labeling theory of deviance in the pragmatic school of George Herbert Mead (1863–1931). Pragmatism denies the significance of mysticism and essentialism, emphasizing instead that the meaning is in the response – what defines something is not its abstract, indwelling “isness,” material or spiritual, but the concrete, identifiable consequences it has, the results it affects.

The connection between pragmatism and the perspective that defines deviance as a consequence of labeling is obvious. Rather than regarding deviance as a type of action with objective features, the labeling perspective views the violation of rules as an infraction, that is, what makes certain actions (and beliefs and conditions) infractions. Why are rules constructed and enforced? Who makes and forces the rules? Why are certain kinds of rules made? Why are certain persons or types of persons apprehended and punished? What consequences do rulemaking and rule-enforcement have? This approach turns the focus of attention around. Now the spotlight is not on the rule-violator or the conditions that make for rule violation but on the society and the groups in the society that make and enforce the rules. And rules take on meaning only insofar as they are applied; deviant behavior is what tends to attract punishment, condemnation, stigma, censure; a deviant person is someone whose identity is saturated with public scorn.

Labeling Or Interactionist Theory

In 1938, Tannenbaum published the volume Crime and the Community, which argued that in a slum area, nearly all boys engage in a wide range of mischievous, sometimes illegal behavior – getting into fights, skipping school, stealing apples, throwing rocks at windows. These actions, taken for granted by the boys themselves, are often regarded as deviant, even criminal, by the authorities – by the teachers, the police, and the courts. The police may admonish, informally punish, or arrest these boys. If these boys persist in this behavior, they may be sent to reform school. However, punishment could have the unintended, undesired, and ironic effect of escalating the seriousness of the deeds that these boys commit. Arrest and incarceration often result in the community regarding a boy as incorrigible, rebellious, unmanageable – a deviant. By being treated as a delinquent and forced to associate with slightly older and more experienced young criminals in reform schools, the troublemaker may come to adopt the identity of the delinquent. In all likelihood, this will escalate his deviant career – increasing the chance that he will go on to a life of crime. Labeling creates major crimes out of minor sins. Tannenbaum also emphasized that social characteristics – specifically social class – play a role in deviance labeling. Though he added labeling to the roster of the causes of deviance, Tannenbaum did not deny that other factors caused delinquency. Crime in the Community did not address the social construction of deviance, a central tenet of labeling theory; hence, Frank Tannenbaum is a precursor of labeling theory.

In 1951, Edwin Lemert published a textbook with the anachronistic title, Social Pathology (1951); Tannenbaum does not appear among its author index. Lemert distinguished between primary and secondary deviation. Primary deviation is simply the enactment of deviant behavior itself – any form of it. Lemert argued that primary deviation is polygenetic (1951, pp. 75–76) – caused by a wide range of factors. For instance, someone may drink heavily for a variety of reasons – the death of a loved one, a business failure, belonging to a group whose members call for heavy drinking, growing up in a subculture or a society in which heavy drinking is taken for granted. In fact, Lemert asserted, the original causes of a particular form of deviance is not especially important, and pursuing them, not especially fruitful. What counts is the social reaction to the behavior. Lemert’s treatise represented a major departure from the mainstream of essentialistic/positivistic, or scientific causeand-effect, reasoning about deviance.

Secondary deviation occurs when the individual who enacts deviant behavior deals with the problems created by social reactions to his or her primary deviations (1951, p. 76). “The secondary deviant, as opposed to his [or her] actions, is a person whose life and identity are organized around the facts of deviance” (1972, p. 63). When someone is isolated, singled out, stigmatized, or condemned for engaging in deviant behavior, it becomes necessary to deal with and manage this social reaction in certain ways. One comes to see oneself in a certain way, define oneself in different terms, adopt different roles, associate with different individuals. Being stigmatized forces one to become a deviant – to engage in secondary deviation. The concept of “secondary deviation” does not necessarily imply that labeling causes more frequent enactment of the behavior that generated the label, but it is more likely than in the absence of labeling.

During the late 1950s, Howard Becker circulated a manuscript, along with four previously published papers, that constituted the core of Outsiders. He mentions that he wrote the first draft of the volume without having read or cited Lemert’s book (Debro 1970, p. 165), and so his reference to Social Pathology in the published version of this book (p. 9) was tacked on after the fact – in effect, a bogus genealogy. In the 1960s, Becker, along with a small group of like-minded researchers, produced a small body of work that exerted an enormous influence on the sociological approach to deviance; it came to be looked upon as a more or less unified perspective that is widely referred to as labeling theory. Labeling theory grew out of a more general perspective in sociology called symbolic interactionism. The interactionist approach is based on “three simple premises.” First, people act on the basis of the meaning that things have for them. Second, this meaning grows out of interaction with others, especially intimate others. And third, meaning is continually modified by interpretation (Blumer 1969, p. 2). These three principles – meaning, interaction, and interpretation – form the core of symbolic interactionism and likewise of labeling theory as well. People are not simple “products” of their upbringing or socialization or of their environment, but they are active and creative in how they see and act on things in the world and arrive at what they think, how they feel, and what they do through a dynamic, creative process. All behavior, deviance included, is an interactional product; its properties and impact cannot be known until we understand how it is defined, conceptualized, interpreted, apprehended, and evaluated – in short, what it means to participants and relevant observers alike. Labeling theory is not a separate theory but a direct application of symbolic interactionism to phenomena than are designated as deviant.

According to Becker (1973, pp. 177–208) and Kitsuse (1972), labeling theory is not so much an explanation of why certain individuals engage in deviant behavior as it is a perspective whose main insight tells us that the labeling process is crucial and cannot be ignored. And labeling “theory” is not so much a theory as it is an orientation perspective, a set of useful concepts with no clearcut propositions. In fact, most “labeling theorists” preferred the term, “the interactionist approach to deviance” to the easy-to-remember tag their perspective was stuck with – “labeling theory” (Becker 1973) – here we have an irony that even labeling theory came to be labeled. The labeling approach shifts attention away from the traditional question of “Why do they do it?” to a focus on how and why judgments of deviance come to be made and what their consequences are. What consequences does labeling have for stigmatization? What is the difference between enacting rule-breaking behavior which does not result in getting caught and enacting that same behavior and being publicly denounced for it? These are some of the major issues labeling theorists have concerned themselves with.

In many ways, labeling theory is a model or quintessential example of the constructionist approach. It addresses issues such as the creation of deviant categories, the social construction of moral meanings and definitions, social and cultural relativity, the how and why of social control, the politics of deviance, the criminalization of behavior, and the role of contingency in the labeling process. Together, these issues constitute the foundation stone of constructionism. Several issues or concepts represent the hallmark of the labeling theory’s central concerns: audiences, labeling and stigma, reflexivity, and the “stickiness” of labels and the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Audiences. An audience is an individual or any number of individuals who observe and evaluate an act, a condition, or an individual. An audience could be one’s friends, relatives, or neighbors, coworkers, the police, teachers, a psychiatrist, bystanders or observers – even oneself, for one can be an observer and an evaluator of one’s own behavior or condition (Becker 1963, p. 31). Audiences determine whether something or someone is deviant: no audience, no labeling, therefore, no deviance. However, an audience need not directly view an act, condition, or person; audiences can witness behavior or conditions “indirectly,” that is, they can hear or be told about someone’s behavior or condition, or they can simply have a negative or condemnatory attitude toward a class or category of behavior: “The critical variable in the study of deviance . . . is the social audience rather than the individual actor, since it is the audience which eventually determines whether or not any episode of behavior or any class of episodes is labeled deviant” (Erikson 1964, p. 11; my emphasis). In other words, audiences can evaluate categories of deviance and stand ready to condemn them, even before they have actually witnessed specific, concrete cases of these categories. Audiences are absolutely central in the sociological definition of deviance. Whether an act, a belief, or a trait is deviant or not depends on the audience who does or would evaluate and react to the actor, the believer, or the possessor accordingly. Without specifying real-life audiences, the question of an act’s, a belief’s, or a trait’s deviance is meaningless. Audiences include the society at large, agents of formal social control, and the significant others of the actor, such as intimates – or any minority collectivity within a given society. Different audiences may or may not evaluate or react to the actor’s behavior in the same way.

Labeling and stigma. The key elements in “becoming” deviant are labeling and stigma. The processes of labeling and stigmatizing are done by a relevant audience. The audience is relevant according to the circumstances or context. Gang members can label the behavior of a fellow member of the gang, for instance, the refusal to fight, as deviant within the gang context; the police can label an action of a gang member, for instance, fighting, as deviant, wrong, or illegal, by arresting or harassing him. Each and every audience or person can label each and every action, belief, or condition of each and every person as deviant – but the weight or consequences of that labeling process vary according to the context, as we saw in considering the vertical conception of deviance labeling.

The labeling or stigmatization process entails two steps. First, an audience labels an activity (or belief or condition) deviant, and second, it labels a specific individual as a deviant. In these two labeling processes, if no audience labels or would label a given person or someone deviant, strictly speaking, no deviance exists. An act, belief, condition, or person cannot be deviant in the abstract, that is, without reference to how an audience does or would label it. Something or someone must be defined as such by the members of a society or a group as deviant – it must be labeled, concretely or potentially, as reprehensible or wrong. An act, belief, or condition need not be actually or concretely labeled to be regarded as deviant, however, but it is deviant if it belongs to a category of similar actions, beliefs, or conditions. In other words, we already know that the public regards shooting the proprietor of a store and taking the contents of that store’s cash register as deviant. Even if the robber gets away with the crime, if known about, the act is likely to be regarded as deviant in the society at large – that is, it is an instance of “societal deviance.” At the same time, the role of contingencies – who, what, where, why, and so on – may influence the outcome of the labeling process.

Labeling involves attaching a stigmatizing definition to an activity, a belief, or a condition. Stigma is a stain, a sign of reproach or social undesirability, an indication to the world that one has been singled out as a shameful, morally discredited human being. Someone who has been stigmatized is a “marked” person; he or she has a “spoiled identity.” Once someone has been thereby discredited, relations with conventional, respectable others become difficult, strained, problematic. In other words, “being caught and branded as a deviant has important consequences for one’s further participation and self-image. . . . Committing the improper act and being publicly caught at it places [the individual] in a new status. He [or she] has been revealed as a different kind of person from the kind he [or she] was supposed to be. He [or she] is labeled a ‘fairy,’ ‘dope fiend,’ ‘nut,’ or ‘lunatic,’ and treated accordingly” (Becker 1963, pp. 31, 32).

So crucial is this labeling process that, in some respects, it does not necessarily matter whether or not someone who has been stigmatized has actually engaged in the behavior of which he or she is accused. According to the logic of labeling theory, falsely accused deviants – if the accusation sticks – are still deviants (Becker 1963, p. 20). In many important respects, they resemble individuals who really do commit acts that violate the rules. For example, women and men burned at the stake for the crime of witchcraft in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were deviants in the eyes of the authorities and the community, even though they clearly did not engage in a pact with the devil. Two individuals, one who engaged in a deviant act and the second of whom is falsely accused, will share important experiences and characteristics in common, by virtue of the labeling process alone, even though they are poles apart with respect to having committed the behavior of which they were accused.

While their lives are unlikely to be identical simply because both are seen by the community as deviants, the similarities they share are likely to be revealing.

Reflexivity. Reflexivity means looking at oneself in part through the eyes of others. It is what is widely referred to, although too mechanistically, as the “looking glass self.” Labeling theory is based on a seemingly simple but fundamental observation: As Mead and his pragmatic peers said, we tend to see ourselves through the eyes of others, and when others see us in a certain way, we tend to begin seeing ourselves that way, too. In other words, deviance labeling by others, if those others are sufficiently influential and the labeling persists long enough, may become internalized.

Both direct and indirect, or concrete and symbolic, labeling operate in the world of deviance. “Indirect” or “symbolic” labeling is the awareness by a deviance enactor that his or her behavior is saturated with public scorn, his or her identity is potentially discreditable, that he or she would be stigmatized if discovered. People who violate norms have to deal with the probable and potential, as well as the actual and concrete, reactions of the respectable, conventional, law-abiding majority. All violators of major norms must at least ask themselves how others react to them and their behavior. If the answer is that others will condemn and humiliate them, then the rule breaker must try to avoid detection, remain within deviant or minority circles, or be prepared to be punished and stigmatized.

The “stickiness” of labels and the self-fulfilling prophecy. Labeling theorists argue that stigmatizing someone as a socially and morally undesirable character has important consequences for that person’s further rule-breaking. Under certain circumstances, being labeled may intensify one’s commitment to a deviant identity and contribute to further deviant behavior. Some conventional, law-abiding citizens believe, “once a deviant, always a deviant.” Someone who has been stigmatized and labeled “is ushered into the deviant position by a decisive and often dramatic ceremony, yet is retired from it with hardly a word of public notice.” As a result, the deviant is given “no proper license to resume a normal life in the community. Nothing has happened to cancel out the stigma imposed upon him” or her. The original judgment “is still in effect.” The conforming members of a society tend to be “reluctant to accept the returning deviant on an entirely equal footing” (Erikson 1964, pp. 16, 17).

Deviant labels tend to be “sticky.” The community tends to stereotype someone as, above all and most importantly, a deviant. When someone is identified as a deviant, the community asks, “What kind of person would break such an important rule?” The answer that is given is “one who is different from the rest of us, who cannot or will not act as a moral being and therefore might break other important rules” (Becker 1963, p. 34). Deviant labeling is widely regarded as a quality that is “in” the person, an attribute that is carried wherever he or she goes; therefore, it is permanent or at least long lasting. Deviant behavior is said to be caused by an indwelling, essentialistic trait; it is not seen as accidental or trivial, but a fixture of the individual. Once a deviant label has been attached, it is difficult to shake. Exconvicts find it difficult to find legitimate employment upon their release from prison; once psychiatrists make a diagnosis of mental illness, hardly any amount of contrary evidence can dislodge their faith in it; ex-mental patients are carefully scrutinized for odd, eccentric, or bizarre behavior.

Such stigmatizing tends to deny to deviants “the ordinary means of carrying on the routines of everyday life open to most people. Because of this denial, the deviant must of necessity develop illegitimate routines” (Becker 1963, p. 35). As a consequence, the labeling process may actually increase the deviant’s further commitment to deviant behavior. It may limit conventional options and opportunities, strengthen a deviant identity, and maximize participation in a deviant group. Labeling someone, thus, may become “a self-fulfilling prophecy” (Becker 1963, p. 34) in that someone becomes what he or she is accused of being – even though that original accusation may have been false (Merton 1948).

Labeling Theory Today

Labeling theory left two legacies to the contemporary study of deviance. The first, its “major” mode, which Plummer refers to as its “broader” version (1979, p. 88, 2011, pp. 84–85), was its constructionist vision. Other, earlier approaches were careful to point out that deviance and crime were a matter of violating rules, norms, and laws, which are socially constructed and vary somewhat historically and culturally. But labeling theory stressed and highlighted this point more forcefully. Indeed, it went further and emphasized that definitions of wrongdoing vary not only from society to society but from one category or social context to another. This remains a basic and crucial assumption in all sociological work on deviance. The second legacy of labeling theory, its “minor” mode (which, unfortunately, critics stress as its main point) – which Plummer refers to as its “narrow” version (2011, pp. 83–84) – is its argument about the causal mechanism of deviance: Being labeled as a wrongdoing inevitably or usually leads to a strengthening of a deviant identity and hence, an escalation in the seriousness and frequency of deviant behavior. This argument is as often wrong as it is right; its lack of empirical verification should not negate the perspective’s “major” mode or constructionist legacy.

The foundational works of labeling theory were published in the 1960s; the number of citations or “hits” in Harzing’s “Publish or Perish: Google Scholar” to “labeling theory” increased from 85 per year in the 1965–1969 period to over 825 in 1970–1974, then peaked in the 1990s (5,720 per year in 1990–1994 and 5,660 in 1995–1999), and declined into the 2000s. In the 1960s, the field’s younger scholars and researchers yearned for a fresh, unconventional, and radically different way of looking at deviance. At the same time, the labeling perspective was immediately and subsequently widely and vigorously attacked, and many of these criticisms stuck; common wisdom has it that, today, both labeling theory and the sociology of deviance are dead or dying (Sumner 1994; Best 2004). Eventually, researchers generated competing perspectives, and, in reaction to critiques, the perspective’s supporters modified or adapted labeling theory’s insights. Currently, no single approach or paradigm dominates the study of deviance in the way that labeling theory did circa 1970–1974. What we see now is diversity, fragmentation, and theoretical dissensus. In spite of the criticisms, however, the labeling school left a legacy to the field that even its critics incorporate into their work, albeit, for the most part, implicitly.

By the 2000s, the central insights of labeling theory have become so taken for granted, so densely interwoven into the conventional wisdom of criminology and the sociology of deviance – a kind of “quiet orthodoxy” that appears in “different guises” (Plummer 2001, pp. 193–194) – that its place in these fields offers a case of “obliteration by incorporation” (Merton 1979). In other words, “the central strands of the perspective live on in cognate areas of inquiry” (Grattet 2011a, p. 186). Ongoing research has demonstrated that the consequences of negative labeling tend to be long lasting and often dire. Grattet’s summary of this literature is most revealing (2011a, b). Matsueda’s study of troublesome boys reveals that parental definitions (“informal social control”) often results in selfconceptions that increase the likelihood of further delinquencies (1992). The research of Bruce Link and his associates on mental disorder likewise demonstrates the baleful impact of stigma and deviance labeling. Working with a “modified labeling theory,” Link uncovered how mental illness processing agencies reinforce “perceptions of patient dangerousness” and put social distance between themselves and the patient, making their conditions more serious (Link et al. 1989). Sampson and Laub test the hypothesis of “cumulative disadvantage” (Grattet 2011b, p. 124) – that criminal justice sanctioning commonly results in offenders repeating and increasing the seriousness of their involvement in offending over the life course. Sampson and Laub’s contention is that there is only “one theoretical position in criminology that is inherently developmental in nature – labeling theory” (1997, p. 3). Cumulative disadvantage represents a kind of “snowballing effect” which increasingly “mortgages” the offender’s future, especially when negative evaluations in the realms of school and employment further reduce their life chances. For instance, convicted felons face increasingly difficult conditions for reintegrating into civil society, disenfranchising them and making the choice of further criminal activity increasingly attractive; negative labeling by work settings, marriage, and family dynamics all make desistance from crime and wrongdoing increasingly difficult (Petersilia 2003; Uggen and Manza 2006; Western 2006). A criminal record has a powerful chilling effect on employment outcomes. Pager introduces the concept of “negative credentials” to stress this process; these are the “official markers that restrict access and opportunity rather than enabling them” (2007, p. 32). As Grattet argues (2011a, b), recent research powerfully argues for the ongoing influence of the labeling/interactionist tradition in the study of crime and deviance.


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