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Labeling Theory

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Oct 08, 2021


  • Labeling theory is an approach in the sociology of deviance that focuses on the ways in which the agents of social control attach stigmatizing stereotypes to particular groups, and the ways in which the stigmatized change their behavior once labeled.
  • Labeling theory is associated with the work of Becker and is a reaction to sociological theories which examined only the characteristics of the deviants, rather than the agencies which controlled them.
  • Howard Becker’s (1963) idea is that deviance is a consequence of external judgments, or labels, that modify the individual’s self-concept and change the way others respond to the labeled person.
  • The central feature of labeling theory is the self-fulfilling prophecy, in which the labeled correspond to the label in terms of delinquent behavior.
  • It has been criticized for ignoring the capacity of the individual to resist the labeling and assuming that it is an automatic process.
  • Labeling theory recognizes that labels will vary depending on the culture, time period, and situation. David Rosenhan’s study “On Being Sane in Insane Places” (1973) provides a striking demonstration of the power of labeling and the importance of context.
The premise of Labeling Theory is that, once individuals have been labeled as deviants, they face new problems stemming from their reactions to themselves and others to the stereotypes of someone with the deviant label (Becker, 1963; Bernburg, 2009). Labeling theory stems from the school of symbolic interactionism, which believes that an individual’s sense of self is formed by their interactions with and the labels ascribed to them by other people.

Stigma and Discrimination: The Roots of Labeling Theory

Sociologists generally agree that deviant labels are also stigmatizing labels (Bernburg, 2009). These sociologists define stigma as a series of specific, negative perceptions and stereotypes attached to a label (Link and Pelan, 2001), which can be evident in and transmitted by mass-media or the everyday interactions people have between themselves.

According to Becker (1963), “To be labeled a criminal carries a number of connotations specifying auxiliary traits characteristic of anyone bearing the label.”

That is to say, that a label of deviance (such as being a criminal) can become one that overtakes one’s entire identity. Those with criminal labels are distrusted and distained widely, and individuals may believe that criminals are completely unable to behave morally.

Any misbehavior may be explained entirely by how that individual is labeled as a criminal (Travis, 2002). Lower-class people and those from minority groups are more likely to be involved with police interventions, and when those from minority groups are involved in police interventions, they are more likely to lead to an arrest, accounting for the nature and seriousness of the offense (Warden and Shepard, 1996).

Once arrested, these individuals face more severe sentences regardless of the seriousness of the offense (Bontrager, Bales, and Chiricos, 2007). As a result, those from lower-classes and minority communities are more likely to be labeled as criminals than others, and members of these groups are likely to be seen by others as associated with criminality and deviance, regardless of whether or not they have been formally labeled as a criminal.

This manifests both on the societal and individual level. African American children, for example, are more likely to be seen as rrule-breakers by their parents than their white peers (Matsueda, 1992).

Formal and Informal Labeling Labeling theorists specify two types of categories when investigating the implications of labeling: formal and informal labels.

Formal labels are labels ascribed to an individual by someone who has the formal status and ability to discern deviant behavior. For example, someone who has been arrested or officially convicted of a felony carries the formal label of “criminal,” as they have been suspected of committing a behavior that is established to be deviant (such as breaking the law).

However, labels can also be ascribed to someone by groups of people who do not have the official authority to label someone as deviant.

For example, the teachers and staff at a school can label a child as a “troublemaker” and treat him as such (through detention and so forth). These labels are informal (Kavish, Mullins, and Soto, 2016).

Formal and Informal Labeling

Labeling theorists specify two types of categories when investigating the implications of labeling: formal and informal labels. Formal labels are labels ascribed to an individual by someone who has the formal status and ability to discern deviant behavior.

For example, someone who has been arrested or officially convicted of a felony carries the formal label of “criminal,” as they have been suspected of committing a behavior that is established to be deviant (such as breaking the law).

However, labels can also be ascribed to someone by groups of people who do not have the official authority to label someone as deviant.

For example, the teachers and staff at a school can label a child as a “troublemaker” and treat him as such (through detention and so fourth). These labels are informal (Kavish, Mullins, and Soto, 2016).

Labeling and Deviant Behavior

Labeling can encourage deviant behavior in three ways: a deviant self-concept, a process of social exclusion, and increased involvement in deviant groups.
Deviant Self-Concept

Deviant self-concept originates from the theory of symbolic interactionism. In summary, symbolic interactionism is a theory in sociology that argues that society is created and maintained by face-to-face, repeated, meaningful interactions among individuals (Carter and Fuller, 2016).

Some sociologists, such as Matsueda (1992) have argued that the concept of self is formed on the basis of their interactions with other people.

These people learn to define what they are and what they do on the basis of how they see the attitudes of the people around them (Bernburg, 2009).

Those labeled as criminals or deviants — regardless of whether this label was ascribed to them on virtue of their past acts or marginalized status — experience attitudes of stigma and negative stereotyping from others.

Cooley’s concept of the “looking-glass self” states how we perceive ourselves depends in part on how others see us, so if others react to us as deviant, we are likely to internalize that label (even if we object to it)

As those labeled as deviants experience more social interactions where they are given the stereotypical expectation of deviance, this can shape that person’s self-concept.

As a result, the person can see themselves as a deviant (Bamburg, 2009).

Social Exclusion

As deviant labeling is stigmatizing, those with deviant labels can be excluded from relationships with non-deviant people and from legitimate opportunities.

Link (1982) proposes two processes for social exclusion among those labeled as deviant: a rejection oor devaluation of the deviant person by the community and authorities; and secondly, the labeledperson can expect rejection and devaluation, leading to social withdrawal.

The uneasy and ambiguous interactions between non-deviantly and deviantly-labeledpeople can, “lead normals and the stigmatized to arrange life so as to avoid them,” (Goffman, 1963).

Because those with deviant labels can actively avoid interactions with so-called “normals,” they can experience smaller social networks and thus fewer opportunities and attempts to find legitimate, satisfying, higher-paying jobs (Link et. al., 1989).

Other theorists, such as Sampson and Laub (1990) have examined labeling theory in the context of social bonding theory. Social bonding theory, first developed by Travis Hirschi, asserts that people who have strong attachments to conventional society (for example, involvement, investment, and belief) are less likely to be deviant than those with weak bonds to conventional society (Chriss, 2007).

Sampson and Laub (1997) argue that being labeled as deviant can have a negative effect on creating ties to those who are non-deviant, inhibiting their social bonding and attachments to conventional society.

Labeling can lead to blocked opportunities, such as reduced education and instability in employment; and, the weak conventional ties resulting from this lack of opportunity can create a long-lasting effect on adult criminal behavior.

Deviant Groups

When individuals have little social support from conventional society, they can turn to deviant groups, where having a deviant label is accepted.

However, this can create rationalization, attitudes, and opportunities that make involvement in these groups a risk factor for further deviant behavior (Bernburg, Krohn, and Rivera, 2006).

This increased involvement in deviant groups stems from Two-Factors. Firstly, labeling can cause rejection from non-deviant peers. And secondly, labeling can cause a withdrawal from interactions with non-deviant peers, which can result from a deviant self-concept.

Thus, those labeled as deviant would want to seek relationships with those who also have a deviant self-concept. This is summed up by differential association theory (Sutherland and Cressey, 1992), which states that being able to associate and interact with deviant people more easily leads to the transference of deviant attitudes and behaviors between those in the group, leading to further deviance.

Labeling and Subsequent Deviance

Early studies about adolescents who have been labeled as deviant show that those adolescents are more likely to have subsequent deviant behavior into early adulthood (Bernburg and Krohn, 2003).

However, more inclusive reviews of studies that examine how formal labeling affects subsequent behavior show more mixed results. Most studies found a positive correlation between formal labeling and subsequent deviant behavior, and a smaller but still substantial number found no effect (Huizinga and Henry, 2008).

Criticism in the 1970s undermined the popularity of labeling theory. There was little consistent empirical evidence for labeling theory (the evidence that did exist was methodologically flawed), and critics believed that labeling theory was vague, simplistic and ideologically motivated.

Notably, Paternoster and Iovanni (1989) argued that large portions of labeling research were methodologically flawed to the extent that it offered few conclusions for sociologists.

This research was flawed for several reasons. Firstly, labeling theory research tended to use samples of individuals from biased sources, such as police records.

This means that this research tended to ignore the effects of there being some formal reaction versus there being no formal reaction to labeling (Bernburg, 2009).

The past 20 years have brought significant attempts to improve the methodology of labeling theory research. Researchers, such as Matsueda (1992), have clarified how labeling leads to deviance, particularly when this labeling is informa, and these findings have been more replicable than those in the past.


Domestic Violence

In 1981 and 1982, the Minneapolis Police Department conducted an experiment to determine the effect of arresting domestic violence suspects on subsequent behavior (Sherman and Berk, 1984).

This original research found that arresting suspected perpetrators of domestic violence had a deterrent effect. However, when several other cities replicated this experiment, they found that arresting domestic violence perpetrators actually resulted in significant increases in domestic violence (Dunford, Huizinga, and Elliott, 1990).

Noting this discrepancy, Sherman and Smith (1992) aimed to examine the effect of arrest for domestic violence on subsequent violence and found that arrest for domestic violence increased the likelihood for subsequent arrest for domestic violence, but only in cases where the perpetrator was unemployed.

However, when those who were arrested were employed, the arrest had a deterrent effect (Bernburg, 2009). Sherman and Smith (1992) argued that this deterrence was caused by the increased “stake in conformity” employed domestic violence suspects have in comparison to those who are unemployed.

Those in economically depressed areas — places where perpetrators were less likely to be able to hold down a job — had less to lose by the conventional social tie of work, and recidivism with higher.

In a similar vein, recidivism was also higher among partners in unmarried couples than those in married couples, unrestricted by the conventional bond of marriage. (Sherman and Smith, 1992).

This finding — which implies that formal labeling only increases deviance in specific situations — is consistent with deterrence theory. Deterrence theory states that whether or not someone commits an act of deviance is determined largely by the costs and benefits of committing a crime versus the threat of punishment.

In the case of employed domestic violence suspects, the formal label of “abuser” and a threatened felony conviction may have severely costly implications for the future of their career; however, for those who are unemployed, this threat is less amplified.

Delinquency and Adolescent Males

Before Matsueda (1992), researchers saw delinquency in adolescents as a factor of self-esteem, with mixed results. Matsueda looked at adolescent delinquency through the lense of how parents and authorities labeledchildren and how these labels influenced the perception of self these adolescents have — symbolic interactionism.

This research is unique in that it examines informal labeling — the effects of how other people look at an adolescent have on that adolescent’s behavior. From a theoretical perspective, Matsueda drew on the behavioral principles of George Herbert Mead, which states that one’s perception of themselves is formed by their interactions with others.

This is caused by a transaction, where someone projects themselves into the role of another and seeing if the behavior associated with that role suits their situation (Mead, 1934).

Those who are labeled as troublemakers take on the role of trouble makers because others’ projections onto them present delinquency as an option. The delinquent adolescent misbehaves, the authority responds by treating the adolescent like someone who misbehaves, and the adolescent responds in turn by misbehaving again.

This approach to delinquency from the perspective of role-taking stems from Briar and Piliavin (1965), who found that boys who are uncommitted to conventional structures for action can be incited into delinquency by other boys.

Because these boys are not considering the reactions of conventional others, they take each other’s roles, present motives for delinquency, and thus act delinquently (Matsueda, 1992).

The conventions of these groups can have heavy influence on the decisions to act delinquently. For example, Short and Strodtbeck (1965) note that the decision for adolescent boys to join a gang fight often originates around the possibility of losing status within the gang.

Consistent with labeling theory, children whose parents see them as someone who gets into trouble or breaks rules and children who feel as if their friends, parents, and teachers see them as someone who gets into trouble or breaks rules tend to have higher levels of subsequent delinquency.

Many other studies and analyses have supported these findings (Bernburg, 2009). Later, Sampson and Laub (1997) argued that defiant or difficult children can be subject to labeling and subsequent stigma that undermines attachments to “conventional others” — family, school, and peers.

This lack of conventional tires can have a large impact on self-definition and lead to subsequent deviance (Bernburg, 2009).

Official Punishment, Peer Rejection, and Labeling in Chinese Youths

The consequences of labeling on subsequent delinquency are dependent on the larger cultural context of where the delinquency happens.

Zhang (1994a) examined the effects of the severity of the official punishment of delinquency on the probability that youths were estranged from parents, relatives, friends, and neighbors in the city of Tianjin, China.

In the heavily collectivist, family-centered Chinese culture, those who were labeled as deviant were significantly more likely to be rejected by friends and neighbors than parents and relatives (Zhang, 1994a).

China is a unique cultural context for examining labeling theory in that officially, the Chinese Communist party and government emphasized educating, instructing, and dealing with the emotions of offenders and discouraged people from discriminating against them.

Conversely, however, social control agencies made the punishment of delinquents severe and public, with the idea that such punishments created deterrence.

In the early 1990s, the Chinese government frequently had political and social drives to deter crime and deviance through mobilizing the masses to punish deviants (Zhang, 1994b).

The Chinese government implicitly encouraged the masses to widely revile criminals and deviants, while officially stating that they aimed to reform delinquent behavior, particularly in adolescents.

However, certain peers, as another study from Zhang (1994b) shows, are more likely to reject those labeled as deviant than others. Zhang’s study presented Chinese youths with a group of hypothetical delinquents and found that while those who had been punished more severely triggered greater amounts of rejection from youths who themselves had never been officially labeled as deviant, youths who had been labeled as deviant did not reject these labeledpeers due to the severity of the official punishment.

Because these labeledyouths are not necessarily rejecting other labeledyouths, it thus makes sense that deviant groups can form where deviants provide social support to other deviants.

This can replace the role that the conventional groups who have rejected these youths would have otherwise served (Bernburg, 2009).

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

How to reference this article:

Nickerson, C. (2021, Oct 09). Labeling theory. Simply Psychology.


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