An Analysis of Labeling Theory

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As laws have adapted over time the perspectives regarding crime have adapted along with them. Older theories of justice and criminology have been supplanted by new ones, often myriad and sometimes competing for jurisdiction within the courts. Component to these changes in paradigm is the adoption of sociology as a contributor to criminological theories. One of the influential sociological theories is labeling theory, which deals closely with the definition of criminal itself. For this paper labeling theory will be examined in three parts, beginning with the history of labeling theory’s development, proceeding into an overview of the theory’s criminological application, and finally presenting an article as an example of the theory’s relevance.

In examining the history of labeling theory this paper will concentrate on the information presented in the sixth edition of Vold's Theoretical Criminology, specifically from the eleventh chapter, entitled “The Meaning of Crime”. The progression from assumptions of rational choice on the part of criminals to the formation of symbolic interactionism, and from there to labeling theory itself, will introduce the topic. Challenges to the initial premises of the theory by other sociologists will also be presented to display how labeling theory matures over time. The historical examination section of the paper shall conclude with answers to those challenges which provide specificity of scope, in contrast to the theory’s originally generalized assertions.

A characteristic of labeling theory is that it assumes implicitly that a deviant has a purpose for their criminal behavior. This is an outgrowth of what is called rational choice theory, which contends that criminals engage in criminal activity because they believe it will somehow benefit them and that the benefits outweigh the perils (Thomas, Gerould, & Snipes 226). Instead of assuming that a person “just is” evil, criminal, etc., or that they are for whatever reason inherently predisposed toward criminal behavior, rational choice theory assumes that the actor has some personal reason for acting deviant. Their calculation of the risks and rewards may be erroneous, but an assessment was made and the fulfillment of personal values is presumed on the part of the so-called criminal.

The importance of rational choice theory, though not identical to labeling theory, is the shared emphasis on personal values. Rational choice theory stresses however that a criminal’s acts are rationally motivated, which critics may justifiably argue. As stated in Vold’s text, “A much broader view of human purposes is presented in symbolic interactionism” (226). Symbolic interactionism hinges upon symbols, which are the meanings that people assign to certain concepts, situations, objects, and so on. Any of these meanings can be based on experience or based on communication with other people, neither of which has to be rational.

By way of example, imagine that somebody has been told that tossing a quarter into a certain well will buy them good luck. There is no rational reason to suppose that this is true, but the person in the example ascribes a meaning to disposing of their quarters in this way—they are improving their life. Similarly, a criminal can commit a crime due to such personal meaning. A certain robber, say, gives a portion of the money they steal to homeless people so that they can eat. In their own minds, they are emulating Robin Hood, taking from those who have plenty and giving to the disadvantaged, including themselves.

Whatever meanings a criminal—or anybody else—assigns to their actions, those meanings are, according to symbolic interactionism, gained by communication with other people. That’s where the interactionism part of the theory’s name comes from. Criminologists who borrowed symbolic interactionism as a guideline for understanding human behavior have formulated a number of derivative theories, including labeling theory “focused on how and why society applies the label of “criminal” to certain people and behaviors and the effect that the label has on the future behavior of the person who is so labeled” (226). Specifically, labeling theory is a form of symbolic interactionism which deals with the meaning a person attributes to themselves, and how interaction with others helps to form it.

The meaning, or label, a person gives themselves is their self-image. Part of labeling theory derived from its symbolic interactionist root is the idea that a person’s self-image directs their behavior. Who they are is part of the context in which a person considers their actions. A person ascribes themselves a label, and then they “act toward themselves according to the meanings they have for themselves” (227). Frank Tannenbaum first expressed labeling theory in this mode, describing how youths who consistently misbehaved are labeled bad by their parents, and how those youths eventually internalize that label and begin to act in keeping with the role that they have been assigned (227). Other sociologists later expanded and refined Tannenbaum’s theory.

One theorist years later developed the concepts of primary and secondary deviance based on Tannenbaum’s work. The distinction between primary and secondary deviance lies at the heart of labeling theory because it separates deviance that stems from labeling from deviance that is caused by other factors. According to Lemert in 1951, primary deviance is motivated by “any number of biological, psychological, or social factors” without reference to self-image (228). Later, after others have reacted poorly to this primary deviance and if the deviance persists things progress as Tannenbaum describes: the deviant is given a criminal label, the deviant adopts the label as part of their self-image, and then the deviant begins to enact their new role and commits more deviant behavior. Lemert calls deviance which stems from that process as “secondary deviance” (228). However, this was considered an incomplete picture by other researchers.

Despite Lemert’s clarifications, he and Tannenbaum basically agreed that at some point being labeled a criminal leads to criminal behavior by altering the criminal’s self-image. Evidence suggested that the reality was more complex. Research by Yochelson and Samenow showed that criminals did not readily accept the label “criminal”, throwing a monkey wrench into the contentions of Lemert and Tannenbaum (228). It cannot be logically argued that criminals are acting out a deviant identity if their self-images are not being altered by the “criminal” label. Neither do they start out with a criminal self-image before being labeled, according to Sykes and Matza, and in fact, criminals often excuse their actions as “not really criminal” in order to preserve their non-deviant self-images (228). A thief, hearkening to an earlier example in this paper, can deny any wrongdoing on their part by claiming that they are stealing for the sake of the poor. Or, a starving person might excuse themselves for stealing because they were hungry and could not help themselves. Reasoning along this line still falls squarely in the realm of symbolic interactionism since it deals with the meanings that the criminal behaviors hold for the culprits. Preservation of self-image by way of such reasoning is referred to as “techniques of neutralization”, which represent almost the opposite of what labeling theory argues. So it would seem that labeling theory is disproved by the evidence, that there is no more room for its viewpoint. However, while the criminal resists being labeled, that resistance is not always successful, and from there labeling theory can still take over.

Labeling a person as a criminal does serve a purpose, and that purpose is to modify the assessment of a person. Whether or not this involves modifying the “criminal’s” self-image is not the primary concern of the practice, which is a form of social censure. Telling a person that they are a criminal is “frequently used as a technique of social control” (229). Interaction with other people is what makes this a powerful tool for stamping out deviance in a person because the positive, non-criminal self-image which the aforementioned research suggests is so important to the individual is put at risk when the prevailing society labels the individual as criminal, the ultimate expression of this being the “status degradation ceremony” epitomized by public arrest (229). Usually, a brief measure of experience with being thus devalued is sufficient to convince the “criminal” to mend their ways, but sometimes the damage is more severe. In some cases, “the criminal label overrides other labels, so that other people think of the person primarily as a criminal” (229). It is in these cases where the original process envisioned by labeling theory comes to fruition, and due to the consequences of being indelibly marked as “criminal” the labeled person has little choice but to enact the established role, especially as the main form of interaction open to them is with other criminals, which means that the primary mode of meaning-transfer is from others who have been thus labeled.

The history of labeling theory is one of incremental steps, premise upon premise. The paradigm of rational choice theory allowed for criminologists to perceive criminal behavior in terms of the personally ascribed meanings that those acts had for the criminals, and from their explorations into the kinds of meanings available to the criminals could be undertaken. Symbolic interactionism, which explained instances of behavior which rational choice theory could not, further paved the way for specialization, of which one type was the investigation into the effects of labels. From there labeling theory has matured into a perspective with a limited explanatory scope but broad implications for criminological practice.

Labeling theory in its present form begs us to be aware that traditional punitive practices toward criminals can be self-defeating without a thorough understanding of how the statuses society attributes to criminals affect the individual and their subsequent behavior. Ruth Triplett writes on the topic of labeling theory’s application to the practice of criminal justice in the article “The Dramatization of Evil: Reacting to Juvenile Delinquency during the 1990s". In it, she introduces a few key concepts which this paper will cover. Among them are a dramatization of evil, generalization of evil, and reintegrative shaming. These concepts will be accompanied by examples of their effects on the justice system and criminals themselves, particularly juveniles, and discussion of how they relate to labeling theory itself.

Previously the bones of labeling theory were presented: a delinquent act is committed (usually by a juvenile when it comes to relevant research), society censures this primary deviance and labels the act criminal or bad, delinquent acts cease or are repeated, society censures the repeatedly deviant individual by labeling the person themselves as criminal or bad, and the effects of such labeling come to fruition. In some cases, the threat to the criminal’s self-image is enough to discourage further offenses, but when the criminal label becomes a master status the criminal is so stigmatized and separated from society and even economic opportunity that their primary socialization comes from other criminals/deviants, and their self-image changes to suit the new reality, spawning deviant acts directly from a deviant identity. It is an irony that society’s assumption that misbehavior stems from innate characteristics creates a circumstance in which misbehavior may become the deviant’s only manner of coping.

For Ruth, the justice system itself creates some of these conditions described by labeling theory when it creates harsher sentencing for criminals, especially juvenile delinquents. When these harsher reactions create repeat crime it is a case of what she calls “dramatization of evil” (Triplett 127). The idea at work is that when sentences are made harsher it changes the way society and the offenders perceive the enormity of certain acts, deepening the impact of a criminal label and strengthening the deviant’s response to possibly being labeled. This idea is especially relevant when it comes to juvenile offenders because universally punishing crimes committed by youths transforms actions which the youth might see as play into something that jeopardizes their freedom and identity (129). A youth who draws with chalk on a public building may only think of the action as harmless art; according to symbolic interactionism, the meaning the youth ascribes to the drawing is non-threatening. However, when the law punishes the act as one of vandalism then the act is redefined as intrinsically evil, becoming dramatized to the point that society labels chalk-drawers as delinquents. Institutional intervention as if youthful indiscretions are a crime effectively convinces those involved that it was a crime, and the criminal label may follow the youth and play a role in future behavior. This can lead from dramatizing the action to dramatizing the evil within the person.

The second aspect of the dramatization of evil, wherein the severity of an action is institutionally elevated, is when that perceived severity causes society to deem perpetrators of the “evil” act as themselves evil, not only temporarily but innately and irredeemably. An example of this is contained with a label invented by certain criminologists, the super-predator, used to describe an especially violent and remorseless juvenile criminal (130). The label is automatically frightening to those who hear it, carrying with it implications of extreme danger that are undoubtedly alienating. As labeling theory contends, alienation, that is to say, the estrangement of non-“criminal” society from the “criminal”, is one of the modes by which a person’s self-image is transformed into a criminal one, and their behavior is accordingly affected.

One can see immediately how the dramatization of evil when it comes to acts and individuals closely follows the outline given in labeling theory for primary and secondary deviance. Primary deviance is responded to by dramatizing the evil act, while secondary deviance corresponds with the further dramatization of evil that portrays the offender as personally evil. The justice system is inextricably involved in this process as the executor of society’s censure toward these individuals since the manner in which sentencing is levied and criminals are treated is largely under that system’s control, and thus the extent to which dramatization of evil and labeling occurs is also largely under the justice system’s control. Heavy handedness can lead to one of Ruth’s other key concepts: a generalization of evil.

Generalization of evil is a consequence of dramatizing evil. In the process of making certain crimes, and hence certain criminals, especially heinous the justice system inadvertently sends the message that criminality is prevalent, that crime is rampant, that innocuous indiscretions are criminal acts. This can be seen from progressive sanctions levied by courts: “In our efforts to deal with violent crime, every youth who has committed an offense—from running away from home to larceny theft, from vandalism to drug abuse—is included in the solution” (133). That example deals with juvenile crime, as is the case with most examples from Ruth’s article, but the principle applies further than that. A more profound effect of generalizing a perception of evil is that society’s responses toward crime provide intimations of criminal intent on the part of those who have done nothing wrong. The practice of using drug-sniffing dogs to search children’s lockers in schools tells the children that they are suspicious, that society is eager to pass out criminal labels that it is willing to inspect even the best-behaved individuals to find recipients. The label of criminal is not doled out exclusively to deviants, in such a case. It is applied en masse, thereby altering the meaning that participants at the school ascribe to their environment. Suddenly school is filled with potential drug-dealers. It is a den of deviance. The entire populace is now a nebulously deviant one, and the potential for students to change their self-image is multiplied by the number of students in attendance. Practices of this kind may be effective in finding actual deviants, but labeling theory would suggest that the liberal use of such practices may be contributing to the creation of those deviants in the first place. There are, of course, solutions to such potential problems already in place.

One of the alternative modes of dealing with criminals mentioned by Ruth is the community conference. The community conference is a practice instituted by courts in New Zealand; the so-called criminal is brought together with their family, friends, other supporters, authorities, and the victim, in order to discuss the crime and its impact and attempt to unearth its causes to avoid such occurrences in the future (135). This practice avoids a major negative consequence of labeling. The individual is not separated from the rest of society. Symbolic interactionism, the underpinning of labeling theory, states that interaction with others is part of the process by which an individual assigns meanings. When estrangement occurs due to criminal labeling that interaction tends to come from other deviants who may have a deviant self-image, and thus the “criminal” is more prone to assign deviant meanings. In a community conference, all the usual interactions take place, the offender is not confronted with the prospect of being cut off from society, and they are given the opportunity to correct their actions and return to their usual life. Censure of a problematic act can be enacted without jeopardizing the deviant’s identity, so primary deviance has little reason to become secondary deviance. The emphasis on accepting the deviant back into their previous social role is what makes community conferencing a form of “reintegrative shaming”.

Reintegrative shaming is a technique that sidesteps the issues of labeling. As its name suggests, it focuses on reintegrating those who commit crimes back into the community, but sanctioning the individual does not involve labeling, and it tends not to involve dramatization of evil because punishments are not rigid and are not applied universally (135). Punishments are involved to stress that the act was unacceptable, but it is bringing the individual back to society without stigma “once he or she is punished that reduces the probability of developing a criminal self-concept, joining a deviant subculture, and re-offending” (135) There are limitations to this kind of response to crime however, since there is the problem of dealing with individuals who already possess criminal self-concepts. There are also cases where integrating the criminal in ordinary society is patently dangerous or disruptive. In these cases, methods other than community conferencing are probably necessary, though other reintegrative shaming methods may exist.

Traditionally the justice system has been complicit in creating a subculture of crime by the way it deals with criminals. Overall the use of labeling can have positive effects, since threatening a person’s positive identity is an effective means of discouraging behavior, but in some cases, evil is dramatized and generalized, and in those circumstances, the image-altering consequences predicted by labeling theory finds its best opportunity to come to fruition. Attributing evil to the individual themselves is damaging, not only because it prompts the formation of deviant identity directly, but more often because of the community’s tendency to cringe from what has been labeled abomination, and cut off the deviant individual from to correct their behavior.

The test of any theory is whether or not its predictions bear out in practice, so if labeling theory is to be used by the justice system then it must be demonstrated that labeling does, in fact, have an impact on an offender’s identity and behavior. Luckily for the theory, experimental evidence does exist to support its predictions. An article from 2011 entitled “Does Incarceration Change the Criminal Identity? A Synthesis of the Labeling and Identity Theory Perspectives on Identity Change” outlines work in which the criminal label is seen to have an eroded impact on the offender’s identity when the individual is enrolled in a rehabilitative institution. The final segment of this paper will cover material from this article, namely how identity theory is used to fill in an explanatory gap in labeling theory’s description of how self-image is changed by labeling, and afterward presenting experimental results that support labeling theory’s assertions.

As was previously mentioned, one of the key components of labeling theory is the idea that the process of labeling a deviant individual creates an impetus for the individual’s self-image to change from that of a law-abiding person to that of a deviant or criminal identity. Also mentioned in the history segment of this paper was the challenge to labeling theory that arises out of the fact that not every person who is labeled a criminal actually forms a criminal self-concept. Certain situational factors, such as the estrangement from family and friends, and the individual’s segregation into criminal company, seem to be necessary for the criminal label to “take” in the individual’s psyche. Even when these factors are present there are cases where the individual successfully resists the influence of the criminal label and maintains there previous identity intact. Identity theory, according to the authors of the article aforementioned, fills in this explanatory gap excellently, supplementing and supporting labeling theory.

Identity theory makes a good fit with labeling theory since they share a common sociological ancestry. Both labeling and identity theory are derived from symbolic interactionism, and thus both theories automatically share certain key assumptions such as self-image being at least partially formed by interaction with other persons and the ascription of personal meanings to events and actions that do not necessarily match the prevailing opinions of society at large (Ascensio & Burke, 165-66). These shared assumptions make the two theories compatible, neither one steps on the other’s toes. Each of the two theories has a separate focus for investigation, and that is what allows identity theory to solve labeling theory’s problem when it comes to self-image formation. In labeling theory, it is submitted that self-image does in fact change as a result of labeling without specifically analyzing the other factors that might influence identity change that might conflict with the influence of the criminal label. Identity theory, on the other hand, takes the assumptions of symbolic interactionism and applies them specifically to the formation, maintenance, and alteration of a person’s identities.

The concept of reflected appraisal is needed in labeling theory to establish a link between the individual receiving a label and being influenced by it. Society provides actual appraisals of a person, but the recipient is not able to read the minds of those they interact with, so they are forced to interpret those appraisals from their own perspective (165). This subjective interpretation of society’s response to the individual is called a reflected appraisal and can be thought of as the individual's idea of what people think of them, as distinct from what others in actual fact think of them. Without this distinction, a label has to be treated as a causal agent of identity change, rather like a thrown rock that directly impacts a target glass bottle and shatters it. Or, it would have to be assumed that an individual has perfect knowledge of what people’s opinions are toward them. Reflected appraisals, however, fit in with the symbolic interactionist framework by giving the opinions of others a personally ascribed meaning, a symbol for the individual to respond to which is not perfectly aligned with the rest of society.

Identity theory interjects its explanations into the subject matter of reflected appraisals. Whereas labeling theory merely takes for granted that reflected appraisals occur, identity theory posits a particular process in which the appraisals are used which accounts for their role in influencing identity. Namely, the person is supposed to be involved in a constant process of self-verification in which they possess a certain self-perceived identity, the responses of others toward the acting out of that identity are gauged to see if they match the individual’s self-image, perceived responses (reflected appraisal at work) that do not match the current identity fail to validate that self-image, and the individual takes action to alter the responses of others to suitably validate their identity, or if impossible, the individual shifts their self-image to match their reflected appraisals (166). The way a person tries to alter the perceptions of others in response to reflected appraisals is the key contribution that identity theory makes to explaining the failure of labels to change self-image in some cases.

Identities do not change on the basis of a reflected appraisal by itself. The appraisal is merely a form of feedback, and according to identity theory the individual first attempts to change the feedback before they adapt their identity and behavior according to reflected appraisals. One can think of the identity as a living thing, and validating feedback is a kind of food to it. When the food being received is poisonous or inedible the identity-organism tries to acquire more palatable fare. In essence, the identity which is threatened by a non-validating reflected appraisal defends itself, “counteracting attributions and labels that are inconsistent with the identity standard” (166). This idea is in line with previous assertions covered in the history section of this paper in which a person initially resists a criminal label, excusing their misbehavior in some manner or another. When the identity successfully defends itself, as apparently it often does, no change occurs, and the identity is maintained. Labeling theory takes over when this self-validation process fails.

When a person’s attempts to alter the reflected appraisals they are receiving are unsuccessful self-validation does not occur. This is especially true in exactly the circumstances which labeling theory outlines as the most likely to impress a criminal label on an individual: separation from ordinary sources of validation such as family or support groups, integration with criminal communities who possess criminal outlooks and attitudes, and/or the application of a master status label which precludes all others such as the “criminal” label. In all of these circumstances reflected appraisals are going to fail to correspond with the person’s self-image (166). This is how a label may affect a person’s self-image. The mediator of reflected appraisals and the process of self-invalidation is a necessary underpinning to explain how labeling theory operates in practice.

The question is, of course, whether this can be shown in practice. Ascensio & Burke created a data collection method targeting “a sample of incarcerated offenders at a Southern Cali- fornia medium-security correctional facility. Participants for the study were participating in a court-ordered, six-month correctional substance abuse treatment program” (169). The goal was to take survey data to determine how the participants’ self-images changed regarding certain labels, including criminal, drug user, and worker, over the period of time in which they were attending the treatment program. It is important to note that in this case, the goal of the program was to counteract the criminal identity rather than establish it in the individuals, which is the converse situation usually described by labeling theory. However, the theory’s precepts are not exclusive to the formation of criminal identity and can be applied to the creation or replacement of any given identity whatsoever. The results given by the experiment show that “reflected appraisals from significant others influence identity for each of the three identities. The greater the degree to which reflected appraisals from significant others indicate a criminal identity, the greater the strength reported for the self-views on the criminal identity” (172). This result is right in line with labeling theory’s predictions that ordinary, valued relationships such as with the friend and family groups provide the most force when it comes to a label.

From the given article results align excellently with the expected outcomes predicted by labeling theory. On top of that, the explanatory supplement provided by identity theory regarding the role of reflected appraisals in identity is also supported by the particular nature of the experimental results, suggesting that the two theories are complementary, as might be expected given their shared roots in symbolic interactionism.

Over the course of this paper, multiple aspects of labeling theory have been presented. The history of the theory has been covered from its formation by Tannenbaum, not excluding a mention of its antecedent, symbolic interactionism. From there the development of the theory, its challenges and answers to it were laid out. A discussion of the mature theory’s practical application was then given that covered both the failures of the justice system as explained by labeling theory and instances of the theory’s practical application. Key concepts such as the dramatization and generalization of evil were used to clarify the operation of labeling theory from such a practical standpoint. Furthermore, a brief overview of another theory was employed in a discussion of an article that proposed to fill in explanatory gaps in the original labeling theory. On top of that, a summary of the article’s experimental goals and results showed that the predictions of the theory can be demonstrated as true in a controlled environment, lending credence to labeling theory as a legitimate influence in criminological affairs.

Works Cited

Ascencio, Emily K., and Peter J. Burke. “Does Incarceration Change the Criminal Identity? A Synthesis of the Labeling and Identity Theory Perspectives on Identity Change.” Sociological Perspectives 54. 2. (2011): 163-182. Web. Feb 25, 2014.

Bernard, Thomas J., Alex L. Gerould, and Jeffrey B. Snipes. Vold's Theoretical Criminology. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

Triplett, Ruth. "The Dramatization of Evil: Reacting to Juvenile Delinquency during the 1990s."Of Crime & Criminality: The Use of Theory in Everyday Life. Ed. Sally S. Simpson. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2000. 121-39. Print.