Labeling Theory of Criminology

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Part I

Despite the period of general rejection that labeling theory in criminology experienced in the 1970s and ’80s (Bernburg, 2006), labeling theory’s legitimate intellectual history has allowed for its causal arguments to receive renewed academic interest in recent years. As such, a review of the historical development of labeling theory in criminology is deserved. The labeling theory of criminology is conceptually rooted in the social philosophies of George Herbert Mead, which were expanded upon by both Frank Tannenbaum and Edwin Lemert respectively. A review of George Herbert Mead’s philosophy of social interactionism is an important start to a complete background review of labeling theory, as it can be said that Mead’s ideas laid the groundwork for the theory’s beginnings.

In Mind, Self & Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist (1962), we see that Mead begins his argument in the midst of a debate concerning the development of “mind, self, and the social processes.” Two competing theories of human development existed in the early 1960s which were the theory of social development and the theory of individual development (Mead, 1962). While individual development theory stressed the importance of “individual minds and selves—as logically prior to the social process in which they are involved” (222), social development theory contrasted by stating that social experiences acted prior to the development of the individual self, and as such, serve to contribute to the development of what makes up the self (Mead, 1962). Mead sided with those that were for the concept of the social development theory, stating that, “the final ‘me’ reflects the attitude of all in the community” (Mead, p. 187, 1962).

This concept of the final “me” being a reflection of the definitions placed by one’s community lies at the heart of the argument of labeling theory in criminology; which is namely that the definitions, or labels, that we use to denote criminals as such actually serve to promote criminal activity and acts of deviance in those that have been so defined. This serves counter to our general hope that once a crime has been committed, punishment and rehabilitation would serve to lessen the likelihood of a person committing crimes again in the future. However, labeling theory would argue that the denoting of criminals as such only furthers the likelihood that a person would self-identify as a criminal, and therefore would, unfortunately, increase their likelihood of committing future crimes. Mead’s ideas laid the groundwork for the concept of labeling theory, in that Mead showed that a person’s self-image is created purely out of what said person thinks their social peers think of them (Mead, 1913).

Frank Tannenbaum expanded upon Mead’s groundwork in labeling theory so much so that today he is widely considered to be the “Grandfather of labeling theory” (Bernburg, 2006). In his Crime and the Community, Tannenbaum explains that after a person’s first criminal act is committed, that person is thereafter “tagged”, or defined as a criminal, and will use this definition placed upon them to define themselves as criminal from that point on (1938). This phenomenon lies at the core of labeling theory today and furthers the idea that the denoting (or labeling) of an individual as a criminal only serves to increase the likelihood that said person will see themselves as a criminal and continue to participate in criminal activities.

Edwin Lemert added further clarity to Tannenbaum’s concept of tagging with his concept of what he called primary and secondary deviance theory. In his Social Pathology (1951), Lemert explains that while the initial, or primary deviance, may have complex causes, crimes committed after this primary deviance, what Lemert calls the secondary deviances, can find their root causes in “the consequent societal reaction to him.” With this, Lemert explains that the continued criminal activity is rooted in the fact that after the initial crime was committed, the labeling upon the criminal created a change in self-image that gave the continued criminal activity a cause that is rooted in self-identity with criminal activity itself. With this, Lemert’s concept of secondary deviance serves to round out and complete both Mead and Tannenbaum’s ideas so that the intellectual history of the development of labeling theory was determined in the early 1950s.

Part 2

With the theory itself completed by the 1950s, empirical studies were next needed to prove the claims of causality of labeling theory. It is only with an overview of empirical studies that the true value of the theory in the study of criminology can be determined. In addition, the specific categories and types of crime that labeling theory most applies to can be best detailed through the examination of empirical study.

According to Bernburg (2006), the majority of empirical research and theory in the field of labeling theory has concentrated on the role of self-esteem in the process of labeling in deviant/criminal activity. Bernburg explains that self-esteem is integral to the process of labeling theory, in that one’s perception of self relies upon social influences more-so when self-esteem is low (such as after admonishment and punishment for a crime). With this in mind, a criminal will be more likely to attain the social attributes of criminality placed upon them after a crime has been committed, because of their state of low self-esteem brought on by punishment.

With self-esteem in mind, scholarly research completed by Rosenburg in his Completing the Self (1979), concluded that individual self-esteem can be considered to be three-pronged, made up of each of the following: “reflected appraisals, social comparison, and self-attribution.” Specifically, reflected appraisals serve to form their own view of self via the way that they are treated by those around them, while social comparison is a process by which individual states are compared with those seen in their more immediate social circles (Rosenburg, 1979). Finally, according to Rosenburg (1979), self-attribution is the process by which an individual makes their own conceptions of self based upon their outward behaviors in general. Rosenburg explains that the combination of these three prongs of self-esteem create a system of motivation in an individual to obtain and hold onto higher self-esteem (1979), and as such, the self-identity of criminality from labeling theory suggests that the desire to increase self-esteem is the main cause of the self-identity that occurs in criminal labeling. Then, if a source of self-esteem could be established outside of criminal behavior based upon labeling, according to Rosenburg (1979), an individual could “insulate oneself from delinquency.” In fact, research studies have been performed to specifically test Rosenburg’s concept of self-esteem as a form of removal from criminal labeling (Matsueda, 1992).

A study performed by Bachman, O’Malley, and Johnston (1978) on an analysis of data provided by the Youth in Transition program shows support for Rosenburg’s theory that self-esteem serves as the main motivating factor for labeling theory’s effect on criminal behavior after a crime has been committed. The study examined a set of adolescent criminal offenders, in particular, a subset of which worked with rehabilitation counselors which focused on increasing self-esteem outside of the identity of the criminal community. With a self-identity that provided a source of self-esteem that was not dependent upon such a community, a drop in repeat criminal offenses was seen in the constituents. This not only provides support for the theory of labeling theory as a cause of repeat criminal activity but also served to provide a possible solution to the problem of repeat criminal offenses seen in those that are caught in the system of labeling theory (Matsueda, 1992).

While the theory by Rosenburg (1979) and the study by Bachman et. al. (1978) does provide a basis for the legitimacy of labeling theory through its effects on self-esteem, the results did not complete account for labeling theory, as the study participants only saw a decrease in repeat offenses, rather than a complete elimination. This suggests that while self-esteem may serve as an important aspect of labeling theory and the motivations of those affected by labeling theory, the theory itself may still affect individuals in other ways.

A study performed by Bernburg (2006), sought to determine if the subsequent social groups formed after criminal labeling has occurred have an effect on follow-up criminal activity. This would suggest that, possibly outside of self-esteem alone, social settings account for the changes in self-identity that cause more criminal behavior to occur. If true, this would also more closely align with labeling theory as was first thought of by Mead and Tannenbaum, and expanded upon by Lemert. The study by Bernburg (2006) did indeed determine that “the formal label [of a criminal] may thus ultimately increase involvement in subsequent deviance.” The study used data from urban adolescents specifically and found that the intervention of the justice system (from the initial committing of a crime) did positively correlate with follow-up delinquencies “through the medium of involvement in deviant social groups, namely, street gangs and delinquent peers” (Bernburg, 2006). Bernburg’s study, therefore, concluded that the intervention of the justice system does serve to increase the future likelihood of additional delinquencies in adolescents.

Part 3

The results of the Bernburg study prove that labeling theory is, in fact, a valuable theory in the study of criminology. The adolescents that were studied were more likely to self-identify as criminals after an interaction with the justice system, and as such, take association with gangs and other delinquent individuals that take part in criminal activity as a part of their self-identities. While this research does help to strengthen the case for labeling theory, more research is certainly needed to make known more specific approaches that can be taken to solve the effects of labeling theory on criminal offenders.

If I were to create my own study to further investigate the causes of and solutions to labeling theory, I would first want to separate the variables of types of crime that exist in communities. For instance, a large-scale analysis of crime data would need to separate out drug activity, from psychopathy and violent crime, from robbery, etc… This is because oftentimes the motivation behind different crime types can be drastically different. While robbery may very well fit the confines of labeling theory, because of its association with criminal self-identity that could well be taken on after the labeling of one as a criminal, a drug crime could differ drastically. In fact, the effects of drug addiction could overpower the motivation of self-esteem which is central to the causal arguments of labeling theory. So, crime type distinctions would need to be individually studied in follow-up labeling theory research.

Additionally, this study should utilize the results of both Bernburg’s (2006) results and the results found by Bachman, O’Malley, and Johnston (1978). This means that the study would need a treatment group that receives both an avenue of self-esteem rehabilitation that exists outside of criminal self-identity, and initial interaction with the justice system that avoids labeling the criminal as such entirely. In this regard, a variety of approaches could be tested to see what kind of alternative labeling, or lack of labeling entirely, produces the most positive effects upon its treatment group. For instance, the treatment group could be divided into three groups itself, one of which receives no formal labeling upon its interaction with the justice system; one of which receives an alternate form of labeling (other than that of “criminal” or “offender” that are used today), such as “participant” or simply “individual”; while the final treatment group could be denoted as a “victim” by the justice system. This third group would be tested to see if they opposite labeling could serve within the confines of labeling theory, but have the opposite effect, so that the individual would be even less likely than the others to commit future crimes because they would self-identify as a member of the opposite class of society – namely those that have crimes committed upon themselves. This hypothetical study’s combination of labeling tests and self-esteem rehabilitation would effectively tackle both aspects of Bernburg’s and Bachman, O’Malley, and Johnston’s studies to create a more complete picture of the possible solutions labeling theory can provide our criminal justice system.

Part 4

The results of the above hypothetical study could serve to affect major policy shifts in the current criminal justice system. For instance, the effects of the self-esteem aspect of the study could prove that the manner in which criminals in our current system are left alone to rebuild self-esteem after punishment, allows for negative influences to fill the self-esteem needs of an individual. One possible policy shift that could take this into account could involve the mandatory implementation of positive, self-esteem building rehabilitation after the negative effects of interaction with the justice system have occurred. This could include the mandatory assignment of a counselor or program that facilitates the use of positive self-esteem building activities, such as mandatory participation in a social environment with positive reinforcement queues from the other participants (perhaps a program similar to Big Brothers/Big Sisters for adolescents). For adults, this could include career management programs or simply a social environment that also provides positive reinforcement for the individual outside of delinquent identified social environments (this could include a sports league, church environment, or volunteer service group). These options could serve as replacements (either partial or full) for other forms of sentencing such as jail time, which only serve to allow negative forms of self-esteem building to occur.

Another major policy implication that would depend upon the results of the study would be the use of language in the justice system itself, specifically when referring to the criminal. If labeling theory is shown to have a significant effect on the self-identity, and therefore continued rate of delinquency of an individual, a simple change in either the elimination of the use of the term “criminal” or possibly the inclusion of words such as “victim” to refer to the delinquent could serve to reduce repeat offenses significantly. This would be a relatively simple policy shift to implement which could show significant reductions in repeat criminal behavior by utilizing labeling theory to affect the best outcome in crime prevention.

Overall, while additional empirical evidence is needed to create the most effective policy shifts in the criminal justice system, the implementation of such studies could show that labeling theory has a powerful effect on criminal behavior. If labeling theory does prove to have strong causal arguments, then relatively small changes in the use of language and types of punishment used would create significant increases in crime prevention, which makes further research into labeling theory a very worthwhile endeavor.


Bachman, Jerald G., Patrick M. O'Malley, and Jerome Johnston. (1978). Youth in Transition. Adolescence to Adulthood: Change and Stability in the Lives of Young Men. 6. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Institute for Social Research.

Bernburg, J. G. (2006). Official Labeling, Criminal Embeddedness, And Subsequent Delinquency: A Longitudinal Test Of Labeling Theory. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 43(1), 67-88.

Lemert, E. M. (1951). Social pathology; a systematic approach to the theory of sociopathic behavior. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Matsueda, R. L. (1992). Reflected Appraisals, Parental Labeling, And Delinquency: Specifying A Symbolic Interactionist Theory. American Journal of Sociology, 97(6), 1577.

Mead, G. H. (1913). The Social Self. Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, 10, 374-380.

Mead, G. H., & Morris, C. W. (1962). Mind, self & society from the standpoint of a social behaviorist. Chicago [Ill.: University of Chicago Press.

Rosenberg, M. (1979). Conceiving the self. New York: Basic Books.

Tannenbaum, F. (1938). Crime and the community. Boston: Ginn and Co.