The Labeling Theory of Criminology

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Individuals who engage in violent activities and criminal behavior impair society by damaging the lives of innocent citizens and by providing the affected communities with a detrimental atmosphere of fearful distrust. The United States has established laws that codify the official values of society and determine the appropriate behavior patterns that citizens must display. Although the American society stigmatizes offenders who violate the laws of society by confining offenders in prison to punish the criminal and deter other citizens from repeating the behavior, the most effective method of preventing crime is to understand and alleviate the motivations that cause people to engage in criminal activities. Because crime is a detrimental problem for society, many criminologists and sociologists have proposed essential criminology theories to help understand what causes people to commit crimes. The labeling theory is an important criminological concept that helps to explain why certain people consistently participate in criminal activities during their lives. Although stigmatizing delinquents with the label of being a deviant is intended to deter the offender and other citizens from violating the law, many criminologists contend that the stigmatic labels actually cause the opposite effect of increasing the delinquent behavior. The labeling theory asserts that individuals who have been labeled as deviants tend to accept and actualize the label by engaging in delinquent behavior and by fulfilling criminal careers.

The general concept of the labeling theory was originated in 1902 by Charles Cooley. Cooley conducted studies to examine the imaginary friends of children and to determine how individuals perceive their identities. Cooley then established the concept of the looking glass self, which asserts that individuals perceive and judge themselves according to how they are viewed by other people and by the community. The looking glass self-concept was significant because it emphasized how labels ascribed to an individual by society have a dramatic influence on how the individual perceives his or her identity. In 1934 George Mead expanded on the concept of labeling by contending that the perception of self is determined by social forces and then internalized within the mind of the individual. In turn, the identity or label attached to a member of society becomes a “self-fulfilling prophecy” as it encourages the individual to engage in certain behavior patterns that would actualize and validate the label (Howard Becker’s Labeling Theory, 1998). Additionally, Edwin Lemert also promoted the influence of labeling on criminal behavior by establishing two steps of the labeling process and by arguing that a person who accepts the deviant label is more likely to engage in deviant behavior.

However, Howard Becker was one of the most prominent proponents of the labeling theory. Because rules are developed and established by the authority figures or majority opinions of a given society, Becker contends that rules are arbitrarily and subjectively dependent on time, the given society, and the values upheld by the society at a particular point in time (Becker, 1963). As a result, society creates rules according to the values of the citizens and then label people who transgress against the rules as deviants. Becker argues that the label causes people who engage in deviant behavior to perceive themselves as being disconnected from the authoritative part of society that formulates the laws and morally disjointed from the rest of society that abides by the laws.

In 1963, Becker analyzed the labeling theory with his criminology book, The Outsiders. Becker emphasizes incremental steps by which the process of deviant labeling can cause a person to engage in delinquent behavior. The first step of the labeling process is primary deviance, which involves any situation in which an individual commits a crime, gets caught, and receives the stigmatic label of deviant by a community or a position of authority. All humans are capable of possessing deviant impulses and all humans can be confronted with motivations to commit crimes for various reasons, including money, social status, emotions, romantic endeavors, family conflicts, or the thrilling sense of excitement associated with criminal behavior. Because most people resist temptations and conform to societal rules, the people that do commit crimes are thereafter labeled as deviant. Thus, the first step of the labeling process involves the individual initially receiving the deviant label and being perceived by the community as a delinquent.

The second step of the labeling process entails the acceptance of the label. Becker remarks that some people who commit a solitary crime and receive the deviant label later reject the label, refrain from committing future crimes, and instead adhere to the rules of society. However, most individuals who are stigmatized with the deviant label adopt the label as their master status (Becker, 1963). The master status relates to the ultimate manner in which we perceive ourselves, and people who engage in criminal activity tend to embrace the deviant label attached to them, perceive themselves as outsiders of society, and actualize the label by consistently engaging in criminal activities.

The third step of Becker’s Labeling theory reflects the influence that a deviant subculture can have in perpetuating and sustaining an individual’s criminal career. People who are disconnected from the mainstream portion of society by a deviant label tend to interact with deviant subcultures that accept and promote the behavior. Because we must adjust and adhere to the standards of our peers to gain respect and establish an elevated social status, people are likely to commit crimes when they are engulfed in subcultures that value criminal activity or that depend on delinquent behavior as a means to earn respect. The deviant subcultures in turn facilitate criminal activity by providing the individuals in the group with moral support, encouraging individuals to value and appreciate deviant behavior, and by justifying the delinquent activities with a sense of legitimacy (Becker, 1963). Thus, people who have received the deviant label tend to accept and actualize the label because they are more likely to associate with peers or subcultures that facilitate criminal activities.

The labeling theory also addresses how the depravation of equal opportunities associated with the deviant label can further encourage people to fulfill criminal careers. Law-abiding citizens understand that they have the opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and acquire the advanced knowledge and superior skills required to thrive with prestigious careers. In contrast, the deviant label often prevents the stigmatized people from obtaining meaningful employment positions, earning a reasonable salary, or achieving prestige within society. Because individuals labeled as deviants do not perceive that they can realistically fulfill respectable and legitimate careers in society, the individuals instead fulfill criminal careers as the only available method of acquiring financial and social success. Additionally, deviant subcultures further encourage the economic motivation of criminal behavior, for people who are disconnected from society and united with a group of delinquent peers must inevitably engage in delinquent behavior to acquire sufficient amounts of money and to achieve respect among the group.

Becker also emphasizes the important role that authority figures perform in ascribing the deviant label to individuals. Most criminal activities are stigmatized and punished by the members of society who are responsible for enforcing the law, such as police officers, prosecutors and correction officials. The law enforcement agents of a society are motivated to punish delinquents for many reasons, such as the need to perform the obligations of their enforcement positions, a moral desire to minimize criminal behavior among society, and an ambition to obtain respect among the community as competent and effective law enforcement agents. As a result, law enforcement agents of a given society possess the power and motivation to apprehend individuals, punish delinquent behavior, and stigmatize citizens by applying the label of deviant to their identities. However, when the passion law enforcement officials have for obtaining success in their positions causes the officials to inadvertently punish innocent people and label them as deviants, the application of the deviant label can motivate the innocent individual to fulfill the label and adopt a life of crime (Becker, 1963). For instance, Becker demonstrates that labeling innocent people as deviants increases the chances that the people will commit crimes in the future. Labeling very young juvenile offenders as deviants also encourages delinquent activities, for the label impairs rehabilitation and promotes criminal behavior. Additionally, punishing people with prison also conversely facilitates criminal careers, for immersing people with criminal convicts and stigmatizing citizens with the convict label can prevent rehabilitation, encourage deviant subculture participation, and amplify the criminal tendencies of the individual. Thus, law enforcement agents of a society possess the influential ability to ascribe deviant labels to individuals and to facilitate criminal behavior in people that otherwise might have remained law-abiding citizens throughout their lives.

Becker also expanded on the labeling theory by analyzing the four types of citizens. The categorization of citizens depends on the degree to which they conform to societal norms, break societal norms, and receive deviant labels for their actions. Members of a society that adhere to the rules and avoid receiving any labels are considered conforming citizens, individuals who are mistakenly labeled as deviant without transgressing any rules are referred to as the falsely accused, people who commit criminal behavior and accept the label of deviant are known as pure deviants, and people that manage to violate the laws of society without ever acquiring the deviant label are considered secret deviants (Becker, 1963). Thus, Becker organizes all citizens of a given society into four categories that help describe their level of criminal activity in accordance with their label, including conforming citizens, the falsely accused, pure deviants and secret deviants.

Many research studies have been used by Becker and other criminologists to support and explain the labeling theory of criminology. Becker employed two primary cases to validate his labeling theory. One study conducted by Becker concentrated on marijuana use, for Becker’s generation experienced the development in which marijuana use became dramatically stigmatized and people who consumed marijuana were labeled as deviants. In 1930 the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was established by the US government. Thereafter, the bureau became a moral entrepreneur that attempted to stigmatize the use of marijuana by generating several media crusades to criticize marijuana and label all users as deviants. For instance, the bureau utilized the media to convey exaggerated stories that depicted marijuana users as dangerous Mexican immigrants, delinquent children and violent rapists. These media depictions encouraged the condemnation of marijuana users, solidified the public perception of marijuana users being dangerous, and inevitably led to the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 (Becker, 1963). The Marijuana Act officially labeled marijuana users as cultural deviants, and Becker tracked the progression of marijuana users to evaluate the effects of this deviant label.

Becker’s study classified marijuana users into three stages consisting of beginning users, occasional users, and regular users. The study indicates that the deviant label ascribed to people who use marijuana increases the likelihood that deviant marijuana subcultures form and that an individual will progress to become a regular user. For instance, Becker states that many beginning marijuana users are initially uncomfortable and dissatisfied with the sensation provided by the drug. However, the tendency of an individual’s peers or subculture to promote and glamorize marijuana encourages the individual to also perceive the sensation as an enjoyable and favorable experience (Becker, 1963). Thus, labeling marijuana use as deviant facilitates the establishment of marijuana subcultures that sense a disconnection to the norms of society and that encourage people within the group to become regular marijuana users. The labeling aspect of the marijuana study serves a broader purpose of demonstrating how stigmatizing a behavior and labeling people who display the behavior as deviants causes deviant subcultures to form, encourages labeled citizens to join the subculture, and increases the frequency and intensity of the criminal behavior.

The marijuana study also focused on the influence that controlling the societal marijuana supply had on the behavior of users. Becker concluded that suppressing the marijuana supply did not deter use, but instead facilitated subcultures that were more likely to engage in criminal behavior to perpetuate usage. Whereas having marijuana easily available in the legitimate business markets of society would prevent subcultures from forming, suppressing the marijuana supply encourages individual users to associate with deviant subcultures as a way of obtaining, distributing and consuming the drug. Because the users cannot ascertain the drug through legitimate methods, these marijuana subcultures are more likely to engage in criminal behavior and violent activities to acquire or sell the drug. As a result, the study shows that prohibiting marijuana and suppressing the society’s marijuana supply failed to reduce marijuana usage, encouraged beginning users to develop into regular users, and generated the formation of deviant subculture groups. However, Becker also demonstrated that instilling members of society with a critical perception of marijuana as a detrimental drug can prevent people from ever using the drug or associating with the subcultures. The most effective method of deterring marijuana use is to control and manipulate the individual’s perception of marijuana, so the individual is reluctant to use the drug. Thus, the marijuana study exemplifies that instilling citizens with the passionate conviction that a behavior is truly immoral can prevent people from displaying the behavior more successfully than the ineffective deterrent of stigmatizing citizens with labels.

Becker also performed an extensive study on Chicago dance musicians to elaborate on the influence of the labeling theory on subcultures. The unconventional lifestyles of the dancers within the groups cause the members of the groups to absorb a different set of values and to display unique behavior patterns that are disconnected from the rest of society. Although the group of dance musicians generally refrains from criminal activities, the study still demonstrated the immense impact that a subculture can have on the attitudes and behavior patterns of an individual. For instance, the dancers tended to immerse themselves into the dance musician subculture by learning the particular language, gestures and opinions that are consistently expressed by the subculture. The individuals then had to imitate the values and behavioral expectations to successfully interact with the group and to acquire respect from the subculture. Becker also remarks on the stark contrast in which the musicians would think and behave in a certain manner with their families during the day and then display entirely different dispositions and behavioral patterns when interacting with the musician subculture at night (Becker, 1963). The study demonstrates that individuals who belong to a certain subculture must adopt and exercise the particular values and behavioral patterns that the subculture appreciates. Thus, people who belong to a deviant subculture are significantly more likely to participate in the delinquent behavior that is promoted by the given group.

Several research studies have been conducted by criminologists and social scientists to help support the labeling theory. For instance, a longitudinal test of the labeling theory was conducted by Bernburg, Krohn and Rivera, three university scholars who attained significant credibility in the criminological community for contributing innovative and reliable research studies to the field. The labeling theory research project involved a panel data study of urban adolescents to determine if the juvenile justice system and the labeling of juveniles as deviants diminished or exasperated the individual’s tendency to engage in future criminal activities. The research also concentrated on different groups and three successive points in time to enhance the comprehensive quality of the study.

The research study indicated that the stigmatizing deviant label generally increases the likelihood that the person who receives the label will consistently participate in delinquent behavior. Regardless of innocent or guilty, exposing young individuals to the juvenile justice system and criminal proceedings provides the individual with the reputation of being a deviant to his peers and to the adults of the community. When the alleged delinquent acts are recognized throughout the community and the members of the community define the juvenile as a deviant, the individual then begins to accept the label and perceive himself as a delinquent. After the juvenile has accepted the deviant label, stereotypical media depictions of criminal behavior encourage the individual to replicate the stereotypical delinquent behavior and to actualize the label (Bernburg, Krohn and Rivera, 2006). Therefore, juveniles who have been labeled and defined as deviants are significantly more likely to interact with delinquent peers, join criminal organization subcultures, and engage in frequent criminal activities as they mature into adulthood.

Edwin Schur also helped to expand upon the influence of the criminology labeling theory. In 1963, Schur submitted Crimes Without Victims, a research study that analyzed the nature of victimless crimes and the impact that stigmatizing the offenders has on future behavior. Victimless crimes refer to behaviors that are prohibited by society as deviant transgressions despite the fact that other citizens do not suffer any injuries from the particular transgressions. Although there are many types of victimless crimes, Schur concentrated on the most prevalent forms of crimes that were being condemned and outlawed at the time of the study, including homosexuality, drug use and abortion. According to the report, laws that prohibited the victimless crimes and stigmatized the offenders failed to deter people from engaging in the given behavior. In contrast, such stigmatizing laws increased the number of offenders and intensified the frequency at which offenders would participate in the behavior. Receiving the label of deviant most likely magnified the problems of the victimless crimes because the label encouraged the relevant offenders to accept the identity, continue the deviant behavior, and join subcultures that further perpetuate the behavior (Plummer). Thus, Schur concluded that attaching a deviant label to the identity of an individual increases the chances that the individual will continue to participate in the respective behavior.

Although the labeling theory has generated a significant amount of support in the criminology community, the theory has also garnered an abundance of criticism for containing flaws that impair the efficaciousness of the concept. A primary argument that has been consistently emphasized by critics is that the labeling theory has not been validated by empirical evidence. While observational studies can support the theory, no scientific studies with concrete numerical data have been able to irrefutably prove the labeling influence or measure the quantity to which labeling can cause crime (Scimecca, 1977). Additionally, critics argue that observational analysis studies are flawed because such studies generally focus on the reaction of individuals who have already committed at least one crime or who have already been stigmatized with the deviant label. Thus, the studies fail to account for the attitudes and behavioral patterns of the individual before receiving the label and the transformation that occurred as a result of being labeled.

Another criticism of the labeling theory is that the theory only explains a narrowly limited scope of criminal activities. The theory usually exclusively applies to street criminals and people who belong to low-income communities, for such individuals are significantly more likely to be labeled as deviants by society than individuals from more financially stable communities. However, the theory fails to address the reasons that other individuals who have not been stigmatized with a deviant label can still engage in delinquent behavior. Although financially successful individuals tend to avoid the unnecessary risk of street crime, such individuals are still capable of committing crimes for a wide variety of motivations. For instance, greed can motivate prestigious businessmen to commit financial crimes for more profits and eminent government agents to commit political corruption crimes for more power. Thus, the labeling theory is not comprehensive because the theory neglects to account for crimes committed by people who have not received the stigmatic deviant label.

Critics have also argued against the influence of labeling on mental illness. Thomas Scheff applied the labeling theory to patients who suffer from mental illnesses by asserting that such patients are labeled as mentally ill only as a method for society to understand why they engage in certain behaviors that transgress against the societal norm. Scheff contends that when an individual is labeled by society or psychiatric professionals as mentally ill, the individual then accepts the label and begins to replicate behavior according to the stereotypical depiction of mental patients as expressed by the mass media. Scheff also accumulated empirical evidence from several studies focusing on mental hospital patients to demonstrate that the behavior of the patients was significantly influenced by the label they have received, and the diagnosis provided by professionals (Howard Becker’s Labeling Theory, 1998). However, many critics refute the empirical evidence by contending that Scheff focused exclusively on deviant individuals while entirely neglecting the moral entrepreneurs that attach labels to the individuals. Furthermore, critics maintain that Scheff places excessive emphasis on labeling as the primary cause of mental illness while dismissing the ability of psychopathological variables to influence such illnesses.

Although the labeling theory is difficult to prove with empirical data and might not account for every crime that is committed, the theory still helps to explain why certain people tend to consistently engage in delinquent behavior and fulfill criminal careers. Punishing offenders who violate the law with prison and with the stigmatic deviant label facilitates further delinquent behavior, for the label encourages the individuals to perceive themselves as deviants, to accept and embrace the label, to join subcultures that also value delinquent attitudes, and to frequently engage in criminal behavior throughout their lives. However, the most important aspect of the labeling theory is that society can utilize the concepts of the theory to prevent criminal behavior. Understanding the labeling theory and the influence that the stigmatic labeling process has on individuals can help society avoid attaching unnecessary deviant labels to citizens and can help reduce the amount of citizens who become career criminals.


Bernburg, J., Krohn, M., & Rivera, C. (2006). Official labeling, criminal embeddedness, and subsequent delinquency: A longitudinal test of labeling theory. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 43, 67-88.

Becker, H. S. (1963). Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. London: Free Press of Glencoe.

Howard Becker's Labeling Theory. (1998, June 11). Florida State University. Retrieved from

Plummer, K. (n.d.). Labeling theory. San Jose State University. Retrieved from

Scimecca, J. (1977). Labeling theory and personal construct theory: Toward the measurement of individual variation. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 68, 652-659.