The labeling theory is based upon the idea that one is not considered deviant through their actions, but instead deviance is built upon from people negatively judging an individual with disparate behavioral tendencies from the cultural norm. It centralizes around the idea that deviance is relative, as nobody is born deviant, but become deviant through social processes when surrounding peers consistently label a person as deviant. Therefore, one becomes a deviant because one believes that one’s self-concept is a deviant through consistent labeling of external factors, usually from higher authoritative peers.

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The labeling theory therefore focuses on how one’s self-identity or behavior can be shaped and influenced by how other people classify and react to one’s actions. This paper will begin by analyzing foundational frameworks of the labeling theory, and proceed with how this theory then was exemplified. Then, the main points of this theory will be summarized, following in depth classifications, and then an example of the application of the labeling theory to policy. Intellectual Foundation:

The foundational base of the labeling theory is built around the theories created from Mead, Tannenbaum and Lemert. Mead created the idea of symbolic interactionism, that everyone creates their self-identity or human behavior through social interactions with their surrounding environment. Then by putting together all these experiences, one uses this to construct their own self-identity . There is a strong correlation to labeling theory as it is built upon the idea that the labels attached to individuals are built by others’ conception of the individual’s behavior.

Tannenbaum constructed the idea of the “Dramatization of the Evil”, which has a central premise of how adolescents become delinquents. Many activities that adults do not approve of include smoking, flooding school washrooms or cutting classes. When informally punished by teachers or parents, if severe can instead stimulate deviancy the adolescents to further engage in misconduct. The idea of symbolic interactionists was used was the framework of explaining deviance and crime. Afterwards, Lemert explains the labeling theory as a transitional process from primary deviance to secondary deviance.

Becker follows this by explaining

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the labeling theory through a deviant career model. First, Lemert explains that everyone is in the stage of primary deviance. Through normal everyday occurrences, anyone can be situated in incidents that would cause them to form deviant acts because of external factors, such as peer pressure. However, as long as these occurrences remain hidden or occasional, they will stay as primary deviance and not influence the individual as there will be little to none negative social reaction. As a result of the little negative social reaction, each person would not label himself or herself as deviant either.

If they do however however, Sykes and Matza specified five neutralization techniques for one to maintain a non-deviant self-concept. These five concepts consist of: denial of responsibility for their act, denial that injury to others is real, denial that a victim is really a victim, condemn those who are condemning them, and appeal to higher loyalties to justify their actions. (82) One therefore uses these strategies to avoid the self-definition of deviancy. However, when someone is socially defined as deviant and accepts their self-definition as deviant, they engage in Lemert’s concept of secondary deviance.

When the deviant label is successfully applied, this often follows with negative social interaction and social rejection. Longing for social acceptance, this person resort to subcultures consisted with people who pursue similar acts. Then, this person adapts to the lifestyle, culture, people and environment of deviancy. Becker extends the labeling theory onto two more perspectives: moral entrepreneurship and the deviant career. He introduces these concepts through the idea that consistent deviant behavior is what stimulates deviant motivation. Becker’s famous book Outsiders is known to be the manifesto of the labeling theory movement among many sociologists. He describes deviance in relation to the labeling theory as that: “…social groups create deviance by making rules whose infraction creates deviance, and by applying those roles to particular people and labeling them as outsiders.

From this point of view, deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by other of rules and sanctions to an ‘offender.’ The deviant is one to whom that label has been successfully applied; deviant behavior is behavior that people so label” The idea of moral entrepreneurs consists of people with higher authoritative power that have the ability to create and enforce moral norms by integrating them into legal statues and prohibitations (Gomme, 2007, p. 83). This creates a social hierarchy between those with higher moral or economic interests in comparison with those of less social and economic power.

Therefore, the higher social classes are the ones that create the deviant labels of nonconformists. A deviant career is the process of how one becomes a deviant. Becker relates this to the concept of a career from how one begins at the lowest position and through hard work and time he or she will continuously be promoted throughout his or her career. Each promotion affects the individual’s self-esteem, self-concept, and identity (Gomme, 2007, p. 83). The same concept applies to a deviant career, as promotion in this area reflects a positive light on the individual from their deviant peers. An aspect of a deviant career is also the “master status”, meaning a status that “overrides other statuses regardless of the context in which the person is located when he or she is the subject of reaction” (Gomme, 2007, p. 83).

When one has a master status of a deviant, there is usually continuous negative response such as gossip, avoidance, or discrimination. The concept of shaming from Braithwaite does not consist only of the labeling theory, as he combines several other theories such as: strain, subcultural, social learning, control and labeling theories. Reintegrative shaming begins by having the individual feel social disapproval, followed by feelings of remorse as a result of being shamed. Ceremonies are held to certify the deviancy, and then followed by additional ceremonies to decertify the deviancy.

Through this, people see the cause and effect of reintegrative shaming so they avoid future actions that would create a master status label of a deviant. Shaming through instigmatization however, provokes and amplifies criminal behavior because shaming arouses disrespectful disapproval and humiliation. The ceremonies that certify deviancy are not followed with ceremonies to decertify the deviancy. Therefore, the act and the persons’ self-concept both become labeled as evil, resulting in a master status of a deviant. Explanation of the theory:

Symbolic interaction is the core foundation of what the labeling theory is built upon. Through social processes, meanings and symbols become created through interaction. Whether positive or negative, these messages are interpreted to define a person’s identity and self-concept. This therefore is a “symbolic interpretation of the symbolic interpretations of the reactions of others act as a social mirror that reflects the actor’s self” (p. 87). George Mead created the concept that meanings are comprised the interpretations of one another given off in symbolic messages in the context of the interaction. This self-identity is created from how others interpret people’s reaction of them.

As Mead identified this as “the self as a social construction”, Charles Cooley identified this as “the looking glass self” (Gomme, 2007, p. 87). Through this frame work of the symbolic interaction came the creation of the labeling theory in perspective of crime and deviance. In this case, usually people with higher social class or authority have the power to either informally, as a parent teacher etc, or formally, as an institution etc, to label someone. This is the basic framework of what constitutes as the labeling theory. Afterwards, many different perspectives of defining and constructing the labeling theory were created. One important aspect is how deviance transitions from primary to secondary.

One is first defined deviant through consistent negative social reaction from surrounding factors. When these people begin to isolate and neglect the labeled “deviant”, the deviant believes that his or her self-concept is truly deviant, therefore creating a deviant identity. Therefore, these deviant labeled people live in deviant environment, processing onto secondary deviance. Additional key concepts include the moral entrepreneur, the deviant career and the master status. Moral entrepreneur are ones with high authoritative power that can create or enforce moral norms into the legal system, therefore labeling ones with less economic and social power.

The master status is the primary status that overrides all other ones despite context and location of the situation. Having a deviant master status causes social neglect and negative social reactions. Finally, Braithewaite uses the concept of the labeling theory and creates the reintegrative shaming, which specifies conditions under which “labeling constitutes a mitigating or aggregating circumstance influencing future and criminal behavior” (Gomme, 2007, p. 88). There are two types. Reintegrative shaming reduces crime, and stigmatizing increases crime. Application of theory to policy:

Despite the many efforts of the labeling theory to reduce deviance and crime,
there are many implications that rests on that labeling and stigmatization my official agents actually increase crime and deviance. In order to decrease this, theorist advice that stigma be reduced through limiting formal procedures (criminal justice program) and instead promote diversion programs. One idea is the implementation of community service in replacement of juvenile jail time. This will minimize official labeling by directing ones of minor offences out of prison and into court-mandated work in the community (Gomme, 2007, p. 86).

A conviction of juvenile time is considered severe can cause the effect of Lumert’s idea of secondary deviance, as a formal institution is labeling an adolescence as a deviant. For example, this individual will now have a criminal record so when this person applies for a job, he or she will need to present his criminal record. Not only this, but by being in a jail environment, this individual will meet and interact with similar people who conducted similar deviant acts. They can bond, and share ideas to pursue in future deviant acts together. Through community service however, the individual might be initially labeled as a deviant, but the name is soon be gone as he or she finishes their mandatory volunteer time. Not only this, but they will no engage with other deviants. Therefore, implementing and stronger court-mandated work in the community would reduce stigma in comparison to promoting juvenile jail time.

Tannenbaum supports this by stating that, “the way out is through a refusal to dramatize the evil”, the justice system attempts to do this through diversion programs. The growth of the theory and its current application, both practical and theoretical, provide a solid foundation for continued popularity.” Classifying the theory:

Deviant labels are usually given from classes with higher authoritative power who have integrated their moral norms into statutes and prohibitations, therefore labeling those with less economic and social stability. This therefore falls under the conflict theory. Although the labeling theory is classified as a conflict theory, the labeling theory focuses on a micro level analysis of how people’s social interactions with their surrounding environment are interpreted then re-modified to produce a personal identity. Becker supports this by stating “the most relative interactionist theory of deviance is that “social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance”.

This means that deviant behavior is arisen from the influences of social control factors instead of the personal reason of why one commits a deviant act, resulting this to be a micro-level analysis. The labeling theory is classified as process as this theory involves how one’s process of developing a deviant identification is through the social reactions of their peers. From all these gathered information, constitutes how this individual would also define situations. Therefore, the labeling theory constitutes the process of how one becomes and develops a deviant self-concept. Conclusion:

The labeling theory is created among the idea that one’s actions do not define whether he or she is deviant. Instead however, social reaction of one’s behavior creates and mol one’s self-identity, and along side attaching meanings and labels. Therefore, no one is born as a deviant person, but instead is molded into deviancy through social process. The labeling theory constitutes of a strong framework through the ideas of Mead, Tannenbaum and Lemert. Mead’s idea of Symbolic interaction could be considered the seed of the labeling theory. The label theory answers the questions of “Who is defined as a deviant?” “How did this happen?” and “What are the consequences?”

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