Labeling theories see crime and deviance as social constructions. Theorists stress that it is not the act per se that is problematic, but rather society’s negative reaction to it. Labeling theory asserts that individuals acquire certain stigmatizing labels through social interactions, particularly through institutions such as schools and the juvenile justice system. These labels may be internalized, thereby leading to perpetuation of the criminal or deviant activity.
Labeling theory emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. Drawing on the work of sociologists Charles Horton Cooley and George Herbert Mead, early labeling theorists emphasized that crime and deviance, like most other human behavior, are socially constructed through interactions. These early theorists used a micro theoretical approach, emphasizing individual and small-group interactions, the use of social control in daily life, and the ways that individuals make sense of the labels they are assigned.
Edwin Lemert posited that most individuals engage in minor acts of deviance at some point in their lives, what he called “primary deviance.” The application of a stigmatizing label at this time can beget additional labeling by other entities. Often, those persons who are assigned negative labels internalize the belief that they are indeed deviant, making their deviance become what sociologists call a master status. Lemert called this phenomenon “secondary deviance.” The transition between primary and secondary deviance is often facilitated through “degradation ceremonies,” or public rituals that are shaming and can have permanent impact–for example, court trials or expulsion from school. Given that individuals at this point find their opportunities for legitimate behavior are more limited, and that many have internalized the label, they may join others who have similar stigmas, creating a sort of deviant network.
Howard Becker expanded this perspective to address persons who were in the position to assign labels–most notably, teachers, police officers, and social workers. He called these people “moral entrepreneurs.” Later theorists followed Becker’s lead and placed greater emphasis on the larger social structures that create differential relationships of power and social control. Modern labeling theorists blend the symbolic interactionist perspective with a more critical view to address the ways that the attachment of labels mirrors larger social inequalities.
Although all labels can have some effect, labeling theorists focus on those with the potential for long-term negative impact. As such, they assert that labels assigned by individuals with whom a young person has a close relationship and those given by persons who make important decisions about the youth’s future have the greatest potential to be damaging.
In 1978, William Chambliss authored The Saints and the Roughnecks, which would become a classic in the field of criminology and a seminal work of labeling theory. It details his study of juvenile delinquency and what he observed while “hanging out” in the school and community. The Saints were a group of boys from “good” families, while the Roughnecks were a similarly sized group from working-class families. Chambliss noted that although the boys’ behavior was virtually the same, the Saints suffered far fewer consequences. Both groups regularly skipped school, cheated on exams, drank alcohol outside of school, and perpetrated acts of violence. Neither school officials nor police perceived the Saints as deviant, however; instead, they saw this group as good boys who committed occasional pranks. Chambliss determined that the bias against the working-class Roughnecks was significant. He noted, “The community responded to the Roughnecks as boys in trouble, and the boys agreed with that perception.”
Many have invoked labeling theories to explain some of the school shooting incidents that started in the 1990s. Some have noted that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the shooters in the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, had been labeled as deviants and were bullied by their peers, although there is some evidence that bullying was not the cause of the incident. A common thread among all of these school shooters was that they were considered odd or strange and thus may have been subjected to negative labeling.
- Becker, H. (1963). Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. New York: Macmillan.
- Chambliss, W. (1978) The Saints and the Roughnecks. Retrieved from http://alpha.fdu.edu/~peabody/Lexicon/Chambliss,_The_Saints_and_the_Roughnecks.html
- Lemert, E. (1951). Social pathology. New York: McGraw-Hill.