Labeling Theory and Symbolic Interaction Theory

In the early 20th century, the Chicago School of sociology transformed the landscape of sociology and set the standard for future criminologists. Two primary lines of inquiry came from this school: (1) human ecology and (2) symbolic interactionism. The different assumptions that underlie each of these theoretical models and the different focuses of each (the macro vs. the micro, respectively) would lead each theory to grow in its own directions. Human ecology would be applied to crime almost immediately in the form of social disorganization research, but it would not be until the 1960s that research applying symbolic interaction theory to criminality would occur in the form of the labeling theory.


I. Introduction

II. The Labeling Perspective

A. Symbolic Interaction

B. Labeling Precursors

C. Becker’s Labeling Theory

D. Contemporary Labeling Extensions

III. Criticisms of the Labeling Perspective

A. Early Theoretical Critiques

B. Early Empirical Critiques

IV. Labeling Research

V. Conclusion

I. Introduction

It is a fundamental fact that for an action or behavior to be considered a crime, there must be some law in place. For instance, in the Prohibition era it was illegal to possess, manufacture, or distribute alcohol. Up to this time point and after Prohibition had ended, individuals who possessed, manufactured, or distributed alcohol were thus deemed “criminal” by a society attempting to right its moral compass. The example of Prohibition highlights a key aspect of crime that had largely been neglected by criminologists: the reaction to criminal behavior. Although consensus criminology was concerned with the etiology of criminality, it did not confront the role of societal reaction on social control in the criminal process. Labeling theory was the first to address both individual criminality and the impact of social reaction on criminal behaviors.

Labeling Theory and Symbolic Interaction TheoryKobrin (1976, p. 245) wrote that labeling is an intrinsic feature of all human interaction. As such, labeling theorists argue that a complete picture of crime or deviance cannot be attained by merely examining offenders and their characteristics; instead, a complete picture of deviance must also reveal societal reactions to incidents of rule-breaking. In line with symbolic interactionism, labeling theorists state that the reaction of the society, the community, or a social group will affect the rule-breaker in one critical way: A person labeled as a deviant may accept that deviant label by coming to view himself or herself as a deviant (i.e., internalizing the label) and then engaging in further behavior that is both consistent with the label and the way in which the label was applied. This—the creation of additional deviance and criminality because of the application of a deviant label—is the central proposition of the labeling perspective.

The labeling perspective was developed over many years by a number of different social scientists (Becker, 1963; Cohen, 1995; Kitsuse, 1962; Lemert, 1951, 1967; Tannenbaum, 1938). This research paper examines the evolution of the labeling perspective and its contributions to the field of criminology.