Labeling Theory and Symbolic Interaction Theory

II. The Labeling Perspective

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.

A. Symbolic Interaction

The labeling perspective has its origins in the work of Mead and Cooley in the sociological theory of symbolic interactionism. Mead (1934) believed that the self arose through social processes, or social experiences, which involved play, game, and the generalized other. A person’s self is generated when an individual takes the attitudes of other people in the group around him or her (whom Mead called the generalized other) and superimposes those attitudes upon behavioral patterns; thus, a person will generally behave in a manner that is consistent with the way in which that person believes others view him or her. Mead differentiated between the “me” and the “I,” and Cooley (1926) referred to this process as the looking-glass self, which is a reference to the socially shaped self.

This process is not a static one; instead, it is a dynamic process of the individual “reacting back against society,” which in turn is constantly reacting to the individual (Mead, 1977, p. 235). In this way, an individual will behave in a manner that is consistent with others’ beliefs and expectations. Human behavior, then, revolves around the meanings of things and situations; the interpretation of these meanings through interactions with others; and the interpretive process an individual undergoes concerning interactions, both present and past (Blumer, 1969). Mead (1977) viewed this role taking as the foundation for social control (formal and informal). This two-way, symbolic interaction between the self and society forms the foundation of labeling theory.