Labeling Theory and Symbolic Interaction Theory

C. Becker’s Labeling Theory

Tannenbaum, Lemert, and Kitsuse had discussed important concepts in labeling and stigmatization, but the labeling approach was more systematically refined with the work of Becker (1963) on societal “outsiders.” Becker argued that when a “rule is enforced, the person who is supposed to have broken it may be seen as a special kind of person . . . an outsider” (p. 1). Noticing, as Kitsuse (1962) had, that criminologists had focused primarily on deviant characteristics and had largely ignored the role of societal judgment in the study of deviance, Becker (1963) urged for the inclusion of society’s reaction to deviant phenomena:

Social groups create deviance by applying those rules 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 others of rules and sanctions to an offender. The deviant is one to whom that label has successfully been applied; deviant behavior is behavior that people so label. (p. 9)

This is the central proposition of the labeling perspective. To add to this, Becker (1963) also discussed other concepts of key importance for labeling theorists.

A label, or a stigma (Goffman, 1963), Becker (1963) contended, will vary because of certain theoretical concepts. First, the type of individuals who are labeled as deviant vary over time; for instance, individuals who were arrested for bootlegging in the Prohibition era would not be arrested today. Second, the degree to which an individual is considered deviant also depends on who commits the act and who has been victimized. A prime example is the treatment of white-collar and street-level offenders: Whereas street-level offenders usually will be processed through the criminal justice system if caught, white-collar criminals may be processed through criminal, administrative, or civil channels. Who commits the act and who is hurt will determine the extent and type of formal intervention and of the label. Finally, the term outsider may apply to the people who create the rules by individuals who are breaking those rules. The rule makers can be outsiders to the so-called “deviant” group.

In his discussion of the labeling perspective, Becker (1963) identified four types of deviants: (1) falsely accused, (2) conformist, (3) pure deviant, and (4) secret deviant. The falsely accused deviant is the individual who receives a “bum rap,” someone who has not broken any rules and yet is labeled. The conformist is someone who does not break rules and is not labeled. The pure deviant is someone who breaks rules and is so labeled. The secret deviant, which is discussed more later in this research paper, is the individual who engages in rule-breaking but is not labeled.

Because the idea of labeling is intertwined with the idea of secondary deviance (Lemert, 1967), Becker (1963) also discussed the deviant career, which begins with the commission of a deviant or criminal act. If a label is applied and is internalized by the individual, secondary deviance may ensue. Becker argued that research should focus on individuals who have engaged in at least one criminal act but have failed to become adult criminals as well as those offenders who continue criminality over time.

Becker (1963) later argued that he never thought he had set down the basis for a formal theory in his book, Outsiders; he merely wanted to enlarge the field of study for students of deviance. Becker suggested that secondary deviance should not be the main focus of labeling researchers; instead, the process of action–reaction–counterreaction was the most important aspect of the labeling approach. Becker noted that the labeling perspective was also not as consumed with the label as critics have argued. In a later interview, Becker (quoted in Debro, 1970) argued that the inclusion of societal reactions to deviance stemmed from his sociological past: “If we study a hospital . . . we study doctors, patients, nurses, aides, and so on. We may focus on one category of people, but we know that the actions of the others are important as well” (p. 166). Thus, the focus on only the offender in criminological theory is an incomplete picture of the entire criminal event; society’s views and opinions must be taken into account.