Labeling Theory and Symbolic Interaction Theory

D. Contemporary Labeling Extensions

Since Becker’s (1963) original statements on the labeling perspective, others have added to the fragmented conceptualization of this theoretical model. Schur (1971) contributed to the labeling theory by conceptualizing other important ideas, such as the role of stereotyping. Schur argued that stereotyping has a dual role in society. First, stereotypes help individuals in complex interactions to classify the expectations of others’ behaviors and the actual behavior of others. Second, stereotyping frequently involves the potential for individual reactions based on inaccurate assessments. Just because a stereotype (i.e., a label) is applied incorrectly, that does not mean that it affects the stereotyped individual any less.

Retrospective interpretation is another concept key to the study of labeling, according to Schur (1971). Retrospective interpretations involve the “mechanisms by which reactors come to view deviators in a new light” (Schur, 1971, p. 52). Mechanisms can range from something as simple as gossip to something as complex as a criminal trial. Negotiation and bargaining are important concepts in that they are the methods by which moral entrepreneurs and rule-makers assert labels; examples include the plea-bargaining process in criminal trials and lobbyists who influence legislators. Finally, Schur discussed role engulfment, or the process by which an individual takes a label and fully internalizes it, thus becoming the individual the label implies. This concept includes accepting the deviant identity or disavowing the deviant identity, or the joining of a deviant subculture by the labeled individual, as in Tannenbaum’s (1938) original formulation of the “dramatization of evil.” Role engulfment is hence the end result of the labeling process resulting in behavior based on internalization of the label.

Cohen (1995) argued that the “student of deviance must question and not take for granted the labeling by society or certain powerful groups in society of certain behaviors as deviant or problematic” (p. 211). Cohen’s contribution to labeling theory was in regard to the concept of the amplification of deviance by deviants and deviant groups. Amplification was not only mediated by face-to-face contact of individuals or by gossip but also was related to media depictions of deviance, because the mass media are a prime source of information about the normative contours of society. Cohen argued that society reacts to episodes of deviance on the basis of “information about that particular class of phenomenon, individual tolerance levels of an indicated behavior, and direct experience” (p. 215). So, amplification of deviance can occur from either the labeled or the labeler’s point of view.

In 1989, Paternoster and Iovanni explicitly formulated the propositions of the labeling perspective. In an effort to stimulate a new era of inquiry under the labeling perspective, they identified the four conceptual areas that must be evaluated to support a successful labeling theory: (1) the role of political/economic power in creating delinquency statuses; (2) the influence of extralegal attributes in determining who is labeled; (3) the contribution of social and physical attributes in determining face-to-face encounters; and (4) the possibility that the experience of being labeled by social control agencies may result in an alteration of personal identity, an exclusion from the normal routines of everyday life, and greater involvement with delinquency (p. 363).

A new focus for the labeling perspective in the 1990s was the change from studying formal labels to studying labels that are applied informally. Formal labels come from the reactions by officials of the criminal justice system to the behaviors of individuals (Triplett & Jarjoura, 1994, p. 243). Informal labels, on the other hand, are an attempt to “characterize a person as a given ‘type’ . . . by persons who are not acting as official social control agents, and in social situations that are not formal social control ‘ceremonies’ ” (Paternoster & Triplett, 1988, p. 597). The informal label is associated with the concept of stereotype.

Although the sociopsychological effects of being labeled remain a central tenet of the labeling perspective, there is a growing interest in the effects that a formal criminal label may have on the legitimate opportunities (i.e., education, jobs, marriage) available to a formally labeled individual. Becker (1963) already hinted at this when he discussed the importance of the deviant subculture (i.e., once a person is submerged in a deviant subculture, associations and contacts with the nondeviant world diminish or are closed completely). More recently, the effect of a criminal conviction (or prison sentence) on an individual’s subsequent life course has become a focus of study. So, it seems that the sociopsychological effect on later life opportunities has become less crucial to study than the detrimental effect of a formal label (conviction or prison sentence) on later life opportunities.

The labeling theoretical model was generated over a large part of the 20th century. The way in which it was constructed, by myriad different sociologists, criminologists, and empirical researchers, has resulted in a fragmented theoretical model, with concepts added here and there or propositions being elaborated upon, here and there. The fragmented tapestry that is the labeling perspective, as well as the inherent attack on offender-oriented criminological theory by labeling theorists, has exposed it to a great deal of criticism and counterattack. The next section explores the primary lines of criticism that have been leveled against the labeling perspective.