Labeling Theory and Symbolic Interaction Theory

III. Criticisms of the Labeling Perspective

Many criticisms have been leveled against the labeling perspective by criminologists who looked at labeling as an attack on prior theoretical thought. Labeling theory has been criticized as being too simplistic: The label affects self-concept, which leads to a change in self-concept, and this change in self-concept leads to a change in behavior (Wellford, 1975, p. 342). The labeling perspective has been argued to be nothing more than a small part of a much larger overall theory. This section explores both the theoretical and empirical shortcomings of the labeling perspective that have pervaded the area.

A. Early Theoretical Critiques

One of the first criticisms of the labeling perspective was presented by Gibbs (1966), who argued that there were several flaws in the labeling theory at that time, the most critical being that labeling theory puts the focus on the reaction to a type of behavior. This means that the deviant act is external to the actor and the act. In essence, it does not matter that the individual engaged in some deviant or criminal activity, only that there was some kind of reaction from society. Only when a reaction is of a certain kind or level will there exist a deviant act. This is problematic for labeling theory in that clearly there has to be a rule-breaking act for a public or a criminal justice system response to occur in most cases. The response of labeling theorists to this critique has been simply to argue that they do not necessarily deny the significance of understanding the causes of initial deviance or rule-breaking but that their main interest happens to be on the role of the social responses to rule-breaking.

Akers (1967) outlined a different problem with the labeling perspective. According to Akers, “We still do not know very much about even the official distribution and variations in rates of some kinds of deviance and are practically ignorant of the true distribution of nearly every type of deviant behavior” (p. 459). In terms of the labeling approach, we still do not know very much about the true extent of rule-breaking. Because we do not know a lot about rule-breaking, how can we expect to be able to study the social response to rule-breaking, or so the critique goes.

Lemert (1974), one of the foremost labeling theorists, argued that the labeling perspective lacked discussion on the amount of consensus or dissent that exists in societal reactions, which makes it extremely difficult to study the societal reaction to deviance. In other words, different people will react differently to different types of crime. Rules of reaction and labeling appear to be automatically agreed on in the literature, especially in terms of personal, violent crime. In terms of lesser crimes, especially victimless crimes, people will behave differently in their reactions based on personal experience and beliefs.

A second line of criticism deals with the nature of societal reaction across different societies. According to Gibbs (1966), it was unclear whether Becker (1963) was pursuing a theory of deviant behavior or a theory about reactions to deviance. If the reaction is the key to deviant behavior, the implication is that deviance would not change across different societies in the world; that is, definitions of criminal activity (both social and legal) would be constant across all countries and societies. However, this is not the case. Many examples of this can be seen in a comparison of different countries’ legal statutes; one example would be the fact that marijuana is illegal in America but legal in Amsterdam (Becker, 1963). Hence, there is a difference in the societal reactions between these two countries in their definition of marijuana use as a deviant/criminal behavior. Lemert (1974, p. 12) observed that the labeling perspective does not fully explain the process in which a society engages when reacting to behavior; a reaction may identify a deviant act, but it does not explain why the behavior is considered deviant.

Akers (1967) wrote that another problem with the labeling perspective was that labels do not explain the first deviant act, or the rule-breaking. Some rule-breaking has to precede deviant labels: Social definitions do not occur in a vacuum; they are mutually interactive. This could be, as Wellford (1975) contended, that the first assumption of the labeling perspective indicates that no act is intrinsically criminal. Although there is a great deal of difference across countries and societies in how criminal behaviors are viewed and treated, most societies have found it important to control certain kinds of behavior; for instance, across countries and cultures, murder, robbery, burglary, and larceny have been found to be important crimes to control (Wellford, 1975, p. 335).

Another theoretical criticism of the labeling perspective has come from criminologists who recognize the link between labeling and deterrence. Tittle (1975) argued that the labeling perspective does not address instances in which labeling will actually deter the deviant career by inhibiting deviance. Thorsell and Klemke (1972) contended that it is difficult to study the labeling approach without giving thought to the deterrence model. Deterrence implies that sanctions will deter offenders from engaging in further criminal behavior through a process of rational choice, whereby an offender will weigh the cost and benefits of any future offending through the lens of the previous punishment (Bowers & Salem, 1972, p. 428). According to Thomas and Bishop (1984, p. 1223), both models adopt a social psychological level of analysis, apply to the way sanctions affect offenders, are concerned with formal and informal sanctions, and have ramifications for social policy. Indeed, one of the most intriguing questions remains whether the person on whom the label “criminal” is conferred is likely to be propelled into more crime or deterred from future criminal behavior (Paternoster & Iovanni, 1989).

Finally, Gibbs (1966) presented a purely semantic theoretical argument against the labeling perspective. According to Gibbs, Becker’s (1963) discussion of the secret deviant is a contradiction in terms; if deviance is the end result of a reaction, the secret deviant could not be a deviant at all. This secret deviant would never be labeled at all and hence would never be a deviant.