Labeling Theory and Symbolic Interaction Theory

B. Early Empirical Critiques

In his examination of the assumptions of the labeling perspective, Hagan (1973) focused on the assumption that pertained to another’s reaction leading to an intensification of a behavior (i.e., secondary deviance). Hagan argued that there was a large empirical gulf between the society that reacts to a behavior (labelers) and the individual who is labeled; in the research, there is only a focus on one or the other in specific studies: either the labeled individual or the society/group that is labeling. Hagan concluded that these two concepts should be studied in concert.

Tittle (1975) noted another empirical shortcoming with the labeling perspective: There are very few available data sources capable of capturing labeling and its effects on criminality. The data that are available, recidivism data in most cases, are difficult to obtain and do not allow a straightforward assessment. Because of the nature of recidivism data (i.e., they apply only to offenders who have been rearrested, reconvicted, reincarcerated, or some combination of these three), they are inappropriate to study the full effects of labeling. Offenders could still be recidivating (the dark figure of crime). The key in this argument is that only individuals who are rearrested are captured in these data; thus, anyone who is reoffending and does not again come under the purview of the criminal justice system would appear as nonrecidivating. Although recidivism data are difficult to marshal in labeling research, Tittle argued that the findings from studies that have used these types of data indicate weak results for the labeling perspective. Because of the combination of the lack of available data and the persistent weak findings of recidivism data, Tittle concluded that this method of testing the labeling perspective was not a clearcut resolution.

Mankoff (1971) argued that labeling theorists have failed to conceptually or empirically specify which sanctions lead to continued deviance and what severity of sanction is required to produce career deviance. A great deal of the research on labeling has examined individuals with mental impairments and other physical impairments/ stigmas (ascriptive rule-breaking). Criminology is more concerned with achieved rule-breaking, which is an activity on the part of the rule-breaker. Mankoff ’s analysis suggests that the labeling perspective is not as useful in evaluating achieved rule-breaking as it is in examining ascriptive rule-breaking. As well, Mankoff urged criminologists to conceptualize adequately self-labels and the effects inherent in such labeling processes.

Another empirical criticism was presented by Hirschi (1975), who contended that much research actually refutes propositions of the labeling approach. One primary policy initiative that has come from the labeling literature is the deinstitutionalization of juvenile offenders. Hirschi argued that the majority of the research on the treatment of juvenile delinquents generally indicates either minor effects or no effects on future criminality one way or the other; instead, the results indicate a spontaneous remission in the majority of the cases. These empirical results are in contrast to labeling theory propositions.

Gibbs’s (1966) assertions—that labeling theorists have failed to stipulate what kind of reaction identifies, or promulgates, deviant behavior and that they have not fully conceptualized all of the components of a full labeling theory—are still true today. Although this section has explored problems with the labeling approach in terms of both theoretical development and methodological questions, there still is a good deal of research that has explored the links between labeling and deviance that indicates that labeling does indeed have some effect. This suggests that the labeling perspective does have some merit. The next section examines research that has evaluated the labeling perspective.