Labeling Theory and Symbolic Interaction Theory

IV. Labeling Research

Although there has been a great deal of academic bantering over the merits of the labeling perspective, criminologists have managed to amass much evidence to support the effect of labels on criminality. Although they acknowledge that some of this research has suffered from methodological and conceptual shortcomings, the majority of the findings indicate that individual labels have moderate to strong effects on an individual’s engagement in secondary deviance or crime. Although the effect of labeling on an individual varies across studies, what is not in question is that labels do account for some of the variance in predicting continued criminality. This review of labeling research focuses on empiricism that examines the effects of labeling on secondary deviance only.

Foster, Dinitz, and Reckless (1972) argued that it is very difficult to measure all the variables associated with deviant behavior as well as all of the variables associated with the societal reactions to such behavior. In their longitudinal study, Foster et al. found that, according to the perceptions of the 196 boys in the study, “the extent of perceived stigmatization and social liability that follows police or court intervention seems to be overestimated in the labeling hypothesis” (p. 62). Thus, at the time of intervention the boys in this sample did not perceive a stigma. Boys with previous experience with the criminal justice system will perceive more of a stigma than first-time offenders; Foster et al. referred to this as a cumulative effect. On the whole, though, Foster et al. found little support for the labeling perspective.

Farrington (1977) examined the effects of public labeling. Hypothesizing that individuals who are publicly labeled will increase their deviant behavior, Farrington examined data from the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development. Public labeling was defined as court convictions. Deviant behavior and labels were measured through self-report data. This research had two significant findings. First, public labeling did lead to increased deviance; second, repeated labeling of an individual led to greater deviance amplification. Thus, Farrington’s findings were consistent with the labeling perspective.

Link and colleagues (Link, Cullen, Struening, Shrout, & Dohrenwend, 1989) examined the effect of labels on individuals with mental disorders and the social support networks of such individuals. Studying 164 patients and 429 community residents through surveys, these researchers found that, primarily because of their stigmatized status, individuals with mental disorders are devalued and discriminated against. Link et al. (1989) contended that in “the course of being socialized, individuals develop negative conceptions of what it means to be a mental patient and thus form beliefs about how others will view and then treat someone in that status” (p. 419). Treatment and time spent in mental clinics help to solidify labels, helping individuals to more readily internalize the label. Labels appeared to affect mental patients even independent of psychopathology and biological variables.

Link et al.’s (1989) research is consistent with Hirschi’s (1969) social bond theory, according to which individuals who are more attached to a social network are more likely to be concerned with the stigma. Through this concern with stigma, these individuals will be less likely to engage in activities characteristic of emotional disturbance, such as obsessive–compulsive behaviors and manic-depressive behaviors. The stigma of mental health patients does not affect support networks, either positively or negatively. This could suggest that the effects of labeling decrease over time. Link et al.’s findings with regard to mental illness show general support for the labeling perspective.

Kaplan and Johnson (1991) argued that labeling theorists are particularly interested in the relationship between negative social sanctions for deviant behavior and the escalation of that deviant behavior. They argued that this relationship might be mediated by deviant peer associations. In their survey analysis of students in 36 junior high schools in Houston, Texas, Kaplan and Johnson estimated a structural equation model to examine the effects of negative sanctions (suspension, expulsion, contact with the criminal justice system, and any office punishment) on the escalation of deviant behavior. Their results illustrated not only that there was a direct effect of negative sanctions on later deviance but also that the presence of a deviant peer group played a mediating role for individuals who had been negatively sanctioned. Although Kaplan and Johnson concluded that labeling is an integral part of further criminality, they argued that this is only one of the many factors that had significant effects in the model (they found support for the deterrence hypothesis as well).

Ward and Tittle (1993) examined the relationship between the deterrence and labeling hypotheses. As has been seen in some of the prior research on labeling theory, deterrence and labeling are two interrelated ideas. Sanctions may increase one’s perceptions of risk and can help deter the individual from breaking the rules; however, sanctions may lead to more deviance by increasing a commitment to a deviant identity, which is the premise of symbolic interaction and labeling theories (Ward & Tittle, 1993, p. 45).To study the relationship between these two rival ideas, Ward and Tittle analyzed 390 senior and junior students in a university through a telephone survey instrument. Regression analyses indicated that there was no direct effect of labeling on further deviance. Although sanctions had a significant effect on labeling, labeling was directly linked to the formation of a negative self-appraisal; negative self-appraisal did exert a direct influence on secondary deviance. Ward and Tittle concluded that their results supported labeling theory better than deterrence theory. However, labeling is not a necessary condition for secondary deviance, because initial deviance and sanctions had strong direct effects on secondary deviance.

Triplett and Jarjoura (1994) focused on the informal labeling of deviants. Integrating the social control and labeling approaches, they used data from the National Youth Survey to study the effects of informal labeling on both primary and secondary deviance. Triplett and Jarjoura (p. 257) found that labeling theory could play some role in the initiation of deviance; the perception of being labeled by parents significantly affected a youth’s attachment to school. School attachment was heavily related to both peer association and delinquent beliefs by youth. As with Ward and Tittle’s (1993) research, labeling had no direct impact on deviance in general but instead was mediated by other variables. One of Triplett and Jarjoura’s other significant findings was that negative parental labels lead children to break ties with schools and increase involvement with delinquent peer groups; this involvement led to the adoption of delinquent beliefs by the labeled child.

Heimer and Matsueda (1994) used data from the National Youth Survey to explore the effects of symbolic interaction (role taking and role commitment) on delinquency. The results of their structural equation model in regard to delinquency yielded four key findings. First, structural and neighborhood variables had indirect effects on delinquency through role-taking variables. Second, delinquency is also a result of differential association variables, such as having delinquent peers and learning attitudes about the legal code. Third, their research showed only minimal support for the impact of labels on secondary deviance. Fourth, in line with social disorganization and social control theories, strong ties to conventional institutions affect delinquency as well. In this research, labeling played a very minor role in delinquency.

Following up on previous research of students in 36 high schools in Texas, Kaplan and Damphousse (1997) examined the interconnection of negative social sanctions, self-derogation (the negative affect evoked in individuals associated with personal qualities, achievements, and behavior), and deviance. Their analysis revealed an interaction between negative self-attitudes and negative social sanctions; this interaction directly affected deviance. Kaplan and Damphousse concluded that negative social sanctions have a positive effect on later deviance and that self-derogation moderated this effect. As with the previous research, this study found support for the labeling perspective.

Bernburg and Krohn (2003), in a more recent exploration of the labeling perspective, examined how labels lead to social exclusion and hence blocked access to structured opportunities. According to Bernburg and Krohn, “The social marginalization caused by stigma attached to the deviant label raises the likelihood of subsequent . . . involvement in deviant activity” (p. 1290). On the basis of time series data from the Rochester Youth Development Study, Bernbrug and Krohn examined the effect of police and juvenile justice interventions on 1,000 students’ (in the seventh and eighth grades in 1987–1988) criminality in young adulthood in conjunction with other contextual and control variables. Although the overall models yielded small effects, some of the variables showed highly significant results. In particular, Bernburg and Krohn found that official intervention decreased the odds of graduation from high school. The lack of educational attainment had a direct impact on employment, which serves as an intermediary to adult crime. Bernburg and Krohn’s research indicates some support for the labeling perspective.

Although much of labeling theory research focuses on the effects of formal labels, some research has analyzed the effects of informal (i.e., parental) labeling, in particular on young people. Matsueda (1992) examined the effects of parental labeling on delinquency in attempting to specify a model of symbolic interaction. Matsueda defined the unit of analysis as the transaction, which consists of an interaction between two or more individuals. This transaction is what results in a potential label for deviants. Using data from the National Youth Survey, Matsueda used structural equation modeling to explore the labeling process. Like Triplett and Jarjoura (1994), Matsueda found that negative parental labels were associated (indirectly, through prior delinquency) with delinquents, non-whites, and urban dwellers; that is, labels affected delinquency. Although youth’s self-appraisals are strongly influenced by parental appraisals, this relationship is mediated by an individual’s delinquent self-appraisal; thus, individuals who view themselves as delinquent are more likely to be affected by parental views of behavior.

Liu (2000) examined whether informal labeling by significant others predicted youth involvement in crime and in which social contexts (with a focus on peer groups and learning theory type variables) the labeling process would lead to criminality or deviance. Liu found that there was a direct effect of parental labeling on a juvenile’s propensity to engage in deviance. Liu also found that peer group attitudes and participation in delinquency modified the effects of parental labeling on delinquent acts; peer group activities would lead to delinquency regardless of the label supplied by parents. Liu’s accounts thus give more importance to the learning theory variables in explaining criminality and continued delinquency.

Hypotheses have been formed that members of different races experience labels differentially (Paternoster & Iovanni, 1989). Adams, Johnson, and Evans (1998) examined the effects of deviant labels on members of different racial backgrounds. Using data from the National Youth Survey, Adams et al. found that members of ethnic–racial minority groups are more likely to be affected by informal labels (peer networks and community) and that whites are more likely to be affected by formal labels (criminal justice system).Although minorities are affected weakly by formal labeling processes, Adams et al. argued that minorities may not view formal labelers as credible, because formal labels may come from racist attitudes or other beliefs of the labelers. This is consistent with Becker’s (1963) arguments that the person who labels can be seen as the outsider.

Current labeling research has been expanded since its inception to include such topics as the role of economic and political power involved with labeling, the influence of extralegal attributes on label application, and the effect of social and physical traits on labeling. The majority of current research on labeling theory focuses on career criminal research and life course theory. In this research, particular attention is paid to the effect of the label on future deviance/criminality. Examinations of societal reactions to deviance have largely been relegated to studies pertaining to the social construction of social problems. Social construction research takes a particular social problem and applies content analysis to ascertain how the problem became a problem (or how society reacts to certain behaviors).

In sum, the vast majority of research on the labeling perspective indicates some level of support for this approach. The impact of a label on continued deviance and criminality is certain, but the question of the degree to which the label matters still warrants attention. Therefore, research on the labeling perspective will inevitably continue in the future, especially in regard to career criminal research.