Criticisms of Labelling Theory

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To what extent does labelling theory offer a useful contribution to the study of crime and deviance in today’s society Introduction This assignment will Discuss labelling theory, it will attempt to explore the contributions made by labelling theorists, the criticism towards labelling theorists, and the discussion surrounding its reality as an actual theory. However the main focus will be proving an understanding of Howard Becker‘s Labelling Theory and will describe and evaluate Labelling Theory to the study of crime.

In conclusion it will discuss how relevant labelling theory is today.  Labelling Theory or The Social Reaction Theory as it is more often known has been around and has developed over time from as early as 1938. It became very popular during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s were it was seen as a new departure in theories of crime and deviance particularly in sociology. Edwin Lemert is widely recognized as the founder of what is called the Societal Reaction Theory.

This is the forerunner to the Social Reaction or Labelling Theory which has present day acceptance and includes many of the same concepts. Currently, labelling theory suggests that when a person commits a crime, they receive the label of criminal. When a person is labelled criminal by society, they are likely to accept this label as a part of themselves and because the person now thinks of themselves as a criminal, they are now likely to continue in their criminal behaviour (Becker, 1963). This is still relevant to this day, e. g. f a male was to murder a female he will always be seen and known as a criminal. In order to understand labelling theory, familiarization is needed with Lemert’s Societal Reaction Theory. This theory explores the journey to social deviance in two stages; primary deviance and secondary deviance. Howard Becker is widely associated with the labelling theory through his volume Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. He also developed the term “moral entrepreneur” to describe persons in power who campaign to have certain deviant behaviour outlawed.

He asserts that many of the laws that have been passed have been solely for this purpose, and that behaviour which is defined as criminal is dynamic and changes throughout time and that therefore, the actual criminal behaviour is irrelevant to the theory. (Becker, 1963). Becker himself has stated however, that the concept of his work is not a theory, with all the achievements and obligations that go with the title, or focused solely on the act of labelling as some have thought.

It is not a single concept, being instead a number of assorted ideas that have been brought together under one approach, although critics have called the work ambiguous, inconsistent and at best a vague perspective Becker, never sought to provide an all-embracing, etiological explanation of deviance Becker himself prefers the term ‘Interactionist Theory of Deviance’ developing the study of deviance from a distinctly social perspective, considering the processes by which particular types of act or people, come to be labelled as deviant.

He has been influenced by works such as Cooley’s ‘looking-glass self’ , Lemert’s ideas of social constructionism , and Mead’s theories on the internalisation of the self, Becker makes two arguments: 1. Deviant behaviour must be conceptualized in terms of a sequential model since different causes operate at different stages, 2. Rules and enforcement processes must be viewed as developing through time rather than as an isolated moment of disapproval. Definition of Labelling Theory Also known as Social Reaction Theory, this is a theory originated by Edwin Lemert and then developed by sociologist Howard Becker.

It is a social theory concerned with how people perceive themselves as delinquent or criminal due to the labels, which categorized and describe certain behaviours, that are applied to them by criminal justice authorities and by others in society. The theory maintains that the labels people are given affect their own and others perceptions of them, and how the behaviour of an individual is influenced or even created by the use of certain labels (i. e. , thief, prostitute, homosexual). The resulting treatment of the individual then pushes them into performing the deviant role or back into conformity.

The theory also maintains that the deviance itself is characterized by societies reaction to any alleged violation of the rules or the expectations of what are considered normal conduct. Primary Deviance Primary deviance begins with an initial criminal act. As stated by Lemart it is a rule-breaking behaviour that is carried out by people who see themselves and are indeed seen by others as basically conformist by nature. Following this act of deviance the person may be labelled as deviant or criminal by their peers and society, yet they themselves do not yet accept this label.

That is to say that they do not think of themselves in terms as being a criminal. It is this lack of acceptance to see themselves as criminal which differentiates primary from secondary deviance. This person shall remain in a state of primary deviance for as long as they are capable of rationalizing and able to deal with this label by justifying the act as a socially acceptable role (Lemert, 1951). When leading on to Secondary Deviance, the criminal label is placed on an individual during what is known as a Degradation Ceremony in which the accused person is formally or officially labelled as a criminal.

This would normally take place during court sentencing, but may also come about in more subtle fashions as well. For example the relatives of a person become withdrawn and distance themselves from that person when they find out they have committed a crime, regardless of whether or not they face any formal charges (Wellford, 1975). An example of this would be an exotic dancer: In today’s society an exotic dancer is a perfect example. Others may label the dancer’s act as deviant while the dancer themselves may see it as a perfectly legitimate profession as with any other occupation which enables them to earn an income.

Secondary Deviance According to Lemart secondary deviance occurs when there is an acceptance by the individual of the deviant behaviour and the criminal label, it unabsorbed into their self image, they therefore see themselves from that point in time as a criminal or deviant. This then becomes a mechanism for defence, attack, or adaptation to the problems of the individual caused by society’s reaction to their primary deviation (Lemert, 1951). is only considered to have occurred when the labelled person can no longer deny the label having undergone a degradation ceremony which labels the person eviant, be this through a personal audience such as family or friends, or a more formal one such as in a court of law, both the individual and society both now accept the view that the offender is a criminal. Once they finally accept this label as a part of themselves they will act,from this point onward, in a way befitting this new criminal label. Secondary deviances is considered to have occurred when both society and the individual share the view that the offender is a criminal. Deviant Career and Master Status Becker’s theory pays particular attention to the way in which society reacts to people with criminal labels.

He suggests that this label becomes the person’s Master Status, meaning that it is a constant label, that affects and over-rides how others in society will view them. The status that people will use to identify and classify the person will always be that of criminal. Any other statuses a person may have had are no longer heeded nor valid in the eyes of society. A person could be a parent, employee, spouse, etc. , but the first and major status that will come to mind to other people and themselves is that of the criminal (Becker, 1963).

On occasion the person’s criminal master status may compel them to conform more closely to society’s accepted norms. This is an attempt to show to others that the person may have made , but such mistakes will not happen again. From this time onwards they will act in a fashion that is deemed Normal (Foster & Dinitz & Reckless, 1972). It is believed however, that in most cases where the master status is that of a criminal, secondary deviance will be completed rather than being resisted. An identity change will take place in whereby the person will now accept the label of criminal.

With this new criminal identity is in place, there is subsequent pressure for the individual to behave accordingly. Such an identity change may be signalled by a person losing contact with their former friends (conformist) and starting up associations with other criminal labelled deviants (Becker, 1963). In this new peer group of similarly minded deviants there increases the likelihood of the person not only continuing but also possibly escalating the rate and seriousness of their criminal behavior. Negative Labelling

There are a number of powerful individuals within society (politicians, judges, police officers, medical doctors) who can impose some of the most significant labels. The labelled person may be a drug addict, an alcoholic, a criminal, a delinquents or a prostitute to name but a few. The consequences of being labelled a deviant can be far-reaching. Social research indicates that those who have negative labels applied to them usually have a lower self-image of themselves, that they are more likely to reject themselves, and that they may even act even more deviantly as a result of the label.

The research also shows that it is unfortunate that people who accept the labelling of others, whether it is correct or incorrect, have a difficult time changing their opinions of the labelled person, even in light of evidence to the contrary. In a small study of child behavior after punishment, it was found that if the audience held the offender in a positive regard, the offender was likely to rise to these expectations and act in a manner befitting a “good boy” (Wellford, 1975). In this way it is possible to use labelling theory in a more productive manner.

The implications of the study results suggest that two things can be done in order to help prevent labelling theory from having negative effects on people who’ve broken the law. First of all if the court atmosphere could be avoided in situations where the crime were minor offenses or misdemeanors its possible that the offender would be able to avoid formal sentencing and the degradation ceremony that goes with it. In such cases rehabilitative therapy and out-of-court settlements would be preferable. The other possibility is that a formal ceremony which would cancel the stigma associated with the degradation ceremony could be held.

Perhaps a court declaration or letter that the offender is hereby rehabilitated could be used after the offender has served their punishment (Broadhead, 1974). Criticisms of Labelling Theory There have been many criticisms on labelling theorists, Becker states that how interactionist theories have been accused of giving aid and comfort to the enemy. From a logical standpoint there are flaws within the main points of Labelling Theory. At the outset the theory states that “No acts are inherently criminal” (Wellford, 1975). This implies that acts are only “criminal” when society regards them as being “criminal“.

The implications of this as stated by Howard Becker are that “criminal law is dynamic and ever-changing, differing from society to society“. If this holds true then why are certain acts illegal and labelled as criminal in the majority of the civilized world? Murder, rape, arson, armed robbery to mention a few are all considered to be crimes in any society or country one would could care to name. The theory also claims that for a criminal to be successfully labelled as deviant that an audience needs to be present in order to provide a reaction to the crimes committed.

If a murder is committed where the killer successfully avoids detection or raising anyone’s suspicion, would that mean that the murder was not criminal and that the killer would not think of themselves as such? It may be probable that the murderer’s own value system could initialize self-labelling, but the theory clearly states the labelling must come from a 3rd party (Hagan, 1973). There have been criticisms that the terms in labelling theory lack precision, and that there is no real account taken of the central social processes, such as how every day behaviour actually needs to have a societal reaction.

The methodology generally is also seen as lacking clarity, and incorporating too many commonsense definitions and assumptions. It is felt that what is needed is a more detailed study in areas such as police procedures, or the categories deployed/applied by social workers and lawyers. in the case of police behaviour, For example, in police behaviour it is clear that much depends upon the appearance, image, or attitude of the potential suspect, and that very different treatments can be aportioned to suspects, depending on the collective and immediately formed social judgements of the police officer (Cicourel 1968).

Labelling theory appears to over do the idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy or a deviant career, there is no real gathering of evidence for this, especially what makes a label effective and permanent, how it becomes a master identity. Examples of Research Conducted by Labelling Theorists William Chambliss in 1973 conducted a classic study into the effects of labelling. His two groups of white, male, high-school students were both frequently involved in delinquent acts of theft, vandalism, drinking, and truancy. The police never arrested the members of one group, which Chambliss abelled the “Saints,” but the police did have frequent run-ins with members of the other group, which he labelled the “Roughnecks. ” The boys in the Saints came from respectable families, had good reputations and grades in school, and were careful not to get caught when breaking the law. By being polite, cordial, and apologetic whenever confronted by the police, the Saints escaped labelling themselves as “deviants. ” In contrast, the Roughnecks came from families of lower socioeconomic status, had poor reputations and grades in school, and were not careful about being caught when breaking the law.

By being hostile and insolent whenever confronted by the police, the Roughnecks were easily labelled by others and themselves as “deviants. ” In other words, while both groups committed crimes, the Saints were perceived to be “good” because of their polite behavior (which was attributed to their upper-class backgrounds) and the Roughnecks were seen as “bad” because of their insolent behavior (which was attributed to their lower-class backgrounds). As a result, the police always took action against the Roughnecks, but never against the Saints.


Becker, (1963) claims that laws are established for a reason, and behaviour that is defined as criminal is dynamic and will change within time. This shows that criminal behaviour is not relevant to the theory. However it is still to this day seen as debatable. However there is one known exception, many labelling theorists say the system is biased towards the lower class, which constitutes the overwhelming majority of arrests and convictions within the American criminal justice system (Wellford, 1975). Becker is the usual source of radical variants of labelling.

His work implies there is no need to explain deviance in the first place, that it is in fact a very common social activity, a normal one, which only becomes abnormal when it is to so labelled. Labelling itself then becomes confirming, a self-fulfilling prophecy, launching people on a deviant career. Today, one rarely finds labelling theories like those which predominated in the late 1960s. Certainly there are still social constructivist accounts of some type of deviance or another, and studies about the meaning of crime to criminals and criminalizers are still done. A hift seems to have taken place around 1974 in which labelling theory accommodated itself to legalistic definitions, or at least a focus on state power. Modern labelling theories came to recognize that societies “create” crime by passing laws, and that the substantive nature of the law should be an object of study. Sometimes, these are called criminalization theories (Hartjen 1974), and they have some resemblance to societal reaction approaches, but they more closely fall into a field that criminologists trained in sociology call the sociology of law perspective or the study of law as a mechanism of social control.

Most modern labelling theorists have been influenced by a critique of the underdog focus which was provided by Liazos (1972) when he said that sociologists need to stop studying “nuts, sluts, and perverts. ” The one aspect of this theory that could be regarded positively is that it is very easy to understand and can be quickly explained, breaking down all criminal behavior into primary and secondary deviance with a few simple statements for each.


  1. Alexander Liazos (1982) People First: An introduction to Social Problems Allyn & Bacon pp121
  2. Becker, H. S. (1963). Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: The Free Press
  3. Joseph Rowntree foundation (2009) http://www. jrf. org. uk/ accessed 12/03/09 Lemert, E. M. (1951). Social Pathology. New York: MacGraw-Hill Book Co. , Inc.
  4. Wellford, C. (1975). Labelling Theory and Criminology: An Assessment. Social Problems, Vol. 22, No. 3, 332-345

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