Criminology: Labeling Theory Explained

“Deviancy is not a quality of the act a person commits but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an ‘offender’. Deviant behavior is behavior that people so label.”…Dr. Howard Becker

In criminology, the labeling theory states once the government or its agents label a person as a criminal, society then views this person as a criminal. Once the person is labeled as a criminal, their opportunities become limited, which leads to low self-esteem and the person begins to view himself or herself as a criminal. Labeling a person and limiting their opportunities within society usually results in a self-fulfilling prophecy and the persons continues deviant behavior and continues with criminal activity in a repeating cycle validating the criminal label attached to the person. Labeling is also associated with the concept of stereotyping or even profiling.

Labeling Theory

Development of Labeling Theory

French sociologist Émile Durkheim in his work with suicide first introduced the roots of criminology labeling. Austrian-American criminologist Dr. Frank Tannenbaum furthered the labeling concepts in his work in the 1930s. Building of the work of Durkheim and Tannenbuam, Dr. Edwin Lemert advanced his work on deviance laying the groundwork for the next progression in labeling.

In 1963, sociologist Dr. Howard Becker from the University of Chicago wrote his famous book, Outsiders in which labeling theory was introduced and grew in popularity among American criminologist.

Future of Labeling Theory

The labeling theory was popular in the 60’s and 70’s and by 1985 was fading. Recently labeling theory has started to gain back popularity. The labeling theory in criminology studies is the social thought of symbolic interactionism as to the individual’s interpretation and reaction to the response of the label.

At the heart of the labeling theory debate will remain inclusion and exclusion, and the effects that labeling has on a person breaking the cycle of deviance and criminality.

About the Author

Mark Bond
Mark Bond worked in law enforcement and has been a firearms trainer for more than 30 years. His law enforcement experience includes the military, local, state, and federal levels as a police officer and criminal investigator. Mark obtained a BS and MS in Criminal Justice, and M.Ed in Educational Leadership with Summa Cum Laude Honors. Mark has a Doctor of Education (Ed.D) with a concentration in college teaching and learning. Mark is currently an assistant professor of criminal justice at a university and adjunct professor of administration of justice studies at a community college.