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Labeling Theory and Its Contribution to the Discipline of Criminology

A. Kuper and J. Kuper (1996) argue that, the labeling theory which is also referred to as the social reaction theory dwells on defining deviance as a consequence of the influence of societal reaction to a particular behavior. Hence, this theory focuses on symbolic labels placed on an individual or, the sanctions associated with a particular act which leads to deviant behavior rather than the origin of the behavior.  This theory contributes to our understanding of criminology by defining labeling in two concepts, that is, the reactivist concept and the theory of secondary deviation.

Reactivist Concept

Barron and Meier (2008) assert that in the quest to explain why particular individuals in the society are deviant, Howard Becker come up with the reactivist concept, which defines deviant behavior as any act that is labeled or sanctioned by the society as deviant or criminal. Therefore, the difference between good behavior and deviant behavior relies upon a society’s definition of the two and the consequences attached to either of the two. Through interactions with the society, individuals are labeled as deviant if their conduct is not in line with acceptable conventional societal ethics.

Secondary Deviation Theory

According to Barron and Meier (2008), secondary deviation theory, which was described by Edwin Lambert, seeks to illustrate the consequences of the reactivist concept in relation to the emergence and understanding of criminal behavior. Barron and Meier (2008) argue that, secondary deviation is a product of labeling. This is because, when the society shuns deviant individuals by labeling them as drug addicts or homosexuals; such individuals are likely to commit criminal acts associated with their label in their quest to retaliate or, as a self defense mechanism. Therefore, the two concepts of the labeling theory explain criminology as any act that the society defines as criminal and the consequences associated with shunning such acts through labeling individuals.

Contribution of the Theory in Criminology

The labeling theory seeks to explain that deviant or criminal behavior among the members of the society is described by what the society considers normal or abnormal behavior. Therefore, labeling an individual as deviant leads to the development of secondary deviant behavior that does not conform to the societal expectations or the rule of the law. This therefore means that, the associations between primary deviants and social control agencies escalate criminal behavior (Marsh, Melville, Morgan, Norris, & Walkington, 2006).

Sociological Origins of This Novel Approach to Understanding Deviance

Origin of the Labeling Theory

Jones (2003) argues that the sociological origin of the labeling theory can be traced back to Howard Becker in his quest to understand crime. The fundamental basis for the labeling theory revolves around answering two questions. Why are some acts labeled deviants while others are not? And why do some individuals become deviant and while others don’t? (Marsh et al., 2006).

 Integrationist theories of that sort to address the two questions were very popular among sociologists in the 60s and 70s. The focus on the role that the society played in terms of reducing or accelerating crime levels become an avenue that was relevant in explaining deviant behavior. Of particular importance was the role played by social control agencies and the consequences of their programs on the behavior of deviant individuals.

The theory became prominent among sociologists after it was published by Becker in 1963 in his study, titled outsiders. In this study, Becker concluded that deviant behavior becomes deviant only when it is labeled and that, individuals characters should not be linked to their criminal activities but rather to the reaction of the society. To counter the criticism of the theory, in 1973, Becker reconsidered his original assertion. In the second publication, Becker recognized that his theory did not seek to identify the origin of criminal behavior but rather, the theory was striving to provide a wider perspective of understanding crime as an act that is influenced by other factors (Marsh et al., 2006).

Application of the Theory Towards Understanding Deviance

The labeling theory has been accredited for the development and understanding of studies on crime from a sociological aspect. This is because the theory changed the theoretical understanding of crime and criminals. The theory was also able to raise some concerns with regards to the conduct of the society with marginalized groups such as drug addicts, prostitutes, homosexuals, alcoholics among others. Therefore, it created a room for more enquiries to be done when an individual is being investigated for a crime.

Why supporters find this theory valuable when addressing the problem of prevention and treatment of crime and criminals

Crime Prevention

The labeling theory has garnered a lot of support over the years with respect to its importance on crime prevention and the treatment of criminals. Followers of this theory assert that the labeling theory is important when it comes to crime prevention. This is because the theory helps the parties involved in implementation of the law to analyze a crime with respect to the circumstances that led to the crime and the interactions between the criminal and the society. This, therefore, helps in capturing the complex context of a crime. Further believers of this theory assert that positive feedback from members of the society and correctional facilities are important (Siegel & Welsh, 2009).

Followers of this theory also argue that, the labeling theory is relevant in understanding why some youth even after facing the law several times still find themselves in the courts of justice during their adult stage. Siegel and Welsh (2009) explain that youth who succumb to labeling become outcast members of the society, and thus, they are not able to regain their position in the society; a condition that continues up to adulthood. Siegel and Welsh (2009) further explain that when society becomes aware of the consequences of labeling as outlined in the labeling theory, then, such a society is better placed with fighting the stigmatization associated with labeling, thus, reducing crime.

Criminal Treatment

Supporters of this theory, such as Lambert, argue that this theory is relevant in criminal treatment programs. According to the labeling theory, the main cause of continuous criminal activities is labeling individuals as deviant or criminals. Treatment programs that are set up with this notion in mind, avoid labeling individuals, thus, providing patients under the program with an opportunity to change within an environment that does not associate their personality with deviant activities. Siegel and Welsh (2009) argue that such an environment helps even the worst criminals to redeem themselves and reconfigure their self images. This leads to development of behavior that is acceptable in the society and therefore, reducing the tendency of previously labeled individuals committing crime.

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Criticism of the Theory

Rationality of the Theory

Though the labeling theory has been highly advocated for by sociologist in their quest to explain deviant behavior, the theory has also received immense criticism. Critics of this theory argue that the theory has failed to clearly indicate the conditions that must be met before an act or a person is labeled as a criminal. Critics also argue that a good number of deviant individuals are secret deviants who have not been shunned or label by the society, thus, questioning the rationality of the theory (Petrunik, 1980).

Concept of the Theory

According to Carrabine and Lee (2009), deviant behavior starts its way before individuals are labeled by the society. Hence, it is not a product of societal interactions. They also assert that this theory tries to sympathize with criminal offenders by shifting the blame to the society rather than dealing with the individuals. According to Carrabine and Lee (2009), this theory is more of a proposal that seeks to encourage social conduct that is not acceptable by creating loopholes. Further, the theory is depicted as a way of being soft and lenient to crime, thus, encouraging the continuation of criminal activities which impact negatively on the society.

Critics have also pointed out that the punishment associated with a crime, deters individuals from committing the crime which is contrary to the labeling theory concepts which stipulate that reprimanding individuals and punishing them for deviant acts accelerates their tendency to commit the crime again( Lilly, Ball, & Cullen, 2011).

Applicability of the Theory

Lilly, Ball and Cullen, (2011) argue that this theory is inadequate since it does not provide consistent results when tested. They also assert that the labeling theory pays a lot of attention on what society has to say about a particular act and neglects the deviant’s view of the act and its implication on justice. Also critical about this theory, is the fact that the initial motivators behind the emergence of the theory have not been provided. This, according to Siegel and Welsh (2009), is vital towards determining the practicality and applicability of the theory in real life situations.

Research that supports the labeling theory and its place in the discipline of criminology

Crime Amplification

According to A. Kuper and J. Kuper (1996), research has indicated that labeling is prone to amplifying crime, therefore, leading to deviant behavior. A. Kuper and J. Kuper (1996) argue that sufficient research which supports the concepts of labeling theory in relation to crime has been provided. For instance, a study conducted by Margit Wiensner, indicated that children who become involved with criminal acts are more likely to engage in criminal activities or acts of violence through to their adult stage because of labeling from correctional institutions and the society at large. Therefore, this study indicated that labeling has a propounding effect on the conduct of an adult (Siegel & Welsh, 2009).

Patterns of Crime

Jock Young study of drug use in London in 1971 also supports the labeling theory in trying to understand the patterns of crime. In his study Young reports that the wide spread of Marijuana in London at that particular time was attributed to mass communication through the media. He argues that, since the media was very particular about the side effects and criminal liability of the drug, more youth were inclined to use the drug because of how individuals using it were labeled in the media (Carrabine & Lee, 2009).

Impacts of Labeling From Correctional Institutes

Other classical studies such as Edwin Schur study on crimes without victims of 1965 indicated that severe legal retort to social misconduct such as drug abuse and abortion did not serve to decrease such activities but it only accelerated their occurrence. Lack of lenient and understanding legal systems contributed to high rates of drug use and abortion. Thomas Scheff study on mental illness and its association with crime also indicated that primary deviance is amplified by negative feedback into secondary deviance. He, therefore, asserted that control agencies had the power to define the pattern of deviance (Carrabine & Lee, 2009).


 In my view, though the labeling theory has been criticized by a number of sociologists, we cannot ignore the significant concerns it raises with regards to the labeling of acts and individuals. Therefore, I think sufficient evidence has been provided to legitimize the use of this theory in criminology.

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