Section 6.1: Labeling Theory

A Decorative Banner stating the title of this textbook: Fundamentals of Criminology by Adam J. McKee

Labeling Theory, a significant concept in sociology and criminology, offers a distinct perspective on deviance and criminality. Originating in the mid-20th century, this theory emerged as a critical response to traditional crime theories, shifting the focus from inherent criminal tendencies to the power of societal labels in shaping individuals’ actions and identities.

The crux of Labeling Theory lies in its assertion that deviance is not a quality of the act a person commits, but rather a consequence of the application of rules and sanctions to an “offender.” The theory posits that individuals become identified with a deviant label, often by legal and social institutions. This labeling process plays a crucial role in shaping their self-identity and social interactions.

Central to this theory is the idea that once labeled as deviant, individuals might accept this label as part of their identity. This acceptance can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, where the labeled individual adopts and engages in behaviors that conform to the label. Thus, Labeling Theory suggests that crime and deviance are socially constructed phenomena, where societal reactions to certain behaviors are as significant as the behaviors themselves in understanding criminal conduct.

By challenging the notion that criminality is an inherent personal attribute, Labeling Theory has significantly influenced how sociologists and criminologists understand deviance and the repercussions of societal responses to it.

Historical Development of Labeling Theory

The development of labeling theory marks a pivotal shift in understanding deviance and crime, emphasizing the role of societal reactions and stigma. Its evolution can be traced from the early 20th century, when it began as a critique of traditional criminology, to its present-day applications and interpretations.

Early Proponents and Foundations

The roots of Labeling Theory lie in the work of early sociologists like Frank Tannenbaum and Edwin Lemert. Tannenbaum, in the 1930s, introduced the concept of the “dramatization of evil,” suggesting that societal reactions to minor deviance could lead individuals to adopt and internalize a deviant identity. Lemert further expanded on this in the 1950s, distinguishing between ‘primary deviance’ (initial acts of deviance) and ‘secondary deviance’ (deviance resulting from societal labeling and reactions).

Howard Becker’s Seminal Work

The theory gained significant traction in the 1960s with Howard Becker’s seminal work, “Outsiders,” where he famously stated, “Deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an offender.” Becker’s work underscored the idea that deviance is socially constructed, with societal labels playing a critical role in an individual’s self-concept and actions.

Modern Interpretations and Expansions

In contemporary criminology, Labeling Theory has been expanded and refined. It now includes the examination of the long-term consequences of labeling, such as the impact on life opportunities and social exclusion. Modern interpretations also consider the role of media and technology in the labeling process and how they can amplify the effects of societal stigmatization.

Contributions of Other Key Figures

Other notable contributors to the development of Labeling Theory include John Braithwaite, whose concept of ‘reintegrative shaming’ contrasts with stigmatization, suggesting ways in which societal reactions to deviance can be constructive rather than destructive. Aaron Cicourel’s work on the negotiation of justice and the flexibility in law enforcement practices also offered significant insights into how labeling occurs in the criminal justice system.

The historical development of Labeling Theory reflects a significant paradigm shift in criminology and sociology, focusing on the societal response to deviance rather than the act itself. From its inception to modern adaptations, the theory continues to be a critical lens for understanding how labels, stigma, and societal reactions contribute to the perpetuation of deviant identities and behaviors.

Core Concepts of Labeling Theory

Labeling Theory, a cornerstone of sociological understanding of deviance, revolves around several core concepts that explain how societal labeling influences individuals’ behaviors and self-perception. These concepts, including primary and secondary deviance, stigma, and self-fulfilling prophecy, are integral to understanding the dynamics of labeling and its consequences.

Primary and Secondary Deviance

Edwin Lemert introduced the distinction between primary and secondary deviance. Primary deviance refers to initial acts of rule-breaking, which may or may not result in the individual being labeled as deviant. These actions are often minor and do not alter the individual’s self-concept or societal perception significantly.

Secondary deviance, however, emerges in response to society’s reaction to the primary deviance. Once labeled as a deviant, the individual may begin to internalize this label, leading to further deviance. This concept is crucial in understanding how labeling can transform an individual’s identity and behavior, pushing them into a deviant career.


Stigma, as discussed by Erving Goffman, plays a pivotal role in Labeling Theory. It refers to the negative stereotypes and societal reactions that come with being labeled. Stigmatized individuals often face ostracism, discrimination, and loss of status. This societal reaction can have profound effects on their self-identity and behavior, often reinforcing the deviant behavior that society seeks to suppress.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

The concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy is central to Labeling Theory. It suggests that once labeled, individuals may start to act in ways that conform to that label, regardless of their previous behavior or identity. This phenomenon occurs because the individual believes the label to be true, and their subsequent actions align with this belief, reinforcing the label.

Impact on Self-Perception and Behavior

Labeling significantly affects individuals’ perception of themselves and their actions. A labeled individual might adapt their behavior to align with the societal expectations of the label, leading to a cycle of deviance. This alteration in self-concept underscores the theory’s argument that deviance is not inherent to the act but is a result of societal labeling and reactions.

In summary, the core concepts of Labeling Theory provide a framework for understanding how societal reactions to deviance shape individual behaviors and identities. By focusing on the role of stigma, self-fulfilling prophecies, and the distinction between primary and secondary deviance, Labeling Theory offers a nuanced view of the social construction of deviance.

Labeling and the Criminal Justice System

Labeling by the criminal justice system carries profound implications for individuals, particularly when they are labeled as criminals. This process can fundamentally alter an individual’s identity and life trajectory, underscoring the significant social consequences of criminal labeling.

The Process of Labeling in Criminal Justice

When the criminal justice system labels an individual as a criminal, it is not merely a statement of their legal status but a marker of identity. The individual often internalizes this label and can reshape how they view themselves and their place in society. The criminal label is more than just a reflection of past behavior; it becomes a predictor and influencer of future behavior.

Societal Ostracization and Stigma

Being labeled as a criminal often leads to societal ostracization and stigma. This stigma can manifest in various forms, including diminished employment opportunities, strained social relationships, and exclusion from community activities. The societal reaction to criminal labels often results in the individual being viewed through the lens of their criminal past, regardless of their current behavior or efforts at rehabilitation.

Impact on Self-Perception and Behavior

The label of ‘criminal’ can profoundly impact an individual’s self-perception. This change in self-identity may lead to a cycle of secondary deviance, where the individual continues to engage in criminal behavior in alignment with their labeled identity. This self-fulfilling prophecy exacerbates the difficulties they face in breaking free from the cycle of crime and reintegrating into society.

Challenges in Reintegration

The criminal label also poses significant challenges in reintegration. The stigma associated with a criminal past can hinder access to essential resources for reentry, such as housing, education, and social support. These barriers often leave individuals with limited options, increasing the likelihood of recidivism and perpetuating the cycle of criminal labeling.

In conclusion, labeling by the criminal justice system has far-reaching impacts on individuals, affecting their societal standing, self-perception, and behavior. Understanding these consequences is crucial for developing more effective and humane criminal justice policies that focus on rehabilitation and reintegration rather than perpetuating cycles of stigma and recidivism.

Empirical Evidence Supporting Labeling Theory

Though often debated, the concepts of Labeling Theory find support in various empirical studies and case analyses. These research efforts have shed light on how societal labeling influences individuals’ paths toward or away from criminal behavior, reinforcing the theory’s fundamental assertions.

Studies on the Effects of Criminal Labels

Research has consistently shown that individuals labeled as criminals by the criminal justice system face challenges that can lead to a continuation or escalation of criminal behavior. A landmark study in this area revealed that juveniles who were formally processed and labeled by the criminal justice system were more likely to engage in subsequent criminal behavior compared to those who were not processed. This finding supports the concept of secondary deviance, where the label of ‘criminal’ fosters a self-identity that aligns with continued deviance.

Long-Term Impact of Labeling

Longitudinal studies have also provided insights into the long-term impact of labeling. Individuals who have been labeled as criminals often experience ongoing stigma and reduced opportunities, even after serving their sentences. This societal ostracization can limit their ability to reintegrate, leading to higher rates of recidivism. These findings highlight the powerful role of societal reactions and stigma in the lives of those labeled as offenders.

Case Studies Illustrating Labeling Effects

Case studies have been instrumental in demonstrating the real-world impact of labeling. For instance, case analyses of ex-offenders have shown how the label of ‘ex-con’ can dominate an individual’s identity, influencing their interactions and opportunities. These case studies often reveal the difficulties in shedding the criminal label and how it can overshadow other aspects of identity, perpetuating a cycle of marginalization and criminal behavior.

In summary, empirical research and case studies provide substantial evidence supporting the concepts of Labeling Theory. These studies illuminate the significant impact of societal labels on individuals’ behavior and life chances, underlining the importance of considering the societal response to deviance in understanding and addressing criminal behavior.

Critiques and Limitations of Labeling Theory

While Labeling Theory has been influential in understanding criminal behavior, it has also faced several criticisms and limitations. These critiques pertain to its empirical validity, practical implications, and the theory’s applicability to diverse forms of criminal behavior.

Questions of Empirical Validity

One of the major criticisms of Labeling Theory is its challenge in empirical testing. Critics argue that the theory is difficult to prove or disprove conclusively because of its reliance on subjective interpretations of societal reactions and self-identity. Moreover, isolating the effects of labeling from other factors that contribute to criminal behavior, such as socioeconomic background, personal history, or psychological traits is challenging.

Overemphasis on Societal Reaction

Critics also contend that Labeling Theory overemphasizes the role of societal reaction at the expense of the individual’s agency and other factors leading to crime. This perspective suggests that individuals are passive recipients of labels and ignores the complexity of decision-making that lead to criminal behavior. Critics argue that by focusing primarily on the societal reaction, the theory neglects the intrinsic motivations for criminal actions.

Limited Scope in Explaining Criminal Behavior

Another limitation of Labeling Theory is its scope in explaining various types of criminal behavior. While it may offer insights into petty crimes or juvenile delinquency, it falls short in adequately explaining more serious crimes, such as violent offenses or organized crime, where societal labeling may play a lesser role. The theory also struggles to account for individuals who commit crimes without any prior labeling or those who desist from crime despite being labeled.

Practical Implications and Policy Formulation

In terms of practical applications, some critics argue that Labeling Theory offers limited guidance for formulating effective criminal justice policies. While it highlights the potential harms of stigmatizing labels, it provides less direction on alternative approaches to crime prevention and rehabilitation, leaving policymakers and practitioners with insufficient solutions.

In conclusion, while Labeling Theory offers valuable insights into the societal aspects of criminal behavior, it faces critiques regarding its empirical validity, scope, and practical implications. These limitations highlight the need for a more comprehensive approach that incorporates multiple perspectives in understanding and addressing criminal behavior.

Labeling Theory in Modern Criminology

Labeling Theory, despite its criticisms and limitations, remains relevant in contemporary criminological thought and practice. Modern adaptations of the theory have expanded its applicability and continue to shed light on the complexities of criminal behavior and the criminal justice system.

Relevance in Understanding Social Constructs

In modern criminology, Labeling Theory continues to be relevant in understanding how societal constructs, such as race, gender, and socio-economic status, influence the labeling process and subsequent criminal behavior. It highlights the importance of considering intersectionality and the differential impact of labeling on various groups within society.

Criminal Justice and Policy Reforms

Contemporary criminologists have used Labeling Theory to advocate for criminal justice and policy reforms. The theory underscores the need for alternatives to traditional punitive measures, such as incarceration, by emphasizing the negative consequences of stigmatizing labels. This has contributed to the development of diversion programs, restorative justice practices, and rehabilitation initiatives aimed at reducing recidivism.

Restorative Justice and Decriminalization

Labeling Theory aligns with the principles of restorative justice, which focus on repairing harm caused by criminal behavior and reintegrating offenders into society. It advocates for treating offenders as individuals with the potential for change, rather than imposing permanent labels. Moreover, the theory has influenced movements advocating for the decriminalization of certain non-violent offenses, recognizing that labeling can perpetuate cycles of criminality.

Online and Cyber Labeling

In the digital age, Labeling Theory has expanded to encompass the concept of online and cyber labeling. Social media and digital platforms have become new arenas for labeling individuals as deviants or criminals. Modern criminologists explore how cyber labeling affects behavior, mental health, and online/offline interactions, offering insights into the unique challenges of the digital era.

Intersection with Rehabilitation and Reentry Programs

Labeling Theory intersects with rehabilitation and reentry programs, as it underscores the importance of removing stigmatizing barriers for formerly incarcerated individuals. These programs aim to mitigate the long-term effects of labeling by providing education, employment opportunities, and social support to reintegrate offenders into society successfully.

In conclusion, Labeling Theory has evolved to remain relevant in contemporary criminology, influencing policies, practices, and research in various ways. While acknowledging its critiques, it continues to offer valuable perspectives on the societal reactions to criminal behavior and the potential consequences of labeling.


In conclusion, Labeling Theory presents a transformative paradigm in understanding deviance and criminality, emphasizing the significant role of societal reactions and labels in shaping individual behavior and identity. This theory, evolving from its mid-20th century origins, critically challenges the notion that criminality is an inherent personal trait, instead highlighting how societal responses, stigma, and labels contribute to the social construction of deviance.

Central to Labeling Theory is the understanding that the process of being labeled, especially by legal and social institutions, can profoundly affect individuals’ self-identity and actions. This impact is evident in the concepts of primary and secondary deviance, where societal reactions can lead to an internalization of the deviant label, thus perpetuating a cycle of deviance. The theory’s focus on the self-fulfilling nature of labels and the ensuing behavioral adaptations underlines the dynamic interaction between individual and society in the context of deviance.

Empirical research supports Labeling Theory’s claims, particularly in highlighting the long-term effects of criminal labels on individuals’ life trajectories, including increased recidivism rates and ongoing societal stigma. These findings underscore the critical need for criminal justice policies that focus on rehabilitation and reintegration rather than perpetuating stigma and recidivism.

However, Labeling Theory is not without its critiques. Challenges to its empirical validity, the overemphasis on societal reaction, and its limited scope in explaining various forms of criminal behavior highlight the complexity of deviance and the need for a multifaceted approach in criminology.

In contemporary criminology, Labeling Theory remains influential, driving policy reforms, restorative justice initiatives, and the decriminalization of certain offenses. Its relevance extends to the digital age, where online and cyber labeling present new challenges. The theory’s insights into the impact of societal labeling on rehabilitation and reentry programs further affirm its importance in shaping a more humane and effective approach to criminal justice.

Overall, Labeling Theory offers a nuanced view of deviance as a dynamic social construct, shaped by societal labels and reactions. Its contributions to criminology and sociology continue to influence both academic discourse and practical approaches to understanding and addressing criminal behavior.


Modification History

File Created:  08/04/2018

Last Modified:  01/29/2024

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