JUAD 3310 – Criminology
May 11, 2014
Dr. Bret Ouderkirk
The Labeling Theory
The Labeling Theory is a Criminological theory that states those who engage in criminal behavior are not necessarily criminal, or criminal minded. The theory is the view of deviance according to which being labeled as a deviant leads a person to engage in deviant behavior. In the 1960’s, Howard Becker, explained the labeling theory as behavior clashing with social norms. The labeling theory is a valid criminological theory and can indeed lead an individual to criminal activity, merely by labeling an individual as deviant or criminal.
The pioneer who many consider the grandfather of the labeling theory is Frank Tannenbaum. According to author William O’Grady, Tannenbaum was the first to come up with an idea known as tagging (2011). This idea stated additional involvement in delinquent behaviors was mostly due to a negative tag or label. He was convinced that a person was more likely to identify with the label placed on them if there was more attention placed on that specific label. Oftentimes the individual would adopt the initial tagging as part of their identity. In evaluating Tannenbaum’s writings, Walter Gove states, “The process of making the criminal is a process of tagging, defining, identifying, segregating… The person becomes the thing he is described as being; the way out is through a refusal to dramatize the evil. The less said about it the better” (1975). It is evident Tannenbaum believed that ending the labeling process would be beneficial to society in lowering the amount of deviants that are created by the negative label. It would be an easy solution if this were possible in today’s society. However, labeling others is purely human nature. It is natural for people to judge and label other people; the judgment can be positive or negative.
Edwin Lemert, a renowned sociologist, introduced the concept of secondary deviance in 1951. Secondary deviance is the when and the way a person reacts to the label placed upon them by their action, or primary deviance. Lemert (1951) stated, “there was an intensely intellectual process at work concerning one’s own identity and justification for the behavior: ‘I do these things because I am this way’” (pp. 75-76). Instead of taking responsibility for their actions and portraying themselves as the victim in these situations the deviant is able to deflect blame to society and the label that has been cast upon them. Lemert (1951) also explains, “when a person begins to employ his deviant behavior or a role based on it as a means of defense to the problems created by society then the deviation is secondary” (pp. 75-76). Lemert was given credit for introducing the key concepts of the labeling theory among his peers in the early 1950’s.
Explaining the Labeling Theory
The labeling theory begins with the assumption that no act is completely criminal. The people that are elected, or appointed to make the laws, establish the definitions of criminality. Many of the laws were made in generations and by generations that preceded most us. These laws that are made are interpreted and enforced by police, courts and any other entity in the criminal justice system. According to the definition and the enforcement Giddens (1991) states, “It can be concluded and is concluded by the supporters of the labeling theory that deviance is not a set of characteristics of individuals or groups, but rather it is a process of interaction between deviants and non-deviants and the context in which criminality is being interpreted.” This is labeling theory at its most basic, ground level, a premise. An action is completed, and if this action is deemed a crime by lawmakers, then your recently completed action is viewed as a crime. If the completed action had not been labeled a crime then the action would have just been an action. Those