Labeling Theory

Ray Paternoster and Ronet Bachman

in Criminology

ISBN: 9780195396607
Published online May 2013 | | DOI:
Labeling Theory

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Labeling theory is a vibrant area of research and theoretical development within the field of criminology. Originating in the mid- to late-1960s in the United States at a moment of tremendous political and cultural conflict, labeling theorists brought to center stage the role of government agencies, and social processes in general, in the creation of deviance and crime. The theory represented both a theoretical and methodological break from the past, and it could reasonably be argued that it was one of the dominant theoretical perspectives in the study of crime and deviance from the late 1960s until the early 1980s. It was also responsible for spurring countless empirical studies over this time period. Although there were periods when interest in labeling process was in decline, particularly after 1985, labeling theory has had a bit of a resurgence in recent years. Labeling theory has become part of a more general criminological theory of sanctions that includes deterrence theory’s focus on the crime reduction possibilities of sanctions, procedural justice theory’s focus on the importance of the manner in which sanctions are imposed, and defiance/reintegrative theory’s emphasis on individual differences in the social bond and persons’ emotional reaction to the label. Labeling theories of crime are often referred to as social reaction theories, because they focus primarily on the consequences of responses or reactions to crime. These responses or reactions typically focus on three sets of actors: (1) informal social others, such as the friends, parents, or partners of persons committing crimes, and who disapprove of the offender’s behavior; (2) organizations or institutions such as the criminal justice system, whose function it is to “do something about” crime; and (3) those who perceive a threat by some behavior and want to see legislation passed to outlaw it. All of these very diverse actions have one thing in common: they are all reactions to crime. As such, they are said to be “labels” because they have the quality of attaching a name or a signature to someone or some behavior—hence the name “labeling theory.” From this, labeling theory can be understood as involving two main hypotheses. First is the status characteristics hypothesis, which states that labels are imposed in part because of the status of those doing the labeling and those being labeled. The second is the secondary deviance hypothesis, which essentially argues that deviant labels create problems that the one being labeled must adjust to and deal with, and that under certain conditions labels can lead to greater involvement in crime and deviance.

Article.  6448 words. 

Subjects: Criminology and Criminal Justice ; Criminal Justice ; Criminology

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