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Criminology Labeling Theory
by
Ray Paternoster, Ronet Bachman

Introduction

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.

General Overviews

Since the advent of the “positive school” of criminology, beginning with the work of Cesare Lombroso in the late 1800s, scholars of crime have been primarily interested in studying what factors cause individuals to commit acts of crime and deviance. Whether the causal factors are biological (e.g., atavism), psychological (e.g., impulsivity), or sociological (e.g., bad peers or neighborhoods), the scientific study of crime and deviance has, for the most part, focused on those factors that produce it, and on the essential differences between the “normal” and the “deviant.” Labeling theory brought a fresh, new perspective to this point of view. Labeling theorists are generally uninterested in the causes of crime, and are more interested in the reactions to crime. These reactions to crime, or labels, occur in processes at different levels of aggregation—the individual, the institutional, and the macro (state or national rule making)—and how labeled persons respond to those labels. The unique theoretical positions that labeling theory offered about crime and deviance can best be understood by careful reading of some “primary sources.” One of these sources is Lemert 1951, a general treatment of social problems and social deviance that first introduced the theoretical importance of the distinction between primary and secondary deviance. Lemert’s work would later prove to be a valuable theoretical foundation for labeling theories of general deviance, but it was Becker 1963 that would be more influential to criminologists, because it laid out, in very clear form, labeling theory positions on the nature of deviant acts, how some behaviors get to be labeled as deviant, and what happens when persons are labeled as deviant. In the early- to mid-1960s, labeling theorists published numerous theoretical works and influenced a great deal of empirical work. By the 1980s, however, critics began to seriously question the validity of labeling theory, primarily on the grounds that the empirical research did not seem to confirm the two major labeling propositions. Tittle 1980 is illustrative of this position; Tittle argues that if labeling theory claims only that status characteristics have some effect, then the theory is unimportant, and if it fails to be clear about the magnitude of the effect, then it is imprecise. Although the dominance once enjoyed by the theory waned considerably, theoretical and empirical work in the late 1980s and early 1990s revitalized the theory and integrated labeling propositions into more general theories of crime. See also Paternoster and Iovanni 1989 and Braithwaite 1989.

  • Becker, Howard S. 1963. Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. New York: Free Press.

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    Becker introduced the major themes of the labeling perspective, such as the view that there is nothing inherently deviant about particular acts, that the definition of particular acts as deviant frequently comes about as a result of “moral entrepreneurs” who create interest in and direct action at particular acts, and that deviants who face labels must adapt to the consequences that come with the labeling.

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  • Braithwaite, John. 1989. Crime, shame and reintegration. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511804618Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Braithwaite theorizes that sanctions that are reintegrative, that are directed toward the offender’s actions and not the offender, and that attempt to bring the offender back into the community are likely to reduce crime, while those that are stigmatizing, that blame the offender as a type of person, and that are rejecting are likely to result in more crime.

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  • Lemert, Edwin. 1951. Social pathology: A systematic approach to the study of sociopathic behavior. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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    Lemert introduced the distinction between primary and secondary deviance. Primary deviance is that which occurs without the person committed to or performing out of a deviant role. Primary deviance has any number of causes. Secondary deviance occurs as a response to the problems created by the imposition of a deviant label.

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  • Paternoster, Raymond, and LeeAnn Iovanni. 1989. The labeling perspective and delinquency: An elaboration of the theory and an assessment of the evidence. Justice Quarterly 6.3: 359–394.

    DOI: 10.1080/07418828900090261Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Paternoster and Iovanni argue that labeling theory is frequently mischaracterized by its critics. For example, they argue that the secondary deviance hypothesis includes many probabilistic contingencies that link labeling to identity changes, or changes in the routine activities of the labeled person and other experiences. They also remind the field that interest in racial and class discrimination could be directly linked to the labeling tradition.

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  • Tittle, Charles R. 1980. Labeling and crime: An empirical evaluation. Paper presented at the Third Vanderbilt Sociology Conference, held 28–29 October 1974 at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee. In The labeling of deviance: Evaluating a perspective. 2d ed. Edited by Walter R. Gove, 241–263. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE.

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    Tittle examines the literature on the status characteristics hypothesis and crime. He reads this hypothesis in a strict manner, noting that it means that social characteristics should be the most important factor in determining labeling outcomes.

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Data Sources

There are any number of existing data sets to do secondary data analysis on labeling effects and crime/delinquency. All one needs to understand is that labeling theory and deterrence theory make opposite predictions about the effect of sanctions on crime, so that any data set that has information about the imposition of sanctions (e.g., police contact, arrest, court appearance, conviction, sentencing) could be used to do a study of labeling effects. There are, however, some particularly useful data sets that contain information about labeling experiences (arrest/conviction/incarceration), and a rich set of explanatory variables. One of these is the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (NLSY), which is a panel study of youth in 1997 followed up over many waves. Another is the National Youth Survey (NYS) data, which is archived at the University of Michigan’s Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR). The Cambridge Study in Delinquency Development (Farrington 1994) studied some four hundred South London boys from childhood to age thirty-two.

  • Farrington, David P. 1994. Cambridge Study in Delinquency Development [Great Britain], 1961–1981. 2d ICPSR ed. ICPSR 8488. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research.

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    The CSDD is a longitudinal study of an original sample of 411 boys born in South London in 1953. The data include a very detailed collection of information about the boys, their parents, siblings, psychological characteristics, self-reported crime and conviction histories. The data and codebooks are available online from ICPSR.

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  • National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997.

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    The NLSY97 is a nationally representative sample of approximately 9,000 youth that were between the ages of twelve and seventeen when first interviewed in 1997. At the initial wave, both the youth and the parents were extensively interviewed. Youth have been interviewed at yearly intervals since 1997, and the data set has rich information about the youths’ experiences in school and employment.

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    • National Youth Survey.

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      The NYS is a nationally representative sample of approximately 1,700 youth first interviewed in 1976. Interviews were taken with the youth and one parent at the initial data collection, and with the youths at irregular intervals subsequent to that. The NYS has information about the youths’ family, home environment, school experiences and achievements, victimization, self-reported offending, and contact with the criminal justice system.

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      History of Labeling Theory

      Labeling theory was developed in the 1960s, a time when there was great and visible political and cultural dissent in America, which matched a growing cultural concern about the ability of the government to, for the lack of a better term, “behave well.” It is perfectly logical that labeling theory would emerge in American academic circles at this particular time. Labeling theory represented both a theoretical and methodological break with most criminology up to that time. It represented a theoretical break because it brought into full focus a major causal force in the creation of crime that had, for the most part, been ignored by previous criminologists—namely, the state. The state and state institutions “create” crime in the sense that it makes the laws whose violation defines crime, and because it enforces those laws. The theory represented a methodological break because criminologists and deviance scholars began to understand what was going on in the minds of deviants, rather than simply measuring them with questionnaires and interviews. Cicourel 1968 provided one of the first “labeling” analyses of state institutions of social control. Cicourel’s work is a study of the juvenile court and how attempts to “solve” the juvenile crime problem frequently only make it worse. His work also represented a clear break with standard statistical studies of criminal justice institutions, and it indicated the value of the new perspectives of ethnomethodology and phenomenology. As an indication of perhaps the importance of this new perspective, just one year after Cicourel’s book was published, three important labeling books appeared. One of these, Scott 1969, was not even about crime but about how institutions that may have initially been designed to “help” blind people are instrumental in what Scott called the “making” of blind men. Lofland 1969 and Matza 1969 are easily the best reads for someone interested in fully understanding the secondary deviance and status characteristics hypothesis of labeling theory, as they pertain to crime and deviance. Finally, the breadth of the labeling theory perspective, and a detailed research agenda, can be found in Schur 1971, one of the most comprehensive statements of labeling theory.

      • Cicourel, Aaron V. 1968. The social organization of juvenile justice. New York: Wiley.

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        Cicourel studied the ways in which police, probation officers, and court workers develop stereotypical understandings or common sense theories of the “typical delinquent,” which helped them reduce the complexity they confronted and provided suggestions as to what they should do in particular cases.

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      • Lofland, John. 1969. Deviance and identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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        From a symbolic interactionist perspective, Lofland discusses the importance of social identity for both deviants and “normals,” and the role of conflict and negotiation in the labeling process. Lofland describes the gradual and contingent process through which a deviant label may lead to secondary deviance with reference to the important role played by normal and deviant places, hardware, and others.

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      • Matza, David. 1969. Becoming deviant. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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        Matza is critical of the search for the causes of crime, suggesting that such a search leads to a view of deviance as a pathology, which is the intellectual foundation for a “correctional” mentality—doing things to people to get them to stop doing crime. Matza argued that we should adopt a position of appreciation—appreciation for the diversity that deviance and rule breaking provides.

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      • Schur, Edwin M. 1971. Labeling deviant behavior: Its sociological implications. New York: Harper & Row.

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        This is a great little book (173 pages) that provides a nicely detailed outline of the labeling theorists’ major theoretical positions. It describes labeling as taking place on three distinct levels: (1) interpersonal relations, (2) organizational processing, and (3) collective rule making. This book is also a good source for a general understanding of labeling theory, because it directly confronts potential criticisms and extensions of the original work.

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      • Scott, Robert A. 1969. The making of blind men: A study of adult socialization. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

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        Scott’s argument in the book is that people who may have some trouble seeing “become blind people,” because of the attitudes and behaviors taken toward them by the sighted. In other words, being blind is not something inherent in the condition or state of limited or no vision, but something that occurs as a process of labeling and socialization by the sighted.

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      Rule Making and Rule Enforcement

      Looking broadly at two levels of crime and deviance—rule making and rule enforcement—labeling theorists have argued that the criminalization of certain behaviors is initiated by some relatively powerful group and is directed at some relatively powerless group. Labeling theory, then, is clearly about conflict, and, as Tannenbaum 1938, Matza 1969 (cited under History of Labeling Theory) and Triplett 1993 attest, it was labeling theorists who most emphatically brought under investigation the role of the state, Leviathan, and the institutions of the state as the major culprits in crime and deviance. Conflict at the level of rule making takes place when powerful groups use their influence to define as unlawful those behaviors that they find threatening or offensive. Labeling theorists brought onto center stage the fact that many laws are created by powerful groups who feel threatened, and who then generate support for their position by “demonizing” the other side, stoking efforts to do something about “the problem.” Conflict at the organizational level concerns the process of labeling that occurs by agencies of social control or deviance management, such as courts, the police, corrections, mental institutions, and institutions for the blind, to name only a few. Labeling theorists would argue that one of the factors that go into the decision to make an arrest is the suspect’s social characteristics―their race, gender, or social class―such that those who are thought by the police to be more threatening (e.g., young black males) are more likely to be arrested than others. Conflict at the interpersonal level involves the attempt by one individual to apply a label to another individual. This process is illustrated by Kitsuse 1962, a discussion about the “making” of homosexuals. The second intellectual tradition forming the foundation of labeling theory is symbolic interactionism, whose major premises are explained in Blumer 1969. The secondary deviance hypothesis of labeling theory is anchored in symbolic interactionism because it eloquently describes several things: (1) the way in which labeled actors derive meaning about themselves from social interactions, (2) how their social identities may change as a result of the label and their reaction to the label, and (3) how labeled persons fit together lines of action in response to their label. These notions that human behavior is influenced by identity, derived from interactions with others as well as interactions with oneself, and is intentional behavior, are a central part of the symbolic interactionist theories of George Herbert Mead and Herbert Blumer.

      • Blumer, Herbert. 1969. Symbolic interactionism: Perspective and method. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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        The first five chapters of this book will provide the reader with a solid understanding of the theoretical and methodological positions of symbolic interactionism, one of the intellectual “parents” of labeling theory.

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      • Kitsuse, John I. 1962. Societal reaction to deviant behavior: Problems of theory and method. Social Problems 9.3: 247–256.

        DOI: 10.2307/799235Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        This early article is well worth reading to understand the theoretical and methodological positions of this new perspective. In this paper, which is an empirical study of homosexuality and the variability of definitions of homosexuality, Kitsuse argued that the central issue in deviance studies should be how persons come to be defined as deviants by others.

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      • Tannenbaum, Frank. 1938. Crime and the community. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

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        This work is often cited as the origin of labeling theory because of Tannenbaum’s notion of the “dramatization of evil,” which describes a process by which the community selects a child from the community who may be misbehaving and labels him as a “delinquent.” The effects on the child of the community’s tagging him as a delinquent are profound, as “he now lives in a different world” (p. 19).

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      • Triplett, Ruth. 1993. The conflict perspective, symbolic interactionism, and the status characteristics hypothesis. Justice Quarterly 10.4: 541–558.

        DOI: 10.1080/07418829300092011Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        In this article Triplett makes a very important point about the status characteristics hypothesis. Simply stated, she notes that the secondary deviance hypothesis of labeling theory can also trace its intellectual heritage to symbolic interactionism and not just conflict theory.

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      Status Characteristics Hypothesis

      The status characteristics hypothesis states that labels will get imposed on others in part on the basis of their characteristics—their race, social class, or gender, for example. This labeling process plays out at different levels of aggregation. At the highest level is the application of labels as laws that are directed at particular behaviors or particular persons that are viewed as threatening by a more powerful group. This group is able to use the political and cultural system to have the behavior of the less powerful group labeled as deviant or criminal. Labels are also imposed at the organizational or institutional level as courts define people as criminal, mental institutions define others as mad, and schools label some youths as troublemakers. Finally, labels are applied at the interpersonal level as parents label their children as bad or “no good.”

      Collective Rule Making

      At the level of collective rule making, labeling occurs when one group, usually a politically, economically, or culturally powerful group (referred to in Becker 1963, cited under General Overviews, as moral entrepreneurs) sees the behavior of a weaker group as a danger, mounts a campaign to convince others that in fact the other group’s behavior is a threat or danger, and then uses the legal system to declare that behavior as something that must be responded to. This process is revealed in Gusfield 1963, a very early work on the temperance movement that describes the political, social, and cultural conflict that defined the movement during the 19th century; Cohen 1972, which introduces the concept of a “moral panic”; and Hall, et al. 1978, which applies the notion of a moral panic to a mugging crisis in 1970s Great Britain.

      • Cohen, Stanley. 1972. Folk devil and moral panics: The creation of the mods and rockers. London: MacGibbon and Kee.

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        According to Cohen, a moral panic occurs when a group or a type of behavior gets defined as creating a crisis in social order. Moral panics are created whenever moral entrepreneurs are in conflict with “folk devils” who are made out to constitute a threat that society must respond to or social order will be threatened.

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      • Gusfield, Joseph R. 1963. Symbolic crusade: Status politics and the American temperance movement. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

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        Temperance workers came primarily from the upper social, economic, and cultural class, and they sought to use their power in these realms to define drinking as having dire consequences for individual drinkers, their families (especially children), and the nation. Creating a “moral panic” about the drinking problem gave them the moral legitimacy as well as the cultural superiority to have drinking alcoholic beverages made criminal.

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      • Hall, Stuart, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John N. Clarke, and Brian Roberts. 1978. Policing the crisis: Mugging, the state, and law and order. New York: Holmes and Meier.

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        Around 1972, the British press began sounding the alarm about a frightening new variety of crime—mugging. The fear generated by media accounts created what the authors describe as a “moral panic.” This campaign provided the impetus to “do something about” mugging and resulted in stiff new penal sentences for those convicted of mugging.

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      Organizational Processing

      At the level of organizational processing, labeling occurs when institutions such as juvenile courts, schools for the blind, mental institutions, and criminal courts “do something about” deviants. As shown by the collection of work cited below, institutions label people, or “do something about“ them, at least in part because of their characteristics (the status characteristics hypothesis), and in “doing something about” deviants institutions of social control create problems for those being labeled, which then may lead to more rather than less deviance (the secondary deviance hypothesis). The selections here illustrate both of these hypotheses. Klein 1974 illustrates the labeling effects of contact with the juvenile justice system. Steffensmeier and Demuth 2000; Bontrager, et al. 2005; and Johnson, et al. 2010 illustrate labeling at sentencing. Huebner and Bynum 2008 illustrates it at the parole decision. Klein, et al. 1990 shows that legally relevant factors rather than race or social class can determine who gets labeled.

      • Bontrager, Stephanie, William Bales, and Ted Chiricos. 2005. Race, ethnicity, threat, and the labeling of convicted felons. Criminology 43.3: 589–622.

        DOI: 10.1111/j.0011-1348.2005.00018.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        Consistent with the status characteristics hypothesis, Bontrager and colleagues found in a study of more than 90,000 court cases between 1999 and 2002 that Hispanics and blacks were significantly less likely to have adjudication withheld when other individual (crime seriousness and prior record) and community-level factors were controlled.

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      • Huebner, Beth M., and Timothy S. Bynum. 2008. The role of race and ethnicity in parole decisions. Criminology 46.4: 907–937.

        DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2008.00130.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        In a study of parole decisions made during the period 1996–2004, Huebner and Bynum examined the characteristics of those granted earlier rather than later parole. Net of legal factors, they found that Hispanic offenders were paroled sooner than whites, but that black offenders served more time until parole than either whites or Hispanics.

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      • Johnson, Brian D., Sigrid van Wingerden, Paul Nieuwbeerta. 2010. Sentencing homicide offenders in the Netherlands: Offender, victim, and situational influences in criminal punishment. Criminology 48.4: 981–1018.

        DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2010.00210.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        One of the limitations of the labeling literature is that the empirical work is to a large extent restricted to studies conducted in the United States. Johnson and colleagues, however, conducted a study of the influence of status characteristics on sentencing for homicide in the Netherlands. They found that status characteristics mattered there as well.

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      • Klein, Malcolm W. 1974. Labeling, deterrence and recidivism: A study of police dispositions of juvenile offenders. Social Problems 22.2: 292–303.

        DOI: 10.2307/799765Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        In this paper, Klein examined the recidivism rates for juvenile offenders in two types of police departments—those with high rates of diversion (low labeling) and those with low rates of diversion (high labeling). Compared with low diversion police departments, high diversion departments had lower rates of recidivism for first-time offenders compared with multiple offenders.

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      • Klein, Stephen, Joan Petersilia, and Susan Turner. 1990. Race and imprisonment decisions in California. Science 247.4944: 812–816.

        DOI: 10.1126/science.2305254Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        Examining over 11,000 California offenders who were convicted of serious crimes in 1980, the authors found that characteristics related to the seriousness of the crime and the offender’s criminal record provided an accurate prediction of who would be sentenced to prison versus probation. Contrary to the status characteristics hypothesis, there was no effect for the race of the offender once these legally relevant factors were taken into account.

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      • Steffensmeier, Darrell, and Stephen Demuth. 2000. Ethnicity and sentencing outcomes in U.S. federal courts: Who is punished more harshly? American Sociological Review 65.5: 705–729.

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        In a study of sentencing in US federal courts from 1993 to 1996, Steffensmeier and Demuth examined whether the defendant’s ethnicity had an effect on the length of the sentence received net of legal characteristics of the case. They found that net of several legal characteristics, Hispanic defendants were more likely to be given a prison sentence and a longer sentence, followed by African American defendants; white defendants received the most favorable treatment.

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      Interpersonal Relations

      A tenet of labeling theory is that labels are frequently imposed when powerful persons feel threatened by powerless persons. A question that has not been raised in any detail until recent years is just how these perceptions of fear and threat arise. Link 1987 and Link, et al. 1987 show how this process works with mental patients, Bridges and Steen 1998 with juvenile offenders, and Chiricos, et al. 2001 and Hirschfield and Piquero 2010 with adult criminal offenders. These works point to the important role stereotypes play in the labeling process.

      • Bridges, George S., and Sara Steen. 1998. Racial disparities in official assessments of juvenile offenders: Attributional stereotypes as mediating mechanisms. American Sociological Review 63.4: 554–570.

        DOI: 10.2307/2657267Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        Bridges and Steen examine the descriptions of juvenile offenders and their crimes, and the stereotypes used, that were written by probation officers for juvenile courts. They found that probation officers more often attributed the crimes of black youths to negative personality factors and the crimes of white youths more to negative environmental factors. They also judged black youths as more likely to offend in the future (net of legally relevant factors like criminal history and crime seriousness).

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      • Chiricos, Ted, Ranee McEntire, and Marc Gertz. 2001. Perceived racial and ethnic composition of neighborhood and perceived risk of crime. Social Problems 48.3: 322–340.

        DOI: 10.1525/sp.2001.48.3.322Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        Chiricos and colleagues phone-interviewed Florida residents, asking about their perceptions of people in their neighborhood and the perceived risk of victimization. They found that respondents’ perceived risk of being criminally victimized was related to perceptions that Hispanics and blacks lived near them.

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      • Hirschfield, Paul J., and Alex R. Piquero. 2010. Normalization and legitimation: Modeling stigmatizing attitudes toward ex-offenders. Criminology 48.1: 27–55.

        DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2010.00179.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        Using a telephone survey, Hirschfield and Piquero found that older respondents, whites, those living in rural areas, those who had little confidence in the courts, and those who had little exposure to ex-offenders all had much more negative attitudes about ex-offenders.

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      • Link, Bruce G. 1987. Understanding labeling effects in the area of mental disorders: An assessment of the effects of expectation of rejection. American Sociological Review 52.1: 96–112.

        DOI: 10.2307/2095395Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        Link’s study provides an understanding of how those being labeled may actually participate in the labeling process through the stereotypes of deviants that they learned long before being labeled. Subjects in the study who had a history of mental health treatment (the labeled) were more likely than the nontreated to think that mental patients were discriminated against and were thought of poorly.

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      • Link, Bruce G., Francis T. Cullen, James Frank, and John F. Wozniak. 1987. The social rejection of former mental patients: Understanding why labels matter. American Journal of Sociology 92.6: 1461–1500.

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        Link and colleagues discuss the role of stereotypes that people have of “former mental patients,” and how this affects both how they treat them and how mental patients’ own understanding of stereotypes affects how they behave. They found that when a former mental patient conformed to an expectation about being potentially dangerous there was more social rejection.

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      Secondary Deviance Hypothesis

      Although attempts to “do something about” crime and deviance (such as the juvenile court, as described in Farrington 1977, or psychiatrists, as described in Link 1982) are initiated to reduce the problem, the point of the secondary deviance hypothesis is that such efforts may make things worse. As Lemert 1951 (cited under General Overviews) reported decades ago, labels imposed at either the formal or informal level create problems of adjustment that labeled persons must respond to. These problems, such as spoiled identity and job liabilities, may make it more difficult for deviants to do good, and as a result they end up committing more deviant acts. The works in this section describe how labels can at times create more, rather than less, deviance. Farrington 1977 illustrates labeling effects with juveniles, while Link 1982 does the same with mental patients. Matsueda 1992 shows how informal labeling can be as powerful, if not more so, than formal labels; while Sherman, et al. 1992 indicates that labels sometimes prevent crime and sometimes lead to secondary deviance. Finally, Smith and Paternoster 1990 illustrates how difficult it may be to make a clean causal inference about the effect of deviant labels. See also Sherman 1993; Western 2002; Bernburg and Krohn 2003; and Chiricos, et al. 2007.

      • Bernburg, Jön Gunnar, and Marvin D. Krohn. 2003. Labeling, life chances and adult crime: The direct and indirect effects of official intervention in adolescence on crime in early adulthood. Criminology 41.4: 1287–1318.

        DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2003.tb01020.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        Using data from the Rochester Youth Development Study (RYDS), Bernburg and Krohn found that youth who had an official intervention with police or juvenile court/corrections were less likely to stay in school, more likely to be unemployed in young adulthood, and more likely to be involved in early adult crime. Further, official intervention in adolescence has positive indirect effects on adult crime through reduced educational attainment and unemployment.

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      • Chiricos, Ted, Kelle Barrick, William Bales, and Stephanie Bontrager. 2007. The labeling of convicted felons and its consequences for recidivism. Criminology 45.3: 547–581.

        DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2007.00089.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        Under Florida law, criminal court judges have the discretion to withhold adjudications of guilt for felony offenders sentenced to probation. Chiricos and colleagues compared recidivism rates for those felony offenders who were labeled guilty with those who were not. Consistent with the secondary deviance hypothesis of labeling theory, those offenders who were found guilty were significantly more likely to recidivate in a two-year follow up.

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      • Farrington, David P. 1977. The effects of public labelling. British Journal of Criminology 17:112–125.

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        Using a sample of some 400 South London working-class youth, Farrington examined the effect of an official finding of guilt in juvenile court. In a matched-pairs analysis between boys labeled as guilty and those not so labeled, it was found that the labeled boys had an increase in self-reported delinquency, while the nonlabeled boys’ delinquency decreased.

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      • Link, Bruce G. 1982. Mental patient status, work, and income: An examination of the effects of a psychiatric label. American Sociological Review 47.2: 202–215.

        DOI: 10.2307/2094963Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        Link found that having a psychiatric label by way of past hospitalization or treatment for a mental illness was related to lower income and diminished job status net of other factors, including the severity of the psychiatric condition. Those given a psychiatric label were less likely to have access to what Lofland called normal places and normal others with which to build a nondeviant identity (See Lofland 1969, cited under History of Labeling Theory).

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      • Matsueda, Ross L. 1992. Reflected appraisals, parental labeling, and delinquency: Specifying a symbolic interactionist theory. American Journal of Sociology 97.6: 1577–1611.

        DOI: 10.1086/229940Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        Matsueda introduces the notion that self-assessments as a good or bad kid are related to the attributions of character made by parents, friends and teachers. Matsueda found that feelings about oneself are related to attributions made by parents, friends, and teachers, and that parent-reflected appraisals have an effect on delinquency through self-appraisals, consistent with labeling theory.

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      • Sherman, Lawrence W. 1993. Defiance, deterrence, and irrelevance: A theory of the criminal sanction. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 30.4: 445–473.

        DOI: 10.1177/0022427893030004006Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        Sherman argues that the question is “Under what conditions do sanctions or labels reduce crime, increase crime, or have no effect on crime?” His defiance theory of sanctions states that sanctions will have a crime-inhibiting effect when they are imposed in such a way as to respect the dignity of the person sanctioned, when that person is well-bonded to conventionality and responds with shame rather than righteous anger or indignation.

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      • Sherman, Lawrence W., Douglas A. Smith, Jannell D. Schmidt, and Dennis P. Rogan. 1992 Crime, punishment and stake in conformity: Legal and informal control of domestic violence. American Sociological Review 57.5: 680–690.

        DOI: 10.2307/2095921Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        The authors reanalyzed the Colorado Springs domestic violence experiment and pooled data from Milwaukee, Omaha, Charlotte (North Carolina), Colorado Springs, and Dade County (Florida). In a common finding from these data, the authors found that the effect of arrest (either criminogenic or a deterrent) varied by the respondents’ personal characteristics, suggesting that the real question to address is not whether a label makes bad behavior more likely, but for whom does it make it better, worse, or have no effect.

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      • Smith, Douglas A., and Raymond Paternoster. 1990. Formal processing and future delinquency: Deviance amplification as selection artifact. Law & Society Review 24.5: 1109–1131.

        DOI: 10.2307/3053663Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        The secondary deviance hypothesis argues that those given a deviant label will be more deviant than those who avoid the label. The problem is that those given the label might have been at greater risk to be deviant in the absence of the label. Using different statistical selection models, Smith and Paternoster found that the selection model was more viable than the secondary deviance model.

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      • Western, Bruce. 2002. The impact of incarceration on wage mobility and inequality. American Sociological Review 67.4: 526–546.

        DOI: 10.2307/3088944Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        Labeling theory would argue that a spell of incarceration would reduce one’s conventional life chances, including job stability and the steady increase in wages such stability would produce. With the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), Western found that incarceration reduces the wages of ex-inmates by 10–20 percent. Having been incarcerated also reduced the rate of a worker’s growth in wages by 30 percent.

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      European Contributions to Labeling Theory and Research

      Up to this point, this article has covered the origins and development of labeling theory and empirical research on labeling theory from almost entirely an American perspective, but there have been important and valuable contributions to the labeling perspective from non-American scholars. In 1968 a large cohort of British criminologists created the National Deviancy Conference, whose work was influenced by labeling theory notions but which gradually morphed into a more critical/Marxist path. Already discussed have been the contributions of the British scholar Stanley Cohen, author of one of the most frequently cited discussions of moral entrepreneurs, his discussion of the “mods” and “rockers,” rebellious British youth, who, Cohen argued, were made out to be a greater threat to social stability than they really were (see Cohen 1972, cited under Collective Rule Making). Also discussed has been the work of Stuart Hall and colleagues, who wrote about the moral panic of mugging in England in the early 1970s (Hall, et al. 1978, cited under Collective Rule Making). The term “moral panic” was actually coined by the British criminologist and sociologist Jock Young, in Young 1971, a discussion of hippie drug users in the Notting Hill section of London. The theme of “moral panic” and its role in deviance creation and amplification has recently been updated in Marsh and Melville 2011, by two criminologists at Liverpool Hope University. Another British contributor to the labeling literature is Ken Plummer, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Essex. Among his most recent and most notable work is Plummer 2011, which not only provides a comprehensive review of the intellectual history of labeling theory, but also provides an important update of the labeling perspective. Finally, though the literature is not often found in English, German scholars have been active contributors to the labeling literature, particularly its theoretical and conceptual development. A good introduction to this literature is Michael Dellwing’s article “Truth in Labeling” (Dellwing 2011).

      • Dellwing, Michael. 2011. Truth in labeling: Are descriptions all we have? Deviant Behavior 32.7: 653–675.

        DOI: 10.1080/01639625.2010.514206Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        Dellwing’s article draws a connection between philosophical pragmatism and the symbolic interactionist tradition in labeling theory. Both pragmatism and the labeling approach share an antifoundationalist view that descriptions of the world are “social achievements.” He further implies that this does not mean that deviance is completely relative or that it does not exist, but that theoretical work of even an antifoundationalist theory seldom changes these descriptions.

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      • Marsh, Ian, and Gaynor Melville. 2011. Moral panics and the British media—A look at some contemporary “folk devils”. Internet Journal of Criminology.

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        Marsh and Melville begin their paper with a very clear and concise review of the concept of moral panics in the work of Cohen and Young (see Cohen 1972, cited under Collective Rule Making, and Young 1971). They then discuss more recent examples of moral panics, such as the threat posed by youth who wear “hoodies” (and the “hoody culture” that they supposedly share), and the creation of a moral panic around child exploitation and pedophilia.

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      • Plummer, Ken. 2011. The labelling perspective forty years on. In Langweiliges Verbrechen: Warum Kriminolog Innen den Umgang mit Kriminalität interessanter finden als Kriminalität. Edited by Helge Peters and Michael Dellwing, 83–103. Wiesbaden, Germany: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.

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        Plummer is a leading British sociologist who has made important contributions to the labeling perspective, frequently from a symbolic interactionist perspective. In this book chapter, Plummer provides a nicely detailed history of labeling theory, and of the theoretical questions that labeling theory was intended to address. The major portion of the essay, however, is his discussion of contemporary theoretical and conceptual developments in the theory, particularly the contribution of non-American scholars. Available online.

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      • Young, Jock. 1971. The role of the police as amplifiers of deviance, negotiators of reality and translators of fantasy: Some consequences of our present system of drug control as seen in Notting Hill. In Images of deviance. Edited by Stanley Cohen, 27–61. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

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        In Young’s essay he discusses how the danger presented by drug-using youth in Notting Hill was amplified into a greater and more threatening social problem by the police. Young argued that police use of stereotypes about drug use and the supposed downward moral spiral it leads to created the moral panic, which was then spread by newspaper accounts. The social reaction to drug use by police and media “amplified” a social problem into a threat against social order.

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      LAST MODIFIED: 05/28/2013

      DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195396607-0078

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