In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Labeling Theory

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Data Sources
  • Secondary Deviance Hypothesis
  • European Contributions to Labeling Theory and Research

Criminology Labeling Theory
Ray Paternoster, Ronet Bachman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 May 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0078


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.

    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.

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

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511804618

    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.

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

    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.

  • 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: 10.1080/07418828900090261

    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.

  • 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.

    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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