According to the French sociologist Émile Durkheim, the broad themes of labeling theory are located in the definition of crime as necessarily relative. Other antecedents of the explicit theory include Erving Goffman’s stigma, Robert K. Merton’s discussions of innovators, rebels, and conformers, Frank Tannenbaum’s wonder at the actual normalcy of much delinquent behavior, and Edwin M. Lemert’s distinction between primary and secondary deviance. The theme of social conflict over the decision of what to label as deviant is at the heart of this concept, and scholars emphasize it repeatedly. Further, John Hagan’s work asserts that labeling theory is fundamentally concerned with the effect of the label in the process of creating the deviant career.
The work of identifying the deviant and the importance of the deviant’s label has primarily focused on crime and illness, both mental and physical, although Goffman’s general concern with stigma and spoiled identities includes attention to understanding minority identities as deviant. After acknowledging the power and consequences of the label, several authors discuss the tools people use to achieve, contest, hide, or discard these labels. In his research, William Chambliss focused on the importance of visibility in the labeling of deviants as in part a function of economic inequality. The expertise of appropriate demeanor when confronted with authorities to whom one is visible is also crucial. Others tools include reinforcement/intervention, identity transformation and reintegration, selective concealment, and negotiation and fighting back.
Although prolific in symbolic interactionist and microlevel approaches, historical analyses of the labeling process look to structural, macro-level processes, such as the change in label from serf to vagrant, and the implications of the “new” phenomenon of middle-class delinquency, understood in part as a function of a failure to label due to structural positions of particular deviants and the “informal handling and preferential treatment” they thus receive (Vaz 1967, p. 1). While not necessarily using labeling theory terminology, the law and society perspective incorporates the idea that what the law does is label and create insiders and outsiders. As well, in general social structural terms, the importance of the moral entrepreneur in re-labeling in social change efforts, such as the Marijuana Tax Act or the civil rights movement, is important.
Critiques of the theory have focused on its assumption of an overly reactive individual. Sethard Fisher argued that labeling theory improperly weighted the label, and did not pay sufficient attention to choice, opportunity, or “common pre-existing characteristics” that might lead one to commit a deviant act (1972, p. 83). This involves a focus on the preexisting in terms of an actual deviant labeling process vis-à-vis a particular instance of behavior, but it is perhaps too narrow a focus. Labeling as a perspective may be understood to encompass attention to the interaction of a host of labels, social positions, or roles. In this early set of critiques, Hagan also posited “psychological difference” as one such preexisting difference that labeling theory does not attend to with enough rigor. However, research does support that preexisting differences such as class, race, and gender are among the prime concerns of the perspective, even if psychological differences per se are not.
Hagan’s late-twentieth-century work introduced the Power-Control theory, which emphasizes inherent power relations in determining delinquent actions and what is considered deviant; for example, “the class structure of the family plays a significant role in explaining the social distribution of delinquent behavior through the social reproduction of gender relations” (1988, p. 146). This is an explicit acknowledgement of the problem of failing to live up to a variety of labels (e.g., girl, middle-class, white). However, this position does not seem to acknowledge that interaction across “vertical, hierarchical lines of power” has indeed been the major theme of labeling theory. For example, “[P]ower usually brings preferential symbolism” (1988 p. 2) seems to be another way to say, “In the eyes of the police and school officials, a boy who drinks in an alley and stands intoxicated on a street corner is committing a more serious offense than a boy who drinks to inebriation in a nightclub or a tavern and drives around afterwards in a car” (Chambliss 1973, p. 10). “What distinguishes a structural criminology is its attention to instrumental and symbolic uses of power, both in relation to criminal behavior and in the study of reactions to this behavior” (Hogan 1988, p. 2), is not unlike Nancy J. Herman’s argument—albeit in the lifeworld of the excrazy—on such negotiations of power. Thus, the newer perspectives of critical criminology and structural criminology are in many ways permutations of the general themes of the labeling perspective: “rules are the product of someone’s initiative” and “duties are imposed upon us that we have not expressly wished. Yet it is through a voluntary act that they arose” (Becker 1963, p. 147; Durkheim 1982, p. 174). In other words, members of society must negotiate over their labels, even if they do so from within unequal positions of social power.
SEE ALSO Deviance
Chambliss, William. 1973. The Saints and the Roughnecks. Society 11 (2): 4–31.
Durkheim, Émile. 1982. The Rules of the Sociological Method. Trans. W. D. Halls. New York: Free Press. (Orig. pub. 1896).
Fisher, Sethard. 1972. Stigma and Deviant Careers in School. Social Problems 20 (1): 78–83.
Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Moral Career of the Mental Patient. Psychiatry 22 (2): 123–142.
Goffman, Erving. 1961. Asylums. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Goffman, Erving. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Hagan, John. 1973. Labeling and Social Deviance: A Case Study in the “Sociology of the Interesting.” Social Problems 20 (4): 447–458.
Hagan, John. 1988. Structural Criminology. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Hagan, John. 1994. Crime and Disrepute. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
Herman, Nancy J. 1993. Return to Sender: Reintegrative Stigma-Management Strategies of Ex-Psychiatric Patients. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 22 (3): 295–330.
Lemert, Edwin M. 1951. Social Pathology. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Kitsuse, John I. 1964. Societal Reaction to Deviant Behavior: Problems of Theory and Method. In The Other Side: Perspectives on Deviance, ed. Howard S. Becker. New York: Free Press of Glencoe.
Marshall, Gordon. 1998. Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Merton, Robert K. 1938. Social Structure and Anomie. American Sociological Review 3 (5): 672–682.
Tannenbaum, Frank. 1951. Crime and the Community. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Vaz, Edmund W., ed. 1967. Middle-Class Juvenile Delinquency. New York: Harper and Row Publishers.
Sarah N. Gatson