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Analytical Essay: The Essence of Labeling Theory

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In an attempt to understudy the causative effects of deviant behaviors, the context of labeling came about. (Goode, E. 1975). Before this period, juvenile delinquent behavior was considered a product of the society, environment or an attribute of the youths, linking this with socioeconomic deprivation with a need to punish or treat these juveniles. This led to a shift in the focus of labeling theorists to the juvenile justice system, seeking a better understanding of how social control agencies react and respond to the juvenile behaviors which subsequently creates deviance. (Branch et al, 2012).

This did not, however, mean that labeling theory did not come with its controversies. It was submerged in controversies after its fame in the 1960s and these controversies resulted in various theories on labeling. These controversies had its various objectives asking questions like the method of its application, interpretation of results and the amount of empirical support found. (Reza Barmaki 2019). In the face of all controversies and criticism, one thing was sure about the theory: its inception and origin. This origin has been traced back adequately to three sources; the first source being Frank Tannenbaum’s work Crime and the Community, while the second source is found in Edwin M. Lemert’s Social Pathology: Systematic Approaches to the study of Sociopathic Behavior. The third source is found in Howard Becker’s’ Outsiders. (Barmaki R 2019).

In his work, Tannenbaum used the term “dramatization of evil” to outline the effect of labeling on the individual. He believed that in labeling an individual, the person becomes the thing he is portrayed to be and no matter what the individual tries to do to be reformed, the evil gowns under their hands. (Ward, R. 1971). Branch, et al (2012) noted that Edwin Lemert “emphasized the effect of social control system on the occurrence and form of deviant behavior and crime”, while Howard Becker proposed that deviance was initiated by people with prejudice against the poor and powerless individuals in the society.

In all these different views, however, there is a suggestion that the formal reaction to crime will be a channel for the development of criminal careers and in turn, increase antisocial behaviors. To this effect, labeling theory prognosticates that formal punishment stigmatizes an offender in various ways which has the unexpected outcome of boosting future delinquent behaviors. (Restivo, E., & Lanier, M 2015)

Labeling leads to unintended outcomes that begin to unfold after a delinquent label is applied. One of these outcomes is that it changes a youths’ opportunity structures in a manner that limits their ability to gain successful socioeconomic breakthrough. Another outcome is that it facilitates others to treat the labeled youth in ways that make it possible to adapt to deviant self-meanings through subsequent deviance leading to an increase in reoffending. This has stigmatization effects which go a long way in defining the individual. (Kroska, A., J., & Carr, N. 2017). In buttressing the above-stated point, McGrath, A. (2014) notes that labeling theory advocates that contact with the criminal justice system leads to feelings of stigmatization, which inherently has a counterproductive effect of increasing reoffending.

Stigmatization is characterized by acts intended to mark someone out in ways that are so visible and identifiable as having very disdainful characters. These acts are heightened by negative reactions that degrade the individual and have various effects associated with it. The effects could range from status loss to discrimination by family, friends and the wider society, and exclusion from activities and opportunities which are available to others. (Hadjimatheou, K. 2016)

In organizing this review, however, the focus would be; negative reactions from families and the public, deviant subculture and the effects of stigmatization concerning the theory of labeling.

A significant assumption of labeling theory is in the belief that negative reactions of members of the society and family directed at the labeled individual can result in negative self-concepts, which subsequently leads to further involvement in delinquency. (Branch et al, 2012). Abrah, P. (2019) tested this assumption by addressing how labeling explains persistence or desistance from crime on 23 juveniles transitioning through adolescence by looking at the reactions from families, friends and society. For 13 of the juvenile offenders, they were persistent offenders and it consisted of 12 males and a female.

The other 10 respondents were in the desistance process. These respondents were interviewed on how labeling explains their persistence or desistance from crime. The interview focused on how their interactions with family, friends, and society affected their social relationships and bonds. Results showed that of the 13 persistent offenders who participated, 9 of these offenders experienced both negative and positive reactions from society and family members because of the deviant label attached to them while the remaining 4 offenders indicated rejection from members of the society including family and friends. On the other hand, 5 offenders in the desistance process had both negative and positive reactions and the other 5 offenders experienced negative reactions from society.

The findings from the study above noted that because of labeling, the juveniles experienced negative reactions from families and friends which further pushed into deviant groups and associations. The juveniles experienced rejection, stigma, and intimidation which all comes with labeling and since they had no better options in dealing with the stigma and labeling, they had to seek solace in deviant groups and associations which welcomed them without judgement and compromise. The juveniles also experienced shame and disappointment to family and friends and this creates a negative strain in the relationships with family members and friends. (Abrah, P. 2019). The response and reaction of people around the labeled individual may cause the individual to internalize these responses and begin to think of themselves in the same manner as these responses. (Kenney, J. 2002)

A study noted that official labeling for an offense may create or impact the reputation of a juvenile as a criminal in their society. To this effect, the juveniles arrange their lives to avoid interactions with members of the society because of the negative attitude and reactions held towards them. One of the respondents in the study noted:

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. . . My family received me nicely; I spent only a few months with my family and got arrested again . . . There was a time my neighbors pointed their fingers at me that I was a criminal . . . sometimes I responded other times I didn’t . . . I wasn’t bothered by what they said . . . after all, is it a shame to go to prison? (Respondent 1, Agyeman, a 19-year- old persistent offender). Stereotyping of these labeled individuals by members of the society can open a channel for these delinquents to persist in offending through their adulthood to the point that it weakens societal bonds. (Abrah, P. 2019).

Labeling theory also notes that an official deviance label inherently promotes the development of deviant self-meanings. (Kroska, Amy. 2017). Liberman & Akiva M (2014) also notes that an important mechanism in labeling theory is that a delinquent label refocuses a youth’s conception of self towards a deviant self-concept, emphasizing that the labeled individual is prone to further deviance. To this effect, Branch et al, (2012) studied the extent to which formal interaction with social control agents spurs juveniles towards the development of delinquent self-concept.

The study focused on a sample of 27 black adolescents in Barbados comprising 13 females and 14 males aged between 14 and 19 and spanned 4 years between 2006 and 2010. It employed the use of data gotten from the Royal Barbados Police force statistical office and also utilized individual interviews of these 27 individuals. The interviews were conducted to determine the extent to which formal negative labeling of juveniles caused them to remodel their self-concept to the point where they see themselves as deviants, measuring deviance by posing questions such as “have you ever been required to attend an adjudicatory hearing”, “have you ever been taken into custody by the police”, “have you ever been on court-ordered probation”.

The findings gathered showed that some of the youths felt stigmatized and cut off, thereby creating unfavorable views of themselves and others and opening a pathway to delinquency. They also expressed that they felt disconnected from their loved ones and felt separated from their communities. The implication of this is a creation of a self-concept which they adapt to and associate with people who impact them negatively and develop a criminal career leading to subsequent delinquency (Branch, et al. 2012).

Studies have shown that contact with social control agents stigmatizes the individual. In response to stigmatization or negative labeling, there is the resort to delinquency. Juveniles who have gone through the juvenile justice system report increased subsequent delinquency. (Adams, Mike S. 2003). To this effect, Mcgrath, A. (2019) tested this by looking at the relationship between labeling, gender and stigmatization effects on 394 young offenders comprising of males and females who were sentenced in the New South Wales Children’s Court and had a mean age of 16.8 years. The study was carried out through an interview which lasted about 15-20 minutes and spanned the periods between December 2004 and June 2007.

The study included stigmatization as a variable and it was measured by asking questions like: “Even though the court case is over, do you feel that others will not let you forget what you have done”?, “During the court case, did any of the people who are important to you reject you because of the offense”?, “Did people during the court case make negative judgements about what kind of person you are”?

The findings gathered from the study showed that feeling stigmatized was a causative effect of labeling which was also a significant predictor for reoffending. The risk to re-offend increased with the stigmatization variable. It also showed that the effects of stigmatization were great with young women compared to their male counterparts and therefore, serious consideration should be given to the development of more substantial therapeutic options for these young women coming into the criminal justice system to avoid the dangers of stigmatization for these young women. The language used to define a person in a long way also affects the public perception and insight of the person causing a likelihood of reoffending in the future. (Mcgrath, A. 2019)

Another study noted that the relationship and interaction between “normal” people and stigmatized individuals are characterized by unease, embarrassment, shame, confusion and a huge effort to impress the normal people. This leads to avoidance by the stigmatized individual so as not to be embarrassed and to avoid uncomfortable reactions. (Abrah, P. 2019).

The purpose of this review was to find information on labeling theory on juveniles through prior research on the issue. The findings gathered from these prior researches have been uniform throughout and show that official interventions through police arrests and court records affect the individual negatively which inherently leads to the labeled individual being stigmatized by family, friends and the society at large. A deviant label gives the delinquent a deviant subculture which the delinquent uses as a mode of adaptation to the stigmatization they go through. This adaptation leads to reoffending because they go back to their old ways to be accepted by people that influence them negatively since their families and the society see them in a different light.

The various studies showed that the negative labels applied by social control agents can backfire, leading to an increase in subsequent deviance. More so, it was noted that these labeled individuals tend to be isolated from both communities and friends, leading to a negative association with others of the same ilk. This also leads to the development of criminal careers and vices which is harmful to the individual and the society.

There is also an increased likelihood of being stigmatized. It was also noted in the findings presented that these individuals deal with the effects of stigmatization which arises because of these deviant labels attached. The effect of being stigmatized by the labels also if felt in being deprived of opportunities that are easily available to other people. There is the pressure which leads to going back to criminal ways.

It is pertinent to continue the study on labeling to advocate for better ways in which to help individuals especially juveniles better handle the effects that come with being officially labeled and somewhat ostracized by the community. This would be a better way instead of just looking at the causative effects of labeling without proffering solutions to these problems.

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Analytical Essay: The Essence of Labeling Theory. (2022, August 12). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 6, 2023, from
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