The Labeling Theory On Juveniles And Juvenile Delinquency

This essay sample was donated by a student to help the academic community. Papers provided by EduBirdie writers usually outdo students' samples.

Cite this essay cite-image

Table of contents

  1. Introduction to Labeling Theory and Its Sociological Significance
  2. Historical Development of Labeling Theory in Sociology
  3. Labeling Theory's Mechanisms: Internalization and External Reactions
  4. Case Studies and Empirical Evidence Supporting Labeling Theory
  5. Implications of Labeling Theory in Juvenile Delinquency
  6. Conclusion: The Role of Labeling in Shaping Juvenile Identity and Behavior
  7. References

Introduction to Labeling Theory and Its Sociological Significance

The labeling theory says that people become classified and alter their behaviors in courses that echo how others seem to label them. The theory is the most commonly categorized with sociology for crime along with deviance. Labeling and considering someone as criminally deviant can promote and support deviant behavior. For example, labeling a person as a criminal causes other poeple to consider them with more negativity than positivity and the feedback to being treated very negatively in turn can create for that individual to operate more negatively from there on out (Crossman 1).

Historical Development of Labeling Theory in Sociology

The labeling theory is essential to the idea of the social construction of reality. The social construction of reality is the center of sociology and is associated to the perspective of symbolic interactionist. The symbolic interactionism is a theory that looks at society as a product of people and their social interactions. The topic of sociology and deviance blossomed within American sociology during the 1960s, in appreciation to the large part of sociologists like Howard Becker. However, sociology of deviance core ideas were established by the founding French sociologist Emile Durkheim. The focal point of American sociologist George Herbert Mead’s theory on the social construction of the individual is a process that involves social interactions with others, which is influential in its own development. Others affected in the development of the labeling theory and the conduct of research related to it include other sociologists like Frank Tannenbaum, Edwin Lemert, Albert Memmi, Erving Goffman, and David Matza (Crossman 2).

In the theories most superficial form, the labeling theory purely suggests that human beings most likely will feel obligated to act out roles dictated by their new status as criminals by their peers. Associate delinquency and other controls can possibly account for delinquent behavior, although it is possible that a developed self- concept independently affects recidivism (Bernburg, Krohn, and Rivera 67). Certainly, the connection between self-identification as deviant and actual deviant behavior cannot be ignored. Although, it is not impossible that the relationship between identity and behavior is interwoven in and by social influences (Mouttapa 5).

Labeling Theory's Mechanisms: Internalization and External Reactions

A study from four different youth detention camps in Southern California examines the labeling theory and the behaviors and the attitudes of 91 incarcerated youths. These incarcerated youths were linked to serious alcohol abuse along with a shared social identity with the “gang member” appearance. The participants were asked in a survey that was self reported about their behaviors before they were brought into detention, also their experiences prior to and during detention with feelings of acrimony. The youth participants were asked also to pick from a list of 16 diverse social identities that they personally felt best represented their peer group. The social identity list was constructed by the researchers and detention camp staff. The list included labels or identities such as, “skaters”, “stoners”, “jocks”, “taggers”, “heavy metalers”, “loners”, and “actors”. What the outcome of this social identity list was that the study found that the majority of participants who identified themselves as “gang members” were more than 50% to have consumed alcohol heavily in the 30 days prior to their incarceration, as opposed to 30% among those who did not self-identify as gang members (Mouttapa 6). These results were gladly recored due to their significance statistically speaking, for controlling the self-reported levels of antagonism throughout the incarcerated youths. Since juveniles have no yet fully developed internally and externally, the relationships with the individual’s personal identity, peer group, and behavior is extremely detrimental to that individuals life-course. One concept that this study on labeling with juveniles did not account for was the possibility that the juveniles self-concept may be the result of their incarceration, although the study did take multiple steps towards clarifying the relationships among an individual’s identity, peer group and behavior (Liberman 5).

Case Studies and Empirical Evidence Supporting Labeling Theory

Generally predicting the labeling theories “official” response to delinquency nurtures future delinquency (Lemert 1951). Thus indicating two different mechanisms by which a “label” can lead to increased deviancy through the labeling theory (Paternoster and Iovanni 937). In one prime mechanism the labeling theory has to offer is that a delinquent label alters a youth’s self- conception or personal identity toward a more deviant self-concept, which is then self-fulfilling (Matsueda 1992). Edwin Lemert’s version of labeling theory is symbolic of this labeling process, because of Lemert’s depiction of the progression from primary deviance to secondary deviance. Individuals internalize the deviant status due to the societal reaction to the deviants’ behavior, and deviants’ come to organize their lives around this particular status. Thus creating a strong bond between labeled deviants with other deviant peers (Wiley Slocum, and Esbensen 2013), withdraw from everyday activities (Bernburg 2009), and ultimately engage in criminal offenses at an exceedingly higher rate than similar individuals who have not been labeled “deviant.” With this information regarding higher rates of labeled offenders, stigmatized youth would then also have more frequent interaction with the criminal justice system than non- deviants (Liberman 6).

Save your time!
We can take care of your essay
  • Proper editing and formatting
  • Free revision, title page, and bibliography
  • Flexible prices and money-back guarantee
Place Order

The second mechanism in the labeling theory focuses more on external processes such as social and societal responses to the label. The responses include increased surveillance as well as reduced social experiences and cooperation (Klein 1986; Paternoster and Iovanni, 1989). These mechanisms of the labeling theory are not necessarily internal to the labeled individual, but rather to the external social and societal responses. In reference to Lemert’s terms of primary versus secondary deviance, people tend to conceptualize the labeling event, for example, an arrest as a “primary sanction” and subsequent punitive societal responses resulting from the label as “secondary sanctioning.” This sociological terminology is intended to focus the idea that there are possibly two parallel processes operating in reaction to a deviant label, one internal and the other one external (Liberman 7).

Multiple recent studies have shown sufficient evidence of such secondary sanctioning processes. In particular, Kirk and Sampson have suggested that an arrest record officially marks a juvenile as a “criminal” and changes the way institutions, such as schools, treat the offender, or in an educational institute, a student. These students with criminal records are all too often pushed out of high school through exclusionary policies, and segregated into specialized programs focussed on problem youth. The result of the primary sanction, for instance arrest, and the secondary sanction, school exclusionary policies and practices, has an increased likelihood of high school dropout and diminished prospects who were looking at attending a college in their future (Sweeten 462). Thus leading to a likelier future criminal forthcoming. Along with the deviant label, the stigma of a criminal record drastically influences how former offenders are treated too. For instance, potential employers and the denial of employment represents a form of secondary sanctioning (Pager 937).

Implications of Labeling Theory in Juvenile Delinquency

Moreover, if labeling effects operate though differential social or societal responses to those labeled as deviant, then a labeled individual may have more frequent interactions with the criminal justice system even if his or her criminal offending does not increase following an arrest (relative to otherwise similar “non-deviants” who avoided an arrest record). As Petrosino and colleagues put it, “The same actions that resulted in police turning a blind eye to misconduct may now result in an arrest.” Such secondary sanctioning processes fit broadly under the realm of labeling theory, but offer slightly different predictions than classic versions of labeling which stress identity internalization, or even Sampson and Laub’s version which stresses a decline in social controls. The essential difference is that the stigmatized deviant may not engage in crime at a higher rate following arrest relative to an otherwise similar individual who managed to avoid arrest, but the stigmatized deviant would still be rearrested and sanctioned more often because of the intensified gaze, or declining tolerance, of the criminal justice system (Liberman 2014).

Admitting to sociologists like Emile Durkheim and George Herbert Mead, deviance is found functional to society because deviance keeps the stability and the profound boundaries in society. The labeling theory also expands into including the functions of deviance, explains how society reacts to the labels and stigma of the offender, and how separate the labeling keeps people from the rest of society. The results of the labeling theory and the stigmatization is a self- fulfilling revelation to which the offender views themselves in the same ways society does.

Conclusion: The Role of Labeling in Shaping Juvenile Identity and Behavior

Overall, the labeling theory has proven to be accurate in the sense that the effects of labeling an individual, more so a juvenile whose still developing self-concept, has drastically negative outcomes for these individuals. Although juveniles may be more prone to the negative results of the labeling theory due to their importance in their peer groups, their establishment with their selves, and the image they create for themselves early on in life. All in all, the labeling theory suggests that labels should not be used at all, for labels tell people how they are perceived by society which is only detrimental to the offender and therefore to society.


  1. Bernburg, Jon Gunnar, Marvin D. Krohn and Craig J. Rivera. 2006. “Official Labeling, Criminal Embeddedness and Subsequent Delinquency: A Longitudinal Test of Labeling Theory.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 43(1): 67-88.
  2. Bernburg, Jon 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 41:1287–318.
  3. Crossman, Ashley. “How Labeling Theory Can Help Us Understand Bias and Criminal Behavior.” Thoughtco., Dotdash, 30 Dec. 2018, theory-3026627.
  4. Kirk, David S., and Robert J. Sampson. 2013. Juvenile arrest and collateral educational damage in the transition to adulthood. Sociology of Education 86:36–62.
  5. Laub, John H., and Robert J. Sampson. 2003. Shared Beginnings, Divergent Lives: Delinquent Boys to Age 70. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  6. Lemert, Edwin M. 1951. Social Pathology: A Systematic Approach to the Theory of Sociopathic Behavior. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  7. Liberman, Akiva M. “Labeling Effects of First Juvenile Arrests.” Urban , Feb. 2014, Juvenile-Arrests-Secondary-Deviance-and-Secondary-Sanctioning.PDF.
  8. Mouttapa, Michele, Donnie W. Watson, William Jason McCuller, Steve Sussman, Jie W. Weiss, Chris Reiber, Deanna Lewis and Winnie Tsai. 2010. “I’m Mad and I’m Bad: Links Between Self-Identification as a Gangster, Symptoms of Anger, and Alcohol Use Among Minority Juvenile Offenders.” Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice 8(1): 71-82.
  9. Pager, Devah. 2003. The mark of a criminal record. American Journal of Sociology 108:937–75.
  10. Paternoster, Raymond, and Leeann Iovanni. 1989. The labeling perspective and delinquency: An elaboration of the theory and assessment of the evidence. Justice Quarterly 6:359–94.
  11. Schwartz, Richard, and Jerome Skolnick. 1962. Two studies of legal stigma. Social Problems 10:133–42.
  12. Sweeten, Gary. 2006. Who will graduate? Disruption of high school education by arrest and court involvement. Justice Quarterly 23:462–80.
  13. Wiley, Stephanie A., Lee Ann Slocum, and Finn-Aage Esbensen. 2013. The unintended consequences of being stopped and arrested: An exploration of the labeling mechanisms through which police contact leads to subsequent delinquency. Criminology 51:927–66.
Make sure you submit a unique essay

Our writers will provide you with an essay sample written from scratch: any topic, any deadline, any instructions.

Cite this paper

The Labeling Theory On Juveniles And Juvenile Delinquency. (2022, July 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from
“The Labeling Theory On Juveniles And Juvenile Delinquency.” Edubirdie, 08 Jul. 2022,
The Labeling Theory On Juveniles And Juvenile Delinquency. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 26 May 2024].
The Labeling Theory On Juveniles And Juvenile Delinquency [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jul 08 [cited 2024 May 26]. Available from:

Join our 150k of happy users

  • Get original paper written according to your instructions
  • Save time for what matters most
Place an order

Fair Use Policy

EduBirdie considers academic integrity to be the essential part of the learning process and does not support any violation of the academic standards. Should you have any questions regarding our Fair Use Policy or become aware of any violations, please do not hesitate to contact us via

Check it out!
search Stuck on your essay?

We are here 24/7 to write your paper in as fast as 3 hours.