Labeling theory states that deviance is a socially constructed 'Process In which social control agencies designate certain people as deviants, and they, in turn, come to accept the label placed upon them and begin to act accordingly. Based on the symbolic interaction theory of Charles. H. Cooley and George H. Mead (see Chapter 4). labeling theory focuses on the variety of symbolic labels that people are given in their interactions with others. Sociologist Larry J. Siegel (1998: 212) explains the link between labeling and deviance as follows: Labels imply a variety of behaviors and attitudes; labels thus help define not just one trait but the whole Bfson. For example. people labeled "insane" are assumed to be dangerous. dishonest. unstable. violent. strange, and otherwise unsound. Valued labels. including "smart." "honest; and "hard worker; which suggest overall competence. can improve f self-image and social standing. Research shows that people who are labeled with one positive trait. such as being physically attractive. are assumed to maintain others. such as intelligence and competence. In contrast. negative labels. including "troublemaker;' "mentally ill." and "stupid; help stigmatize their targets and reduce their self-image.
How docs the process oflabcling occur? The act of a person with a negative identity. such as "crime or "rnenraliy ill; is directly related to the power ar, status of those persons who do the labeling and tho who are being labeled. Behavior. then. is not devian and of itself; it is defined as such by a social audience (Erikson. 1962). According to the sociologist Heward Becker (1963). moral entrepreneurssr« often the nes who create the rules about what constitutes deviant or conventional behavior. Becker believes that moral -urepreneurs use their own perspectives on "right" and "wrong» to establish the rules by which they expect other people to live, They also label others as deviant. Often. these rules are enforced on persons with less power than the moral entrepreneurs. Becker (1963: 9) concludes that the deviant is "one to whom the label has successfully been applied; deviant behavior is behavior that people so label As the definition oflabeling theory suggests. several stages may occur in the labeling process. Primary deviance refers to the initial act of rule breaking (Lernert, ) 951). However. if individuals accept the negative label that has been applied to them as a result of the primary deviance. they are more likely to continue to participate in the type of behavior that the label was i'tially meant to control. Secondary deviance occurs when a person who has been labeled a deviant accepts that new identity and continues the deviant behavior.
For example. a person may shoplift an item of clothing from a department store but not be apprehended or labeled as a deviant. The person may subsequently decide to forgo such behavior in the future. However. if the person shoplifts the item. is apprehended. is labeled as a "thief;' and subsequently accepts that label. then the person may shoplift items from stores on numerous occasions. A few people engage in tertiary deviance, which occurs when a person who has been labeled a deviant seeks to normalize the behavior by relabeling it as nondevlant (Kitsuse, 1980). An example would be drug users who believe that using marijuana or other illegal drugs is no more deviant than drinking alcoholic beverages and therefore should not be stigmatized.
Can labeling theory be applied to high school peer groups and gangs? a classic study, the sociologist William Chambliss (1973) documented how the labeling process works in some high schools when he studied two groups of adolescent boys: the "Saints" and the "Roughnecks." Members of both groups were constantly involved in acts of truancy drinking, wild parties, petty theft, and vandalism. Although the Saints committed more' offenses than the Roughnecks, the Roughnecks were the ones who were labeled as "troublemakers" and arrested by law enforcement officials, By contrast, the Saints were described as being the "most likely to succeed," and none of them were ever arrested, According to Chablis (1973), the Roughnecks were more likely to be labeled as deviants because they came from lower-income families, did poorly in school, and were generally viewed negatively, whereas the Saints came from "good families," did well in school, and were generally viewed positively.
Although both groups engaged in similar behavior, only the Roughnecks were stigmatized by a deviant label. Another study of juvenile offenders also found that those from lower-income families were more likely to be arrested and indicted than were middle-class juveniles who participated in the same kinds of activities (Sampson, 1986). In determining how to deal with youthful offenses, the criminal justice system frequently takes into account such factors as the offender's family life, educational achievement (or lack thereof), and social class. 'The individuals most likely to be apprehended, labeled as delinquent, and prosecuted are people of color who are young. male, unemployed, and under educated, and who reside in urban high-crime areas (Vito and Holmes, 1994). Why might this be true? According to the criminologist Robert J. Sampson (1997), family and neighborhood, more than the individual characteristics of people involved in deviance and crime, are important factors in determining variations in crime rates. For example, parents with the lowest incomes may have the most difficulty with parenting, which may result in young people receiving harsh or erratic discipline and poor supervision (Sampson and Laub, 1993). However, even young people who have been chronically involved in delinquent behavior may reach certain turning points in their life, such as marriage or a career, which may cause them to decide against crime (Sampson and Laub, ) 993). H~w successful is labeling theory in explaining deviance and social control? One contribution of labeling theory is that it calls attention to the way in which social control and personal identity are intertwined
Labeling may contribute to the acceptance of deviant roles and self-images. Critics argue that this docs not explain what caused the original acts that constituted primary deviance, nor does it provide insight into why some people accept deviant labels and others do not (Cavender, 1995).