An Alternative Look at the Labelling Theory

From the beginning of modern society, people have sought to understand crime. What exactly is crime? Who determines what is and is not a crime? Are crime rates increasing or decreasing? One of the most prominent questions however, is what causes crime? Criminologists have proposed many individual and social explanations of crime in an attempt to alleviate crime through understanding causation. One social theory that I learnt about in my Introduction to Criminology and Policing unit, is Labelling Theory. It provoked not only a sense of injustice in the criminal justice system, but also an idea to use this theory in other areas of life, for a more positive effect.

Frank Tannenbaum and Howard Becker are the two most significant theorists in the development of the Labelling Theory. They suggested that deviance is created by social reaction, rather than the criminal act itself. The theory proposed that there were two parts of deviance: primary and secondary. Primary deviance was an initial, unstable pattern of offending that goes undetected. Due to the lack of detection, secondary deviance occurs and presents itself in a more stable pattern of offending, leading to detection by the criminal justice system. It elicits an official reaction such as an arrest and/or incarceration of the individual.

The theory comes into play when considering the series of interactions the offender has with the criminal justice system. Legal authorities apply labels such as the arrestee, offender, defendant and criminal to the individual. Stigmatisation and self-fulfilling prophecies are the result of these labels and deviance is amplified the more the label is applied. The internalisation of the ascribed labels causes the identity of criminal to be taken on by the individual.

 “The person becomes the thing he is described as being.” – Tannenbaum

This theory criticises the current criminal justice system, stating that the system itself is at fault, rather than the people perpetrating the crimes. Repeat offending is a result of individuals living up to their label, rather than possessing an active desire to commit crime. Criminologists with this theory as their basis of their understanding believe that a more rehabilitative approach to punishment of crime should be taken rather than merely concluding that a criminal will always be a criminal.

I tend to agree with this theory. Much like my view on psychology perspectives, I believe that many different social and individual theories of crime interact to provide a correct answer to the cause of crime. However, this theory – like other social explanations of crime – allow for control. We can alter this aspect of our criminal justice system and we can alter this aspect within every individual’s life.


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Essentially, the theory is based on the effect of stereotypes and although they are useful for decision-making and some aspects of everyday life, it is important to remember they can be, and often are, inaccurate. Stereotypes do, and always will, exist. But it is vital that we look past them and walk through them. In regard to how we treat others, and how we treat ourselves. Through school, we are constantly taught about the negative effects of stereotyping others, but the role of self-stereotyping or self-labelling is rarely touched on.

The idea of eliminating stereotyping is unrealistic and unwise. However, I believe there is a way to harvest the usefulness of labelling whilst simultaneously alleviating the detrimental effects. Too often we fail to strive for goals that we perceive as unreachable for ourselves. We have categorised ourselves a certain way leaving our options for growth seriously limited. As I mentioned in ‘For Growth and Self-Actualisation’, growth is fundamental to our individual happiness. If we can learn to label ourselves kindly, and with the promise of moving onward and upward, we can begin to expand ourselves and be free from self-doubt.

Stereotyping and labelling are only as negative as we allow them to be. If we can internalise labels associated with self-betterment and our good qualities, we can learn to treat ourselves with respect. If we can subvert dominant, negative paradigms we may be able to significantly reduce inequality, hate, fear, self-loathing and maybe, even crime.

Just an idea.

For Growth and Self-Actualisation

The attempt to understand human thought and behaviour is a rather new discipline and over the last 100 years or so, there has been a massive debate over which perspective to take. My first Psychology lecture provided a brief overview of the different perspectives and I must say it left me rather inspired. For a long time, I have pondered whether we have control over how we act – is it nature or nurture? Can we control and improve ourselves, or are we merely a symptom of our environment? The different perspectives in psychology shed light on these questions and learning about them helped me to come to my own conclusions. A brief overview of the main perspectives is shown below. Hopefully, they will help you too.


This perspective suggests that behaviour is the result of an interplay between thoughts, feelings and wishes and that conscious and unconscious forces interact to control our thoughts and behaviours. Some mental events are unconscious and when mental processes are in conflict, we experience anxiety.


This theory focuses on behaviour as a result of environmental stimuli and learning. It disregards the role of internal states, such as feelings, in understanding the behaviours of humans and animals. The general principle is that stimuli becomes associated through conditioning: positive and negative reinforcement teach us how to behave.


Behaviour cannot be understood without understanding our development. Theorists in this area seek to understand how we acquire, store and process information throughout our lifespan. Jean Piaget (1896 – 1980) introduced the first Cognitive Theory, and a lot of our current understanding of development stems from his findings. His suggestion was that children actively construct new understandings of the world based on their experiences and that this is the basis of human behaviour.


Behaviour as a result of evolution: our behaviours evolved because they helped our ancestors survive and reproduce. This perspective focuses on the behaviours that are biologically determined such as the impulse to eat and sexual desire.


This perspective emphasises the uniqueness of the individual and supports the idea that people are motivated by growth and reaching their full potential. Theorist, Abraham Maslow, believed that people are innately good and will strive to realise their goals and ambitions.

There is no right perspective to take when it comes to psychology. When explored, they all have value and offer evidence-based answers to all my questions. However, I strongly believe that no one perspective can fully answer any question and that an interplay of all the theories is the only way we can formulate an understanding of the complexity of the human race.

With this in mind, the Humanistic Perspective is the one that caught my attention. It seemed to me like this was the only one that actually allowed for control. It established the very principle that I have sought to instil in my own life: happiness. Abraham Maslow and other humanist theorists took an optimistic view of human nature. They recognised the role of personal growth in the happiness of individuals – they recognised the role of self-actualisation.

Self-actualisation is fulfilling your individual potential. It is a drive that is present in every individual and it revolves around making your best self a reality. Abraham Maslow described it as the requirement of becoming what we ‘can’ be. He stated, “If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life.” I found that the humanistic theory offered me some hope. It offered me the opportunity for self-improvement and for some power over where my life is going and the way in which I wanted my life to play out. It corresponded with a book I had been reading at the time, ‘The Happiness Project’ by Gretchen Rubin, which taught me an abundance of ways I could enhance my life and appreciate what I already had.

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

Robert Browning

‘The Happiness Project,’ literally changed my perspective on life, and I don’t say this lightly. I am sure the messages in that book will come up in more and more of my blog posts due to just how much it touched me. One key message I found was the significance of expanding your self-definition. You need to constantly challenge yourself and acquire new skills. You need to put more eggs in your basket, so when one is cracked you have others to rely on. This really hit home for me when I reflected on tearing my ACL. I had always considered touch football my primary talent, the one thing I had going for me. So, once it was taken away I felt lost. The main component of identity had vanished. This was not the case, however it took me too long to realise this. It is now, in hindsight, that I can say I am so glad it happened. It allowed me to explore other aspects of my personality and other interests and expand myself. It helped me to begin my journey of self-growth and actualisation.

We are happy when we are growing.

William Butler Yeats

The significance of growth to individual happiness is often overlooked and I feel like this is a major downfall amongst our global community. Humans have this desire to constantly be moving onward and upward. We tend to be goal driven and unhappy with stagnancy or mediocrity. Yet, we consistently settle for stagnation despite it being pivotal to our unhappiness. Why is this?



This quote illustrates my stance on the issue. People can’t be what they can’t see. This can be found in many social issues such as representation in media and family success and support, however I think self-esteem is a tremendous factor in determining our level of growth. If we are unable to see ourselves being successful or reaching our goals, why would we strive for them? It all comes back to my worldview: you are your everything. We have so much agency over our lives and often, this goes unnoticed. We can control our perceptions and our emotions. We can lead a happy life in the midst of adversity. Of course, I have lived an extremely privileged life, and the fact that I was settling for unhappiness despite this, alarmed me. And so, I begin this journey: the journey to self-actualisation. The journey to appreciation, happiness, acceptance and being the best I can be.