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.

For Perspective

The Journey from Pessimism to Overwhelming Optimism

Throughout high school I liked to think I had a very positive way of looking at being pessimistic. I believed that by always thinking of the worst possible outcomes of any given situation, I became either unable to be disappointed or pleasantly surprised. Now what I didn’t know was that this logic only got me so far – I shielded myself from letting hope cause me to be vulnerable, but I also lost a great deal of happiness. I was hardened to the world and for no good reason. I was lucky enough to be born into a loving family that – although separated – never made me feel like my life was lacking. I have always had a roof over my head and food in my belly and although like everyone, I have experienced tough times, I have not led a rough life. The issue resided in my cynicism. The issue resided in my perspective.

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” – Oscar Wilde

I remember coming across this quote well into my fourteenth year. It resonated with me, but I did not truly understand why for a few more years. I was able to identify the key components of the message: suffering is as prevalent as breathing and your happiness depends on your perspective. But what I didn’t understand was how I could cultivate this message in my life.

On a side note, I have found that I tend to be a philosophical drunk. At many post-night-out breakfasts, dressed half in pyjamas and half in the outfit from the night before, I have been informed that I would point at the sky and cry about our utter insignificance.  I have always been conflicted by my understanding of the concept and it clearly troubles me in any state I find myself in. On one hand I find insignificance comforting – the mistakes you make will never really leave a substantial impact on the world. In fact I learnt in the second week of my psychology degree that our parent’s actions only have a 30% impact on how we turn out (*parents everywhere let out a sigh of relief*). My understanding of our insignificance basically gave me a pass to mess up and that was reassuring. However, although it eliminated the worst emotions, it only reinforced the mediocre dullness of a pessimistic life. I didn’t feel sad so to speak, but I certainly was not actively feeling happy. I was in the gutter, and I was looking further down the gutter; I was stagnant and hopeless. And if there is one thing I have learnt in the last two months of my life, it is that stagnancy is the enemy of growth, and without growth we cannot be happy. Pearl S. Buck, American writer and novelist, commented on this when she stated, “Growth itself contains the germ of happiness.” This concept of happiness through self-improvement is not new. People have been speaking about it for centuries, yet the feeling of stagnation and lack of generativity throughout life is still the most common regret amongst members of our global community.

In many ways I believe I wasted many years not looking for beauty in the little things. Towards the end of my senior year of high school, we were asked to describe ourselves in one word and honest to God, the word I used was grumpy. And that was essentially it. I spent an abundance of my time at school being irritable and not enjoying the NOW. Too often we forget to live in the moment and just sit around waiting for the happiness coming in the future. This is all well and good, until you look back on this wonderful life you’ve led, and your only wish is that you had realised it sooner.

So, it was time to change. My life was slipping through my fingers. Everyday felt like work – merely getting out of bed felt tiring. I either slept too much or too little. I either ate too much or too little. I needed balance, I needed growth. I began to realise that YOU are your everything. I felt very selfish when I first came to this realisation, my entire worldview was changing to revolve around me. But this is life. The world you see is the world you CHOOSE to see, the life you live is the life you choose to live. You cannot control your circumstances but you can control the way you perceive them and the way they shape you. Bad things happen, yes. But good things happen to, when you are looking for them. They are hidden in the quiet moments of life. They are easy to miss but worth looking for.

The day before I tore my ACL in 2016, taking me away from what I believed to be the most fundamental part of myself and my life, I witnessed one of these quiet moments. One of the in-betweens of somebody’s day and like I mentioned earlier, I lost it in my Notes for over a year.

“To the guy on the train with that cute smile. I have no idea who you are, but I was just taking a train to touch football after a seriously shitty week at school and I saw you. Some random, late-teen twenty-something-year-old guy. You were standing, listening to music, and smiling. This seriously cute, little smile and two little dimples marked your cheeks. You were texting someone. It would have been your boyfriend, girlfriend or crush or something. It was that kind of smile. And at this point, ‘I’m Yours’ by Jason Mraz comes on my playlist and it was just so extraordinarily cute. And you made my day so much better. I looked around the carriage and no one else had noticed. Everyone was so absorbed in their tiredness – they missed this moment. Also, at this point I started feeling a bit stalker-ish, just staring at you. But anyway, for the rest of the afternoon and night I could not stop smiling. So, whoever you are – the guy on the train with the cute smile – I ship you and whoever you were talking to so hard. I hope whoever it is keeps making you that happy.”