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.