Labeling Theory and the Occurrence of Crime

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LabelingTheory and the Occurrence of Crime

Differenttheorists have developed various approaches that are used to explainwhy crimes happen. This paper will address the theory of labeling,with a focus on its explanation of the occurrence of crime andfactors indicating that it could be falsified. The concepts on whichthe labeling perspective is based were developed by differenttheorists. Some of these theorists include Frank Tannenbaum, HowardBecker, and Edwin Lemert (Baksa 9). The theory became prominentbetween the 1960s and the 1970s (Baksa 8). It holds that the reactionof the law enforcers towards crime has a counterproductive effectbecause it increases the desire of individuals to adopt delinquentbehaviors. The act of labeling people as criminals affects those whohave been apprehended, prosecuted, and incarcerated. Once labeled,the general public refuses to associate with the affected people.This rejection forces them to interact with criminals. The lack ofbonds between the labeled persons and the rest of the society,coupled with the risk of interacting with criminals provide anopportunity for social learning of crime.

Individualswho have been labeled as law breakers view themselves as criminals.Their subsequent actions are guided by the newly acquiredself-concept. In most cases, the concept of labeling refers to theprocess of tagging individuals as offenders, which is mainly done bythe law enforcers. However, there are theorists who support an ideathat informal labeling that is done by parents, teachers, and peerscould also result in the development of criminal behavior (Baksa 63).The minority and the powerless members of the society (including thepoor, people of color, adolescents, and the low-income class) are ata higher risk of being labeled. The theory holds that members ofthese groups tend to live according to the way other people perceivethem. However, the idea of labeling the powerless creates anopportunity for criticisms since it is unclear whether these peopleare motivated by socioeconomic challenges to engage in crime or theact of tagging.

Whythe Labeling Theory Could Be Falsified

Althoughthe basic tenets of the labeling theory are well explained, there arefour factors showing that it could be a falsified perspective of howcrime happens. First, the labeling theory is quite deterministic andit is founded on an assumption that deviance is inevitable once anindividual has been tagged as a criminal. A claim that criminalbehavior becomes inevitable once a given group or individual has beenlabeled as a deviant does not have any empirical proof. For example,many police officers in the U.S. have labeled and profiled the blacksas criminals. This claim is confirmed by the fact that police arelikely to stop the black drivers 4.6 times more than their whitecounterparts (Soffen 1). However, there is no evidence to show thatall blacks have become violators of the traffic rules andtransporters of illicit drugs, just because the law enforcers tagthem as criminals.

Secondly,the theory does not provide a reasonable psychological conceptionthat can explain the association between the act of labeling and adecision to become a criminal. The theorist should have explained howthe human brain is influenced by labeling that is done by the lawenforcers and how the manipulation leads to criminality. Empiricalstudies have shown that people do not engage in criminal behaviorbecause they are tagged as criminals, but they are more likely tobecome deviant after conviction. For example, a study has shown thatpeople who are incarcerated are hardened by the prison environment tobecome smarter criminals, irrespective of whether they were guilty orinnocent (Schrager 1). On the contrary, the study could not establishthe link between labeling people as criminals and their likelihood ofbecoming smart criminals. Therefore, the lack of persuasivepsychological explanation of the relation between labeling andcriminality suggests that the theory could be fallacious.

Third,the possible falsification of the theory is indicated by the factthat it stresses on the process of labeling, while ignoring thestructures that result in deviant acts. Other theorists have managedto develop convincing perspectives that indicate how crimes happen bybasing their approaches on structures, such as attitudes,socialization, socioeconomic factors, and opportunities (Baksa 63).The theory could be true up to a point at which the theorist claimthat law enforcers are likely to label people because there is nodoubt that these agents tag certain groups as criminals based ontheir skin color, previous behaviors, or the race. However, it wouldbe misleading to project that the act of labeling alone can convincepeople to behave in a manner that is consistent with the tag thatthey have been assigned by the law enforcers bearing in mind thatthe consequences of such decisions would be negative. Moreover, thetheory fails to acknowledge the fact that some groups or individualsare labeled by the law enforcers because they engaged in primarycrimes prior to their tagging. In this case, tagging would onlyexplain the hardening of individuals who were already deviant.


Themain argument presented by the proponents of the labeling theory isthat people decide to engage in delinquent behaviors after beingtagged as criminals. This relationship is founded on an idea thatpeople are likely to develop a new self-concept that convince themthat they are criminals once the society or the law enforcers tagthem as deviant individuals. However, the theory could be falsifiedbecause it lacks a convincing psychological conception, empiricalsupport, and the fact that it is deterministic in nature.


Baksa,Z. “Apart from its possible effect upon self-concept how canlabeling people as criminals amplify their criminality?” TheUndergraduate Journal of Sociology14 (2015): 1-188. Print.

Schrager,A. In America, mass incarceration has caused more crime than it hasprevented. Quartz.22 July. 2015. Web. 14 September 2016.

Soffen,K. The big question about why police pull over so many black drivers.TheWashington Post.8 July. 2016. Web. 14 September 2016.