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Dan Jerome S. Barrera
Negros Oriental State University
Dumaguete City

Presented on Sept. 26, 2015 at the UC Graduate PhD-CJ Class under Dr. Paulino Pioquinto


After the presentation, the learner shall be able


discuss the theoretical foundations and propositions of

the labeling theory; and
enumerate and discuss the strengths, weaknesses,
opportunities, and threats against the usage and growth
of the theory.


Philosophical foundations and theoretical propositions of

labeling theory
SWOT Analysis of the labeling theory

Philosophical foundations

Labeling theory is hinged on the philosophical stance of the

conflict and symbolic interactionism perspectives
(Paternoster & Iovanni, 1989; Matsueda, 2014).
In line with the conflict perspective, labeling theory sees
deviance as a creation of society, in particular (in the words
of Becker, 1963) by moral entrepreneurs. These groups
then enforce the laws they have espoused on particular
groups of people and label them as outsiders. An outsider is
a special kind of person, one who cannot be trusted to live
by the rules agreed on by the group (Becker, 1963:1).

Philosophical foundations cont.

The labeling of outsiders escalate deviance through a

process of social and personal interaction an idea that
is attuned to symbolic interactionism perspective.
Symbolic interactionism, coined by Blumer (1969), treats
humans as active subjects who constantly engage in
symbolic interactions with other beings and of

Philosophical foundations cont.

Symbolic interactionism is based on three major premises

(Blumer, 1969).
First, human behavior is mainly determined by the
meaning attached to the object that elicits such behavior.
Second, such meaning is developed from social
interactions and not from the intrinsic nature of that object.
Third, this meaning undergoes an interpretative process
that involves mainly the person interacting with

Theoretical propositions

The primary theorists of labeling theory are Edwin

Lemert (1951) and Howard Becker (1963).
Lemert (1951) proposed that escalation of deviance
from primary to secondary deviance results not only
from the predisposing factors of criminality but also from
the reaction society has against a deviant.

Theoretical propositions

Processes leading to greater probability of deviance. Source: Adapted from Paternoster and Iovanni (1989).





Strength # 1 The theory is non-traditional

The theory views the deviant a product of the reactions

of the society towards him and his interpretative
interaction with self (Becker, 1963; Lemert, 1951).
Because of this unconventional view, the theory has
influenced a lot of proponents and supporters, thereby
avoiding the demise of the theory.
Although it has already been more than 60 years since
its inception, the theory is still relevant to 21st century
criminology and has continuously attracted interests from
researchers (see Farrington & Murray, 2014 for a recent
review of the theory and its empirical status).

Strength # 2 It has diverted the focus from

the individual to the criminal justice system

While other theories focus on individual and other social factors in crime
causation, labeling theory focuses mainly on the role of the society,
especially the CJS role, in escalating deviance (Barrick, 2014; Wellford,
This stance is particularly relevant to a current movement in criminal
justice the use of restorative justice (especially in juvenile delinquency).
Recent reviews of research reveal support of the criminogenic effect of
CJS responses on future offending (Barrick, 2014; Petrosino, TurpinPetrosino & Guckenburg, 2010; see also current research of Liberman,
Kirk & Kim, 2014; Restivo & Lanier, 2015; Wiley, Slocum & Esbensen,
2013), thereby supporting Lemerts (1951) secondary deviation

Strength # 3 It is complex

Crime is a complex phenomenon and thus requires a

complex explanation.
Thus, labeling theory was proposed as a complex theory.
The theorys complexity acknowledges the logic that
crime causation follows a process a sequential model
of crime causation (Becker, 1963; Lemert, 1951).

Strength # 4 It is dynamic

Labeling theory was not proposed to be a static theory.

Rather, it was conceived to be a dynamic theory a
theory that is open to modification.
Because of its extensiveness, researchers have more
parts of the theory to investigate and improve.
Recent researchers lead to refinements of the theory.
For example, Liberman, Kirk and Kim (2014) extended
Lemerts (1951) secondary deviation hypothesis by
hypothesizing that criminal justice response also result to
secondary sanctioning.



Weakness # 1 The theory is ambiguous

The theorys concepts are ambiguous as claimed by

For example, Gibbs (1972 cited in Sceff, 1974) argued
that the concept of social norm had never been defined
by labeling theorists.
Ambiguous of such concept and other concepts of the
theory led to a domino effect of creating drawbacks
against the theory misinterpretation of the theory which
leads to the difficulty in theory testing which further leads
to the finding of contradictory evidence of against the

Weakness # 2 The theory is prone to


Because of its ambiguity, the theory is prone to

misinterpretation by researchers and critics alike.
Discontented with such misinterpretation, Lemert
(1976:244 cited in Paternoster & Iovanni, 1989)
observed that labelling theory seems to be largely an
invention of its critics.
These critics then derive their own hypotheses from the
theory, tested such hypotheses, and when their data did
not support such hypotheses, they declaired that the
theory was dead (Paternoster & Iovanni, 1989).

Weakness # 3 It is difficult to test because

of its ambiguity and complexity

Ambiguousness of a theorys concepts renders it difficult to

Also, its very strength of postulating a sequential process of
crime causation further makes theory testing more difficult.
Researchers needs experimental data or longitudinal data
collected over time in years or decades (Farrington &
Murray, 2014; for sample studies see Bernburg, Gunnar,
Khron, 2003; Liberman, Kirk & Kim, 2014; Restivo & Lanier,
2015; Wiley, Slocum & Esbensen, 2013).
Finally, a rigor test of the theory also requires that a lot of
factors (individual and social factors) must be controlled

Weakness # 4 Even its main proponents

disagree at some points

Edwin Lemert and Howard Becker are two of the most

prominent labeling theorists in criminology. However, they did
not help create the theory simultaneously nor did they coauthor any primary text about the theory. Thus, it is
unavoidable that one of them may be against anothers
elaborations of the theory.
Lemert (2000), in his previously unpublished work, refutes
Beckers (1963) conception of secret deviance.
For Lemert (2000:61), Becker (1963) trapped himself in
inconsistency by recognizing that existence of secret
deviance while simultaneously asserting that deviance to
be such must be labeled by others.



Opportunity # 1 The ingenuity of modern


Of the criticisms against labeling theory, the claim that it

is ambiguous is perhaps the most serious as it has led to
an array of negative results as pointed out earlier.
Nevertheless, the theory has benefited from the
ingenuity of modern criminologists (e.g. Matsueda, 1992;
Paternoster & Iovanni, 1989; Sampson & Laub, 1997)
who have clarified and extended the original conceptions
of the theory.

Opportunity # 2 Availability of appropriate

experimental and longitudinal data

The sequential causal process proposed by labeling

theory requires that the appropriate data for testing it
must be experimental and longitudinal data.
The use of such data in directly testing the theory can be
seen in recent published studies (e.g. Liberman, Kirk &
Kim, 2014; Restivo & Lanier, 2015; Wiley, Slocum &
Esbensen, 2013).

Opportunity # 3 The availability of

appropriate statistics and computer programs

Testing the theory requires that confounding variables must

be controlled (Paternoster & Iovanni, 1989).
In experiments, this can be overcome by random assignment
of subjects
In quasi-experiments, this can be done by matching a deviant
with a non-deviant using individual characteristics and social
Advances in statistics afford criminologist to overcome this
challenge through the use of propensity score matching. For
example, Liberman, Kirk and Kim (2014) used this method in
creating two groups of youth arrestees and non-arrestees.



Threat # 1 Researchers who misinterpret the


As pointed out above, the perceived demise of the

theory in the 1980s had been brought largely by
researchers who misunderstood the theory (Paternoster
& Iovanni, 1989).
Disappointed with researchers at that time, Title (1980
cited in Barrick, 2014) asserted: Researchers . . . must
apply themselves with more facility and care. The
meagerness and sloppiness of research on a
question of this importance is embarrassing.

Threat # 2 The popularity of traditional


Another threat that limits the influence of labeling theory is

the popularity of traditional theories like deterrence, strain,
and control theories.
Undeniably, these theories are more popular than labeling
theory because lots of criminologists are still traditional
their focus is on the individual and other social factors and
not on the negative effect of social responses to deviance.
For example, self-control theory (a traditional theory) has
surely eclipsed labeling theory even through the theory has
just been introduced in 1990 (Gottfreson & Hirschi, 1990).

Threat # 3 Lack of experimental and

longitudinal research in non-western countries

For a general theory, like labeling theory, to sustain its

influence its applicability in non-western setting must be
This requirement poses another major threat against the
theory (and perhaps against all theories) because
criminological research is highly concentrated in western
countries; there is lack of theoretical and empirical
investigation in other parts of the world, including in Asia
(Liu, 2009)

Threat # 3 Lack of experimental and

longitudinal research in non-western countries

And this is especially serious in Philippine criminology.

When Hebenton and Jou (2012) had reviewed published
criminological studies from 2000-2010, they discovered that
the Philippines had the lowest number of criminological
research (N = 60) among Asian countries with criminological
societies Peoples Republic of China, Japan, Hong Kong,
South Korea, Taiwan.
And only 17% of the studies (N = 10) in the Philippines were
With this situation, the growth of the influence of labeling theory
in Asia and in particular in the Philippines might be limited.

Threat # 3 Lack of experimental and

longitudinal research in non-western countries

Source: Hebenton and Jou (2012)


Labeling theory has its own merits that it sharply departs from
traditional theories and divert the focus away from the individual to
the effects of responses of the criminal justice system.
However, because of its inherent ambiguity, the theory had received
severe criticisms and weak empirical support in 1970s and 1980s.
Nevertheless, some criminologists had somewhat rescued the
theory from the hands of researchers who misinterpreted the theory.
The former had clarified the mechanisms through which labeling
leads to secondary deviance and suggested how the theory might
be rigorously tested. In effect, labeling theory is revitalized and at its
recent renaissance in criminology.

Barrick, K. (2014). A review of prior tests of labeling theory. In D. Farrington & J.
Murray (Eds.), Labeling theory: Empirical tests. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction
Becker, H. S. (1963). Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York:
Free Press.
Bernburg, J. (2009). Labeling theory. In M.D. Krohn, A.J. Lizotte & Hall, G.P. (Eds),
Handbook of Crime and Deviance. New York, NY: Springer.
Bernburg, Jon Gunnar, and Marvin D. Krohn. 2003. Labeling, life chances, and
adult crime: The direct and indirect effects of official intervention in adolescence
on crime in early adulthood. Criminology, 41:1287318.

References cont
Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic interactionism: Perspective and method. Englewood Cliffs, NJ:
Prentice-hall, Inc.
Farrington, D., & Murray, J. (2014). Labeling theory: Empirical tests. New Brunswick, NJ:
Transaction Publishers.
Geis, G. (2000). On the absence of self-control as the basis for a general theory of crime: A
critique. Theoretical Criminology, 4(1), 35-53.
Gottfredson, M. R., & Hirschi, T. (1990). A general theory of crime. Stanford, CA: Stanford
University Press.
Gove, W. (1970). Social reaction as an explanation of mental illness: An evaluation.
American Sociological Review, 35, 873-84.

References cont
Hebenton, B. & Jou, S. (2012). Taiwan's criminological footprint
a review and analysis of English-language publication trends for Taiwan and selected
Asian comparators (20002010). International Journal of Comparative and Applied
Criminal Justice,
Lemert, E. M. 1951. Social Pathology: A Systematic Approach to the Theory of
Sociopathic Behavior. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Lemert, E. (2000). Rules, deviance and social control theory. In E.M. Lemert, C.C. Lemert
& M.F. Winter (Eds.), Crime and deviance: Essays and Innovations of Edwin M. Lemert.
Liberman, A.M., Kirk, D., & Kim, K. (2014). Labeling effects of first juvenile arrests:
Secondary deviance and secondary sanctioning. Criminology, 52(3), 345-370.

References cont
Liu, J. (2009). Asian criminology Challenges, opportunities, and directions. Asian
Journal of Criminology, 4, 1-9.
Matsueda, R. (1992). Reflected appraisals, parental labeling, and delinquency:
Specifying a symbolic interactionist theory. American Journal of Sociology, 97(6), 15771611.
Matsueda, R. (2014). The natural history of labeling theory. In D. Farrington & J. Murray
(Eds.), Labeling theory: Empirical tests. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
Paternoster, R., & Iovanni, L. (1989). The labeling perspective and delinquency: An
elaboration of the theory and assessment of the evidence. Justice Quarterly, 6:35994.

References cont
Petrosino, A., Turpin-Petrosino, C., & Guckenburg, S. (2010). Formal system
processing of juveniles: Effects on delinquency. Campbell Systematic Reviews 2010:1
Restivo, E. & Lanier, M. (2015). Measuring the contextual effects and mitigating factors
of labeling theory. Justice Quarterly, 32(1), 116-141.
Sampson, R.J., & Laub, J.H. (1997). A life-course theory of cumulative disadvantage
and the stability of delinquency. In T.P. Thornberry (Ed.), Developmental Theories of
Crime and Delinquency, Advances in Criminological Theory. New Brunswick, NJ:
Scheff, T.J. (1974). The labelling theory of mental illness. American Sociological
Review, 39, 444-452.