Social Reaction (Labeling) Theory: Pros, Cons, and Effects On Society

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Published: 28th April 2008
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The Social Reaction, or Labeling Theory as it is sometimes known, has developed over time from as early as 1938 (Wellford, 1975). Currently the Social Reaction Theory proposes that when a person commits a crime; they will receive the label of "criminal". When a person is labeled as such by society, they are likely to accept this label as a part of themselves. Because the person now thinks of him/herself as a criminal, he/she is now likely to continue in his/her criminal behavior (Becker, 1963).

Erwin Lemert is credited with being the founder of what is called the "Societal Reaction" theory. This is the precursor to the social reaction or labeling theory which has present day acceptance and includes many of the same concepts. To better understand Labeling Theory, familiarization with Lemert's Societal Reaction Theory is beneficial. This theory explores the journey to social deviance in two stages; primary deviance and secondary deviance, which are both incorporated into Labeling Theory as well.

Primary deviance begins with an initial criminal act, after which a person may be labeled as deviant or criminal but does not yet accept this label. By this it is meant that they do not think of themselves as being a criminal, it is this lack of viewing themselves as criminal that differentiates primary from secondary deviance. This will remain a state of primary deviance as long as the offender is capable of rationalizing or dealing with this label by saying it is the result of a socially acceptable role (Lemert, 1951). An example of this would be an exotic dancer, who while labeled as deviant, does not consider herself so by claiming it is a legal profession that she must perform in order to maintain an income.

When leading to secondary deviance, this criminal label is placed on an individual during what is known as a "degradation ceremony" in which the accused is officially labeled as a criminal. Often this takes place during court sentencing, but can come about in more subtle fashions as well. For example the relatives of a person become withdrawn and distance themselves from that person when they find out he/she has committed a crime, regardless of whether or not he/she faces formal charges (Wellford, 1975).



Secondary deviance, according to Lemert, occurs when a person finally accepts the deviant or criminal label into their self image. He/She then thinks or him/herself as a criminal or deviant. "This becomes a means of defense, attack, or adaptation to the problems caused by societal reaction to primary deviation (Lemert, 1951)".

Howard Becker is hailed as the founder of modern labeling theory. He also developed the term "moral entrepreneur" to describe persons in power who campaign to have certain deviant behavior outlawed (Becker, 1963). He claims that many laws are established for such purposes, and that behavior that is defined as criminal is dynamic and changes throughout time. Therefore, the actual criminal behavior is irrelevant to the theory. What really matters is which outlaws are arrested and processed by the criminal justice system (Becker, 1963). As a result of the belief that personal and societal factors do not contribute to motivations for criminal behavior there has been little study of the criminal him/herself and the aforesaid factors. As one might expect, this aspect of Labeling Theory is still being debated. There is one exception to this belief, however most labeling theorists claim that the system is biased toward the lower class, which constitutes the overwhelming majority of arrests and convictions within the American criminal justice system (Wellford, 1975).

Becker's work pays particular attention to the way society reacts to people with "criminal" labels. He proposes that this label becomes a person's master status, meaning that this is a constant label, affecting and over-riding how others will view them. The status people use to identify and classify a person will always be that of a criminal. Any other statuses a person occupies are no longer heeded. A person could be a parent, employee, spouse, etc., but the first and major status that will come to mind to other people and themselves is that of the criminal (Becker, 1963).

Sometimes the person's criminal master status may compel them to conform more closely to society's norms in an attempt to show others that the person may have made mistakes in life, but such mistakes will not happen again. Henceforth they will act in a fashion deemed "normal" (Foster & Dinitz & Reckless, 1972). But it is believed that in most cases where the master status is that of a criminal, secondary deviance will be completed rather than resisted. An identity change will take place in which the person now accepts the label of criminal. Because this new criminal identity is in place, there is subsequent pressure to behave accordingly. Such an identity change could be signaled by a person losing contact with their former conformist friends and beginning to associate with other criminal labeled deviants (Becker, 1963). This new peer group of like-minded deviants also increases the likelihood of the person continuing and possibly escalating the rate and seriousness of their criminal behavior. Secondary deviance has only occurred when both society and the individual share the view that the offender is a criminal.

From a logical standpoint there are flaws within the main points of labeling theory. Initially the theory states that no acts are inherently criminal (Wellford, 1975). Meaning that acts are only "criminal" when society has deemed them as such. The implications of this being that criminal law is dynamic and ever-changing, differing from society to society. But if this is true then why are certain acts illegal within the majority of the civilized world? Murder, rape, arson, armed robbery. All these are considered crimes in any society or country one could care to name.
Also the theory claims that for a criminal to be successfully labeled an audience must be present to provide a reaction to the crimes committed. Does this mean that if a murder is committed where the killer has successfully avoided anyone's suspicion that the act is then not criminal and the killer will not think of him/herself as such? It's probable that the murderer's socialization and/or value system could initialize self-labeling, but the theory clearly states the labeling must come from a 3rd party (Hagan, 1973).

For the sake of argument, if self labeling is possible and a person has obtained a self-initialized criminal master status/label, how do they react to it? Do they become criminals or try to "rationalize" as stated by Foster, Dinitz, and Reckless (Foster & Dinitz & Reckless, 1972)?

The scope of this theory is proposed to cover all criminal activity of all people regardless of different; nationality, ethnicity, social status, religion, and age (Becker, 1963). Since then criminologists have been, at the very least, skeptical. In a study of drunk drivers it was concluded that socioeconomic status, race, sex, and age can indeed influence whether labeling theory has an effect on people. Unfortunately it was not specified exactly how each of these factors altered the effect labeling theory had on the study subjects. Presumably these study results reflected actual behavioral differences that were reacted to differently by others (Marshall & Purdy, 1972).

The one aspect of this theory that could be regarded positively is that it is very parsimonious. It is easy to understand and can be quickly explained, breaking down all criminal behavior into primary and secondary deviance with a few simple statements for each. An act which has been labeled as deviant or criminal is committed by a member of society. Through either a personal audience such as family or friends, or a formal one such as a court of law the person undergoes a degradation ceremony which labels the person deviant. This is essentially primary deviance. When the labeled person is unable to continue to rationalize and deny this criminal label, often as a result of altered interactions with the "audience" who consider the person in question to be criminal, they finally accept this label as a part of themselves. This is secondary deviance. (I think this is a restatement of the definitions from earlier in the paper. To support the opening sentence, perhaps note WHY the theory is parsimonius. Parsimony simply asks how complex the theory is. If it is short and simple, then it is parsimonious. The point of this section is to show that it can be well summed up in a few simple sentances) From this point onward they will act in a way befitting this new criminal label (Scimecca, 1977).

For the purposes of validity this relative simplicity can be seen negatively as it robs the theory of what value it may have, deliberately turning a blind eye to the contributions of theories of criminology that have had great success in validating their(whose claims? Most any theory of criminology focusing on the individual you could care to name, there are dozens with hundreds of variants) claims. This is in specific reference to the personal and societal factors an individual exhibits which may contribute to the likelihood of committing crimes mentioned earlier (Wellford, 1975).

It would be presumptuous to say that this theory is not testable as several studies have been performed in attempts to see how greatly labeling theory affects different portions of the populace. There are several core variables, each of which is flawed, to be considered. The first is not the initial act of committing a crime, but an "audience" learning of the crime being committed. As it has already been explained, if the audience doesn't know of the crime then this is as far as the process goes.

The second is the audience's reaction to this act and subsequent treatment of the person who committed it. In a study of a sample of 196 boys who had engaged in delinquent activities brought before a court of law, it was found that the majority of the subjects' peers and parents exhibited little change in how they viewed and treated the delinquents (Foster & Dinitz & Reckless, 1972). Though these children did experience feelings of stigmatization from members of law enforcement, having undergone the degradation ceremony in a court of law, they reported these feelings were negligible compared to those whose family members no longer viewed them in the same light. From this we can conclude that both who the audience is comprised of as well as their reactions affects the level of stigmatization the labeled individual feels, if any.

The third variable is currently open to debate. Hardcore followers of the labeling theory still assert that the personality of the individual undergoing stigmatization is irrelevant. In a study of the societal reaction approach as it relates to mental illness, Dr. Walter Grove saw that there were certain qualities people may have which make them particularly resistant to labeling and stigmatization. Those people with such qualities did not see themselves as deviant despite what anyone else may have thought (Broadhead, 1974).

After looking at the study results I remain to be convinced that this theory can be effectively tested as there are too many unknowns. In a later work Lemert finally conceded that "primary deviation, is polygenetic, arising out of a variety of social, cultural, psychological, and physiological factors" (Broadhead, 1974). But he and other believers of this theory have been curiously reticent in attempting to further define these factors. To date no study has been attempted to more accurately state the nature of these factors and how they would affect the criminal's reaction to primary deviance. As a result these factors, which could be considered confounders, greatly hinder any attempt at the operationalization of this theory.

The three known variables cannot be measured effectively, nor can the confounders for that matter. In effect, all that can be studied is the result of this process, mainly focusing on whether career criminals see themselves in the light defined by secondary deviance and what the initial reaction society displays is, as well as how it affects those labeled deviant or criminal.

The biggest question one must ask when evaluating any theory is "has it been empirically validated?" In this case studies have shown little in the way of how this process works, this aspect is still mainly theoretical. There have been plenty of studies which evaluate the conclusion of this process, how criminals view themselves both in the primary and secondary deviance stages. The results of these studies are somewhat mixed in that some provide weak validation for this theory given certain circumstances, the strongest of which being the study of delinquent behavior in children by Foster, Dinitz, and Reckless who had experienced primary deviance and stigmatization to a small degree (Foster & Dinitz & Reckless, 1972).

The vast majority of the studies had findings do a fine job of disproving social reactions theory. An example of this would be the study by Dentler and Erickson, who concluded that " groups, and society at large will frequently try to accommodate, normalize, and in general resist making an overt reaction to people exhibiting deviant behavior" (Broadhead, 1974). If this is true than people will withhold judgment and stigmatization will not occur, effectively refuting social reactions theory.

In itself this theory is not very useful in dictating policy for the criminal justice system, but there is the possibility for use in rehabilitation of criminal offenders. In a small study of child behavior after punishment, it was found that if the audience held the offender in a positive regard, the offender was likely to rise to these expectations and act in a manner befitting a "good boy" (Wellford, 1975). In this way it is possible to use labeling theory in a more productive manner.

The implications of the study results suggest that two things can be done in order to help prevent labeling theory from having negative effects on people who've broken the law. First of all if the court atmosphere could be avoided in situations where the crime were minor offenses or misdemeanors its possible that the offender would be able to avoid formal sentencing and the degradation ceremony that goes with it. In such cases rehabilitative therapy and out-of-court settlements would be preferable. The other possibility is that a formal ceremony which would cancel the stigma associated with the degradation ceremony could be held. Perhaps a court declaration or letter that the offender is hereby rehabilitated could be used after the offender has served his/her punishment (Broadhead, 1974).
The social reactions theory is undoubtedly flawed in many ways, but it does provide some insight into how both formal and social audiences can have a negative effect on the criminal and increase the likelihood of repeat offenses. This theory has merit in that there is the potential for it to be incorporated into a larger, more inclusive, theory of criminology.


Becker, H. S. (1963). Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: The Free Press

Broadhead, R. S. (1974). A Theoretical Critique of the Societal Reaction Approach to Deviance. The Pacific Sociological Review, Vol. 17, No. 3, 287-312.

Foster, J. D., Dinitz, S. & Reckless, W. C. (1972). Perceptions of Stigma following Public Intervention for Delinquent Behavior. Social Problems, Vol. 20, No. 2, 202-209.

Hagan, J. (1973). Labeling and Deviance: A Case Study in "the Sociology of the Interesting". Social Problems, Vol. 20, No. 4, 447-458.

Lemert, E. M. (1951). Social Pathology. New York: MacGraw-Hill Book Co., Inc.

Marshall, H. & Purdy, R. (1972). Hidden Deviance and the Labeling Approach: The Case for Drinking and Driving. Social Problems, Vol. 19, No. 4, 541-553.

Scimecca, J. A. (1977). Labeling Theory and Personal Construct Theory: Toward the Measurement of Individual Variation. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1973-), Vol. 68, No. 4, 652-659.

Wellford, C. (1975). Labeling Theory and Criminology: An Assessment. Social Problems, Vol. 22, No. 3, 332-345.

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Emma Morris on September 14, 2011 said:
As a criminology student, this article is incredibly interesting to me. Labelling of criminals can be done via punishment aswel. If we sentence them to do work in the community with a uniform that stands out then people will see that they are criminals which will actually earn them respect on the street, again increasing the amount of crime they commit. It also links to young people who are all often labelled as "hoodies" and therefore expected to commit crimes and act inappropriately.

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