Social Reaction Theory
Social reaction theory or labeling theory focuses on the
linguistic tendency of majorities to negatively label minorities or those seen as deviant
Social reaction theory or labeling theory is concerned with
how the self-identity and behavior of individuals may be determined or influenced by the
terms used to describe or classify them, and is associated with the concept of a
self-fulfilling prophecy and stereotyping.
Lemert was as the founder of the "societal
reaction" approach. Briefly, this approach distinguishes between primary deviance
(where individuals do not see themselves a deviant) and secondary deviance (which involves
acceptance of a deviant status).
Primary deviance arises for a wide variety of reasons,
biological, psychological, and/or sociological.
Secondary, or intensified deviance becomes a means of
defense, attack, or adaptation to the problems caused by societal reaction to primary
Societal reaction theorists claim that the process of
defining and suppressing deviance is important to social solidarity.
Considerable attention is now being devoted to informal labeling, such as labeling by
parents, peers or teachers. Informal labeling has a greater effect on subsequent crime
than official labeling.
Informal labeling is not simply a function of official labeling. Informal labeling is also
influenced by the individual's delinquent behavior and by their position in society.
Informal labels affect individuals' subsequent level of crime by affecting their
perceptions of how others see them. If they believe that others see them as delinquents
and trouble-makers, they are more likely to justify this perception and engage in
These approaches to deviance
assumed that deviance could be understood as consisting of behaviour that violates social
norms. Deviance is therefore something objective: it is a particular form of behaviour.
Labeling theory rejected this
approach and claimed that deviance is not a way of behaving, but is a name put on
something: a label. Law is culturally and historically variable: what is crime today is
not necessarily crime yesterday or tomorrow.
For example in 1890 it was
legal to possess marijuana, but illegal to attempt suicide. Today, the law is reversed.
This shows that deviance is not something inherent in the behaviour, but is an outcome of
how individuals or their behaviour are labeled.
If deviance is therefore just
a label it makes sense to ask: where does the label come from? How does the label come to
be applied to specific behaviours and to particular individuals?
The first question leads to a
study of the social origins of law. The second question leads to an examination of the
actions of labelers such as, psychiatrists, police, coroners, probation officers, judges
Individuals who are arrested, prosecuted, and punished may
be labeled as criminals. These people are viewed by others as criminals, and this
increases the likelihood of subsequent crime for several reasons. Labeled individuals
generally have trouble obtaining legitimate employment, which increases their level of
strain and reduces their stake in conformity. Labeled individuals also find that
conventional people are reluctant to associate with them, and they may associate with
other criminals as a result. This reduces their bond with conventional others and fosters
the social learning of crime. Labeled individuals may eventually come to view themselves
as criminals and act in accord with this self-concept.
Labeling and reacting to offenders as "criminals"
has its negative consequences, aggravating the criminal behavior and making the crime
problem worse. Criminal justice system could be "casting the net" (net-widening)
of social control too widely. Net-widening, or state intervention, is inherently
Being a "criminal" becomes a person's master
status. It controls the way they are identified in public.
People who are labeled deviant tend to lose contact with
their conformist friends and start associating with similarly-labeled deviants.
Labeling theorists therefore are critical of conceptions that crime is behavior that
violates criminal law. The audience, not the actor, determines when certain behavior
becomes defined as crime. This is called the social constructionist viewpoint, that crime
varies from situation to situation, across time and place. It's also called the symbolic
interactionist viewpoint, that crime is defined by reference to the symbols and meanings
that people communicate to one another.
Becker coined the term "moral entrepreneur" to
describe individuals who lead campaigns to outlaw certain behaviors by making them
"criminal." The outlaw's subsequent behavior is therefore not the important
thing to study because what is more important is whether the innocent are falsely accused
and exactly which outlaws are rounded up and processed through the criminal justice
system. Labeling theorists believe the system exercises a lower-class bias in rounding up
An Empirical Test of Labeling
Theory Using Longitudinal Data
MELVIN C. RAY, WILLIAM R. DOWNS
This article uses panel data and multiple regression of follow-up on baseline variables to
test direction of causality among drug use behavior, informal labels, and formal labels.
Baseline and follow-up data were collected on a random sample of 100 adolescents (54
males) and a clinical sample of 88 adolescents (49 males). Separate regressions were
performed on male and female respondents using both samples. Slope differences across
samples were tested using interaction terms computed by multiplying sample type (coded as
0 = random, 1 = clinical) by each regressor. Results partially supported by the labeling
theory proposition of secondary deviance among males, although changes are suggested in
this proposition. Among females, drug use behavior was causally prior to labels, which
contradicts secondary deviance. Further research is needed to clarify reasons for this sex
difference in causal processes over time. An implication for research is to use panel data
where possible in testing direction of causality. An implication for theory in the social
sciences is that theories may be sex-specific. Thus theories must be tested separately on
each sex as well as on samples including both sexes. -
Official Labeling, Criminal Embeddedness, and Subsequent Delinquency
A Longitudinal Test of Labeling Theory
Jón Gunnar Bernburg, University of Iceland and Icelandic Research Council
Marvin D. Krohn, University at Albany-SUNY
Craig J. Rivera, Niagara University
This article examines the short-term impact of formal criminal labeling on involvement in
deviant social networks and increased likelihood of subsequent delinquency. According to
labeling theory, formal criminal intervention should affect the individuals
immediate social networks. In many cases, the stigma of the criminal status may increase
the probability that the individual becomes involved in deviant social groups. The formal
label may thus ultimately increase involvement in subsequent deviance. We use panel data
of a sample of urban adolescents to examine whether involvement in deviant social groups
mediates the relationship between juvenile justice intervention and subsequent delinquent
behavior. Using measures from three successive points in time, the authors find that
juvenile justice intervention positively affects subsequent involvement in serious
delinquency through the medium of involvement in deviant social groups, namely, street
gangs and delinquent peers. - jrc.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/43/1/67
Social Control in China: Applications of the Labeling Theory and the Reintegrative Shaming
Theory - Xiaoming Chen, Law School of Xiamen University
This article delineates the underlying philosophy and functions of social control in the
Chinese society. This topic is particularly interesting because specific control functions
are grounded in a unique macro-control system, which is totally different from that
typical of Western countries. The article also scrutinizes the implications of labeling
theory and reintegrative shaming theory, as they are elaborated in the West, and tests
their sensitivity to cross-cultural differences. Although some caveats are in order, the
evidence presented here tends to support the reintegrative shaming theory rather than
labeling theory. - ijo.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/46/1/45
Labeling Theory and Delinquency Policy
An Experimental Test MALCOLM W. KLEIN, University of Southern California
Propositions endemic to labeling theory, and variables particularly relevant to these
propositions, are combined into a guiding paradigm. Components of this labeling paradigm
are then tested in an experimentally controlled police diversion project in which juvenile
offenders of mid-range seriousness are randomly assigned to release, community treatment,
and court petition conditions. Results provide support for some labeling propositions but
not others, and are seen as specifying some of the variables that delimit the policy
implications of labeling theory. - cjb.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/13/1/47
Peers' Rejection as a Possible Consequence of Official Reaction to Delinquency in Chinese
Society LENING ZHANG, State University of New York at Albany
Drawing on labeling theory, this study examined peers' attitudinal responses to the
official label of delinquency. Specifically, two questions were asked: (a) Do peers'
attitudinal responses to official delinquents vary with the severity of official reaction?
(b) Do peers' attitudinal responses depend on their own labeling status? Questions
concerning hypothetical delinquents receiving differing levels of severity of official
reaction were administered to delinquents and nondelinquents in Tianjin, China. The
severity of official reaction to delinquency was significantly associated with peers'
rejection of official delinquents, with this relationship being greater for nondelinquent
peers' rejection than for delinquent peers' rejection. Also, peers' attitudinal rejection
varied significantly with their own labeling status, but only at certain levels of
severity of official reaction. The findings were generally consistent with the labeling
perspective. Discussion focuses on their implications for theory and policy. -
Victims of crime and labeling theory: a parallel process?
Abstract: Labeling theory tends to focus largely on the offender. Yet, implicit in
interactionist theories of deviance is a concern for the social situation as a whole. This
logically includes the victim of crime. This article explores the potential of extending
the interactionist perspective on deviance to the experiences of victims of crime.
Specifically, I outline a parallel labeling process for victims in which differential
social reactions to this status, flowing from varying attributions of sympathy worthiness,
have an impact on the behaviors, adjustment, and identities of the individuals concerned.
This process is further distinguished from the related labeling of emotional deviance. I
then present the results of a qualitative study of individuals who have suffered the
murder of a loved one. Through an empirical examination of the varying social reactions to
these individuals by extended family, friends, acquaintances, and the community, as well
as victims' varying responses thereto, I indicate how familiar terms such as
accommodation, labeling, primary, secondary, and tertiary deviance each have their
conceptual counterpart in the experiences of victims. - ingentaconnect.com
Differential Labeling of Mental Illness by Social Status: A New Look at an Old
Author: Thoits, Peggy A.
Abstract: Whether the higher rates of mental hospitalization and involuntary treatment for
marginal social groups are due to differential labeling or simply to the occurrence of
higher rates of disorder in these groups remains unresolved. I reexamine this issue with
data from the National Comorbidity Survey (N = 5,877) that allow comparisons between
disturbed individuals living in the community untreated and disturbed persons who have
been hospitalized or seen a professional for their mental health problems under pressure
or voluntarily. Contrary to labeling theory, members of lower status groups are not
consistently overrepresented among those who have been hospitalized or seen a professional
against their will. Consistent with self-labeling theory, persons with greater education
and those not in poverty are disproportionately present among individuals who sought
treatment by choice. Additional analyses show that factors that predict service
utilization are important determinants of mental health service use but do not account
systematically for status disparities in hospital or outpatient treatment, especially
disparities by poverty status. Although I do not confirm a central tenet of labeling
theory here, the negative consequences of labeling and stigma continue to be
well-supported in the literature. - ingentaconnect.com
Labeling Theory in Deviance Research: A Critique and Reconsideration
Nanette J. Davis
The labeling, or interactionist, theory of deviance is reviewed and critically evaluated
with brief attention focused on alternative formulations as these have influenced the
labeling conception. Dissatisfaction with the present state of the theory emphasizes its
overconcern with deviant categories with a subsequent failure to adequately account for
social control. A reconsideration of the Lemert-Becker and, recently, Quinney formulations
redirects attention to an organization-centered sociology, a neglected component in most
labeling research. This posits social control as an organizational problem of (1)
adaptation to change, and (2) management of conflict within and between groups and
associations. A paradigm is presented to organize the variety of approaches to deviance
and social control. It summarizes the differences in the alternative perspectives, herein
called structure, interaction, and control. The underlying assumptions, modes of analysis,
and theoretical and conceptual content provide the dimensions for assessing these
categories. - blackwell-synergy.com
Relabeling and Reframing Reconsidered: The Beneficial Effects of a Pathological
HENRY GRUNEBAUM, M.D., RICHARD CHASIN, M.D.
Traditional labeling theory usually contends that pathological labels contribute to
pathology and benign labels help alleviate it. However, it is likely that the role of
pathological labels as the cause of pathology has been overstated and over-generalized.
Family therapists have probably overused the practice of substituting a benign label for a
pathological labelrelabeling. In fact, there are many families in which a
pathological label applied to one family member may have beneficial impact on the family
system, including that member. Five such cases are presented, and labeling theory is
reviewed. Definitions of the terms reframing and relabeling are suggested, and the
differing implications of diagnosis and labeling theory are discussed. -
CRITICAL ASSESSMENT OF LABELING IN THE JUVENILE JUSTICE SYSTEM
Journal: JUSTICE SYSTEM JOURNAL Volume:4 Issue:1 Dated:(FALL 1978) Pages:114-129
Author(s): G L ALBRECHT ; M H ALBRECHT
THE ORIGINS AND FORMS OF LABELING THEORY ARE PRESENTED, THE STATUS OF LABELING AS A THEORY
ASSESSED, THE STRENGTH OF THE THEORY EVALUATED WITH RESEARCH RESULTS, AND THE POLICY
RELEVANCE OF THE THEORY CONSIDERED.
Abstract: LABELING THEORY VIEWS THE REACTION OF SOCIETY AND PARTICULARLY CRIMINAL JUSTICE
AGENCIES TO NONCONFORMING BEHAVIOR TO BE A SIGNIFICANT CAUSE FOR THE REINFORCEMENT AND
PERPETUATION OF ALIENATED BEHAVIOR. THIS THEORY IS ACKNOWLEDGED TO HAVE BEEN THE PRIMARY
POLICY RATIONALE FOR DIVERSION AND DEINSTITUTIONALIZATION OF JUVENILES. LABELING THEORY,
HOWEVER, IS SUBJECT TO PERSISTENT CHANGE AND HENCE LACKS THE RIGOR AND LOGIC OF A
SCIENTIFIC THEORY. IT ALSO LACKS SUFFICIENT EMPIRICAL RESEARCH TO ESTABLISH ITS VALIDITY.
RESEARCH CONDUCTED IN THE AREAS OF POLICE ARREST, COURT CONTACT, INSTITUTIONALIZATION, AND
TREATMENT OF JUVENILE IS EXAMINED TO DETERMINE THE DEGREE TO WHICH LABELING THEORY IS
SUBSTANTIATED. IT IS CONCLUDED THAT LABELING IS NOT FULLY DEVELOPED, RIGOROUS THEORY;
RATHER, IT PROVIDES A LIMITED PERSPECTIVE THAT DRAWS NEEDED ATTENTION TO PROCESSES BY
WHICH SOCIETY MAY UNWITTINGLY PRODUCE DEVIANT BEHAVIOR. IT IS TOO EARLY TO DETERMINE
WHETHER LABELING WILL BE ABLE TO OBTAIN THE STATUS OF A THEORY WHILE IT IS GRANTED THAT
EVIDENCE SHOWS THE UNDESIRABLE CONSEQUENCES OF LABELING, THERE IS ALSO EVIDENCE THAT
LABELING HAS DETERRENT AND TREATMENT IMPETUS. THE DESTRUCTIVE CONSEQUENCES OF LABELING ARE
VIEWED AS BUT ONE SET OF FACTORS CONTRIBUTING TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF DELINQUENT BEHAVIOR.
RESEARCHERS ARE ADVISED TO INCORPORATE LABELING, ALONG WITH OTHER CONTRIBUTING CAUSES OF
DELINQUENCY, INTO A COMPLEX MODEL THAT CAN EXPLAIN AND PREDICT THE DYNAMICS OF DELINQUENCY
DEVELOPMENT. THE CHALLENGE CONFRONTING PRACTITIONERS AND POLICYMAKERS IS THAT OF COMBINING
THEORY AND RESEARCH WITH THE JUDGMENT OF EXPERIENCE. -
MISUNDERSTANDING LABELING PERSPECTIVES (FROM DEVIANT INTERPRETATIONS, 1979, BY DAVID
DOWNES AND PAUL ROCK SEE NCJ-58238)
CRITICISMS OF THE LABELING THEORY OF SOCIAL DEVIANCE INCLUDING CONFUSION OVER DEFINITIONS
AND VALUES, CHARGES OF BIAS AND LIMITATIONS, AND EMPIRICAL FALSIFICATION ARE
Abstract: THE PAST DECADE HAS SEEN STRIKING CHANGES IN THE PROMINENCE GIVEN TO
SOCIOLOGICAL THEORIES OF DEVIANCE. MOST NOTABLE IS THE CHANGING STATUS THAT HAS BEEN
ACCORDED TO LABELING THEORY; FROM TOTAL ACCEPTANCE IN THE LATE 1960S, IT IS NOW SUBJECT TO
GROWING CRITICISM. BECAUSE THE LABELING PERSPECTIVE IS SEEN ALTERNATELY AND SIMULTANEOUSLY
AS A PERSPECTIVE, A THEORY, AND A PROPOSITION, IT BECOMES AN EASY TARGET FOR ATTACK.
LABELING THEORY SHOULD FOCUS ON ESTABLISHING THE CHARACTERISTICS, SOURCES, AND CONDITIONS
OF LABELS AS WELL AS THE CONSEQUENCES OF LABELING. HOWEVER, LABELING SHOULD NOT BE EQUATED
WITH A THEORY OR A PROPOSITION BUT SHOULD BE SEEN AS A PERSPECTIVE IN DEVIANCY RESEARCH.
THE THEORY OF SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM HAS THE CLOSEST AFFINITY WITH LABELING. ITS CENTRAL
PROBLEM, CONSTRUCTION OF MEANING, IT CLEARLY ALLIED TO PROBLEMS OF LABELS. ONE MAJOR SET
OF PROBLEMS OCCUR OVER THE DEFINITION OF DEVIANCE, AND CONSEQUENTLY, IN PROPERLY APPLYING
THE LABELING PERSPECTIVE. A NUMBER OF BIASES AND LIMITATIONS HAVE BEEN DETECTED IN THE
LABELING THEORY AND THE MOST FREQUENTLY CITED LIMITATION IS THAT IT FAILS TO PROVIDE ANY
ACCOUNT OF THE INITIAL MOTIVATIONS TOWARDS DEVIANCE. HOWEVER, IT IS UNFAIR TO ATTACK THE
PERSPECTIVE FOR NOT DOING WHAT IT MANIFESTLY DOES NOT SET OUT TO DO SINCE A THEORY OF
LABELS IS NOT A THEORY OF BEHAVIOR. ANOTHER GROUP OF OBJECTIONS SUGGEST THAT LABELING
THEORY IS SIMPLY INCORRECT FROM AN EMPIRICAL VIEWPOINT. THIS CHARGE IS DUE LARGELY TO THE
NARROW INTERPRETATION AND APPLICATION GIVEN TO THE THEORY BY RESEARCHERS. LABELING THEORY
IS MOST USEFULLY CONCEIVED AS A PERSPECTIVE WHOSE CORE PROBLEMS ARE THE NATURE, EMERGENCE,
APPLICATION, AND CONSEQUENCES OF LABELS. -