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Crime Causation: Sociological Theories

Labeling Theory

The above theories examine how the social environment causes individuals to engage in crime, but they typically devote little attention to the official reaction to crime, that is, to the reaction of the police and other official agencies. Labeling theory focuses on the official reaction to crime and makes a rather counterintuitive argument regarding the causes of crime.

According to labeling theory, official efforts to control crime often have the effect of increasing crime. Individuals who are arrested, prosecuted, and punished are labeled as criminals. Others then view and treat these people as criminals, and this increases the likelihood of subsequent crime for several reasons. Labeled individuals may have trouble obtaining legitimate employment, which increases their level of strain and reduces their stake in conformity. Labeled individuals may 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. Finally, labeled individuals may eventually come to view themselves as criminals and act in accord with this self-concept.

Labeling theory was quite popular in the 1960s and early 1970s, but then fell into decline—partly as a result of the mixed results of empirical research. Some studies found that being officially labeled a criminal (e.g., arrested or convicted) increased subsequent crime, while other studies did not. Recent theoretical work, however, has revised the theory to take account of past problems. More attention is now being devoted to informal labeling, such as labeling by parents, peers, and teachers. Informal labeling is said to have a greater effect on subsequent crime than official labeling. Ross Matsueda discusses the reasons why individuals may be informally labeled as delinquents, noting that such labeling is not simply a function of official labeling (e.g., arrest). Informal labeling is also influenced by the individual's delinquent behavior and by their position in society—with powerless individuals being more likely to be labeled (e.g., urban, minority, lower-class, adolescents). Matsueda also argues that 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 act in accord with this perception and engage in delinquency. Data provide some support for these arguments.

John Braithwaite extends labeling theory by arguing that labeling increases crime in some circumstances and reduces it in others. Labeling increases subsequent crime when no effort is made to reintegrate the offender back into conventional society; that is, when offenders are rejected or informally labeled on a long-term basis. But labeling reduces subsequent crime when efforts are made to reintegrate punished offenders back into conventional society. In particular, labeling reduces crime when offenders are made to feel a sense of shame or guilt for what they have done, but are eventually forgiven and reintegrated into conventional groups—like family and conventional peer groups. Such reintegration may occur "through words or gestures of forgiveness or ceremonies to decertify the offender as deviant" (pp. 100–101). Braithwaite calls this process "reintegrative shaming." Reintegrative shaming is said to be more likely in certain types of social settings, for example, where individuals are closely attached to their parents, neighbors, and others. Such shaming is also more likely in "communitarian" societies, which place great stress on trust and the mutual obligation to help one another (e.g., Japan versus the United States). Braithwaite's theory has not yet been well tested, but it helps make sense of the mixed results of past research on labeling theory.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawCrime Causation: Sociological Theories - Strain Theory, Social Learning Theory, Control Theory, Labeling Theory, Social Disorganization Theory, Critical Theories