A critical evaluation of labelling theory

It is a common assumption in our society that the function of the criminal justice system is to punish wrong doers and dissuade them from repeating their actions. The result of this is that crime rates are reduced and criminals become rehabilitated back into society as good citizens. However one set of theorists that would contend this assumption strongly are labelling theorists.

They believe instead that rather than diminishing criminal activity, the effect of the criminal justice system may have exactly the opposite result, by labelling offenders as 'ex-cons' or 'criminals' they may actually have the consequence of continuing and worsening the behaviour they aim to put a stop to. Labelling theorists argue that the criminal justice system can have a significant influence on causing deviant and criminal behaviour to continue. When people go through the justice system the very fact that they have now been given a label can result in their adherence to criminality, rather than curing them of the problem.

Before labelling theory came into being, criminologists usually defined crime as 'behavior that violates criminal laws' (Lilly 2002: 106). However although this definition was useful in providing a rough guideline of what to look for when studying crime, it failed to take into account the many ways in which crime and criminality evolves over time, and the particular social circumstances that determine why some types of behaviour are criminal, and why some people are given labels and the implications having these labels can have upon their behaviour patterns.

This definition was what labelling theorists sought to correct. They believed that what makes an act criminal is the label given to it by the criminal justice system and society as a whole. Pfohl discussed this idea in using the example of homicide, and argued that although there are many types of killing, some are defined differently as homicide while some are excused as necessary, for example a police officer shooting a criminal. Therefore although the actual act of killing is seen as abhorrent, in some contexts it may be defined as less serious than others. (Pfohl 1985, in Lilly 2002: 106)

One of the main areas that labelling theorists have studied is where criminal labels come from and how an individual acquires one. Howard Becker provides a major contribution with his book 'Outsiders' where he studies the process by which marijuana smoking was made a crime and smokers of it were considered to be criminals and 'junkies'. Becker believed that the moral outrage created by the state, where pot smokers were painted with a new negative image as uncontrolled delinquents who committed senseless crimes, only served to make the problem worse by marginalizing the smokers. (Becker 1963).

Another labelling theorist who attempted to show how crimes have been 'created' was Kathleen Tierney, who studied wife-beating, and how the emergence and major growth of feminism resulted in domestic violence being made socially visible, and of course, pounced upon by the media, who dramatized it and turned it into an immediate moral panic. (Tierney 1982 in Lilly 2002: 107) The question now seems to be, what happens now the labels have been created, and forms of behaviour have been newly defined as criminal? Labelling theorists claim that the behavior of the individual in question is only one factor when bestowing a criminal label on them.

They also go so far as to claim that the criminal justice system could even create crime rather than preventing it. Career criminals are those who offend for a living. They become criminals as children, and as life progresses become involved in greater levels of crime. Labelling theorists believe that the best place to start when studying the cause of crime should be the reactions of other people to those who offend. They are trying to point out that if people are treated as criminals then they will turn into them. This belief has been present in criminology before the rise of labelling theory in the 60s.

Early criminologists studied life in prisons and concluded that imprisonment in fact did more to teach young offenders how to commit further crimes. Lombroso claimed that 'the degrading influences of prison life and contact with vulgar criminals… cause criminaloids who have committed their initial offences with repugnance and hesitation to develop late into habitual criminals' (Lombroso-Ferrero 1972: 110-111). Labelling theorists go on to argue that the 'dramatization of evil' by the state and justice system leads a young offender to view themselves differently than they did before their arrest (Tannenbaum 1938 in Lilly 2002: 110).

Therefore this child has become the odd one out amongst their peers, and this may lead to a whole new set of attitudes and beliefs, which may pertain towards further criminality. Lemert went on to identify two distinct forms of deviant behaviour, primary and secondary deviance. The first arises from various social and psychological factors, however the individual in question often sees the behaviour as temporary and transient, and does not see himself or herself as an offender. Secondary deviance however results from the attitudes of those around the offender to his or her actions.

If they label the offender a deviant and stereotype them then this often serves to make the offender accept themselves as a deviant and go on to form a new life around this label. Therefore they become further and further enmeshed in deviancy and the deviant career is complete. Labelling theorists then go on to suggest the idea of the 'self-fulfilling prophecy'. This concept, originally used by Robert Merton, means that for an individual who has been falsely defined as something, the actual process of being defined causes the individual to start to behave as they were originally, but wrongly, defined.

Therefore a self-fulfilling prophecy has been created. According to this reasoning then, most offenders are wrongly labelled as criminal, although labelling theorists obviously acknowledge that offenders have violated the law, and the problem is that their moral character has been degraded, and society assumes that they are inherently criminal and have no prospects for anything different. As observers are judging individuals who have been given the label 'criminal', they are making assumptions that are not necessarily accurate and which shape how people react to offenders.

These stereotypes and false assumptions cause society to treat offenders differently, as if they have poor character (Lilly 2002: 112) or are likely to re-offend at any moment. This behaviour may seem sensible, as it is probably not a good idea to trust convicted thieves with your property, for example, however this type of treatment, according to labelling theorists, may precipitate the formation of the very type of criminal that people were afraid of in the first place.

Becker suggests that this prophecy fulfilling process takes place by the negative label, such as 'criminal', 'junkie', 'rapist' becoming the individual's main method of public identification, to the exclusion of all other means. It is the 'master label' and secondary labels, which may even be positive, count for almost nothing. For example if someone is identified as being a 'father', a 'shopkeeper' a 'husband' and a 'murderer' it is perfectly obvious which label sticks in the mind of observers, even though this individual also owns a number of more positive labels they will tend be judged by the one negative 'master' label.

(Becker 1963 in Lilly 2002: 112). The result of this labelling is that the individual will feel isolated from society and may turn to further offending as it may be their only option. The stigmatizing process can lead to the offender becoming cut off from previous social relationships when their reputation as a 'criminal' spreads. When past friends and acquaintances begin to shun the offender they may feel that their only option is to take solace in the company of individuals who are also social pariahs (Lilly 2002: 112).

This could be interpreted as forming a criminal subculture, and hence the individual is forced deeper into their 'criminal career'. However this does not seem to take into account those offenders who after being convicted feel such shame at their actions and the reaction of society that they actually try harder to reintegrate and become respectable members of society once again. Therefore labelling theory seems unable to explain every individual case.

However labelling theorists warn that state intervention, when an offender is convicted and put through the criminal justice system, can cause more harm than good when their ties to 'normal' society grow weaker and weaker. When in prison the new offender is forced to associate with 'hardened' criminals, which can be a bad influence, also when the individual is released from prison they will have lost their previous job and will probably find it very difficult to find another as few employers wish to take on 'ex-cons' (another negative label).

The individual may end up stuck in a badly paid job with few prospects. Therefore crime seems a more profitable option. The basic surmise of labelling theory is that new offenders are destined for a life of crime as a result of the false assumptions that their negative master labels have drawn about their characters. This prophecy is fulfilled by the attitudes of society towards the offender, which make it difficult to conform again and easier to turn back to crime.

Labelling theorists argue that the process of labelling is a very powerful force when turning new offenders into 'career criminals' and that as it is so rarely acknowledged as a cause of crime, it will continue to exacerbate the problem as the government implement tougher policies involving more prison sentences and resulting paradoxically in higher crime rates. Labelling theory has contributed a great deal to the understanding of social reaction to crime, however as with most theories, it has been the subject of much criticism.

Radical criminologists suggest that labelling theorists need to go deeper in their analysis, and go on to argue that labels and their application originate from the influence of capitalism (Lilly 2002: 113). They argued that due to the nature of capitalist society more attention is drawn to the crimes of the working class, while crimes of the ruling class tend to go un-noticed. Labelling theorists fail to focus much on the obvious connection between the economic order and the criminal justice system.

Taylor, Walton and Young suggest that labelling theory fails to explore the 'way in which deviancy and criminality are shaped by society's larger structure of power and institutions. ' (Taylor, Walton and Young 1973 in Lilly 2002:114) Positivist criminologists present another critique of labelling theory when they argue that empirical studies have proven more than once that the seriousness of the crime is the main factor that influences subsequent labelling, and has little to do with the social background of the offender.

The second major argument in labelling theory is that the criminal justice system actually propels offenders towards a career of crime. However, critics go on to argue that by the time offenders reach the attention of the criminal justice system they are often already immersed in criminality. (Mankoff 1971 in Lilly 2002:114) It is a fact in society that many individuals go through life carrying out all sorts of crimes from shoplifting to corporate crime without ever coming near the justice system.

Further research into the effects of the labelling process have yielded a mixture of results. Some findings have been interpreted as showing that labelling has no effect on the individual (Hirschi 1975:198), while others suggest that people experiment with crime as a result of social factors and influences that stem from their everyday lives. This view would seem to suggest that the criminal justice system and its labelling process has no real effect on the path to crime that an offender may choose to pursue.

A number of experimental studies support the idea that labelling is a complex theory to employ. Sherman's 1992 study of domestic violence and arrest aimed to assess the effect of arrest on further episodes of domestic violence. This research suggested that whether wife batterers re-offended depended quite strongly on whether or not they had a job. Those who did felt a stronger tie to society than the unemployed and so were less likely to risk the social shame of further arrest. The effect of arrest on the unemployed seemed in many cases to increase the likelihood of re-offending.

(Sherman 1992 in Lilly 2002:115). All these critiques and empirical evidence seem to suggest that labelling theory still contains some holes. The mixed batch of results from some of the studies suggest that labelling theory does work in some cases falls short in others. The overall effect of labelling therefore still remains slightly unclear, possibly because researchers have not yet worked out the factors that determine crime levels in relation to state intervention via the criminal justice system.

Further research would be invaluable to determine the full effect of other social factors on an individual's susceptibility to labelling, factors such as strength of bond to family and friends, social background and stage in criminal career. Once these have been studied in greater depth and further empirical evidence collected, it may be possible to make more general statements about labelling effects. (Lilly 2002: 115). Labelling theory attempts to deal with the extremely complex process of social reactions, and it appears that with more empirical evidence the effects of labelling could be better understood.

There are certainly many other social factors that may be influential which labelling theory fails to take fully into account, and these may be very important in predicting which individuals will fall into criminal careers. It is likely that the criminal justice system and societal reaction do play a role in influencing this, however there are many other outside influences that also need to be taken into account when assessing this social phenomenon.