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The Concept of Labelling Theory


Labelling theory is a sociological approach to identify and distinguish individuals based on their roles. In general, this hypothesis is applied in the criminological environment and discusses the consequences of stigmatization. For instance, the theory analyzes how deviant labels, such as a ‘criminal’ or a ‘rapist’, might affect the lives of the specified individuals. Experts believe that such stigmatization may shift the concepts of self-awareness and social identities and further amplify the criminal activities by the perpetrators. The current work discusses the origins of the term, the main concepts, and how labelling theory is utilized in criminology and peripheral disciplines.

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History of Labelling Theory

The Origin of the Concept

The term ‘labelling theory’ became prominent in the criminological scene between the 1960s and 1970s with the increasing interest from sociologists. Such notable figures as Becker, Lemert, Schur, and Mead have paved the way for the hypothesis in the academic disciplines (Nkhata, 2019). However, the concept of the theory traces back even further in the past to the 1930s when the idea was first proposed by Frank Tannenbaum (Barmaki, 2017). He classified the criminal activity into six groups and proposed that once an individual is identified with a certain label, he or she is psychologically forced to continue an illegal activity (Barmaki, 2017). Furthermore, Tannenbaum discussed the types of childhood delinquency that may affect the adulthood of the person due to both criminal record and stigma (Barmaki, 2017). Tannenbaum did not propose the term; however, his ideas comprise the core concept of labelling theory in contemporary sociology.

Connection to Interactionism

In the 1960s, labelling theory gained popularity due to the increasing influence of social and symbolic interactionism. The most prominent advancers of the hypothesis were Edwin Lemert and Howard Becker (Barmaki, 2017). Both authors implemented the idea of interactionism in their works. It is a parental concept of labelling theory, and its main postulate is that the behaviour of an individual is formed on the base of social communication (Martens and Schlicht, 2017). The other form of this framework is symbolic interactionism, and some experts believe that both Becker and Lemert were the pioneers of the theory (Segre, 2019). The difference of this concept from the standard one is that symbolic interactionism puts greater emphasis on the collective element of social discourse (Segre, 2019). Becker has further elaborated on the communication between individuals and the consequences on their mental state, and, thus, in 1963, he proposed the concept of labelling theory (Sjöström, 2018). Since then, the framework has seen ups and downs; however, in the contemporary academic field, labelling theory is highly relevant and complements other sociological hypotheses.


In modern criminology, the concept of labelling is widely used in sociological research. The framework analyzes the patterns of deviant behaviour and establishes the bond between criminal activity and stigmatization. Having acknowledged the potential dangers of labelling, professionals might be able to recognize and prevent crime in the early stages. For instance, Bernburg (2019) proposes the following chart of the consequences of stigmatization.

Correlation between stigmatization and deviant behaviour
Figure 1. Correlation between stigmatization and deviant behaviour.

The current scheme represents the relationship between the initial labelling and the possible outcomes. For the sake of the current work, it is also vital to note the difference between formal and informal stigmatization. The former is generally implemented by official organizations, such as police and law departments, and is the main concern of labelling theory (Bernburg, 2019). However, despite insufficient attention to informal stigmatization, an individual might be heavily affected by the shift in the attitude toward him or her due to the labelling (Bernburg, 2019). Specifically, it concerns the young since juvenile delinquency occurs frequently because of bad influence (Kroska et al. 2016). Overall, to implement this framework in criminogenic processes, one must be fully aware of all the aspects of stigmatization.


There are several primary methods of how to utilize the core concepts of labelling theory to prevent crime. First, it is vital that academic and theoretical perspectives are integrated with the practical approach. For instance, Payne, Hawkins, and Xin (2018) analyze the correlation between stigmatization and potential cybercrimes. The experts look into the three concepts of labelling theory, such as how stigma is assigned, the consequences and distribution of labels (Payne, Hawkins, and Xin, 2018). According to the guidelines, they offer four recommendations for the police departments to minimize the number of cybercrimes (Payne, Hawkins, and Xin, 2018). Therefore, the collaboration between the academic and practical approaches is crucial to utilize to concepts of labelling theory to the full extent.

Another implementation of the hypothesis concerns the direct usage of language. Naturally, since the core concept of labelling theory revolves around words, linguistics plays a significant role in comprehending all the aspects of the framework. Some experts focus on the analytic approach to how stigmatization is expressed in the language. For instance, following the steps of Chomsky and Labov, Gallego (2017) provides insights into the syntax and formal structure of labelling theory. Such research might unravel innovative methods of how to utilize language to further minimize the number of crimes. Denver, Pickett, and Bushway (2017) adopt a more practical approach and directly compare the results of language policies by the Department of Justice. Their findings show that the public is more likely to socially exclude an individual if he or she is described by the crime-first language policy (Denver, Pickett, and Bushway, 2017). Such word choice, e.g. sex offender, is opposed to the person-first approach, e.g. individual with a conviction, and stimulates the strengthening of stigmatization (Denver, Pickett, and Bushway, 2017). Therefore, the choice of language policy is crucial to reduce the effects of labelling and should not be underestimated.

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Overall, in contemporary criminology, the main approaches to labelling theory revolve around language policies to minimize the number of crimes. While some research is focused on the theoretical background, other findings provide guidelines and recommendations for the police force concerning the usage of word choice. It implies that it is possible to reduce the effects of stigmatization (and possibly reduce the crime rate) via the collaboration of scientific approach and practical methods.

Peripheral Disciplines

While labelling theory was originated in the field of criminology, the hypothesis has been applied in other disciplines as well. For instance, the research of stigmatization found great support in the field of psychology and medicine. The concepts of self-awareness and deviant behaviour have been relevant in the academic fields for a long while, and labelling theory provides an additional foundation to these subjects.


Regarding the usage of labelling theory, the second most prominent discipline is psychology. The concepts of stigmatization are thoroughly analyzed and used to assist patients in the rehabilitation processes. For instance, Sukhera et al. (2017) assert that mental illness stigma is harmful to individuals in the recovery stage, and, therefore, should be avoided. Willis (2018) proposes that labelling should be reduced to minimum amounts in forensic and correctional psychology, and states that professionals frequently should pay more attention to the consequences of stigmatization. These statements prove the relevance of labelling theory in psychology and medicine.

Stigmatization might also have both positive and negative effects on people in the framework of victimology. Van Dijk (2020) states that the label ‘victim’ has a profound connotation of weakness and passiveness on individuals. Due to human nature, such stigma may also be extremely harmful to the specified individuals and even invoke secondary victim-blaming (Dijk, 2020). Therefore, one should be extremely cautious in the word choice communicating with individuals who suffered any psychological damage and might be labelled as ‘victims’ in society.

Education and Positive Labelling

As mentioned before, labels do not necessarily diminish the self-esteem and dignity of an individual. Klimecká (2020) proposes that the effects of stigmatization might provide additional motivation for students in the education processes. For instance, labelling children as gifted might stimulate their interest in studies and boost their grades (Klimecká, 2020). Nevertheless, it is vital to not exaggerate the praise as it might also have the opposite effect on the student (Klimecká, 2020). The positive outcomes of labelling theory can also be found in the retail industry. Charry and Parguel (2018), in agreement with prior studies, have found that identifying adults and children as ‘eco-friendly’ encourages them to lean towards environmentally conscious products. This method might be used to amplify the consumption of ecologically safe goods and, therefore, increase the awareness of the public about environmental problems. Ultimately, these examples demonstrate that labelling theory concepts should also be applied in other areas beside criminology and psychology.


Summing up, the current work has demonstrated the primary concepts of labelling theory and how it might be implemented in criminology and other disciplines. The proper usage of the framework might help reduce the amount of stigmatization, decrease the crime rate, assist in psychological rehabilitation, and even provide guidelines for education processes. Therefore, it is essential that academic authorities continue the research of labelling theory and collaborate with criminologists and psychologists to further improve the framework.

Reference List

Barmaki, R. (2017) ‘On the origin of “labeling” theory in criminology: Frank Tannenbaum and the Chicago school of sociology’, Deviant Behavior, pp. 1-16.

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Bernburg, J. G. (2019) ‘Labeling theory’, In M. D. Krohn et al. (eds.) Handbook on crime and deviance. Switzerland, Springer Nature Switzerland AG, pp. 179-196.

Charry, K., and Parguel, B. (2018) ‘Children’s response to “ecofriendly” labelling: The role of self-concept clarity’, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 58, pp. 1-7.

Denver, M., Pickett, T. J., and Bushway, S.D. (2018) ‘The language of stigmatization and the mark of violence: Experimental evidence on the social construction and use of criminal record stigma’, Criminology, 55(3), pp. 664-690.

Dijk, J. V. (2020) ‘Victim labeling theory: A reappraisal’, In J. Joseph and S. Jergenson (eds.) An international perspective on contemporary developments in victimology. Switzerland, Springer Nature Switzerland AG, pp. 73-90.

Gallego, Á. J. (2017) ‘Remark on the EPP in labeling theory: Evidence from romance’, Syntax, 20(4), pp. 384–399.

Klimecká, E. (2020) ‘Labelling of gifted children in the family from the perspective of teachers and its manifestations at school’, Sodobna Pedagogika/ Journal of Contemporary Educational Studies, 71(137), pp. 196-212.

Kroska, A., Lee, J. D., and Carr, N. T. (2016) ‘Juvenile delinquency and self-sentiments: exploring a labeling theory proposition’, Social Science Quarterly, 98(1), pp. 73–88.

Martens, J. and Schlicht, T. (2017) ‘Individualism versus interactionism about social understanding’, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 17(2), pp. 245-266.

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Nkhata, B. et al. (2019) ‘Exploring selected theories applicable to educational disciplines and social sciences research’, International Journal of Humanities Social Sciences and Education (IJHSSE), 6(12), pp. 97-116

Payne, B. K., Hawkins, B., and Xin, C. (2018). ‘Using Labeling Theory as a Guide to Examine the Patterns, Characteristics, and Sanctions Given to Cybercrimes’, American Journal of Criminal Justice.

Segre, S. (2019) ‘Howard S. Becker’s symbolic interactionism’, The American Sociologist.

Sjöström, S. (2018) ‘Labelling theory’, In B. M. Z. Cohen (eds.) Routledge international handbook of critical mental health. The United States, Routledge, pp. 15-23.

Sukhera, J. et al. (2017) ‘Labelling of mental illness in a paediatric emergency department and its implications for stigma reduction education’, Perspectives on Medical Education, 6(3), pp. 165-172.

Willis, G. M. (2018) ‘Why call someone by what we don’t want them to be? The ethics of labeling in forensic/correctional psychology’, Psychology, Crime & Law, 24(7), pp. 727-743.

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