"If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences." (W.I. Thomas)
"Ideas that are only parts of our experience become true in order to get into satisfactory relations with other parts of our experience." (William James)  

    Labeling theorists believe that labeling and reacting to offenders as "criminals" has unanticipated negative consequences, deepening the criminal behavior and making the crime problem worse.  They believe that the criminal justice system is dangerous in the sense that it is "casting the net" of social control too widely.  Thus, net-widening, or any state intervention, is inherently criminogenic.  Furthermore, scholars in this tradition work with revisionist assumptions of what crime is.  Broadly defined, revisionism in criminology refers to a rejection of legalistic conceptions of what crime is.  Labeling theorists therefore are critical of conceptions that crime is behavior that violates criminal law.  To be sure, they agree that certain acts, like murder, are inherently reprehensible. However, they argue it's not the harm that makes an act "criminal", but whether the label is conferred on the act, and this varies from situation to situation.  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.


    Tannenbaum (1938) was perhaps the first labeling theorist. His main concept was the dramatization of evil. With it, he argued that the process of tagging, defining, identifying, segregating, describing, and emphasizing any individual out for special treatment becomes a way of stimulating, suggesting, and evoking the very traits that are complained of.  A person becomes the thing they are described as being.

    Lemert (1951) is regarded as the founder of what is called 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 deviation. Societal reaction is more important to study since it sheds light on things like community tolerance quotients.  Societal reaction theorists often make claims similar to functionalists, that the process of defining and suppressing deviance is important to social solidarity. Sometimes, this is also referred to as the "moral panics" literature (Goode & Ben-Yehuda 1994).

    Becker (1963), whom many consider as the founder of labeling theory, 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.  Most labeling theorists believe the system exercises a lower-class bias in rounding up offenders, and that FBI statistics are useless as a measure of how much crime is really out there, but useful in measuring class, race, and gender bias (since mostly urban poor black males are arrested). Sometimes these are referred to as extra-legal factors.

    Being a "criminal" becomes a person's master status.  It controls the way they are identified in public.  Others do not consider their other statuses -- that of spouse, parent, or worker -- only that they are first and foremost a criminal.  Sometimes this public scrutiny might scare or shame a person into conformity, but most likely it has the effect of pushing the person to the point where they forfeit all further attempts at conformity.  An identity change takes place where the person's self-concept loses any further stake in conformity, and because a deviant self-image is now in place, there's pressure to behave consistently as deviant.  Furthermore, people who are labeled deviant tend to lose contact with their conformist friends and start associating with similarly-labeled deviants. 

    Becker's focus on moral entrepreneurs and those who seize power seems to have been his most enduring contribution.  Campaigns to define and suppress deviance have been studied by a number of criminologists, whether the motive is to seize power, as in the war on drugs (Silver 1974), to ritually expel evil from society in the form of scapegoats like witches (Erikson 1966) and the mentally ill (Szasz 1970), or to make symbolic crusades, as in the case of alcohol crackdowns (Gusfield 1963). Campaigns to redefine deviance are also self-initiated by deviant groups themselves, a process known as stigma contests (Schur 1980).


    Today, one rarely finds labeling theories like those which predominated in the late 1960s.  To be sure, there are still social constructivist accounts of some type of deviance or another, and studies about the meaning of crime to criminals and criminalizers are still done.  A shift seemed to have taken place around 1974 in which labeling theory accommodated itself to legalistic definitions, or at least a focus on state power.  Modern labeling theories came to recognize that societies "create" crime by passing laws, and that the substantive nature of the law should be an object of study.  Sometimes, these are called criminalization theories (Hartjen 1974), and they have some resemblance to societal reaction approaches, but they more closely fall into a field that criminologists trained in sociology call the sociology of law perspective or the study of law as a mechanism of social control.   Labeling theories that focus on state power can be considered as branches of control-ology (Ditton 1979), a little-known British perspective.  Most modern labeling theorists have been influenced by a critique of the underdog focus which was provided by Liazos (1972) when he said that sociologists need to stop studying "nuts, sluts, and preverts."

    Control-ology refers to a group of theories with some interest in crime waves and moral panics, but mostly the view that criminal justice agencies are part of broader social control mechanisms, like welfare, mental health, education, the military, and the mass media, all of which are used by the state to control "problem" populations (Arvanites 1992). The foundation of control-ology was built by Foucault (1967; 1979) who argued that various instruments of social control (more humane, enlightened, reasonable responses to deviance) are packaged and sold by the state to cover up the inherent coercion and power in the system.  The state is always trying to portray a "velvet glove" where its ultimate goal is to exercise its "iron fist" where the ultimate goal is to control troublesome populations. Theorists who see the world this way tend to focus heavily on the thinking and words of the more activist groups in society, what is called the universe of discourse. Other theorists draw heavily from other philosophical areas, as we'll see with the next example below.


    Asserting the thesis that "the causes of crime are constructed by the offenders themselves" in ways that are compellingly seductive, Jack Katz (1988), author of Seductions of Crime, provides a phenomenological theory of crime causation. It is intended as a corrective to materialistic, positivistic, and deterministic criminology (read Merton) which has neglected foreground for the sake of background. Phenomenology is a more radically empirical (sometimes called "grounded") labeling theory which attempts to get at things-in-themselves (phenomena) rather than accepting things-for-themselves (nomina). Reflective actors are always engaged in practical projects of transcending everyday reality in consciousness, but are limited by the embodiment of their senses. Other phenomenological writers include Merleau-Ponty on the concept of terror, Schutz's fundamental anxiety of the life-world, and Ricoeur's phenomenology of evil.  Like many other labeling theorists, Katz draws his data from autobiographies, biographies, and ethnographies, and there is a distinct tendency to avoid legalistic terminology.

    Hot-blooded murder, for example, is described by Katz in terms of a triad of conditions: interpretive, emotional, and practical.  Interpretive conditions include defense of morality, the role of a teasing or daring victim, the role of a supportive audience, and the role of alcohol in casual settings of last resort (e.g. the home). Emotional conditions involve a process of transcending humiliation with rage via the steppingstone of righteousness. Practical conditions are a marking, or desecration, of the victim's body as in when offenders can recall precisely the number of stitches it took for a victim to survive. The key term is "humiliation", defined as a "profound loss of control over one's identity, or soul" (p. 24).  Humiliation is also a key term for analyzing other types of crime.  Katz' theory treats all forms of criminality are a moral response to humiliation.  Katz also introduces another key term, "uncertainty", which eliminates inevitability in the event. Cursing by the attacker and silent prayers by the victim are treated as priestly omens and sacrificial service honoring the sacred which must be approached by a "leap into faith", and the final seduction into "the unknown" (p. 43). [Pretty phenomenological, huh?]  Katz belongs to a tradition of naturalistic sociology along the lines of Becker and Matza, but is more logically consistent within a strict phenomenological tradition.

    Foreground is defined as individual consciousness and associated mental processes (p. 51) while the lesser-important background involves factors such as social class and gender. Background differences can vary the experience of humiliation and open up possibilities for rituals of forgiveness, but foreground, or what is going through the criminal's head at the time of the crime, is more important.

    Crimes such as shoplifting and pizza theft involve imputing sensual power to an object so that the seduction is like a "romantic encounter." Practical conditions involve flirting with the object and a dialectic of being privately deviant in public places. Emotional conditions involve transcending uncontrollable feelings of thrill. Interpretive conditions involve resonating metaphors of self (bounding immorality), game (timeouts & goal lines), religion (secret defilement), sex (like an orgasm), and the interrelationship between deviance and charisma (reaching for mysterious forces). The resonating of these metaphors makes the seduction irresistibly compelling.  In an interesting twist on Spinoza's question about whether it's the finger that pulls the trigger or the trigger that pulls the finger, Katz says the following about pizza theft -- it's not the taste for pizza that makes the crime happen, but the crime that makes the pizza taste good.  

    Gang violence requires learning to be a badass by projecting symbols of impenetrability, which Katz relates to the hardness of male phallic imagery. He feels that gang behavior requires a commitment to firmness of purpose so that other have to make the calculations of costs and benefits. Badasses engage in the "accidental bump" and hog the sidewalk when they walk. Katz relates this to the way nations escalate war. Interpretive conditions involve posturing in the form of medieval elites. Practical conditions involve creation of an oppressive background image to emphasize one's status as a street survivor, or elite. Emotional conditions involve "getting over" from "here" to "there" and the personal insults involving others' violations of artificial turf space.

    Robbery is believed by Katz to be a prototypical "breeding ground" for crime. Stickup men seek "continuous action" and embrace a death wish (thanatos) in that they will commit to any degree of violence necessary, even to the point where it risks their own fatality.  Stickup men also develop a sense of competence at superior perceptual ability (in exploiting contextual weaknesses in a target, be it victim or architecture) and claim a special morality about this.. Katz gives Becker a twist to develop the notion of "immoral entrepreneur" (p. 184). Likewise, "uncertainty" is related to "chaos" in that during a stickup, the offender is required  to maintain suspense and manage the impression of coming from an alien world.

    The desire to seek continuous action (e.g. crime, drugs, sex, and gambling, the last being what Goffman called the prototype of action) is what Katz says distinguishes the persistent, or career criminal. Such offenders (aka "heavies" or omnibus felons) will often pursue action to the point of physical and mental exhaustion. They do this by remaining open to all spontaneous opportunities, maintaining permeable boundaries for associates, and reckless, superfast spending with the proceeds from crime. Katz admits his description of the hardman is just one version of the hustler prototype.

    The main problem for criminals is the transcendence of chaos which exists as an ongoing project. Chaos is the master dialectic, acting as both resource and barrier to action. Katz draws heavily upon Matza (1969) in describing the "dizziness" of a criminal career. Caught up in a lifestyle of frequent intoxication, compounded lies, jealous lovers, and being a constant target for ripoffs and a regular suspect for police, the arrest, or more final end to the project, almost comes as a relief. Katz depicts the project of transcending chaos as a process of imposing discipline and control on one's life. Imposing discipline often means the humiliation and physical abuse of women and children. Imposing control is seeking to get caught by sarcastically thanking the authorities, doing some moral accounting ("got away withs" exceed "got caughts"), and looking forward to the opportunities for action in prison.

    The attractions of crime are seen as extensions, or "celebrations", of being male and being black (p. 247). Research on childhood socialization (Lever 1978) is cited to suggest that the main effect of being male is preparation for a life of pretensions. Being black means to live in a culture of continuous insult, even from fellow blacks, and this tradition prepares blacks for becoming "bad" by overcoming insult with insult. Crime emerges in the process of establishing a gendered, ethnic identity.

    Cold-blooded murder involves coping with the dizziness, or dis-ease, of an immoral career. Practical conditions, drawn from Irwin's work on incarcerated felons, involve the realization of potential through dreams and fantasies of criminal escapades. Katz ties this condition into a "death wish" by way of transcending the dialectic of eros and thanatos. Interpretive conditions return to the idea of crime as ritual sacrifice and criminals as priestly servants. Cold-blooded killers are seen as believing in a primitive god of devastation whose sacredness must be experienced by negativity, or doing evil. To explain the gruesome lengths these killers go to in order to, say, make extra work for the coroner, Katz draws upon Douglas (1985) and her analysis of "holiness" in purification rituals which requires that one "leave nothing half-finished". Ritualism is for Katz what sadism is in more traditional explanations of crime.


    In 1989, John Braithwaite, in Crime, Shame and Reintegration set out to explore the process of social control known as shaming.  There are two types of shaming: reintegrative (bring the offender back into the fold of society) and disintegrative (shunning the offender for good from society).  Consistent with the claims of labeling theory, Braithwaite argued that disintegrative shaming does indeed create a class of outcasts.  Offenders are prevented from bonding back into society, and can only become more entrenched in crime as a result of being branded a criminal. 

    Reintegrative shaming, however, can be accomplished if there were societal rituals or gestures of forgiveness, or better yet, ceremonies to decertify the offender as deviant.  Braithwaite correctly points out that the United States, because of its high urbanization, heterogeneity, residential mobility, and ideology of individualism, has a surplus of ceremonies to confer deviant status on people, but few to no ceremonies allowing people the opportunity to exit the deviant role.  At least one other author (Garfinkel 1965) has referred to criminal trials as "status degradation ceremonies.

DeMelo's Criminology Page
Sociological Theories of Deviance

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Becker, H. (1963). Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. NY: Free Press.
Braithwaite, J. (1989). Crime, Shame and Reintegration. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Ditton, J. (1979). Controlology: Beyond the New Criminology. London: Macmillan.
Douglas, M. (1985). Purity and Danger. Boston:Ark.
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Katz, J. (1999). How Emotions Work. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.
Lemert, E. (1951). Social Pathology. NY: McGraw-Hill.
Lever, J. (1978). "Sex Differences in the Complexity of Children's Play and Games", Am Soc Rev 43:476-88.
Liazos, A. (1972). "The Poverty of the Sociology of Deviance: Nuts, Sluts and Preverts" Soc Prob 20:103-20.
Matza, D. (1969). Becoming Deviant. NJ: Prentice Hall.
Schur, E. (1980). The Politics of Deviance: Stigma Contests. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.
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Szasz, T. (1970). The Manufacture of Madness. NY: Harper & Row. 
Tannenbaum, F. (1938). Crime and the Community. NY: Columbia Univ. Press.

Last updated: Nov 30, 2006
Not an official webpage of APSU, copyright restrictions apply, see Megalinks in Criminal Justice
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