Jón Gunnar Bernburg (2009). Labeling theory. In: Marvin D. Krohn, Alan Lizotte &
Gina Penly Hall (eds), Handbook on Crime and Deviance (187-207). Springer
Science + Business Media.
Labeling theory provides a distinctively sociological approach that focuses on
the role of social labeling in the development of crime and deviance. The theory
assumes that although deviant behavior can initially stem from various causes and
conditions, once individuals have been labeled or defined as deviants, they often face
new problems that stem from the reactions of self and others to negative stereotypes
(stigma) that are attached to the deviant label (Becker, 1963; Lemert, 1967). These
problems in turn can increase the likelihood of deviant and criminal behavior
becoming stable and chronic. In the words of Lemert (1967), deviant behavior can
become “means of defense, attack, or adaptation” (p. 17) to the problems created by
deviant labeling. Thus, being labeled or defined by others as a criminal offender may
trigger processes that tend to reinforce or stabilize involvement in crime and deviance,
net of the behavioral pattern and the social and psychological conditions that existed
prior to labeling.
Labeling theory has at times been hotly debated among deviance and crime
researchers. The theory became widely accepted during the 1960s as a viable
approach to crime and deviance, but a series of critiques that came out during the
1970s undermined its popularity. According to critics (Hirschi, 1980; Mankoff, 1971;
Tittle, 1980; Wellford, 1975), labeling theory was vague, simplistic, and ideological,
and empirical tests had failed to provide consistent support for the proposition that
labeling reinforces deviant behavior. Since that time, however, scholars have pointed
out that this critique led to a premature demise of labeling theory. According to these
scholars (Palarma, Cullen, & Gersten, 1986; Paternoster & Iovanni, 1989), the critics
of labeling theory overstated and simplified the claims made by labeling theory.
Moreover, a large part of the research that had undermined labeling theory was
methodologically flawed, and thus did not constitute valid testing of the theory.
During the past two decades, there have been significant attempts to improve
the scientific rigor of labeling research. Researchers have clarified and elaborated the
processes by which labeling influences deviant behavior, and they have attempted to
overcome methodological flaws that have often plagued the research. The current
paper aims is to extract a “current” account of labeling theory, incorporating the
recent theoretical and empirical developments pertaining to the criminogenic effects
Deviant Labels and Stigma
While social labels generally constitute a part of the cultural framework that
people use to define and categorize the social world, deviant labels are special in that
they are stigmatizing labels or markers. This assumption is fundamental to labeling
theory. Deviant labels, criminal labels in particular, are associated with stigma, which
means that the mainstream culture has attached specific, negative images or
stereotypes to deviant labels (Link & Phelan, 2001). Negative stereotypes of criminal
offenders are manifested in the mainstream culture in various ways, for example in
films, books, mass media, and even everyday language (Becker, 1963; Goffman,
1963; Scheff, 1966). Walt Disney’s Beagle Boys provide an example of how criminals
are often portrayed as innately immoral, devious, and fundamentally different from
The current paper focuses on the effect of labeling and stigma on the development of criminal or
deviant behavior, and thus does not provide a comprehensive overview of the various dimensions of
labeling theory, including its implications for social construction and conflict theory (see Becker, 1963;
Paternoster & Iovanni, 1989; Melossi, 1985).
other people. Such examples remind us that the learning of criminal stereotypes is a
part of childhood socialization.
Individuals labeled as criminals or delinquents tend to be set aside as
fundamentally different from others, and they tend to be associated with stereotypes
of undesirable traits or characteristics (Goffman, 1963; Link & Phelan, 2001;
Simmons, 1965-6). Becker (1963) has argued that the deviant status may become a
master status for the person, that is, the negative images attached to the deviant label
can override other attributes a person may have. “To be labeled a criminal”, Becker
(1963) writes, “carries a number of connotations specifying auxiliary traits
characteristics of anyone bearing the label” (pp. 33-34). Specifically, people presume
that the labeled person is unable or unwilling to “act as a moral being and therefore
might break other important rules.” Moreover, once individuals have been typified as
deviant, any future (or past) misbehavior on their part tends to be taken as an
indication of their essential deviant or criminal nature. The stigma attached to
criminal labeling promotes widespread distrust and distain for people with a criminal
label (see Travis, 2002).
Formal and Informal Labeling
Labeling theory is concerned with problems that emerge after the social
environment has defined or typified the individual as a deviant, raising the question of
how deviant labeling is imposed on individuals. After all, deviant behavior is common
and often does not lead to labeling (Becker, 1963; Lemert, 1967). For instance,
juvenile delinquency is often not considered particularly deviant by those who witness
such behavior (other juveniles), and thus often does not lead to special reactions by
the social environment. Such reactions occur only when there is a social audience that
labels the behavior (and the individual) as particularly deviant—or criminal, in the
case of criminal labeling (Becker, 1963).
In this regard, labeling theorists have emphasized that formal labeling, police
and criminal justice labeling in particular, is a salient source of labeling. In
contemporary society, the state has a formal monopoly over the sanctioning of
criminals (Garfinkel, 1956). To be formally processed as a criminal or a delinquent
therefore testifies to and brings attention to the person’s immorality and inability to
follow important social norms. Tannenbaum (1938) referred to such public reactions
as the “dramatization of evil.” Erikson (1966) has argued that formal reactions entail
ceremonies (“rites of transition”) that mark a change into a deviant status, such as “the
criminal trial, with its elaborate formality and exaggerated ritual” (p. 16). Moreover,
when punishment has been carried out, there are no analogous official ceremonies in
place to cancel the criminal stigma, and thus bring the person back into society. Thus,
the stigma of having been formally processed as a criminal offender tends to “stick”
to the person.
It may be noted that by highlighting official labeling as a salient source of
criminal labeling, labeling theory contradicts the classic notion of specific deterrence,
namely, the notion that the pain of apprehension and punishment should deter the
offender from deviation in the future (Gibbs, 1975). From the vantage point of
labeling theory, this notion of rational decision-making ignores the reality of stigma
and its consequences for individual development.
Although underscoring the salience of formal labeling, the notion of informal
labeling is at the heart of labeling theory. As will be discussed below, labeling theory
argues that formal labeling influences subsequent individual development largely
because it triggers labeling and stigmatization in everyday social settings
(Paternoster& Iovanni, 1989). For example, an arrest may have no impact on a
youth’s life if it is kept secret from school authorities and members of the local
community. But, if school authorities are notified of the event or if it becomes widely
known in the community, it can trigger exclusionary reactions by teachers and
community members. Moreover, social audiences may impose deviant labels on
actors in the absence of formal labeling (Paternoster& Iovanni, 1989; Matsueda,
1992; Triplett & Jarjoura, 1994).
Labeling and Discrimination
An important aspect of labeling theory argues that disadvantaged groups are more
likely than other groups to experience labeling. Aggressive policing of lower-class
communities raises the likelihood of lower-class people and minorities experiencing
police intervention (Smith, Visher, & Davidson, 1984). Moreover, stereotypes of
minorities and disadvantaged groups often entail images of criminality and
dangerousness (Quillian & Pager, 2001), and hence members of such groups may be
more readily policed, sanctioned, and stigmatized, even net of actual criminal
offending (Warren, Tomaskovic-Devey, Smith, Zingraff, & Mason, 2006). Research
has found that encounters between police and citizens are more likely to lead to an
arrest if the citizen is a minority, net of the nature and seriousness of the offense
(Worden & Shepard, 1996). Also, studies have found that minorities and individuals
of low socioeconomic status tend to receive more severe sentences, net of the
seriousness of the offense that they have been charged with and prior criminal record
(Bontrager, Bales,& Chiricos, 2005; Steffensmeyer, Ulmer, & Kramer, 1998), but not
all studies support this finding (Albonetti & Hepburn, 1996).
Minorities and impoverished individuals may be more vulnerable to informal
labeling as well. Due to stereotypes that associate criminality with racial minorities
and impoverishment, members of such groups may be more likely to be associated
with criminal stigma. Bernburg and Krohn (2003) have suggested that formal labeling
may be more likely to trigger stigma for members of racial minorities and the
impoverished, because such groups are already associated with stigma to begin with.
While direct research on this point is limited, there is research that shows that
African-American youths are more likely than white youths to be perceived as rule-
breakers by their parents, net of their self-reported delinquency (Matsueda, 1992).
THE CRIMINOGENIC PROCESSES TRIGGERED BY LABELING
One reason why labeling theory sometimes has appeared vague is that different
authors have specified different processes by which labeling may influence
subsequent deviant behavior. Another reason is that theoretical statements have
sometimes lacked specificity and elaboration (hence the history of debate about what
labeling theory entails; Goode, 1975; Paternoster & Iovanni, 1989). Hence, it is
important to provide an explicit discussion of these processes, taking into account the
current work on this issue. In what follows, I discuss the main processes by which
labeling is held to influence subsequent deviance and crime, namely, 1) the
Relatedly, conflict theory argues that racial minorities and the impoverished have restricted access to
law-making and criminal justice policy, and hence their interests are often not represented in the laws,
policies, and organizations that determine the criminalization (labeling) process (Reiman, 1995).
Accordingly, deviance associated with the powerless tends to be labeled as criminal, whereas deviance
associated with the powerful often escapes criminalization and stigma.
development of a deviant self-concept, 2) the processes of rejection and withdrawal,
and 3) involvement in deviant groups.
The emphasis on the effect of labeling on the self-concept is grounded in symbolic
interactionism (Lemert, 1967; Scheff, 1966; Schur, 1971). This school of thought
emphasizes the role of self-concept in motivating and controlling behavior, assuming
that individuals’ concept of self is shaped by their experience of past and present
interactions with others. Matsueda (1992) has argued that the individual’s image of
self is formed in the process of reflected appraisals, that is, individuals form their
self-concept on the basis of their experience of interacting with other people. Through
such experience, people learn how to define themselves (what they are, what they do)
on the basis of how they perceive the attitudes of others toward them. Moreover,
since, again, the attitudes of others toward individuals defined as deviants tend to be
shaped by negative stereotypes, individuals that are defined or labeled as deviants
tend to experience stereotypical expectations toward themselves. Such a perception of
oneself from the standpoint of others may lead to a change in self-concept; the person
may begin to see him or herself as a deviant person, taking on the role of the deviant.
Processes of Social Exclusion
The stigma attached to deviant labeling can stir up processes that can lead to
exclusion from relationships with conventional others and from legitimate
opportunities. Specifically, labeling may lead to social exclusion through two
analytically separate processes (Link, 1982). First, conventional others, including
peers, community members, and gate-keepers in the opportunity structure (e.g.
teachers and employers), may reject or devalue the labeled person. Again,
stereotypical images of criminality can become defining features of individuals
labeled as criminal offenders, thereby bringing on negative reactions by others that
are driven by fear, mistrust, self-righteousness, and so on, as well as people’s fear of
being associated with stigma.
Second, labeling may lead to social withdrawal due to anticipated rejection or
devaluation. Goffman (1963) has argued that the social interaction of “normal” people
and stigmatized individuals often entails uneasiness, embarrassment, ambiguity, and
intense efforts at impression management. “The very anticipation of such contacts can
. . . lead normals and the stigmatized to arrange life so as to avoid them” (Goffman,
1963, p. 13). Link, Cullen, Struening, Shrout, & Dohrenwood (1989) argue that
individuals labeled as deviants often internalize commonly held beliefs about how
people devalue and react negatively to labeled deviants. Labeled individuals may
often expect others to devalue and even reject themselves, thereby avoiding situations
in which they anticipate that their deviant label may stir up stigma. In turn,
“withdrawal may lead to constricted social networks and fewer attempts at seeking
more satisfying, higher-paying jobs” (Link et al., 1989, p. 403). Also, stigmatized
individuals may internalize their perception of their devaluated status, resulting in low
self-worth (Kaplan & Johnson, 1991; Zhang, 2003). Individuals labeled as criminal
offenders may believe that most people will distrust, devalue, and reject individuals
that have been labeled as criminal offenders, and hence they may often avoid routine
social encounters that most people see no reason to avoid, but that are vital for
maintaining social bonds to mainstream groups and institutions (Bernburg, 2006;
Winnick & Bodkin, 2008).
Sampson and Laub (1993, 1997) have underscored that labeling theory
complements social bonding theory, particularly when emphasizing the exclusionary
processes triggered by labeling. Sampson and Laub (1997) incorporate labeling theory
into the lifecourse framework, highlighting the detrimental effects of labeling on the
subsequent development of social bonding and future life chances. Sampson and Laub
argue that, insofar as labeling undermines social ties to conventional others, and
insofar as labeling leads to blocked opportunities, most notably reduced educational
attainment and employment instability, labeling and stigma may have a long term
impact on the development of crime and deviant behavior. Such effects can influence
adult criminal behavior, because reduced educational attainment and employment
instability weaken the “social and institutional bonds linking adults to society”
(Sampson & Laub, 1997, p. 144). Thus, labeling may directly impact individual
development temporarily, but this impact may produce a “snowball effect” that can
last much longer than the actual experience of labeling and stigmatization. Thus,
stigma may only have to “stick” to the person for a short period to have a long-term
effect on the lifecourse, and thereby on the development of crime and delinquency.
Involvement in Deviant Groups
Deviant labeling may lead to involvement in deviant groups, which is by itself
an important risk factor for crime and deviance (Becker, 1963; Braithwaite, 1989).
Elaborating on this point, Bernburg, Krohn, and Rivera (2006) have argued that
deviant groups represent a source of social support in which deviant labels are
accepted, while at the same time providing collective rationalizations, attitudies, and
opportunities that encourage and facilitate deviant behavior. Bernburg et al. suggest
that labeling may increase juvenile involvement in deviant peer groups due to three
main processes. First, labeling can bring on rejection from conventional peers and
from other community members who may fear and mistrust them. For example,
parents may prevent their children from associating with known delinquents. By
associating with deviant groups, known delinquents can receive a more positive image
of themselves from the standpoint of significant others (Braithwaite, 1989; Matsueda,
1992). Second, labeling may result in withdrawal from encounters with conventional
peers, because such encounters may entail shame, embarrassment, and uneasiness.
Finally, youths tend to make friends with those who are similar to themselves. Youths
that have a deviant self-concept may seek the friendship of individuals that share the
The path diagram shown in Figure 1 summarizes the processes discussed
above. Informal and formal labeling may be more likely to be imposed on racial
minorities and the disadvantaged. Formal labeling should influence individual
development indirectly through informal labeling, but also directly due to social
withdrawal. Again, individuals that have been formally labeled may avoid situations
in which they fear that they might experience stigmatization. Research on mental
illness labeling indicates that anticipated rejection may hurt individual outcomes
independently from the experience of rejection (Markowitz, 1998). Furthermore,
weak bonds to mainstream society and blocked opportunities influence deviant
behavior directly, due to weaker informal social control and reduced life chances, but
also indirectly through involvement in deviant groups. The formation of a deviant
self-concept may influence deviant behavior directly, because the labeled person may
internalize the deviant role, but also indirectly due to involvement in deviant groups.
Finally, there may be a reciprocal relationship between self-concept changes and
changes in social bonds. A deviant self-concept is made “more plausable when actor’s
access to conventional (normal) roles and opportunities becomes problematic”
(Paternoster& Iovanni, 1989, p. 380). In this vein, the formation of a deviant identity
may lead to weaker bonds to the conventional order.
FIGURE X-1 ABOUT HERE
RESEARCH ON THE CRIMINOGENIC EFFECTS OF LABELING
In a review article published almost two decades ago, Paternoster and Iovanni
(1989) argued that a large part of the labeling research had been methodologically
flawed, and hence few conclusions could be drawn from it. Although the research has
improved since the late 1980s, Paternoster and Iovanni underscored a few
methodological issues that are particularly important for labeling research. It is useful
to review these issues before turning our attention to the research.
First, research on the effect of formal reactions on subsequent deviance often
uses samples of individuals drawn from police records and similar non-random
sources, containing no comparison between formally labeled individuals and
individuals that have no formal labeling. Such research is thus restricted to examining
the relative (severity of formal reaction), rather than the absolute (formal reaction vs.
no formal reaction) effects of formal labeling. Such restricted comparison may
underestimate the impact of labeling. “When one takes for study a group which
appears at the end of a long series of discretionary decisions, it is reasonable that the
labeling process has run its course by that time” (Paternoster & Iovanni, 1989, p.
Second, labeling research needs to examine directly the theoretical processes
involved. Again, labeling theory argues that specific processes-changes in the self-
concept, processes of social exclusion, and involvement in deviant groups-mediate the
effect of labeling on deviant behavior. That labeling triggers such processes
constitutes the distinct contribution of labeling theory and, hence, these intermediate
processes need to be examined directly. Thus, for example, incarceration can
undermine social bonds and life chances because individuals are often unable to
participate in social routines and to work toward conventional goals during the time of
incarceration. Also, incarceration places the person in the company of offenders, and
may thus create ties with deviant others. Such processes may be criminogenic, but
they are not directly driven by the intermediate (criminogenic) processes discussed
above. In their 1989 review, Paternoster and Iovanni (1989) argued that bulk of the
labeling research had been invalid because it had failed to examine intermediate
Relatedly, scholars (Paternoster & Iovanni, 1989; Triplett & Jarjoura, 1994)
have criticized labeling research for failing to examine informal labeling and
stigmatization processes (e.g. rejection and withdrawal). As underscored above,
informal labeling and stigmatization processes comprise the core focus of labeling
theory. Thus, formal labeling is thought to influence subsequent deviance in large part
because it leads to informal labeling and stigmatization. The role of informal labeling
and stigmatization cannot be demonstrated without directly measuring these concepts.
Finally, the criminogenic processes triggered by labeling may be contingent
on social context, and hence researchers may often need to specify the conditions that
enhance or moderate labeling effects, including the situational context of labeling
(e.g. whether or not a person is able to hide the fact of his or her arrest), the social
status of the labelee (and perhaps also of the labeler), and the broader national or
societal context (Braithwaite, 1989). Scholars (Hagan & Palloni, 1990; Palarma et al.,
1986; Paternoster & Iovanni, 1989) have criticized the research for the frequent
failure to specify such contingencies empirically.
These methodological issues guide the following discussion of the empirical
research. In what follows, I discuss the research on 1) the effect of labeling on
subsequent deviance, 2) intermediate processes, and 3) contingent effects.
The Effect of Labeling on Subsequent Deviance
Again, the study’s sampling method determines the sample variation in
labeling. Studies based on longitudinal surveys of samples from general populations
(usually adolescents) unambiguously contain a comparison between individuals who
have been formally labeled and individuals who have not. As Paternoster and Iovanni
(1989) pointed out, such studies tend to provide consistent support for labeling
effects. Such research usually finds that formal labeling (arrest and formal sanctions)
positively influences subsequent delinquent behavior, net of initial delinquency and
other controls, even as late as in early adulthood, (Bernburg & Krohn, 2003; Bernburg
et al., 2006; Farrington, 1977; Farrington, Osborn, & West, 1978; Hagan& Palloni,
1990; Johnson, Simons, and Conger, 2004; Palarma et al., 1986; Ray & Downs, 1986;
Stewart, Simons, Conger & Scaramella, 2002).
By contrast, more inclusive reviews of studies on the effect of formal labeling
on subsequent behavior, that is, reviews that do not categorize the research based on
the sampling method used, yeild more mixed results (Barrick, 2007; Huizinga &
Henry, 2008). In a recent review by Huizinga and Henry (2008), the majority of
studies found a positive effect of both arrest and justice system sanctions on
delinquency, a substantial number of studies found no effect, and a small minority of
studies found a negative effect. Barrick (2007) came to a similar conclusion, but
pointed out that the most consistent support for labeling theory tends to come from the
most sophisticated research (that is, with respect to sample size and measurement).
There are situations in which samples drawn from official or non-random
sources can provide meaningful tests of labeling effects. Chiricos, Barrick, Bales &
Bontrager (2007) have studied the effect of formal adjudication on recidivism in a
sample of men and women found guilty of a felony and sentenced to probation in
Florida between 2000 and 2002. The research setting provided a unique opportunity
to examine labeling effects, because Florida judges have the option to withhold
formal adjudication of guilt for convicted felons who are sentenced to probation. “For
those offenders who have adjudication withheld . . . no civil rights are lost and such
individuals can legitimately say on employment applications and elsewhere that a
felony conviction did not occur” (Chiricos et al., 2007, p. 548). Chiricos et al. found
that formal adjudication increased the likelihood of recidivism, net of prior record,
type and seriousness of the offense, and social demographic factors.
Nonexperimental research on any social topic is subject to the threat of
omitted variable bias. Any effect of labeling on subsequent behavior may be spurious
due to important variables that have been left out of the analysis or due to
measurement error in the control variables that have been included. Carefully
selecting control variables based on current theory and prior research (e.g. controlling
for initial deviance) reduces the problem, but does not eliminate the threat of bias
(Smith & Paternoster, 1990). In this respect, field experiments that randomize formal
reaction to apprehended offenders are particularly important. Although experiments
that provide a meaningful test of labeling effects have been rare, the current findings
lend some support for labeling theory. Klein (1986) conducted a field experiment that
randomized whether apprehended youths were counseled and released or whether
further action was taken (referral to social service system, referral with purchase of
service, or petition toward juvenile court). Klein found that youths who were
counseled and released had a lower probability of recidivism after 27 months than
youths referred to community agencies or petitioned toward juvenile court (the last
group was most likely to recidivate).
Berk, Campbell, Klap, and Western (1992) and Sherman and Smith (1992)
examined the effect of arrest for domestic violence on subsequent violence in field
experiments that were conducted in four US cities. The studies found that arrest for
domestic violence increased the likelihood of subsequent violence, but only if the
perpetrator was unemployed. Some evidence indicated that arrest decreased
subsequent violence for employed subjects, consistent with deterrence theory. The
findings indicate that formal labeling amplifies deviance only under certain
Klein (1986) reports that the treatment condition had no effect on self-reported delinquency in a
follow-up survey that was conducted about nine months later on a subsample of the initial sample of
offenders. However, the subsample consisted of only those subjects that participated in the follow-up
survey, about 60 percent of the initial sample. These findings are suspect. The null-findings may be due
to sampling bias in which the more serious offenders tend not to be included in the follow-up survey.
Again, an important limitation of the research is that it rarely examines
informal labeling. But, there are important exceptions. Matsueda (1992) has used
longitudinal data from the National Youth Survey (NYS) to examine the effect of
informal labeling on subsequent delinquency among adolescent males. Matsueda
found that objective parental labeling (that is, parents’ self-reported perception of
whether they see their child as someone who gets into trouble/breaks rules) and
subjective labeling (respondents’ perception of whether friends, parents, teachers see
them as someone who gets into trouble/breaks rules) influenced subsequent
delinquency, net of initial self-reported delinquency and other factors. Subsequent
analyses have supported these findings (Adams & Evans, 1996; Bartusch &
Matsueda, 1996; Heimer & Matsueda, 1994; Triplett & Jarjoura, 1994; Zhang, 1997),
but they are also based on the of the NYS data, and thus need to be replicated. In this
respect, Triplett and Jarjoura (1994) have pointed out that informal labeling by
significant others, such as parents, teachers, peers, and community members, may
trigger exclusionary reactions toward children and adolescents and impact their self-
concept before formal agencies come into the picture. Sampson and Laub (1997) have
suggested that defiant or difficult children may become subject to labeling and stigma
that can undermine family, school and peer attachments. Thus, labeling may
contribute to the stability in deviant behavior. Moreover, childhood labeling may have
a profound, long term impact on the self-concept. Research is needed on these issues.
In this respect, researchers should examine informal as well as formal labeling,
including medical labels that are by now frequent reactions to child and adolescent
deviance. Specifically, I am thinking about the trend toward the medicalization of
childhood deviance (Conrad & Schneider, 1992), which has entailed an expansion of
formal deviant labels that have medical connotations (e.g. hyperactivity diagnosis).
Whether or not such labels give rise to the criminogenic processes discussed above
constitutes an important research topic for future research.
Research on Intermediate Processes
While intermediate processes have often been missing in labeling research,
attempts to examine mediated effects have become more frequent, especially during
the 1990s and 2000s. As tests of intermediate processes are critically important for the
development of labeling theory, I now discuss this work in some detail.Deviant Self-
Concept. The previously mentioned study by Matsueda (1992) examined whether
youths’ subjective labeling mediated the effect of objective parental labeling on
delinquent behavior. The findings showed that parental labeling influences subsequent
youth delinquency, in part because it increases subjective labeling. Other analyses of
the NYS data have supported Matsueda’s findings (Adams & Evans, 1996; Bartusch
& Matsueda, 1996; Heimer & Matsueda, 1994; Triplett & Jarjoura, 1994; Zhang,
1997), but, again, as these findings are all based on the same survey sample,
replication is needed.
Some research exists on the effect of formal labeling on deviant self-concept,
net of initial delinquency. Jensen (1980) and Horowitz and Wasserman (1979) found
that formally labeled youths tend to have a more deviant self-concept than nonlabeled
youths, net of delinquent behavior, while Hepburn (1977) found no support for such
an effect. Relatedly, studies have found an effect of formal labeling on delinquent
orientations (Ageton & Elliott, 1974), deviant attitudes (Kaplan & Johnson, 1991) and
low self-esteem (Zhang, 2003).
Social Exclusion—Weak Social Ties, Reduced Life Chances, and
Involvement in Deviant Groups. A few studies have found support for a negative
effect of formal and informal labeling on mainstream social ties. Examining the
reactions of Chinese youths toward hypothetical official delinquents, Zhang (1994)
found that severity of official punishment triggers peers’ rejection from nonlabled
youths, but not from labeled youths. This finding supports the notion mentioned
above, namely, that deviant groups represent a source of social support in which
deviant labels are accepted. Zhang and Messner (1994) examined the effect of
severity of official sanctions (police imposed sanction vs. court sentence) on
estrangement from significant others in a sample of Chinese delinquents. The study
found that severity of punishment increases estrangement from friends and neighbors,
but not from parents and relatives. Analyses of the NYS data discussed above have
found some support for the effect of informal labeling on reduced social ties to
mainstream groups, including social isolation from family, friends, and school
(Zhang, 1997), and reduced school attachment (Triplett & Jarjoura, 1994).
Stewart et al. (2002) examined the effect of formal labeling on parenting
practices and delinquent behavior in a panel survey of 407 rural youths. Stewart et al.
found that delinquent behavior influences legal sanctions (a cumulative index for
police contacts and juvenile justice involvement) that in turn influence subsequent
poor parenting practices, thereby reinforcing subsequent delinquency. The researchers
argued that formal labeling of juveniles increases parental stress and rejection of the
child, thereby leading to poor parenting practices, which in turn increases subsequent
There is research that supports the detrimental effect of formal labeling on life
chances. Formal labeling has been found to negatively impact educational attainment,
net of initial delinquency and controls (Bernburg, 2003; Bernburg & Krohn, 2003; De
Li, 1999; Hjalmarsson, 2008; Sweeten, 2006). Bowditch (1993) found ethnographic
evidence indicating that school-officials routinely define students as troublemakers,
and once the troublemaker label has been designated, the student’s misbehavior brings
on harsher disciplinary procedures than normally would be used, including
suspension, transfer to another school, or even expulsion. Bernburg (2003) has found
that when the school is notified by the authorities that there has been a juvenile justice
intervention, the odds of dropping out of high school increase.
More extensive research supports the negative effect of formal labeling on
employment. Many jobs have restrictions on hiring people that have a criminal record
(Irwing, 2005), and criminal background checks in hiring decisions are widespread
(Harris & Keller, 2005). Field experiments and vignette studies show that employers
are less likely to hire applicants that have been convicted or incarcerated, even those
convicted for minor offenses (Boshier & Johnson, 1974; Buikuisen, & Dijksterhuis,
1971; Pager, 2003; Schwartz & Skolnick, 1962). Further support comes from survey
research that shows that having a conviction, or having been charged or apprehended
by police, as early as adolescence, has a long-term, negative effect on employment
(Davies & Tanner, 2003; Freeman, 1991; Western & Beckett, 1999). Lanctot,
Cernkovich, and Giordano (2007) found that, net of self-reported adolescent
delinquent behavior, institutionalization of adolescents predicted several negative
adult outcomes, including socioeconomic disadvantage, premature transitions to
adulthood, job instability, conjugal instability, and weak social bonds to parents and
peers. With regard to adult deviance, institutionalization positively influenced adult
drug use, but not adult criminal behavior.
In spite of all the research that supports the negative effect of formal labeling
on life chances, especially employment, only a handful of studies have examined
whether reduced life chances mediate the effect of formal labeling on subsequent
crime and deviance. As Sampson and Laub (1997) have pointed out, such questions
require data that span long term individual development. Bernburg and Krohn (2003)
examined the long term effect of formal labeling during adolescence on adult criminal
behavior, using panel data on a sample of urban youth in the United States (Rochester
Youth Developmental Study). Bernburg and Krohn examined both police records
(arrest/police contact) and self-report data on juvenile justice intervention (probation,
correctional center, community service, detention, brought to court, treatment
program). The study found that formal labeling during adolescence had a positive
effect on self-reported crime in late adolescence and early adulthood, net of serious
adolescent delinquency, academic aptitute, and social background. These effects were
in part mediated by educational attainment and early adult employment. Other studies
that have provided support for these processes include De Li (1999) and Sampson and
Some research has examined whether involvement in deviant groups mediates
the effect of labeling on subsequent deviance. Formal labeling has been found to
influence subsequent involvement in deviant groups (Bernburg et al., 2006; Johnson,
Simons, & Conger, 2004; Kaplan & Johnson, 1991), although not all studies agree on
this point (Farrington, 1977). Bernburg et al. (2006) found that, net of initial
delinquency, drug use, involvement in deviant groups, and other controls, juvenile
justice intervention had a positive effect on the odds of serious delinquency one year
later. Furthermore, about one-half of this effect was mediated by increased likelihood
of involvement in gangs and association with delinquent peers at an intermediate
period. The previously mentioned analyses of the NYS data have found that the effect
of subjective labeling on subsequent delinquency is mediated in part by association
with delinquent peers (Adams & Evans, 1996; Heimer & Matsueda, 1994; Triplett &
In sum, there is research support for the negative impact of formal labeling on
social ties and life chances, and some support for the impact of labeling on
involvement in deviant groups. However, very limited research exists on the
processes that are held to be responsible for creating these exclusionary effects,
namely, processes of rejection and withdrawal. In a rare study, Winnick and Bodkin
(2008) surveyed convicts about their perception of stigmatization of being an ex-
convict and how they intended to manage stigma upon their release from prison. The
study found that many convicts believe that most people will distrust and reject ex-
convicts, and that this belief was positively associated with an intention to withdraw
from social participation upon release from prison. Bernburg (2006) conducted open-
ended interviews with individuals that had been convicted for crimes. Underscoring
the theme of situational stigmatization, the study provided accounts from juvenile
delinquents describing how their peers were ackwardly “polite” and “not-themselves”
around them, and how they would feel ashamed when confronted with their peers’
parents. Moreover, underscoring social withdrawal, the study found that offenders
often dread the thought of experiencing situations in which stigma becomes a part of
others’ definition of them. Many offenders felt that such encounters entail shame,
embarrassment, and an inability to present themselves in a favorable light (“I could
just as well be naked”), a notion that was sometimes based on experience and
sometimes based on anticipation. Many offenders stated that they tried to avoid
situations that could entail such encounters, including “meeting new people”.
Very few studies have examined the experience of being rejected and
devalued by others due to criminal labeling. Given the central role of rejection and
devaluation in labeling theory (Becker, 1963), the research should develop measures
that tackle such experiences. This work should be aided by conducting qualitative
research that can illustrate how the relevant processes are manifested in concrete
situations (e.g., see Bowditch, 1993; Bernburg, 2003; Kaufman & Johnson, 2004).
Also, this work can build on some of the measures that have been developed to
measure anticipated and experienced rejection in research on mental illness labeling
(Markowitz, 1998). But, we should keep in mind that measuring rejection may require
the research to go beyond the subjective experience of labeled individuals. Rejection
and devaluation by others may hurt social ties and life chances without the labeled
person being aware of it. This point has been underscored by Matsueda (1992) who
found that objective parental labeling (based on interviews with parents) influenced
youth delinquency, over and beyond the effect of the youth’s subjective or perceived
labeling. Future research should attempt to measure objective labeling and even
rejection on the part of those individuals that comprise the person’s relevant social
environment, including perhaps school peers, teachers, and selected community
In summary, Table X-1 provides an overview of findings from longitudinal
studies that have directly examined intermediate processes in the effect of labeling on
subsequent deviance. In line with the methodological discussion above, the table
includes only studies that use population-based samples. The table shows that, while
there is support for some of the intermediate processes proposed by labeling theory,
the volume of research is limited, and key findings need to be replicated across
samples. Also, the evidence is fragmented as intervening variables have usually been
studied separately. Moreover, there have been few attempts to measure informal
labeling and stigmatization, including the processes of rejection and withdrawal. This
failure to examine key concepts constitutes a serious limitation of the research.
TABLE X-1 ABOUT HERE
Contingencies in Labeling Effects
Various conditions may enhance or moderate the impact of labeling on
individual development and subsequent deviance. First of all, we should expect
formal labeling to be more criminogenic when it triggers informal labeling. Formal
labeling is more likely to trigger stigmatization and exclusionary reactions by others
in cases where the formal label is known to others (Paternoster & Iovanni, 1989).
Accordingly, formal labeling should have a larger, detrimental impact on individual
development, and hence a more pronounced effect on subsequent deviance, when
information about the formal label is brought to the attention of community members,
significant others, or gate-keepers in the opportunity structure (e.g. teachers,
employers). Researchers have rarely tested such hypotheses; although such tests could
provide important evidence for labeling effects (vis-à-vis omitted variable bias).
Hjalmarsson (2008) compared the effect of formal labeling (arrest and incarceration)
on high-school drop-out in two different contexts, that is, 1) in states that mandate
school notification of arrest and 2) in states that do not mandate notification.
Hjalmarsson found that the observed effects of both arrest and incarceration on high-
school drop-out were about fifty percent larger in states that mandate notification, but
these interaction effects were statistically insignificant, and thus the differences found
were not beyond chance.
Even if formal labeling is known to others, it may not necessarily lead to
informal labeling and stigmatization (Covington, 1984). As Paternoster and Iovanni
(1989) have pointed out, “Rather than accepting the deviant label as indicative of
actor’s essential character, others [may] . . . neutralize the consequences of negative
character attribution by what Orcutt (1973:260) calls ‘inclusive reactions’” (p. 276).
That is, other actors attempt to bring the person’s behavior into conformity with the
group without excluding the person from it (also on this point, see Braithwaite, 1989).
Moreover, individuals can be active players in negotiating the meanings that emerge
in social interaction, and hence they may resist when others try to typify them as
deviants (Davis, 1961).
The likelihood that labeling will be successfully resisted or neutralized may be
contingent on the characteristics of the actors involved. First of all, formal labeling
may be more likely to trigger stigmatization if the individual is seen as different to
begin with. Thus, when an individual who already is associated with stigma is
formally labeled, actors may be more likely to attach negative stereotypes (stigmatize)
that person. In such cases, formal labeling should have a larger effect on subsequent
deviance. Hagan and Palloni (1990) have argued that “labels may be most likely to
affect the behavior of adolescents when they are imposed in the context of a family
that has previously been labeled deviant” (p. 268). Hagan and Palloni found that the
effect of conviction on subsequent delinquency was stronger among boys whose
parents had a criminal conviction, net of controls. Palarma et al. (1986) found that the
effect of arrest on subsequent delinquency was more pronounced among youths who
also had a mental illness label.
Another potential conditional factor is delinquent involvement prior to
labeling. Individuals who are already heavily involved in deviance may not be
affected by labeling as much as those who are less involved in deviance prior to
labeling. The reason is that some or all of the processes discussed above—identity
change, social exclusion, involvement in deviant groups—may already have occurred
in the past (due to various reasons, including prior labeling). As Paternoster and
Iovanni (1989) have argued, “hard-core” delinquent offenders may be “immune to
additional labeling effects” (p. 385). Accordingly, labeling should have a larger effect
on subsequent deviance among novice delinquents. There is some research that
supports this notion, although the results are not entirely consistent. Studies have
found that the severity of disposition increases the rate of recidivism among first
offenders only (e.g., Horowitz & Wasserman, 1979). Chiricos et al. (2007) found that
the effect of adjudication on recidivism among adult offenders was stronger among
those who did not have a prior criminal record before the age of 30. Jensen (1980)
found the effect of formal labeling on delinquent self-concept to be stronger among
youths with low delinquent involvement. By contrast, Thomas and Bishop’s (1984)
study of high school students found that the effect of formal labeling on delinquent
self-concept did not interact with prior delinquency.
There are two opposite hypotheses regarding the conditional effects of
minority status and disadvantage (Sherman & Smith, 1992). First, labeling (especially
formal labeling) may have a larger criminogenic effect among minorities and the
impoverished. Several points are relevant in this respect. Sampson and Laub (1997)
have argued that disadvantaged groups tend to have lower stakes in conformity, due to
weaker social bonds and constrained life chances, and hence they are more vulnerable
to the negative effects of labeling. In a sense, these individuals cannot “afford” to
miss out on any more opportunities and social bonds. Braithwaite (1989) has argued
that labeled individuals that have weak social bonds are less likely to experience
forgiveness and acceptance by significant others (“reintegrative shaming”) but more
likely to experience stigmatization. Again, formal labeling may be more likely to
trigger stigma for members of racial minorities and the impoverished, because such
groups are already associated with stigma to begin with (Bernburg and Krohn, 2003).
Relatedly, powerlessness can undermine the ability to resist labeling. In an
ethnographic study of student discipline in an inner-city high school, Bowditch (1993)
observed that “a student’s vulnerability to suspension, and to identification as a
‘troublemaker,’ may . . . depend upon his or her parents’ ability to influence the
actions of school personnel” (p. 501). Moreover, “The relatively disadvantaged
parents of most parents vis-à-vis school workers meant that many parents often
received disrespectful and dismissive treatment. Parents had few, if any, social or
political resources with which to challenge a disciplinarian’s actions” (p. 502).
On the other hand, scholars have suggested that social disadvantage may
weaken the impact of labeling, because disadvantaged individuals have reduced
stakes in maintaining a respectable identity to begin with (Ageton & Elliott, 1974;
Harris, 1976). Thus, the identity of such individuals is already compromised by the
stigma that is attached to their group membership, and hence labeling may have a
weaker effect on the self-concept of members of such groups, which implies that
labeling should have a weaker effect on subsequent deviance among racial minorities
and the disadvantaged.
There is some research that supports both viewpoints, although the former
hypothesis has received more substantial support. Bernburg and Krohn (2003) found
that the effects of official labeling during adolescence on late adolescence and early
adult crime were stronger among African Americans and among those that had
impoverished backgrounds, after controlling for educational attainment and
employment instability. However, the effects of official labeling on educational
attainment and employment instability were not contingent on race or poverty status.
As noted above, the field experiments by Berk et al. (1992) and Sherman and Smith
(1992) found that arrest for domestic violence had a larger positive effect on
subsequent violence when the perpetrator was unemployed. Adams, Johnson, and
Evans (1998) found that the effect of subjective labeling on delinquency was larger
among blacks than among whites.
By contrast, some research indicates that disadvantage may sometimes
moderate the effect of formal labeling on subsequent offending. Chiricos et al. (2007)
found that the effect of adjudication on recidivism was significantly larger among
whites. This study also examined whether neighborhood concentrated disadvantage
interacted with the effect of adjudication on recidivism, but found no evidence of such
effects. Klein (1986) found that the effect of formal processing on recidivism were
larger among whites and high SES youths. Ageton and Elliott (1974) found formal
labeling to influence delinquent orientations only among white youths. However, both
Klein (1986) and Ageton and Eliott (1974) failed to report significance tests to
demonstrate statistical interaction, and hence these findings should not be generalized.
Research on the conditional impact of gender has produced mixed results. Ray
and Downs (1986) found an effect of formal labeling on subsequent drug use among
males but not among females. Bartusch and Matsueda (1996) found that informal
labeling had a larger impact on delinquency among males than among females.
Bernburg (2003) found that the negative impact of official labeling on educational
attainment was larger among males than among females. By contrast, Chiricos et al.
(2007) has found the effect of adjudication on recidivism to be larger among females
than among males.
Braithwaite (1989) has drawn attention to the role of the broader societal
context in specifying the impact of formal criminal labeling. Braithwaite argues that
in communitarian societies, that is, societies that are characterized by high levels of
social cohesion, trust, and group loyalty, moral condemnation (“shaming”) is often
followed by informal and even formal efforts to reintegrate offenders back into the
community through forgiveness, efforts to maintain social bonds, and even
ceremonies that symbolize that the offender is no longer a deviant. By contrast, highly
individualistic societies have fewer procedures that reintegrate offenders, resulting in
frequent stigmatization. Thus, formal labeling should be more criminogenic in
individualistic societies than in communitarian societies. There is some research that
has examined aspects of this theory (e.g. Hay, 2001), but societal-level tests have
been rare. Baumer et al. (2002) have examined whether recidivism rates are lower in
communitarian countries, relative to countries characterized by individualism, but
found no support for this hypothesis. More cross-national research is needed to
evaluate Braithwaite’s theory.
To conclude, we may expect various contingencies in the effects of labeling.
The research has underscored some conditions that enhance the impact of labeling on
subsequent deviance, including the presence of previous stigma and little prior
involvement in delinquency. However, more research is needed. We should keep in
mind that social context not only shapes the likelihood that stigma will be resisted or
escaped, but it also influences various other factors, including the availability of
criminal or delinquent opportunities and roles. Again, the lack of research that
includes measures of informal labeling and stigmatization prevents us from drawing
any firm conclusions about the conditions under which formal labeling is most likely
to lead to informal labeling and stigmatization, under what conditions stigmatization
is most likely to reinforce subsequent delinquency, and so on. The inclusion of such
measures is needed to develop general propositions regarding the conditional impact
of social context.
Schur (1980) has pointed out that the critics of labeling theory have often assumed
that labeling theory and alternative approaches are “mutually exclusive,” which has
caused critics to ignore the theory’s “most valuable features” (pp. 278-279). Current
work on labeling theory, in particular efforts to clarify and elaborate the criminogenic
processes involved, underscores that the theory not only fits well with other theories
of crime and deviance, but that its primary focus on social exclusion complements
other sociological theories arguing that weak social bonds, blocked opportunities, and
association with deviant groups are important factors explaining individual deviant
behavior.Labeling research has improved in recent years, but there are still important
gaps in the research. Criminological research has become increasingly sophisticated
in recent years, partly due to increased availability of measurement rich, longitudinal
data. Labeling research has benefited from this development. However, since
available survey data rarely includes measures that are systematically designed to
examine labeling processes, crucial variables are often missing in the research.
Accordingly, major hypotheses have not been properly tested. Above I have
highlighted the frequent absence of measures of informal labeling (see Matsueda,
1992) and experienced and anticipated stigmatization (see Markowitz, 1998; Winnick
& Bodkin, 2008). As these processes are central to labeling theory, developing such
measures and including them in longitudinal survey projects that span long term
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