Most criminological theories are based on how society perceives crime. Criminological theories that fail to explain causes and consequences adequately, as well as how crime can be prevented are developed due to the misinterpretation of how society perceives crime. Public policy on crime is influenced by how society perceives crime and criminological theories that have been developed to explain it include consequences and how to prevent crime. For example, society always has associated crime with poor people and this has led to the creation of severe penalties that specifically target the type of criminal behavior poor people engage in. White-collar crimes that the rich and powerful engage in are not severely sanctioned as those associated with the poor. How society reacts to crime and the reality it constructs to determine who is a criminal can be explained using the labeling theory. The paper analyzes the truth behind the labeling theory.
In 1963, Howard Becker came up with what is now called the labeling theory in criminology. The labeling theory has tried highlighting social responses to crime and deviance. It is the theory of how self-identity and behavior of an individual are determined or influenced by the terms describing them. According to the labeling theory, society, especially people with power, defines criminal behavior. Those with power in the society, for instance, teachers, police, parents, and judges label actions and behaviors of those without power as a criminal. The labeling theory is not only applicable to criminal conduct, but also to other people in society like the mentally ill, deviants, and alcoholics. Therefore, according to societal reaction and the reality it constructs to determine whether a crime has occurred, a criminal is a person of low socioeconomic status who engages in behavior that those with power in the society consider as deviant.
There are two consequences of labeling and these include modification of self-image and stigma. Stigma refers to the societal condemnation of an individual and subsequent exclusion of the individual from society. In this regard, the criminal is viewed as an individual to be avoided and in social relations, he/she is treated with suspicion. Modification of self-image is a consequence of the stigma the criminal is subjected to by the system. This takes place in a self-fulfilling prophesy manner whereby the person starts behaving in the way the society describes or labels him/her.
This theory has been associated with self-fulfilling prophecy concepts as well as stereotyping. The labeling theory has held the fact that deviance focuses on people believed to be deviant from cultural standard norms, but it is not inherent in an act. Schram & Tibbetts, (2014) argue that it focuses on the majority's tendency to negatively labeling minorities as deviant. This theory was famous during the 1970s and it has been modified over time. This theory has maintained the argument that when people are labeled as criminals, they become such by accepting the label as their personal identity.
Validity of the Theory
The labeling theory mainly concentrates on interactive deviance elements. It takes into consideration not only an offender and criminal behavior but also those defining the situation and the person considered as criminal or deviant. The symbolic interactions theory and the looking glass self-concept are the two primary aspects of the labeling theory. The symbolic interactionist has postulated that all reality has been grounded in symbols used to talk about it. If people define situations as real, then they are real with respect to their consequences. For instance, a minority group may be viewed and labeled as criminals by the police after an accusation of robbing s store even when they did not do that. The resulting consequences are an arrest, degradation, or even conviction. The looking glass self of Charles Cooley holds the assumption that people tend to regard themselves in the way they are defined by others. This means an individual viewed as anti-social may see themselves in the same light.
The correlation between labeling and social power is a vital element in the labeling theory. Theorists have contended that the power is found commonly in the hands of those who control legitimate sources of authority and force instruments in the society. This may include lawmakers and associated interests. People occupying the low ends of the economic and social scales are the least powerful in regard to this and, thus, they have no reciprocal power to affix stigmatizing labels to people who have labeled them. This means such individuals will be limited to trying to defend themselves as the power here is unevenly distributed. This interpretation has been supported by some academic studies, which have indicated that low-class members from minorities are the most likely to be arrested, prosecuted, and thus convicted with harsh sentences compared to members of more favored dominant majority groups. This is because their interests are represented the most by the criminal justice system. The major contribution of the labeling theory is that it has enabled people to examine variables of social power and interpretation as related to crime and criminals at large.
Though the validity of the labeling theory has been supported in most academic circles, it has been criticized for having shortcomings. One of the criticisms is its inability to establish circumstances that ought to be present before any person or an act is labeled deviant. Besides, the narrowness of its approach and its failure to explain disparities in the rates of crimes are some of the shortcomings. The theory disregards personal decision-making in the formation of deviance. Nettler in his writings has opposed cognitive depletions of criminality. He has developed severe criticism of the labeling theory. With respect to the labeling theory, an elaborate critique has led to the theory's rejection as a useful explanation of crime. In his book explaining crime, Nettler has argued that the hypothesis and concepts of the theory are unclear and factual evidence that is supposed to test the hypotheses is lacking or feeble. Nettler has enumerated the labeling theory's assumptions one by one and has managed to undermine their arguments.
The use of stereotyping as a concept has been criticized as it is assumed that stereotypes will influence judicial practice more than actual criminality. The allegation is easily made by the labeling theory but seldom proved. The labeling theory has often suggested that society reacts more to who people are than what they have done. This has been opposed by many scholars who have maintained the argument that the judicial system responds more to the act as opposed to the person and their social background. The labeling theory judgment is said not to be positive in terms of the explanatory power and the empirical validity that is observed.
Should Labeling Theory Be Accepted or Rejected when Creating Crime Control Policies
The labeling perspective has a rich tradition in sociology and its conceptual and theoretical foundations can be traced to the writings of symbolic interaction theorists. The perspective of this theory contains the decisive factor of the dominant interest group striving to secure its power. The view of the bottom class as a threat to the theory of power thus will keep undermining this theory. The labeling theory has constantly assumed that social control creates deviance when adolescents are negatively labeled. Though it has been criticized for being a dated liberal defense of delinquency, its central ideas have remained relevant. This theory ought not to be used as its policies promote punishments and exclusionary approaches in schools. Research has found that the labeling effects occurring at US schools prepare the disadvantaged youth for prison. Research has also indicated that criminal records even when dated have adverse effects on people later on in life.
In addition, the labeling theory does not concern itself with individual traits or environmental factors that can instigate initial deviant acts. It has instead focused on stigmatizing effects of the justice system upon those labeled deviant or criminals. The focal point of the theory is the power of social responsibility, especially in the form of social control in producing criminal behavior. It aims at understanding how officially or publicly labeling someone as a criminal may cause the person to become the very thing he/she has been labeled as. This theory has been said to increase crimes in the minority groups as they get involved in crimes to justify what they are being accused, prosecuted, and convicted of by the majority. When no effort is made in reintegrating the offender back to the society that is conventional, most offenders are rejected and labeled as criminals on a long-term basis. Thus, it leaves them with no option but to be involved in criminal acts. This theory will only work to reduce crime when offenders are made to feel guilty or be ashamed of what they have done and then forgiven and reintegrated back in society. This theory should not be used for controlling crime as many researchers have found out that it indeed increases crime.