Labeling theory

Labeling theory presents a distinctly sociological approach that focuses on the role of social labeling in the development of criminal and deviant behavior. It argues that although deviant behavior might originate from various causes and conditions, once individuals are labeled or defined as deviant, they often face new challenges stemming from both self and societal reactions to the negative stereotypes (stigma) associated with such labels. These challenges, in turn, may increase the likelihood of the deviant and criminal behaviors becoming stable and chronic.

Introduction to Labeling Theory

Labeling theory asserts that deviant behavior can originate from a multitude of causes, yet it emphasizes the significant transformation that occurs once an individual is socially labeled as deviant. Post-labeling, individuals often encounter complex social reactions shaped by attached stigmas, leading to further deviant behavior as a means of defense, attack, or adaptation to the label-induced challenges. Consequently, being labeled or defined by others as a criminal may trigger processes that reinforce or stabilize deviant conduct, independent of the original behavior patterns and underlying social and psychological conditions.

Stigmatization and Deviant Labels

Individuals labeled as criminals are frequently marginalized and seen as fundamentally different from others, associated with stereotypes of undesirable traits. This deviant status can overshadow other personal attributes, effectively becoming a master status; that is, the negative images attached to the deviant label may override other characteristics of the person. Such labeling carries connotations that specify auxiliary traits typical of anyone bearing the label, rendering the labeled person as potentially incapable of moral conduct and likely to break other significant rules. Studies indicate that the stigma of being labeled a criminal fosters widespread distrust and disdain towards those with a criminal label. Labels such as ‘sexual offender’ or ‘violent criminal’ tend to exacerbate these effects profoundly.

Formal and Informal Labeling

The theory emphasizes that formal labeling by police and criminal justice systems plays a prominent role in the societal labeling process. The contemporary state’s formal monopoly on sanctioning offenders highlights and accentuates the immorality and social non-compliance of the labeled individuals. However, the concept of informal labeling remains central to the theory, stressing that formal labeling significantly affects individual development largely through triggering stigmatization in informal settings. A mere arrest might remain inconsequential if kept secret from school authorities and local community members. However, if disclosed, it can provoke exclusionary reactions from teachers and community members. Furthermore, the social public might impose deviant labels on actors in the absence of formal labeling.

Criminogenic Processes Triggered by Labeling

Developing a Deviant Self-Concept: Individuals learn to define themselves based on how they perceive others’ attitudes towards them. As these attitudes are influenced by negative stereotypes, labeled individuals might face stereotypical expectations, leading to a change in self-concept where one might begin to view themselves as deviant, assuming the deviant role. The relationship between reflected appraisals and self-concept is dynamic and complex, where the perceived opinions of others can shape one’s self-concept differently depending on the situational significance of these opinions.

Rejection and Withdrawal Process: Labeled individuals might believe that most people distrust, devalue, and reject those labeled as criminals, often avoiding social encounters that are vital for maintaining links with mainstream groups and institutions. Criminologists have analyzed how labeling can undermine conventional social ties, potentially leading to a temporary but significant impact on individual development, which can snowball into a long-term effect on life trajectories and thereby on the development of criminal behavior.

Involvement in Deviant Groups: Deviant peer groups offer social support, accepting deviant labels while providing rationalizations, attitudes, and collective opportunities that foster and facilitate deviant behavior. Labeling can increase young individuals’ involvement in deviant peer groups due to three main processes: rejection by conventional peers, withdrawal from uncomfortable social encounters, and seeking friendship with those who share a similar deviant self-concept.

The Broader Social Context

The role of the broader social context is crucial in specifying the impact of formal criminal labeling. In communitarian societies, characterized by high levels of social cohesion, trust, and group loyalty, moral condemnation is often followed by informal and even formal efforts to reintegrate offenders into the community through forgiveness and efforts to maintain social ties. In contrast, highly individualistic societies feature fewer reintegration mechanisms, leading to frequent stigmatization. Thus, formal labeling is likely to be more criminogenic in individualistic societies than in communitarian ones.


Contemporary work on labeling theory highlights its compatibility with other theories of crime and deviance and its focus on social exclusion, complementing other sociological theories that argue that weak social ties, blocked opportunities, and association with deviant groups are significant factors explaining criminal and deviant behavior.

Jón Gunnar Bernburg. 2019. Labeling Theory. In: Marvin D. Krohn, Nicole Hendrix, Gina Penly Hall, and Alan J. Lizotte (eds.), Handbook of Crime and Deviance, Second Edition. Springer Nature Switzerland