You are a sociologist, and you are noticing that the juveniles in your area are starting to cause legal problems and are beginning to overload the juvenile court system. Once you decide on the theory, describe how it relates to juveniles by explaining what the theory believes causes the juvenile problems. Explain what you could do in your position to aid in alleviating these problems.
Labeling theory holds that individuals come to identify and act as per their labels. The major tenet of this theory is that the behavior and self-identify of individuals is affected by the way they are described by other people (Vold, Bernard, Snipes, & Gerould, 2016). According to this theory, the act of deviance is not implicit in a particular act, but is hedged on the inclination of the majority to ascribe labels to minorities in society who deviate from standard behavior. Labeling leads to dramatization of a particular act – which propagates the behavioral clash between the individual and the community. Through ascribing labels, the individuals acquire a negative self-image. The individuals accept themselves as labeled by the community. Such people are likely to continue engaging in deviant acts because they become accustomed to the labels. Secondary deviance also arises due to the social rejection that deviants face in the community.
Labeling theory arose in the late 1930s. The development of the theory is attributed to Frank Tannenbaum in 1938 (Vold, Bernard, Snipes, & Gerould, 2016). The theory was developed because of the apparent conflict between the young individuals and adults within communities. In the 1960s, labeling theory became an important theory in defining crime. Howard Becker introduced the major concepts that define labeling theory in 1963. This was a period when the United States was undergoing significant cultural and political conflict. Of particular concern during this period is that it was a period of black emancipation. However, due to lack of jobs and high poverty, majority of African Americans engaged in crime and other forms of antisocial behavior. It was during this period that labeling was at its highest.
The founders of labeling theory contended that theories of crime causation at the time overemphasized about deviance being the result of personal factors, while ignoring the reactions of society towards crime. Tannenbaum observed that sociologists concentrated much on the deviant acts and the behavior of the deviant, while neglecting the influence of society (Vold, Bernard, Snipes, & Gerould, 2016). He noted that other sociological theories of crime believed that since crime is bad, individuals involved in crime are also inherently bad. Tannenbaum disputed the notion perpetrated by other sociological theories that crime was the result of the individual’s inability to adjust to the society. On the contrary, he argued that deviants view themselves as part of a particular group in the society, where their behavior is acceptable by other group members.
The “looking-glass self” clearly explains how deviant behavior arises among juveniles. Under this concept, the social self is seen as the image that one internalizes out of how others define him or her (Winters, Globokar, & Roberson, 2014). The society is thus like a mirror or the ‘looking glass’ through which one sees the self. According to the proponents of the labeling theory, the ‘looking glass’ have a significant impact on one’s behavior. For instance, when a person construes that other seem him/her as lazy, that person will likely act lazy in order to fulfill the ascription. This is the same as self-fulfilling. In line with this concept, when youths face arrests, they are kept with other criminals and are labeled criminals. This gives the particular youth different experiences. The youth may develop new friendships while in prison or join gangs. While the youth leaves prison, he/she is likely to continue with criminal behavior.
Labeling theory falls under the positivist school of thought. The positivist school holds that criminal behavior is the result of internal and external factors that individuals cannot be able to control. The positivist school has three segments that include social, psychological and biological segments. The sociological positivism argues that various societal factors such as membership of subcultures and unemployment can lead people to commit crimes, just like under the concept of labeling theory. According to the labeling theory, the individual becomes conscious or self-conscious depending on the labels attached. This occurs through a process of describing, defining, tagging, and through other mechanisms (Winters, Globokar, & Roberson, 2014). This leads to the stimulation or evoking of the particular traits that the society considers bad in the individual concerned.
Frank Tannenbaum is one of the greatest contributors to labeling theory. His article ‘crime and community’ published in 1938 provided great insights about antisocial behavior and labeling. Tannenbaum introduced the concept of ‘tagging’. During his studies, he found that tags attached to the youths influenced their involvement in the criminal acts. Another key contributor is Edwin Lemert, whom in 1951 introduced the idea of ‘secondary deviance’ (Vold, Bernard, Snipes, & Gerould, 2016). Secondary deviance arises due to the social rejection that deviants face. Howard Becker is another key symbol in the development of labeling theory. His work explains how people adopt deviant roles, and provides details about identity formation.
In order for labeling theory to hold, certain assumptions are inevitable. One of the major assumptions is that the initial deviant acts are the result of a wide array of factors. Primary deviance is considered unrecognizable or unnoticeable by other individuals. (Winters, Globokar, & Roberson, 2014). Another major assumption is that deviants move through a complex process to become secondary deviants. In order for to become secondary deviant, there must be a societal reaction to the initial behavior exhibited. This reaction leads to labeling.
Despite the seemingly success and wide acceptance, various criticism are leveled against the theory. The first criticism can be stated as the classical egg or chicken dilemma. In this argument, critiques question whether it is the label or behavior, which comes first among individuals. Another critique of labeling theory is that it puts more emphasis on formal labels. For instance, labels associated with school officials and those from police. There is also the concern about the individuals who obtain these labels. The question is do the powerful get labels just like the poor or the underdogs? Another criticism lies on the assumption that a person’s nature is more predicative of the reaction time comparing to the nature of an act (Clinard, 2016).
Individuals can alleviate the problems outlined by labeling theory by avoiding the labeling process (Winters, Globokar, & Roberson, 2014). Law enforcement officials should not intervene in matters regarding juvenile delinquency. Law enforcement officers should adopt a policy of radical non-intervention. Another implication of labeling theory is decriminalization, which involves the lessening of the severity of penalties relating to particular acts. This means that people should not criminalize simple bad behaviors by the youths. In this situation, I would encourage the community through educational campaigns to deal with minor deviance issues associated with youths in the area. For instance, youths who are caught stealing should not be handed over to juvenile courts since this would lead to labeling. Instead, it would be better to talk to the youths and establish their motifs for stealing. Counseling the youths about why it is wrong to steal would also be of help.
Clinard, M. B. (2016). Sociology of deviant behavior. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.
Vold, G. B., Bernard, T. J., Snipes, J. B., & Gerould, A. L. (2016). Vold’s theoretical criminology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Winters, R. C., Globokar, J. L., & Roberson, C. (2014). An introduction to crime and violence. CRC Press.