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Posted on August 17th, 2012, by

The development of criminology was accompanied by the emergence of various theories which attempted to explain causes and essence of crimes as well as behavior of criminals. At the same time, researchers were particularly concerned with motives and factors that influence offenders’ behavior and force them to commit crimes. In actuality, the anti-social behavior is apparently abnormal since it violates norms and rules accepted by the majority of the population, but,  nevertheless, the rules and norms of the society and laws empower by the state and protected by law enforcement agencies have never prevented offenders from committing crimes. Today, the growth of crime rates persist, in spite of all the efforts of the government and law enforcement agencies as well as the criminal justice system at large to tackle this problem effectively.

In such a situation, the understanding of the problem of crimes, reasons and factors that force individuals to commit crimes and define their criminal behavior are particularly important. In this regard, the position of juvenile delinquents is particularly important since it is necessary to understand what factors influence their behavior and why juvenile offenders cannot always be corrected and start a new life. At this point, it is possible to refer to the Labeling theory, which grew popular in the first half of the 20th century, especially during the Great Depression and which is still relevant. This theory suggests an original view on the behavior of criminals, especially juvenile delinquents since the Labeling theory mainly explains the cause of the delinquent behavior by the linguistic tendency of the majority to negatively label minorities and, thus, offenders, being once labeled as criminals, cannot change the label as well as their behavior that provokes cases of recidivism.

The historical background of the Labeling theory

The development of the Labeling theory is closely intertwined with the historical reality in which the theory actually emerged. In fact, the creation of the Labeling theory is traditionally associated with the name of Frank Tannenbaum, who is considered to be the founder of the Labeling theory. In fact, Frank Tannenbaum developed his own theory on the basis of other crime theories, which he combined and analyzed taking into consideration the actual situation in the American society which he witnessed during the Great Depression. In this respect, it is worth mentioning the fact that, at this time, the crime rates rocketed and reached an unparalleled level, to the extent that crime practically became a norm and Americans were extremely disturbed with the high crime rates which affected dramatically their life, while gangs terrorized ordinary Americans day after day and the police and other law enforcement agencies proved to be unable to stop crimes and improve the situation significantly.

Under the impact of the constantly deteriorating criminal situation and his background knowledge of criminal theories, Frank Tannenbaum developed the concept of the Dramatization of Evil which laid the foundation to the Labeling theory. Basically, Frank Tannenbuam was consistently influenced by the Great Depression which marginalized a considerable part of the American society (Lemert, 1974). At the same time, the Great Depression gave rise to the formation of stereotypes, which contributed to the labeling of certain categories of the population as criminals and offenders. In this respect, it is possible to speak about certain idealization of the image of gangs or mobs which operated at the time of the Great Depression and which terrorized the population. To put it more precisely, people were frightened by gangs that ruled the streets of large cities and leaders of gangs were considered to be respectable people because any demonstration of disrespect would lead to the immediate punishment or death of an individual who dared to disrespect a leader or a member of a gang.

In such a way, gangs’ power influenced dramatically the public opinion and the perception of gangs by people. As a result, people perceived gangsters as dangerous people who were outlaws, but they could establish their own rules in the streets. The formation of gangs contributed to the emergence of stereotypes, which defined certain categories of the population, especially unemployed, as criminals. In other words, often it was enough for an individual to be unemployed to make other people suspect that he is a member of a gang. At this point, it is worth mentioning the fact that the formation of stereotypes influenced not only the public perception of certain categories of the US population, but stereotypes also influenced self-perception of individuals. Thus, Frank Tannenbaum managed to shape the concept of the Labeling theory, which in its earlier form was known as Dramatization of Evil. He argued that people, being in a desperate position, when they had no job or resources for living, were marginalized but what made them criminals and what pushed them to the commitment of crimes was the attitude of other people to them (Lemert, 1974). As the society perceived them and labeled them as offenders, they eventually started to act as offenders and committed crimes or became members of gangs.

Later, in the middle and the late-20th century, the Labeling theory was developed by followers of Frank Tannenbaum, but they have never changed the major principles and ideas promoted by Frank Tannenbaum (Matsueda, 1992(. Moreover, it is possible to trace considerable similarities between the past epoch, when Frank Tannenbaum developed his theory and the present epoch since traditionally marginalized groups of the US population are still viewed as potential offenders, while education still does not contribute to the improvement of the position of juveniles, who are often become offenders under the impact of the public opinion and stereotypes which label them as offenders even before the commit an offense.

The essence of the Labeling theory

On analyzing the essence of the Labeling theory and views of its founder, it should be said that Frank Dannenbaum rejected other criminal theories since he believed they were too narrow and did not reflect the actual situation. Instead, he insisted on the development of the multi-disciplinary approach to the crime theory. To put it more precisely, Frank Dannenbaum suggested to take into consideration not only individual factors, namely personal characteristics of an individual, his psychological peculiarities, impact of social environment, and other factors (Matsueda, 1992). In fact, Frank Dannenbaum insisted on the necessity to research ties of an individual with the community. In such a way, the Labeling theory focuses on the impact of the community on the behavior of an individual.

At this point, it is necessary to lay emphasis on the fact that juveniles are particularly vulnerable to the impact of the community. In fact, their psychology and identity is not fully shaped that makes them vulnerable to the impact of their social environment. The impact of their peer groups is particularly significant since juveniles want to feel being members of a community or a social group. In such a situation, when the community tends to label them as offenders, they naturally tend to become more and more marginalized. The exclusion of juveniles is only a part of the problem and the Labeling theory enlarges the view on the essence of the problem of juvenile criminals. This theory does not limit the criminalization of juveniles by environmental factors solely, such as a dangerous, criminal environment in which they grow up, poverty, lack of education, and other factors. In fact, the Labeling theory also pays a lot of attention to the problem of the impact of biases and stereotypes the society imposes on an individual. In regard to juveniles delinquents, this means that juveniles become offenders and keep committing crimes not only because of objective social or personal factors, but also under the impact of biases and stereotypes which shape their identity. Juveniles’ psychology is in the process of formation and the stereotypes they learn and labels the society imposes on them become a serious burden for them. Moreover, they start perceiving themselves as offenders. As a result, they tend to commit crimes, even if they are conscious of the fact that they will be punished and imprisoned.

In addition, it is important to remember about the fact that the risk of recidivism among juvenile offenders increases if they are sentenced to a term in prison. In such a situation, juvenile offenders learn rules and stereotypes existing with the prison community. What is more important, they feel being a part of the prison community and, therefore, they perceive themselves as criminals. They have a positive perception of the concept of a criminal because they understand that it is only when they are criminals they are a part of the specific, criminal community (Matsueda, 1992). Such acceptance by the community is contrasted to the rejection of the society since ordinary people get used to label juvenile offenders as criminals and they are not ready to change their view. Hence, juvenile offenders sincerely believe that they are marginalized and they are a part of the criminal community. Basically, this leads to the recidivism and inability as well as unwillingness of juvenile offenders to get integrated into the normal social life.

At the same time, adult offenders are also vulnerable to the negative impact of labeling, social prejudices and stereotypes. In this respect, the negative impact of the stereotypes and negative attitudes of people offenders organized in gangs is particularly strong because, on the one hand the feel the pressure from the part of the society which views them as marginal outcasts, while on the other hand, they feel being members of the gang and, therefore, they associate themselves with the gang. In such a situation, they naturally tend to delinquent behavior because this behavior is a norm for the group to which they belong or with which they associate themselves. As a result, offenders are under double pressure from the outside of their social group and from within the social group. This pressure naturally leads to the formation of the criminal identity since offenders agree to and accept the label they have got from the society and from their social group.

In such a way, the Labeling theory works at all stages of the development of an individual, from the early years to the adult life people are vulnerable to external influences and develop their identity under the impact of stereotypes and biases which they perceive to be the basis of their personal philosophy. To put it in simple words, the essence of the Labeling theory is revealed in the acceptance of negative images or labels which are attributed to individuals by the society, regardless of their internal inclinations, since their identity is gradually shaped in such a way that it meets the biased view on these individuals.

Criticism of the Labeling theory

In spite of the tremendous popularity of the Labeling theory in the mid-20th century and its relevance today, this theory has a number of points which are criticized by its opponents, to the extent that some specialists reject the Labeling theory as erroneous, though such a view on the Labeling theory is quite radical. At any rate, it is obvious that the Labeling theory or, at least, some of its major points are worth considerations and may be included in other criminological theories. Paradoxically, one of the main points of criticism of the Labeling theory is its simplicity, which may be viewed as strength of the theory because it allows to explain quite complicated phenomena in a relatively simple terms. Nevertheless, critics (Li & Moore, 2001) argue that, by nature, the Labeling theory is based on the changes that occur within the labeled individual and how these changes cause the individual to further his or her criminality. In other words, it is an individual which processes the information he or she receives from the society, including labeling and shapes his or her identity, according to the label. In such a context, it is possible to argue that an individual cannot always vulnerable to the impact of the society and take decisions which meet the expectations or labels defined by the society. Or else, an individual may simply misinterpret the message he or she receives from the society and, thus, develop identity different from the label.

Another point of criticism of the Labeling theory is the weakness of its scientific basis. To put it more precisely, the Labeling theory is grounded on the subjective labels which an individual follows and incorporates in his or her identity (Roth, 2005). Instead, a truly scientific approach tends to rely on objective data and avoids any manifestation of subjectivism. This is why the Labeling theory is criticized by supporters of more scientific approaches.


Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that the Labeling theory is one of the most influential theories in the criminology of the 20th century. It emerged in the 1930s due to works of Frank Tannenbaum, who developed the basis of the theory and its main concepts. The Labeling theory grew popular in the mid-20th century and today it still has a number of supporters. At the same time, this theory is criticized for its simplicity and subjectivism since it implies that an individual’s criminal identity is shaped under the impact of subjective labels that are imposed on him or her by the society and accepted by the individuals as a part of his or her own identity.

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