Labeling Theory

Labeling Theory is a social process theory that focuses on the interaction between individuals and society. This theory assumes that it is probable that every person can commit criminal acts. According to the labeling theory, a person is more apt to commit acts that go against what is socially acceptable if that person is labeled in such a way. It is with personal experience that I can say without a doubt that it is not only possible but also probable that a person can become what they are labeled.

I believe that this theory applies more to children and those with low self-esteem than anyone with a positive self-image does. I grew up in a home with a mother who did everything in her power to make sure we had the necessities to live, but gave little thought to that of our mental health. I have always been a bit of a flirt (primary deviance) since as far back as I can remember, everyone noticed this especially my mother.

I remember that my mother had started calling me a whore as early on as when I was in fifth grade. The more I heard this, the more I acted out, but it was not until 11th grade that I actually had sex. Her words haunted me for many years and I became sexually promiscuous ( secondary deviance). It was not until years later when I looked into the mirror and hated what I saw that I decided to change.

With each week came more self-awareness and actions that could make me proud, escalating my self-worth and decreasing the effect of the label. It is like a child being told he is bad instead of the actions being bad, there is every chance that the child can become exactly what he was called. So many things factor into the effect of label, but there is an effect. With the acknowledgement of labeling having a negative effect came about policies, programs, and procedures to reduce the chance of labeling.  

Diversion programs were created to keep people mainly children from going through the system and incurring a label that could very easily stick with them. The various programs that were created did not do as was expected, the juveniles still obtained labels, and sometimes they were just different from the one they would have received.

Decriminalization came about in order to decrease the chance of labeling in certain situations. When a juvenile committed an offense that was not illegal had an adult committed it (status offense) they were brought into the system. Now, if a child runs away, drinks, or is being promiscuous they will be dealt with through social agencies, decreasing the likely hood of being labeled.

Both diversion programs and decriminalization focus on keeping a person out of the system when a primary deviant act is committed in order to decrease the chances of labeling, therefore, reducing the chance of secondary deviance.

I believe that the biggest thing that society, corrections and schools can due to reduce the negative effects of labeling is to separate the action from the person. The person has to be aware that he or she is not their actions this can be done through counseling or groups provided through school, prisons and/or community centers.

It is also important that a person have a chance to work off the label by allowing the person to participate in positive programs throughout the community such as food drives, and nursing home visits. The negativity of a label can grow and spread or it can be stopped and turned into something good, but many people do not know how to do this on their own, with the help of the system and the community those affects can be turned into a positive.


South University. (n.d.). Labeling Theory (2 of 4). Retrieved November 29, 2009, from South University:

Williams, M. &. (2010). Criminological Theory, Fifth Edition. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.