Association between Crime and Labeling Theory

According to Social Reaction Theory, criminal behaviour and what is considered to be deviant is defined by how any given society at any given point in time reacts to people and their behaviour. Society’s condemnation of a “criminal” act is not necessarily just a function of the moral content of the act itself. Ultimately, crime varies from situation to situation and across space and time. In its most radical form this theory argues that crimes like murder and assault are evil simply due to labels- that is they are bad because society says they are bad. For example, even though we look back on slavery as a completely unthinkable economic model today, it does not change the fact that it was legal for over 400 years in North America alone. Definitions of criminality have changed over space and time.

The subjectivity or arbitrariness of crime can be further examined when considering individual perceptions of what is criminal and what is not. A large percentage of university students think smoking pot is legal. But an important point to note once again is that any prevailing interpretation of what is criminal or deviant is a product of those who are in power. This takes us back to the interactionist view of crime where those with social power and a particular moral agenda influence the law. If students had more social power perhaps our drug policies would be different.

Taking into consideration the subjective and changing perceptions we hold of criminality and deviance, it is no wonder that social reaction theory is marked with the idea that the law is applied differently to different members of society. Our criminal justice system exercises a bias in rounding up (generally speaking) non-white offenders. The point is that being arrested or convicted of a crime is not simply a function of whether one commits a crime or not. Determining someone’s culpability carries its own biases and this is seen in the disproportionate number of aboriginal individuals that make their way through our justice system each year.

But Social Labelling Theory also means that regardless of gender, age, sex or economic standing if someone is labelled a bad apple, they will ultimately be treated like one.  A criminal label can control how someone is identified in society and often reduces the complex identity of an individual who occupies many roles such as mother, daughter, friend and co-worker into one negative conception- criminal.  Inevitably this is coupled with feelings of shame and whether this can help an individual conform and reduce their criminal behaviour is dubious at best. If a label is successfully applied to an individual then the individual’s conception of their own identity begins to reflect society’s conception of themself and the effects of this are discussed in the next section.



Social Reaction Theory

Social Reaction Theory, also and more commonly known as the Labeling theory explains criminal careers in terms of destructive social interaction and stigma-producing encounters. Basically, in simpler terms, it explains why people choose criminal careers as a consequence of labeling, which has a stigmatizing effect. (Stigma is to apply negative labels with enduring effects in a person’s self-image and social interactions. For example, can you think back to high school and recall the “nerd, popular, mood at math, or athlete” of your class? If you can, you know that labels stick! If YOU can remember, imagine how well the person who is labeled remembers!


People can deviate in ways what will barely impact their long-term life or in ways that will significantly affect their long-term life. The first one, primary deviance, is officially defined as a norm violation with little or no long-term influence on the violator”. For example, stealing a CD from a music store and not getting caught. The latter, secondary deviance, is defined as “ a norm violation or crime that comes to the attention of significant others or social control agents, who apply a negative label with long-term consequences for the violator’s self-identity and social interactions”. For example, going into a CD store, getting caught, and being prohibited from entering your favorite music store ever again. This may cause you to build up anger and frustration rather than restore you.

Consequences of labelling

Labelling theory comes with consequences that changes the identity of a person in a negative way:

First one is changing self-image,

This is done by the attempt of re-evaluating an individual’s identity based on opinions from other people. If a majority were to say that a boy is a cold hearted thief, that boy would take that title and play the role, Because of the assumptions made from other people, an individual would behave based on their descriptions, whether it is true or false.




Second one is joining a Deviant Clique,

This consequence is when people join a group that consists of members that accept each other, their behaviour and share common interest. Some of the reasons for joining is because a small amount of people self-reject themselves, where they believe that their life is meaningless and have no importance in life. Another reason is that a few individuals see themselves as outcasts, where they do not accept the life they are living in or where other people and certain lifestyles do not accept them. These types of people form a clique so that they feel important and be recognized rather than being careless or neglected.


The final consequence is a Retrospective Reading where an individual’s previous status from the past is re-evaluated to be matched with the present status. If a life of a psychopath has to be interviewed it would be done by speaking to those who were past associated with that person such as neighbours, teachers and family doctors. Information is gained by these people and compared to the current status the psychopath, where the neighbours could say that this person was very disturbed as a child and the doctor would say that a mental illness was causing him or her to have a normal life. Once all of this information is gained for the individual’s previous status, the present status will be brought to make a comparison and to find a connection.