The Effects of Labelling Theory

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Labelling theory was devised by socialists in the 1960's with the aim of understanding how the mind processes and responds to self-image. Self-Identify and personal behavior is subject to the terms used to describe or classify an individual. Labelling theory suggests that the label given to an individual significantly influences their lifestyle, social reaction and general personality (Adams et al., 2003). Every society has its rules and norms of living, and those that do not abide by them are labelled as deviant. Marxists will argue that rules are set up by the ruling class for the government to ensure that their power and authority is never left at stake. Social groups may feel uncomfortable with these rules and act outside the regulation; not because they are criminal, but as an expression of personal preference.  To the authorities and the outsiders, they appear deviant and ignorant (Akers, 2017). Arguably, deviance is more of a consequence of the application of a given low than the quality of the act a person commits. This paper explores the basics of the labelling theory, and how it can be applied in youth crime.

Although people may appear tough and immune to some of the reactions of unlikeable treatment the world throws at them, the mind is rather susceptible and often succumbs to external pressures. In this context, sociologists believe that the label given to someone has a great potential to influence their behavior or personality towards a given direction. For example, if you bring up a child convincing him or her every day that he is a victim of a ruthless authority, that child is more likely to develop a victim mentality for the rest of their lives (Alain, & Desrosiers, 2016). When a person has been acquitted and labelled as a criminal, this title goes beyond a mere name and tends to affect them for longer over the course of their lives. This theory has been investigated on foster youth leaving care centres, whose victim mentality and slight brush off with the authorities seem to trigger an endless cycle of criminal involvements. The labelling theory takes word of mouth literally, such as whatever is said comes to be (Alain, & Desrosiers, 2016).

The labelling theory is founded from the little principles that define peoples' lives. There are those special roles that contribute to the social deviance, stigma and communal seclusion. While many may miss the essence of this theory, it is prudent to acknowledge that no one intends to be evil or to continue living a negative life. Rather, the condition of the mind has a lot of power in directing the choices and behavioural affiliations of a person even in their unconscious mind. According to Becker (2018), the sense of belonging in society has more essence than one can easily perceive. It is the basic foundation of life for some people, and when it labels that person as a failure or an outcast, so does the person to him or herself. The society does not know how well to draw the line between crime and deviance, making the two words to be often used interchangeably (Bittle et al., 2018). Once a deviant person has been labelled as a criminal, it becomes difficult for most of them to cross the line back to rationality and responsibility.

Labelling Theory Application in Youth Crime

Becker, (2018), argues that deviant behavior is socially constructed, and persistent criminal behavior is directly affiliated with the societal perceptions towards an individual. Becker argues that the greatest act of hypocrisy is defining, alienating and confining an offender to an unjust title, just because he or she has been caught and you have not. This is particularly influential to youth because it makes them to feel outcast and to indulge deeper in the described behavior to fit the description and find a sense of belonging in a group regardless of its activity of natural affiliation (Burke, 2017). The theoretical approach to labelling deviance runs from the social reaction to the concept to the interactive processes leading up the deviance in the first place. Criminology has been given too much attention than any other perspective of any non-conforming behavior has no room in today's community (Crane, & Sewell, 2014).

Burke (2017), outlines the effects of a label to a person relative to their previous status and outlines that it completely tunes their mind into their new status. For example, if a youthful father s labelled as a paedophile or a murderer, the new title completely overhauls the former, compelling them to develop for the worse fully. The youth is a sensitive stage because it is here that a person makes way and makes decisions on the directions and affiliation for the next of their lives (Crane, & Sewell, 2014). A youthful mind is full of possibilities, plans, and admirations, which can be easily destroyed by a negatively debilitating label. A label is not neutral; rather, it is a direct illustration of how the society visualizes and criminalizes you. A title is more of a self-fulfilling prophecy, where the deviant definition is empowered to completely gain control (Hawkins, & Weis, 2017). Since most of these labels tend to lean towards the negative side, they are a destructive tool which goes a long way to wreck the life of a youth.

Functionalists believe that deviance is not evil, but an essential part in the construction of every society. The autocrats cannot have everything their way, as evil would prevail (Coker et al., 2014). It is due to deviance that parliaments have opposition, jealousy, and competition. The problem with it is that the people rarely realize where the boundary between crime and deviance lies, making every deviant soul to be criminalized (Hora, 2017). Unfortunately, this creates that downward momentum, which lands them in more trouble than they were. It also confines them to a downward trajectory. The boundaries between right and wrong are so strongly demarcated that everyone who even attempts to drift away from the social norms dictated by the ruling class is declared an outcast. Although these boundaries strengthen discipline and adherence, defiance is essential in establishing social order (Kavish, Mullins, & Soto, 2016). Youth should be allowed to be explorative without being threatened with the issues of crime because this only success to increase the level of brokenness in the community.

A huge portion of the delinquent and criminal minds in the youthful age start early. Those who grow up in foster care are more likely to exposed to this truth because the whole society visualizes them as outcasts or failures. Statistics have shown that people from some races such as African Americans, some parental backgrounds such as those brought up by single parents or those who grew up in the "hood"are more likely to indulge in crime (Lee et al., 2015). Yet, similar people who have moved to other locations or adopted by different families often perform better in their lives (Lee et al., 2015). All these shows that how children are labelled has great consequences to whom they turn out to be or the choices they make in life.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Labelling Theory

Relative to various theories which attempt to analyse and explain various crimes and criminal behavior, labelling theory stands out because of its tendency to focus on all types of crimes and individual populations, which is more applicable in understanding the actual status in the community (Lee et al., 2015). A proper understanding of crime requires the examination of all factors that contribute to personality development. This theory examines crime from childhood development to the label contribution hence breaking it down well. In addition to that, the labelling theory asserts that criminals and normal law-abiding persons in the community are the same, with differences occurring along the way (Nwalozie, 2015). Also, it holds that anyone can cross the line to or from crime depending on their deviance status of a label attached to them by the community. Other deviance theories paint criminals as an entirely different breed, which may not be necessarily correct (Espelage, Merrin, & Hatchel, 2018). Above those, labelling theory leaves room for an intervention that the community can take to save more souls from indulging in crime. If the society stopped labelling youth, Becker argues that the crime rates would decrease significantly.

However, there are a few weaknesses to this theory too. First, the theory is too deterministic. According to the argument, once a person has been deemed deviant or criminal, his or her fate has been stamped, and the rest of their lives can be mapped out (Quinn, 2010). It leaves a vacuum for those who indulge in crime and then completely change and become mentors or role models. Secondly, labelling theory gives the offender a victim status which in itself can provide a safe breeding ground for crime (White, Haines, & Asquith, 2017). Even though labelling contributes significantly to the future of a person in crime, once one has committed an offense, it should be analysed before terming him or her a victim.  Lastly, this theory does not expound on why people in the society commit the first act of defiance which leads to them being labelled. Every crime has a starting point, and the shortcoming of this theory is that it does not explain the origin of it all. Rather, it picks up from where the first crime has already been committed.

Applicability of Labelling Theory in Explaining Criminal Behavior

Labelling theory is highly applicable in sociology to analyse criminal behavior, especially among the youth. Contrary to all other theories and social perspectives which lay the blame on the criminal, this theory highlights the entire spectacle of the crime and shines a light on all possible factors that contribute to its development (Terrie, 2018). More infuriating is the fact that the society is to blame for the proliferation of crime and the growth of children only to indulge in the same uncomforting behavior. Labelling theory basis its argument on the psychological development of crime right from a young age (Terrie, 2018). It holds the words and labels in a prophetic capacity, thereby effectively ruling on the contribution of the victimized society to the troubling crime.

Moreover, crime among the youth has been greatly affiliated to bringing up of a person, drug and substance abuse, peer pressure and low self-esteem. All these are social issues which can be combated with appropriate upbringing (Terrie, 2018). It is evident that some parents contribute to the criminal aspects of their children by failing to show them their absolute capacity or reprimanding them for minor mistakes by giving them a permanent characterization based on one mistake they did in their childhood. The role played by the mind in the development of criminal behavior is immense. This theory should be familiarized to the members of the community to make them aware of the danger of premature labelling and negative characterization of the members of the youth. Children should be brought up with the perception that they are equal regardless of their origin, and that their mistakes do not define them. Empowering them to take control of their lives at a young age will enable them to resist criminalization in the future, and a capacity to brush off such labels so they can protect character.


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December 12, 2023


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