The labeling theory of juvenile delinquency deals with the effects of labels, or stigmas, on juvenile behavior. Labeling theory holds that society, by placing labels on juvenile delinquents, stigmatizes them, leading to a negative label for a youth to develop into a negative self-image. A court of law, some other agency, a youth's family and supervisors, and/or the youth's peers give a name - or a "label" - to the youth, often in "degradation ceremonies" (1). These ceremonies may be a suspension hearing with the principal or dean of a school, a court trial, or a home punishment, among others.
Youths who are labeled as "criminals" or "delinquents" may hold these as self-fulfilling prophecies - believing the labels that others assign to them, thereby acting as the labels. A youth who succumbs to a label may then proceed to act as a "criminal" or act as a "delinquent," abandoning social norms because he or she believes that he or she is a bad person and that this is what bad people are supposed to do. Frank Tannenbaum called this social labeling the "dramatization of evil." He argues that this "transforms the offender's identity from a doer of evil to an evil person." Labels can be applied formally, by social institutions (courts, schools, etc.) or informally, by a youth's acquaintances, peers, and families. These labels can be positive, or negative, and even socializing, but stigma that hold negative connotations and may negatively effect the juvenile are the main concern of labeling theory (1).
Self-rejection, by self-fulfilling prophecy, plays a role in social labeling theory. "Self-rejecting attitudes result in both a weakened commitment to conventional values and the acquisition of motives to deviate from social norms" (1). A sense of anomie (normlessness) sets in and the juvenile will form bonds with like-minded, delinquent, peers. These delinquent peers can lead to the juvenile's "'rejection of rejectors.' Teachers are stupid;' cops are dishonest;' parents just don't understand.'" These troubled youths become distanced from society and find themselves in deviant lifestyles (1). Basically, social labeling theory holds that juveniles begin believing they are people who do bad things and are transformed into believing they are bad people.
The primary question that needs to be addressed is whether labeling theory makes sense: does it have logical consistency? The theory argues that there is a self-fulfilling prophecy in which a juvenile becomes negatively labeled and subsequently lives up to that negative label. At first look, this makes sense; a negative label cannot conceivably be seen as positive (at least by society; a delinquent may view their negative behavior as positive) and could be seen as detrimental to a youth's confidence, self-respect, and self-esteem (2). However, what of delinquents whose primary problem is a disrespect or distrust of authority; why would an adolescent who does not listen to what his or her elders say all of a sudden believe them when they label him or her as a delinquent, a criminal, a bad person, etc. Overall, social labeling theory is logical, but it is not flawless; there are going to be a number of exceptions to the rule.
The next analysis that must be conducted resides in scope and parsimony: this deals with the complexity of the theory. Social labeling theory is a pretty straight-forward concepta juvenile is stigmatized and they have a self-fulfilling prophecy of this label. It does not really look into specific behaviors or reactions, focusing on the overall populationthis may be its greatest flaw. Labeling theory would likely be much more widely accepted as a strong theory if it focused more on degree of stigmatizing. Currently, many studies of labeling theory view it as "flawed and inconclusive" (3).
The third criteria for evaluating theory is testability: can the theory be tested; does it involve tautology or circular reasoning? Labeling theory is quite testable. For example, one could track juveniles who commit delinquent crimes by those who become labeled by the system and those who are not labeled. If those who are labeled commit more future crime or display other negative qualities than those who are not labeled, this would provide support for labeling theory's validity. There was a study done on prison inmates reactions to disciplinary activity based on stigma. Over the period of a year, the results indicated that there was virtually no difference in the subsequent behavior between the control groups and the experimental groups (4). There does appear to be an existence of tautology. Logically, those juveniles who commit the most serious of acts would receive the most negative of stigmas; likewise, those who commit the lesser, more forgivable acts, will likely be given a second chance by society and their families.
The next criteria to evaluate social labeling theory which needs to be examined is its empirical validity. The previously addressed study of prison inmates did not provide any support to the legitimacy of labeling theory; if anything, it gave evidence to labeling theory's opponents. However, in another study conducted among students, formal and informal labels were tested for validity. It concluded that a juvenile's teachers are possibly the most "important sources of negative labeling." The study also pointed to peer-labeling as a significant predictor of serious delinquency. It showed that family-labeling did not hold much significance. These results do not account for other factors, however. The individuals involved in the experiment may very well be affected by the logistics of other theories (for example, the forces of strain theory, social learning theory, and/or social control theory could be at work). Additionally, unlike the study on inmates, this basically focused on youths who had not yet committed serious crime, and their labels were, for the most part, informal (5).
Finally, the usefulness and policy implications of labeling theory need to be explored. "Labeling theory may help explain why some youths continue down the path of anti-social behaviors (they are labeled), whereas most are able to desist from a crime (they are stigma-free)" (1). While the results may be divided, because there is even a marginal implication, the question of whether or not applying negative stigmas to juveniles effects their behavior needs to be addressed in policy-making. If any, or at least a decent amount of evidence, points toward the negative implications of stigmas, it would be wise to force institutions to avoid them altogether, or to at least keep them at bay unless absolutely necessary.
Overall, labeling theory appears to be a shaky and marginally supported theory at best. There are some studies that hold that stigmatizing labels generally feed a self-fulfilling prophecy to juveniles, supporting social labeling theory. On the other hand, there are a number of studies and research evidence that says that stigmatizing labels have no effect on juveniles' behavior; some, although very few, even hold that stigmatizing labels actually reduce delinquent acts. It is a "right and wrong" theory. Social labeling theory really deals with how "society reacts to individuals" and how "individuals react to society." There lies the problemit is too broad of a concept. Some juveniles are stigmatized by their teachers, or stigmatized by law enforcement (formal labels), but are positively reinforced by their parents and family. Others are stigmatized by their parents and/or their family (informal labels), yet are positively reinforced by their teachers or other official institutions (1). If proponents of social labeling theory can devise a way to account for individual distinctiveness, they can give the theory more respectability and make it more acceptable. As of now, social labeling theory is an unstable and unsound theory, with little credibility.
(1) Seigel, Larry J. Juvenile Delinquency. Belmont: Wadsworth Group, 2002.
(2) Clarke, Walter V. "The Problem of Labeling: The Semantics of Behavior." A Review of General Semantics. Academic Search Premier. Vol 55 Issue 4 p404. Fort Worth, 1998, 1999.
(3) Fernald, Charles D. and Gettys, Linda. "Diagnostic Labels and Perceptions of Children's Behavior." Journal of Clinical Child Psychology. Academic Search Premier. Vol 9 Issue 3 p229. New Jersey, 1980.
(4) Bench, Lawrence L. and Allen, Terry D. "Investigating the Stigma of Prison Classification: An Experimental Design." Prison Journal. Vol. 83 Issue 4 p367. Thousand Oaks, California, Dec 2003.
(5) Adams, Mike S. et. al. "Labeling and Delinquency." Adolescence. Academic Search Premier. Vol 38 Issue 149 p171. San Diego, 2003.