Howard Becker's labeling theory was developed in 1963 and has been argued, debated and criticized regularly ever since. This shows only that the theory must still be alive and well as it continues to stir interest in not only sociologists but also all social scientists and theorists alike.
Many studies in the criminology fields refer to the labeling theory at some time. However, it is not only in the field of criminology studies that labeling takes place, theorists in studies of class, mental illness and education are other examples.
Labeling is a form of stereotyping and once someone has been labelled, it is extremely difficult or impossible to retract the label. The neighborhood a child is brought up in can cause a child to be labeled from birth.
For example; a child born into a slum area is not expected to do well either in education or job prospects, therefore it is not unpredicted if the child goes on to be idle, a petty thief or a drug addict. On the other hand, a child born and raised in a 'nice area' is expected to do well for themself and thrive.
The theory itself suggests that people become deviant because of a label attached to them or 'their kind'. For example, authorities are less likely to believe a youth from the slums has accidently broken the law than one from a 'nice' neighborhood. The youth from the slum is stigmatized as a criminal and dealt with as such.
From then on as the youth grows, so does the stigma. He/she is now labeled as untrustworthy, and as the lack of prospects goes from bad to worse the risk of re-offending becomes more. According to Edwin Lemert in1972, this stage is called 'primary deviation'. Once the youth accepts that he/she is a deviant, they have reached 'secondary deviation', or the point of no return. By this time the youth has a reason to act or be a certain way, in a way they feel they are not personally responsible for their actions, society is.
There are many reasons the theory has been and still is criticized. The most often asked questions are - 'who gets labelled?' and 'who does the labeling?' From the examples already mentioned, we can see how easy it is for a child from a 'non-conformist' background, to be seen as a trouble maker, untrustworthy, boisterous or deviant, by, police, judges, jurors, teachers etc.
By non-conformist it could mean; poor or from a poor neighbourhood, from a broken home, a particular colour or race. As laws differ, sometimes immensely from country to country and often state to state, it is difficult to make definitions of criminality. In addition, there is no clear-cut proof that labeling does increase deviant behaviour.
It is certainly a logical argument that labelled individuals find it difficult finding and holding down long-term employment or social relationships, possibly causing them to feel 'shut out' by society and driving them further into the company of other criminals, or as they see them their own kind.
The labeling theory was popular in the sixties and seventies, popularity has been reported as having died down since then. However, some points made by the early theorists do seem to still hold providence today.