Labeling Theory Term Paper

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¶ … labeling theory and its specific relevance to the condition of juvenile delinquency. Through references and studies the effect of negative as well as positive labeling will be discussed and a reviewed for its particular impact on the younger offender. Also considered will be the part that labeling theory, as well as other social interactions, has played in affecting the justice system's sentencing of juvenile offenders. Though labeling theory focuses primarily on the negative impact on juveniles, it has also played a part in correcting many misuses of power in the justice system.

Labeling Theory

Social interaction is an extremely important aspect of human behavior and is an integral part of the survival instinct of the species as a whole. The human brain has developed very sophisticated methods of pattern recognition and association that has served in the past to warn of danger in a more rapid manner than might be available otherwise. By stereotyping certain people or even situations with similar characteristics, the brain shortcuts much of the rethinking involved in analyzing the circumstance or situation and is able to act and adapt more quickly.

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Stereotyping is the basic premise of labeling theory (Lanier & Henry, 1998) and is expounded upon in criminology and specifically in the cases of the juvenile delinquent. Labeling theorists believe that negative labeling has long-term impact on the offender and may be a contributing cause for recidivism.

TOPIC: Term Paper on Labeling Theory Assignment

In labeling theory the self is viewed as part of the overall interactive social process of the culture. This self is always subject to the reactions of others in the environment. There are generally two types of labeling. This first is formal labeling, which includes evaluation by teachers, social workers, priests, therapists and other professionals. The second is informal labeling which comprises the reactions of family, peers and other community social groups. With and throughout the interactions of this process over time the youth's self-concept or self-label is created. Deviant formal labels are hypothesized to be much more detrimental than informal labels, but the overall contribution of both can certainly be devastating. Succinctly, labeling theory looks at differing labeling sources and specific relationships over time and makes an attempt to predict the onset of deviant behavior in juveniles (Downs, Robertson & Harrison, 1997). Labeling theorists believe that the act of labeling itself has the effect of pigeonholing an individual and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Take the following example that Barlowe provides:

Labeling a safecracker, for example, risks the possibility that they will have a self-identify as a safecracker affirmed by the labeling. We see the dynamics of labeling daily in the interactions of parents and teachers with young children: "You call me bad and I'll show you how bad I can be," the labeled child implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, says. (1995, p. 193)

Juveniles are much more susceptible to labeling than are adults in that they have not yet developed the necessary ego protective mechanisms and self-concepts to thwart off the negative impact of stereotyping:

Since youths are relatively powerless in society, they are predisposed to different forms of labels and tags placed on them by adults and other authority figures that exert immense levels of control. In numerous instances, when children are labeled delinquents, they take on like characteristics. (Onwudiwe, 2004)

It is this negative impact of labeling that criminologists believe greatly contributes to juvenile delinquency and is the pre-generative agency in the beginning life of a career criminal. While this stigma certainly has an impact, more research needs to be done in quantifying and qualifying the direct effects that labeling has on the youthful offender.

Juveniles are routinely bombarded with different prompts and signals as to how they are being perceived by others. Through the act of role taking and other defining situations, juveniles are able to "accurately interpret the meanings of symbols and gestures used to project labels upon them" (Adams, Robertson, Gray-Ray & Ray, 2003). This allows a projection of self into the role of an authority figure or significant other and allows the youth to make a self appraisal or assessment through the eyes of another. The all too common response, "I wonder what they are thinking about me," is a familiar refrain to us all. In some sense the self then becomes an object and at that point the youth will easily attach both positive and negative labels to the self-perception, although the propensity seems to be towards adopting the negative.

In a journal article entitled Conceptualizing Stigma the authors, Link and Phelan point out that stigma is often a matter of degrees of associations with "labeling, stereotyping, separation, status loss, and discrimination" (2001, p. 363). they go on to say that for a more permanent stigmatization to occur the use of power and authority over a youthful offender must also be in place. This leads to the conclusion that labeling theory must take into account several levels and variable when addressing the juvenile offender.

A current article in Scientific American entitled, Mother's Little Criminals, points out the initial conceptualization and labeling that can occur on the familial level. This influence is seen in the following data from forensic psychologist Kathryn Seifert of Eastern Shore Psychological Services in Maryland, who has been studying youth delinquency for 30 years:

Children don't just wake up one day and say 'I want to be a thief when I grow up,' " Seifert says. "It is, at least in part, learned behavior." Of the delinquent youths Seifert works with in her clinic, 62% have parents who are either antisocial, mentally ill or substance abusers. (Wenner, 2007, p. 12)

They do admit that some of this behavior could be imitative, but Dr. Seifert contends that the majority of the behavior is taught, either directly by the parents, or indirectly as a stigma or a label attached to the children of criminal offenders. This starts them out with a label before they even have has any chance to prove themselves in the world.

Social interaction on all levels is one of the most important developmental factors in the growing child. This is one of the primary reasons that labeling theory has taken such a strong hold in the evaluation of juvenile delinquency and socialization. Labeling theorist are in somewhat of a contrasting position to the social control and bonding theorist who view labeling of behavior as an important stage as any in development of a growing child. Labeling theory instead views this as the problem:

For these theorists, the issue is not so much what we learn or how we bond to others but how our sense of self-identity is built on the composite views that others have of us and how this identity can be negatively impacted through other people's reactions to our behavior. (Lanier & Henry, 1998, p. 167)

Furthermore, once the initial negative labeling process has occurred the psychological event of self labeling takes on a life of its own. Even when the original labeling stimulus is eliminated or reversed, quite often the juvenile has placed the stigma on him or herself as a criminal, regardless of outside circumstance. "They may even join groups of similarly labeled deviants, forming a deviant or criminal subculture in which the members provide support for each other" (Lanier & Henry, 1998, p. 169).

One of the most immediate consequences of negative labeling is a general downward spiral in regards to the youth's place in the social or cultural hierarchy. The stigma of attributing connections to undesirable characteristics reduces the youth status in the eyes of the outside world. Human beings exhibit a seemingly natural behavior to create these hierarchies, typical in most animal group socialization. A pecking order is either implied or expressly set down. This is evident in processes as complex as flow and organizational charts to as simple a concept as the seating order in a conference room meeting (Link & Phelan, 2001). This type of negative displacement can have ramifications later on when applying for employment and can certainly contribute to the furthering of criminal behavior to supplement the missing income (McCarthy, 2002).

Once the self-concept of a growing mind has been tarnished by labeling it is often extremely difficult to change the self-destructive behavior that follows:

Perceived negative labels were related to increased involvement in self-reported delinquent behavior. The study also showed that teachers and peer groups are important sources of negative labels which can lead to the adoption of a deviant self-concept. The results also indicate that labeling variables are better predictors of general and serious delinquency... (Adams, Robertson, Gray-Ray & Ray, 2003)

Labeling does not necessarily mean learning and expressing the wrong values or attaching to conventional mores, or even acting as a rebel against them. The real issue is how these differences are reacted to and perceived by the community, and more importantly, by the self. Deviants in the slightest degree are often responded to out of all proportion to the act and this can be completely devastating for their… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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Labeling Theory.  (2008, February 1).  Retrieved October 24, 2021, from

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