Looking into theories of academic criminology what caught my attention is that it overlaps so much with sociology and even psychiatry as they all deal with deviants, deviancy and deviant behavior – aka something that is rejected by society as abnormal. Another issue is that they try to look at the object of their research as if one would look at the ant colony trying to explain one ant’s behavior. Even though those theories are interesting and powerful, but they are somewhat incomplete as they treat human only as social animal with emphasis on communitarian principles.
Labeling theory” or Social Reaction theory deals with formal and informal labeling and it’s influence on criminal, delinquent or deviant behavior. It is described as “one of the most important approaches to the understanding of criminality”. Labeling theory has been used by sociology and also applied in mental health sciences. What is labeling theory?
This theory states that the label of ‘deviant’, and the stigma that comes with such a label, is more a product of society than it is of the individual committing the deviant act. What is considered deviant in one society, or at one point in history, may not be considered deviant in another; ‘deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather the consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an “offender”’. Labeling theory also suggests that once a person is labeled a deviant, he will be denied essential life opportunities because of this stigma, and thus will have a greater propensity to repeat his deviant behaviors. Finally, labeling theory holds that those fettered with an obdurate, stigmatizing label often find it easier to act in accordance with that label than to shed the deviant label. The effects of being labeled, then, are external, with constraints being imposed on the deviant by society.
It’s true – if there is no society there is no deviancy. Imagine the world where you are left all alone. No matter what would you do, there would be no-one left to judge you or your actions. It’s striking how similar are accounts of formally labeled criminals about their perception of formalized label stigma and informally targeted individual accounts. We practice labeling theory all the time from the moment we are born – this is bad and this is good. It’s not so much about linguistics it’s about emotional meaning of labels.
Modified labeling theory applied to mental patients, which deals with labeling from different perspective – how it affects the perception of being labeled and subsequent interaction with the society aka self-stigmatization:
Modified labeling theory indicating that expectations of labeling can have a large negative effect, that these expectations often cause patients to withdraw from society, and that those labeled as having a mental disorder are constantly being rejected from society in seemingly minor ways but that, when taken as a whole, all of these small slights can drastically alter their self concepts. They come to both anticipate and perceive negative societal reactions to them, and this potentially damages their quality of life.
Labeling theory is largely about formal labeling, dealing with real criminals and mental patients, but the stigmatizing invisible social processes that affect these people seem to apply to targeted individuals as well. The only difference is absence of formal label. At least criminal or mental patient is aware of his formal label (they’ve been arrested, sentenced or served time, institutionalized, etc) and can attribute negativity towards them as natural and spontaneous reaction for that label. Targeted individuals have no such luxury and have to deal with multi-layered social punishment directed at them, absent apparent cause or formal label. So self adoption of “targeted individual” label is interesting as to what purpose it serves. I guess such label helps to make sense of what is going on, but doesn’t really explain anything. It’s less stigmatizing than potential label of serious mental illness, terrorist, child molester, snitch, criminal, etc.. It also fulfills prediction where shunned person adopts alternative point of view and joins deviant subculture that shares these views as a lot of targeted individuals seek others that are in the same boat – organized stalking forums, blogs and communities of targeted individuals, so on.
Labeling is closely related to concepts of shaming, stigmatization (disintegrative or reintegrative) and discrimination and recently has been used as debasement penalties by judiciary. Debasement penalties are designed to lower the status of the offender in the community through humiliation. This can include the performing of menial and degrading tasks.
Labeling theory posits that a person’s sense of self and behavior that stems from self-concept are directly related to the labels and perceptions imposed on the individual in societal and institutional interactions. Such interpretation is closely related to symbolic interactionism theory and looking glass self concept.
Symbolic interaction theory analyzes society by addressing the subjective meanings that people impose on objects, events, and behaviors. Subjective meanings are given primacy because it is believed that people behave based on what they believe and not just on what is objectively true. Thus, society is thought to be socially constructed through human interpretation. People interpret one another’s behavior and it is these interpretations that form the social bond. These interpretations are called the “definition of the situation.” Another premise of Symbolic Interaction theory is the pygmalion effect. In Symbolic Interaction theory, Mead establishes the notion of the “looking-glass” self. This idea is that an individual will behave and act according to the view that society and others have for them. The pygmalion effect also leads into the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Ethnomethodology, an offshoot of symbolic interactionism, questions how people’s interactions can create the illusion of a shared social order despite not understanding each other fully and having differing perspectives.
Another theory that some criminologists use to explain deviancy is affect control theory or ACT. Affect control theory (hereafter ACT) offers a dynamic model of social action that focuses on how people’s attitudes toward identities, behaviors, social settings, and emotions (i.e., the key aspects of social interaction) inform the actions that individuals take toward one another. As an interactionist theory, ACT views social situations and the cultural context within which they occur as important determinants of behavior, including its conventional and deviant forms. Specifically, ACT’s mathematical model of attitudes gives formal rigor to the basic interactionist principles that people act toward things on the basis of the meanings that these things have for them. ACT can predict how people will react in various situations. It is very thorough (archive.org): they talk about events like “grandfather rapes granddaughter” as an example of a social situation or “I attend a party and think that the Host is ignoring me” is a social situation too.
Targeted individual is at interesting position where he has insider perspective on a stereotyped or stigmatized experiences and beliefs and is active interpretor/creator of such reality while being an involuntary target of negative attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs that shape this reality. They have to make sense of what a hell is going on while breaking up old and adopting new concepts of society, community, humanity and possibly even self-identity.
Some insight into power of labeling and encouraged punishment provides infamous Stanford Prison experiment, which had to be cut prematurely. The participants adapted to their roles well beyond expectations, as the guards enforced authoritarian measures and ultimately subjected some of the prisoners to psychological torture. Many of the prisoners passively accepted psychological abuse and, at the request of the guards, readily harassed other prisoners who attempted to prevent it.
Consider the use of the label slut as described by Tannenbaum (1999). Tannenbaum writes that nearly every high school has a “designated slut.” This label, according to Tannenbaum, gets applied to some poor girl, based on a widely circulated, frequently false story of sexual activity. These make up the “facts” that qualify her for the label, stating that she has met the rules of application. She is ever after known school-wide by that appellation. Tannenbaum learned that, many times, the slut label and its accompanying story had been deliberately and maliciously circulated by another girl. The acceptance of the label by the community meant that the labeled girl4 had to endure being treated as a slut (a bad, weak, active person5); people felt free to harass, scorn, and abuse her publicly. This is clearly the process of stigmatization (Goffman 1963). It is remarkable, however, that it is regularly done through hearsay and innuendo alone (by a person who might be termed a labeling entrepreneur) but is universally and unquestioningly accepted by the community.
Another thing to consider is that just like few decades ago deinstitutionalization was initiated and largely transformed to community mental health programs, there is growing debate of various scholars about alternatives to incarceration including various community punishment alternatives, shaming, stigmatization and so on . There are a lot more theories that criminology, sociology and social psychology uses to explain and make sense of the same topic of “deviancy” and “deviant behavior”.
Thomas Szasz is Professor of Psychiatry. His classic The Myth of Mental Illness (1961) made him a figure of international fame and controversy. He believes that there is no such thing as “mental illness”. The following is a quote from Thomas Szasz’s Mental Illness: Sickness or Status?
“Being the member of a community, a religion, a nation, a civilization entails joining the cast of a particular national-religious-cultural drama and accepting certain parts of the play as facts, not just props necessary to support the narrative. Thus, we in the West today accept as facts that the earth is spherical, that lead is heavier than water, that malaria, melanoma, and mental illness are diseases. As against this perspective, I maintain that while there are mental patients, there are no mental illnesses. There is no mental illness or madness either — in the bodies of the denominated subjects or in nature. Instead, there is a mental illness role into which a person is cast by his family and society, which he then assumes and plays, or against which he rebels and from which he tries to escape. Occasionally, individuals teach themselves how to be mental patients and assume the role without parental or societal pressure to do so, in order to escape certain unbearably painful situations or the burdens of ordinary life ( Szasz, 2006).”
All these things mentioned are labels. We accept them as a society because it’s what we are taught when we are growing up but who’s to say that we are right. By labeling these people mentally ill, gives them a negative on themselves and others have a negative view as well. By doing so, it causes people to be isolated and act as they are labeled.