Labelling Theory

In the 1970’s I published ‘Misunderstanding Labelling Perspectives’ in D. Downes & P. Rock eds. Deviant Interpretations, 85-l2l, Martin Robertson, Oxford, l979. The following article was a follow up written much later and reviewing the progress of the theory.

See: 2011: ‘Labelling Theory Revisited: Forty years on’ in Helge Peters & Michael Dellwing eds Langweiliges Verbrechen (Boring Crimes)  Weisbaden: VS Verlag p83-103



Ken Plummer

(Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Essex, U.K.)

See: 2011: ‘Labelling Theory Revisited: Forty years on’ in Helge Peters & Michael Dellwing eds Langweiliges Verbrechen (Boring Crimes)  Weisbaden: VS Verlag p83-103

The stream of thought flows on; but most of its segments fall into the bottomless abyss of oblivion.   William James


Naming has political implications.  Eric  Goode.  


Developing throughout the earlier twentieth century, labelling theory became prominent in the 1960s, reached its heyday in the 1970’s and thereafter has more or less gently faded away. Its brief history spans one or two generations of criminologists at most. In this article I briefly review this history, examine the current status of labeling theory and suggest some links to what I call generational theory. As a partial focus, I also revisit an earlier article which I wrote on labelling theory during the 1970’s – at the peak of labelling awareness.


At base, labelling theory highlights social responses to crime and deviance and moves away from the standard – even ‘boring’ – questions of aetilogy. As I claimed in my earlier paper (Plummer, 1979), labeling theory has a narrow version which asks what happens to criminals after they have been labeled with the hypothesis that crime is heightened (even caused by) criminal sanctions. Sending an offender to prison may work to criminalize him or her further, and stigmatizing minor infractions at too early an age may lead a young offender into a criminal career.  The clearest controversies within this narrow version were in the key debate by Scheff and Gove on the labeling theory of mental illness. (Scheff, 1967; Gove, 1979).

Yet on a much broader level, I argued that labelling is best seen as a perspective (paradigm even) which claims that criminology has given too much attention to the commonsense, pedestrian and almost banal focus upon criminals as types of people. It has traditionally given insufficient attention to the panoply of social control responses to deviance – from the law and the police to media and public reactions.  Yet reactions are symbiotic with crime; they give each other their social shapes. Social reactions structure crime and deviance.  Broadly, I suggested that labelling perspectives had a fourfold problematic:

1. What are the characteristics of labels, their variations and forms?

2. What are the sources of labels, both societal and personally.

3. How, and under what conditions, do labels get applied?

4. What are the consequences of labelling. (Plummer 1979:88)

The word label here might now be better translated as the whole gamut of social reactions.  Labelling theory, I suggest is a useful set of key criminological problems designed to reorient ate the former mainstream study to the consideration of the nature, emergence. application and impact of social reactions to deviance.

This early paper arose from two key sources. Firstly, I was a member of the then every exciting movement of the National Deviancy Conference (NDC) where new ideas in deviancy theory and criminology were being proposed as a challenge to mainstream orthodoxies (cf Cohen, 1971; Taylor and Taylor, 1974). Secondly, I was doing my own Ph.D. on homosexuality at the time, and labelling made enormous sense of this emergent field of enquiry. I spent on and off about five years writing the paper – presenting it at an NDC Conference in Cardiff in 1976 – and it was finally published in Deviant Interpretations (Downes & Rock, 1979), which was meant implicitly as a riposte to the gathering momentum of the new criminology, critical criminology and the realist criminology of the time. (In that early article I set myself three main tasks.  The first was to briefly situate the theory in it in its time and complexity. The second was to make a broad distinction between labeling as a specific theory, and labeling as a paradigm or perspective. And the third was to defend the theory against a number of its critics).

My view then – and now- is that labeling theory is ‘most usefully conceived as a perspective whose core problems are the nature, emergence, application and consequences of labels’ (Plummer, 1979:86). These questions can be approached by a range of theories, though I was clear then, as I still am that ‘my own preference…. is for an interactionist theory of labelling’ (cf Plummer. 1979:92-94). But of course interactionism itself has moved on and has become capable of being a much more political and varied position (e.g. Denzin, 1979; Plummer, 2000; Denzin 2010).

Labelling Theory: Generational Histories

It is possible to trace basic ideas of labelling back a long way. But as a criminological theory is starts its public and symbolic journey in the 1930’s (possibly with Tannebaum and some members of the Chicago School ), and by mid century its writings and research abound. As I said in my 1979 article:

In the early sixties it was seen as “a ‘radical, underground’ theory, attracting the ‘young Turks’ of sociology who used it as a basis for developing critiques of the dominant paradigms in deviancy analysis….. By the late sixties ( in America at any rate), the theory had been co opted into the mainstream of sociological work–enshrined in formal statements, texts, readers and Ph.D. theses, taught widely on undergraduate sociology and criminology pro­grammes, and absorbed into much ‘positivistic’ social research …… In just ten years, labelling theory has moved from being the radical critic of established orthodoxies to being the harbinger of new orthodoxies to be criticized’(Plummer, 1979: 85).

Even by the time that I wrote my review article, the theory was already fading. Taylor Walton and Young’s highly influential The New Criminology (published in 1976), and which contained a chapter outlining its key problems, was perhaps the turning point. It is hard after that time to find many self proclaimed labeling theorists (there are a few of course).

Since then, Labelling Theory has become canonized in the history of institutionalized criminology, and by 1994 its obituary had been written (Sumner, 1994). Indeed it is hard to subsequently find much evidence of either proponents or research moving under that name after that heady early period. Textbook treatments usually only cite earlier work- it is part of the history of criminology not its contemporary life. I briefly researched all volumes of the journal Theoretical Criminology and found no mention of labelling per se (there were early articles on ‘careers’ though; and some mention of ‘moral panics’). Google and Amazon searches found unusually little that was not part of the classic canon. The classic labelling theory reader by Rubington and Weinberg (which ran through eight editions between 1968 and 2001) was rarely updated with new research – except in the field of mental health, where it does seem to have had a minor continuing underlife.  And all those key researchers of the 1960’s who were so identified moved on to other things. Edwin Lemert (1912-1996) later went on to the study of ‘evil’. Howard S Becker is still extremely prominent as a cultural sociologist but did very little further work on either crime or labeling after his famous compilation (1963) book (Most of his work has been on culture, art, photography and music).  Crime effectively is part of his much more general view of life as ‘doing things together’. (Becker, xx). Erving Goffman became the leading microsociologist’ of the twentieth century but never identified himself clearly as labelling theorist. Edwin Schur is a bit of an exception: after his influential Crimes without Victims (1963) he worked assiduously to develop a research programme for labelling theory – producing a programmatic statement (Schur, 1971), a textbook (1979), a policy statement on Radical Non Intervention (1973)  and, in 1980, The Politics of Deviance which showed the importance of struggles and protests over definitions and ‘stigma contests’ (1980). But he has since retired with no further interest, and sadly he is no longer widely cited. David Matza and Kai T Erickson are both identified with one key influential book on labelling (Becoming Deviant: 1969 and Wayward Puritan: 1966) but neither continued with or developed labelling theory any further. John Lofland’s brilliant Deviance and Identity(1969) became a lost masterpiece even as it was published (but has been recently partially rediscovered a little (Lofland: 1969/2002). Stanley Cohen and Jock Young have become very prominent world criminologists – and they have not, as far as I know, rejected labeling theory: but they have certainly gone on to many other things. Paul Rock has been a quiet champion of it (Rock, 1972; xxx).  On a much lesser scale, I have also used labelling throughout my work (Plummer, 1975; 1981) but I have rarely explicitly returned to it.  I think of myself as a critical humanist and symbolic interactionist for sure and it deeply shapes my work on sexual stories and intimate citizenship )Plummer, 1975;2003); but rarely in the past thirty years have I called myself a labeling theorist.

Criminological generations?

Labelling theory – like all theories, including criminological theories- might usefully be seen as a generational theory. In a powerful and major exposition, Randall Collins (1998) has charted the significance of world intellectual movements (as communities and interaction ritual chains) throughout world history claiming  that an approximate life of thirty years –maybe two overlapping generations- is the period that most theories survive within these chains. All knowledge – including criminological knowledge – is shaped by and dwells within generational structures which are always moving on. There is now a significant social science literature on the sociology of knowledge, memory, historical time lines, age cohorts, and generations which makes allied claims. In the work of Gramsci (1971), Mannheim (1936; 1952), Halbwachs (1992), Edmunds and Turner (2002) and Collins (1998) and others we can see this grounded and age linked base of knowledge. I have discussed it elsewhere (Plummer 1981; 2010).

Basically, the stories we tell of all of social life –including those of crime –  are bound up with the generations we live in: we tell generational narratives. These can be seen as perspectives or standpoints on social worlds. The criminology literature is littered with such generational tales of crime – accounts come and go, rise and fall with different generations. Often reading a criminology textbook is a little like reading a history of the attempts of different generations to try and understand what crime is. Each generation has its own multiple narratives, rhetorics, key references, foundational stories and the like (see Bennett, 1981). We live with pluralised pasts and invented memories of crime stories.  And so the crime theories of each generation rise and fall: the stories of crime do not usually last more than several generations and rarely more than thirty years. That said, there are often deep continuities between past and present; and the past comes to dwell in the present in new forms.  Like all narratives, they are always multiple and plural (Plummer, 2009).

In criminology, the liturgies of seemingly dead theories are somewhat astounding. We rehearse the arguments of cultural transmission, learning theory, differential association, status frustration theory, anomie theory, and Chicago ecology to each generation of students less they forget their pasts: but it is hard to find proponents of them today. The theories move on and take new forms and names. Dick Hebdidge’s almost cult like book on Subcultures was the key book of its time, but in my view was always a thin book and was woefully ignorant of much earlier theorizing on it- from Frederick Thrasher, Albert Cohen and Cloward and Ohlin to John Barron Mays and David Downes. And in their turn, these days, new ‘post subulture’ theories move on new languages once again ignoring their past ( though others see it too located in the past. (eg….).

This is all as it should be – especially in the social sciences where the world being studied is itself in constant flow and change. It is world of continual permutations of actions (Strauss) and with this theories and meanings are always on the move. Theories come; theories go; everything changes; nothing changes.We could not expect labeling theory to last: little does.


There are, then, very few proponents today of what I have called the narrow version of labelling theory.  Indeed, I am not sure it has actually ever had that many followers in its tight and limited form. In what follows I briefly review some recent putative contributions to both labelling theory and the labelling perspective. It is with the latter that I see the biggest contribution.


Labelling as a limited theory

The most prominent area for testing the theory has been that of mental illness . In what came to be known as the Scheff- Gove debate, a number of studies have continued this old controversy about mental health. Although in the main this field is now dominated by genetic and biological thinking, there are some who still argue that stigma and labelling have profound impacts on the career of those designated mentally ill.  Scheff himself has long moved on to the study of emotions and shame;  Goffman moved on to language and frames. Thomas Szasz may be the key exception – but he keeps repeating the same old story in new books which do not really advance on his key formative arguments. Yet empirical studies do still appear which make clear the significance of this tradition. For example Bruce Link and others in a series of empirical studies have found that the rejection of people with mental illness has profound consequences on their sense of self and subsequent responses and actions. (Link et al 1989; 2001).Others have found that social rejection is a persistent cause of stress (Wright et al, 2000).

At the same time, in a major, detailed and important new book, Allan Horowitz and Jerome C.Wakefield’s The Loss of Sadness, devote their research to showing ‘how psychiatry transformed normal sorrow into depressive disorder’. Yet they dismiss Scheff’s work in a scant reference (2007:p19). The study seems to me to be a major exemplar of the labelling theory of mental illness – yet they ignore, or even deny, it. I am not sure why they do not see their study as part of the labelling tradition, but they seem not to.

Another tradition which could be relevant is that of ‘life course criminology’ of which the rich research work of Laub and Sampson (2003) is most prominent. Their core problem is the ‘persistence or desistance ‘of criminality in a life; their method is the life history; and their theoretical tradition connects to rich seams of social control and attachment theory.  But again, as a recent work, there is no mention of labelling theory even they do give a detailed focus on how involvements with the justice system   ‘reverberated over the life course’ (2003:51). Many factors shape a persistent criminal life – and one of them is incarceration.


Labelling Theory and the significance of societal reaction

But the narrow version of labeling has never been the prime concern of labelling theorists. It is useful to return to the canonical statements to remind ourselves ultimately what labeling theory is all about. These statements act as a kind of Greek Chorus of Labelling theory, repeated everywhere. Here they are again:

An older sociology tended to rest heavily on the idea that deviance lesadsto social control. I have come to believe that that the reverse idea i.e. that social control leads to social deviance is equally tenable and the potentially richer premise for studying deviance in modern society ( Lemert, 1967 p22)

Deviance is not a property inherent in certain forms of behaviour; it is a property conferred upon these forms by the audiences which directly or indirectly witness then. Sociologically, then, the critical variable is the social audience……Erikson  (1962) p308)

Social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance and by applying these rules to particular people and labelling them as outsiders. From this point of view, deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an ‘offender’. The deviant is one to whom that label has successfully been applied; deviant behaviour is behaviour that people so label… (Becker  (1963) p 9)

The italicized phrases are mine and not the original. What is striking about these statements is that they never suggest a simple minded propositional positivistic testable hypothetic-deductive hypotheses style of theory for labelling: what they provide instead is a broad orientation, a paradigm push, a perspective, as set of puzzles and problems. And the essential core of this approach is the turn away from the criminal per se which has usually preoccupied mainstream criminology and a major move towards studying societal reactions, in the widest sense, and their relation to crime. It is this I believe which is at the heart of the tradition and which has been taken on in contemporary work, even as the significance of early labeling work is often, even usually, ignored.

Labelling Theory Today

So labelling theory is dead: long live labeling theory. This epanalepsis captures the dilemma. In effect, how could anyone ever take a criminology seriously that did not take into account societal reactions and labels? And there is indeed a long history of this line of thought. But the specific variety that came into being under that name in Western criminology in the middle twentieth century was a specific and distinct historical form that had both its moment and its generation. Its ideas are then carried on in new movements, fashions, and languages by new generations. Labelling theory becomes – as all theories do- ‘old fashioned’, out of their own time and their own generation.  But the significance of societal reactions for any intellectual, critical or practical  work on crime or deviance can never go away. When we look for signs of it in more recent work, we can find it everywhere.

Indeed, once phrased this way, we can see the diffuse impact of labeling theory everywhere. Here are just twelve instances which come swiftly to mind. Labelling theory is alive and well and harbouring in the following:

  1. Moral Panic Theory. This focus on hysteria and panic around crimes has become a major contemporary and highly influential theory of crime and problem awareness.
  2. Sociology of everyday crime and dramatisation. This sees the ubiquity of the millions of ordinary everyday crimes (boring crimes) which in effect need dramatic social responses to become significant.
  3. Studies of public attitudes to crime. We now study the origins and nature of ‘ fear of crime’, with a key example being penal populism
  4. Research on discourses around crime. From Foucault and governmentality to critical discourse analysis, we look at the interventions of state discourse in assembling crime.
  5. Shaming and stigmatization studies. We look at the ways in which shame may be implicated in the prevention and generation of crimes.
  6. Studies of stereotype. There is a long history of the study of stereotypes and it still continues.  Linked here too are phenomenological questions of categorizations.
  7. The construction of social problems arguments. This is  a strand that has taken many permutations since the 1970’s but which is still very much around.
    The State and Social exclusion theory. This id often lined to studies of poverty and inequality, but shows the roles of the state in excluding many people in the criminal process.
  8. Crime, Media and Culture: This new journal flags the growth and signifance of media theory and its links to the shaping of crime problems
  9. Cultural criminology. More generally, this focuses on media and everyday responses to crime.
  10. Cultures of control and their impact. The whole field of social contol –police, courts, prisons etc- gives a clear focus to reactions to crime.
  11. Queer theory. This has a major interest in  desconstructing social reaction categories to sex, sexuality and gender and leads to new thinkings about sex crimes.
  12. Postmodernism with its concern with signs, simulacrums and significations

In a short article I cannot follow up all these connections but I will follow a few as suggestive and indicative.

Towards a Sociology of Social Reactions to Crime & Deviance


Since the halcyon days of labeling theory, major new – and critically important – domains of sociological inquiry have been developed. Although rarely called this, we might even see this as a sociology of societal reactions (cf Garland, 2008). Here I simply suggest just four areas of reaction, all now major fields and all informed by labelling.

1 The reactions of media: Back in the 1960’s, the pioneering work of Jock  Young and Stan Cohen on media in their respective PhD’s led to a quite striking grasping of the ways in which modern  media played critical roles in the shaping of crime.  It culminated in their highly influential The Manufacture of News (1973). Now it has developed into a well developed field (with its own courses and even degrees) which marks out the significance of media constructions of crime: its audiences, representations and industries. It even has its own journal: Crime Media Culture which started in 2005. The late modern world of crime now simply cannot be understood without placing it within the reactions of modern media which so strikingly help to assemble it. (eg Carrabine, 2008; Jewkes, 2004).


2 The reactions of publics: Famously, it was Durkheim who told us of the power of the public response to crime. In the early labelling writing (such as Erikson (1968/2004) and Scott 1972), Durkheim loomed large:

We have only to notice what happens, particularly in a small town, when some moral scandal has just occurred. Men stop each other on the street, they visit each other, and they seek to come together to talk of the event and to wax indignant in common. From all the similar impressions which are exchanged, and the anger that is expressed, there emerges a unique emotion, more or less determinate according to the circumstances, which emanates from no specific person, but from everyone. This is the public wrath…….Crime brings together honest men and concentrates them.”

Emile Durkheim The Division of Labor in Society

The issue of taking seriously the attitudes of the public to crime has now become a major part of the criminologist’s task. In the U.K., The British Crime Survey (of victims responses and public perceptions of crime) started in 1980 and is now an annual event. The very concept of ‘fear of crime’  can now be traced and analysed in the process of generating social anxiety. (cf Lee, 2006; Lee and Farrall 2008; Farrall et al (2009).

A good instance of this is the awareness of (and research into) what has become known as the practice and theory of penal populism (Pratt, 2007). Penal populism is associated with the decline in public deference to the criminal justice establishment and their furious (if often misplaced) alarm that crime is out of control. Pratt argues that new media technology is helping to spread national insecurities and politicians are not only encouraging such sentiments but are also being led on by them. Penal populism  explains it is having most influence in the development of policy on sex offenders, youth crime, persistent criminals and anti-social behaviour.

3 The reactions of control cultures: Traditionally, many labeling theorists were concerned with the excessive encroachment of technology, bureaucracy and the state upon the personal life–often in its grossest forms such as the increasing medicalisation of deviance, the bureaucratisation of the control agencies and the concomitant dehumanisation of the lives of their ‘victims’, as well as the direct application of technology in the service of control. With the continuing political shift to the right in many Western democracies since the 1980’s, such concerns were co-opted as part of a market based laissez faire liberalism which aimed to roll back the state and introduce privatization into social control. Despite this, labeling theorists have also long been concerned with policies of decriminalization, deinstitutionalization, demedicaliza­tion, deprofessionalization and the creation of social movements concerned with such activities (Cohen, 1985).


4 Moral Panics : The concerns with media, publics and control cultures come together in the study of moral panics- a term gestating in Becker’s work over the initial concern with drugs in the USA,, brought to prominence in Young’s research on drug use in Notting Hill (1971) and Cohen’s  study (1972) of the teenage panics of Mods and Rockers on English Bank Holiday beach resorts in the 1960’s and Hall’s study of race relations in the UK and the fear of the ‘black mugger’, it has subsequently been absorbed into the  lexicons of mainstream  criminological and sociological research. It is by far the most widespread and most apparent legacy of those early labeling theorists. The study of moral panics has been applied to many areas and has become a staple feature of research with a stream of research investigations (satanic panic, child molesters,  single mothers, drug users, working class males, violent schools, hyperactive children, welfare scroungers, computer games, pornography, guns, street stabbings, the sexualization of girls, ASBO’s, drugs of all kinds – including binge drinking and ‘ecstasy parties’, panic, obesity- or ‘fat’ people, and – of course, refugees and immigrants), and its own canonical textbooks and even conferences. It is a standard entry in textbooks, dictionaries and seen as a ‘key idea’ in sociology. A Google search can cheerfully bring up 450,000 entries( e.g. Ben-Yehuda & Goode, 1994/2009; Jenkins, 2004; Chrichter, 2003/2006; Thompson, 1998). If labelling theory is manifestly alive anywhere today it is in this branch of moral panic theory. It has now even entered the public imagination and become part of common sense (see also the debate at the British Academy Lectures in 2007: ‘Moral Panics: The and Now’ by Stan Cohen, David Garland & Stuart Hall at

Theorising Social Reactions

I tried to show in my 1979 paper that whilst there many have been a common sense of a major problematic appearing in the work of the labelling theorists, there was little if any theoretical consensus between them. The theory certainly connects well to the sociological ideas of Durkheim, G.H.Mead, the Chicago School, Symbolic Interactionism and Conflict theory, and draws upon both the idea of a ‘self fulfilling prophecy’ and the dictum of W.I Thomas that ‘when people define situations as real they become real in their consequences’. But I have to stress again that that labelling theory is actually a rag bag of different theories – often incompatible with each other, and sharing no common identity with the name: but nevertheless sharing common problems. As I said in 1979:

None of the [early] theorists above actually began by identifying .. as a labelling theorist: rather ironically, they had that label thrust upon them by others and only later came to incorporate it into their own sociological identities.  Thus neither Becker nor Lemert seems at all happy with being identified as a labelling theorist; neither used this tag in his earlier work. Indeed, by the early 1970s Becker was publicly stating his preference for being known as an interactionist rather than a labelling theorist (Becker, 1974, p. 44), while Lemert was disassociating himself from the ‘conceptual extrusions’ and ‘crudities’ of labelling theory (Lemert, 1972, p. 6). Goode’s review of the field also concludes that Becker and Lemert (as well as Erickson and Kitsuse) ‘cannot be called labelling theorists’ (Goode, 1975, p. 571). It is important to stress both this lack of self‑recognition by labelling theorists and their diverse theoretical concerns: for the labelling perspective has only emerged from the retrospective selection of a few select themes largely from diverse theoretical projects. They are united by some common substantive problems but not common theories. There are often much wider discrepancies than overlaps. Erickson’s brand of functional­ism can hardly be equated with Cicourel’s ethnomethodology, while Lemert’s focus on putative deviation (which implies a non‑putative or objective deviance) jars markedly with Kitsuse’s relativistic ‘imputed deviance’ (which denies an objective reality of deviance).

Labelling theories have in fact long genealogies and many contrasting routes. Like all theoretical work, the construction of the social reaction/labeling perspective is a messy business of pluralising pasts and contested concepts. We can trace a number of earlier theoretical positions within labelling to include functionalism, many variants of Marxism and critical conflict criminologies, hermeneutics,  feminisms and cultural theories. We can see intellectual affinities with the work of many social on processes of stigmatization and stereotyping . It is probably most at home –has an intellectual affinity with- the phenomenologists, the discourse theorists (including Foucault), the conversational analysts, and of course the symbolic interactionists. And in recent times, we could suggest how many more contemporary theories would benefit from a partial focus on labelling and social reaction: the globalization of labeling, the habitus of social reactions, reactions as mobilities, intersectional labelling, queer labeling. The ideas of labelling theory could flourish in many theories and there are many ideas here that are worth exploring.  Here to conclude are just four examples.

  1. 1.     Social constructionism.

This is the major term under which much recent labeling theory has moved. We can trace this back to at least Berger and Luckman’s key 1966 work, which by 1970 had helped to shape Richard Quinney’s crucial (but now ignored) The Social Reality of Crime(1971).  Most commonly, this is the framework that has been  used to examine the social construction of social problems. My earliest recollections of this was the work of Herbert Blumer,  John Kitsuse and Malcolm Spector. The latter focused on the changing psychiatric definitions of homosexuality in the mid 1970’s and extended in their 1977 classic Constructing Social Problems. This has subsequently grown into a full scale theory, as exemplified in Donileen Loseke’s (1999/2003) textbook  which outlines its shape: the focus is on claims making, claims makers, audience and competition .  She contrasts two views: “Objectivism” which  makes claims about social problems that they believe are real and stem from objective conditions of social life , while  “constructionism” by contrast argues about the claims-making processes occurring in and around these things. This is an approach in sociology which argues that ‘conditions must be brought to people’s notice in order to become social problems’ (Best, 1990: 11). Once again closely allied to Becker’s notion of moral enterprise, it looks at the ways individuals, groups and societies come to label certain phenomena as problems and how others then respond to such claims. Joel Best (1990) for instance has traced the ‘rhetoric and concern about child victims’, whilst Philip Jenkins (2004) has traced the child molester problem. Broadly, there is seen to be a ‘social problems marketplace’ in which people struggle to own social problems: these theories continue to examine the rhetorics, the claims and the power struggles behind such definitional processes. In this area there is now a massive amount of continuing work even if it often fails to note its roots.

  1. 2.     The categorisation and boundary problem.

At its heart, labelling theory raises long standing classical problems of boundaries.

Such theoretical problems will never go away.  It was Durkheim who has most clearly seen the bond between the normal and the pathological:  twin processes bound up with the conditions for social life. This basic classification of the normal and the pathological serves to mark out moral boundaries, unite people against common enemies and  establishes that there is a ‘we’ and the ‘other’.  It is hard to find instances of societies which do not do this. There were several labelling theorists of the 1960’s and 1970’s who revisited this key idea. Most famously Ericksons’s classic Wayward Puritans; Robert Scott’s (1970..) analysis, and very prominently, inn the work of Mary Douglas.  Significantly,  categories  link to  (a) boundaries are bound up with social life and persistently lead to stuff that is ‘inside’ and stuff that is ‘outside’; that (b) boundaries however are never fixed, they are always on the move; that (c) they are best seen as flows, as continual permutations of groupings and classifications being reworked through by groups; and that (d) politically social movements are a prime mover of such boundaries.

Here then we have a sense of what in a way is a key problem of postymodernity and crime. ‘order is what is not chaos; chaos is what is not orderly. Order and chaos are modern twins’ ‘ (p4) This is our modernist plight. I find this slightly paradoxical but it does raise many issues. In our zeal to classify and categorise, we fail. The world is too complex to manage this effectively. And so in the process of classifying, we find the need to search out more and more forms of classification. I sense this may be true of all societies, though maybe it is more intense in modernist ones, for as

  1. 3.     The state and social exclusion theory:

Many writers from  the 1990s onwards have pointed to the significance of the state and social exclusion from a wide range of political, policy and theory positions. (eg  Byrne, 2005). Within criminology, Jock Young in the U.K. and Loic Wacquant in France and the U.S. have, amongst others, made the process of exclusion a key to grasping the crime process.  Young is concerned with ‘the demonization and creation of monstrosity’, how societies ‘essentialise the other’, how we vomit out our deviants, casting them beyond the social order in a so called ‘purification process. (Young, 1999).  Late capitalist modernity makes us live with these extreme bifurcations. Likewise, Wacquant’s studies of global inner cities speaks explicitly of ‘urban outcasts’, to the creation of the hyperghetto, of ‘territorial stigmatization’, the ‘great confienment’ and the rise of ‘punitive panopticism’ (Wacquant, 2004/9;2008). Now it would be crude to say these are twenty first century labelling theorists.  But their concerns  with the way in which the neo liberal state works to split the social order and exclude a growing group of people lies at the heart of their accounts and certainly echoes gthe heady days of the labeling theorists ( of which of course Jock Young’s first book (1971) was a major part).

  1. 4.     Shame theory and Reintegration theory

A final illustrative example could be Braithwaite’s book Crime, Shame and Reintegration (1989)  demonstrated that current criminal justice practice tends to stigmatize offenders, making the crime problem worse. Braithwaite argues that restorative justice enables both offenders and citizens, by way of mediation, to repair the social harm caused by crime. Some societies have higher crime rates than others because of their different processes of shaming wrongdoing. Shaming can be counterproductive, making crime problems worse. But when shaming is done within a cultural context of respect for the offender, it can be an extraordinarily powerful, efficient and just form of social control. Braithwaite identifies the social conditions for such successful shaming. If his theory is right, radically different criminal justice policies are needed – a shift away from punitive social control toward greater emphasis on moralizing social control

  1. 5.     The continuing power of symbolic interactionism


Conclusion: Power and the Continuing Relevance of the Politics of Reactions and Labelling

At the heart of much earlier labelling work was an interest in the politics of naming,  of what trouble labels can cause, of ‘Leviathan and Ban’ (Matza, 1969). It is present of course in Becker’s (1963)  account of moral enterprise where the focus is placed on who has the power to name.  And it is there in many of the key processes studied by theorists at the time: how conducts became criminalized; how ‘problems in living’ became medicalized; how many problem behaviours were cast into the net of the law; how problems had become the province of professionalization and expert systems. The thrust of much of this early work was to move towards positions of decarceration, deinstitutionalization, demedicalization, deprofessionalization and overall decategorization. And it led a little later to a major intellectual and political interest in the politics of social movements and identities.

Generations may change but intellectual puzzles have to be repeatedly confronted. What is clear is the contemporary world is just as amenable to problems of labelling now as it was fifty years ago. We now have Meagan’s law in the U.S and Sarah’s law in the U.K. both raising intense problems of long term stigma and the its applicability sex offender registers. We have even more of the over reach of law and medicine into the private sphere of personal problems , especially in the new shapes of ‘Youth crime’ and new community offences appear and the net of surveillance casts wider. We have the hyper-categorisation of problems and a proliferation of new categories from ASBOS to ADHD. The control apparatus continues to grow and takes on ever new forms, sucking in more crimes and problems. Deviancy amplification and what Pratt has called the sorcerer’s apprentice conmtinue to magnify the symbiotic relation of crime and control control. The media has become a pivotal agent in constructing the problems of crime and it oozes the daily air we breathe. And still people experience the problems of labeling on a daily basis in many institutions. I had could go on.

My argument here has been simple. Labelling theory may have had its criminological generation and its hey day.  But I have argued here that labelling theory brings an important and abiding set of concerns for sociologists and criminologists. Its fall from explicit prominence in the twenty first century does not make the issues it raises any less significant. What I have tried to do is outline a preliminary number of issues where we can see how labelling theory’s continuing problematic and questions are re-fashioning themselves for yet another new generation. I am not concerned with defending its old positions and arguments but seek instead to show that the problems it raised in the 1960’s and the 1970’s are still alive with us today and continue to demand attention. We should never forget the key problems of criminology and the works of earlier generations in confronting them.



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