The social reaction, or labeling theory as it is sometimes known, evolved over time from as early as 1938 (Wellford, 1975). Basically it states that as a person commits a crime, they will receive the label of “criminal”. When a person is labeled as such by society, they are likely to accept this label as a part of them. Because the person now thinks of him/herself as a criminal, he/she is now likely to continue in his/her criminal behavior (Becker, 1963).
Erwin Lemert is credited with being the founder of what is called the “societal Reaction” theory. It is the precursor to the social reaction or labeling theory that we know now, and is necessary to be familiar with in order to understand labeling theory in its entirety.
Tags: Social reaction theory, Howard Becker's Labeling Theory, Social reaction theory in crime
[...] This theory has merit in that there is the potential for it to be incorporated into a larger, more inclusive, theory of criminology. References Becker, H. S. (1963). Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: The Free Press Broadhead, R. S. (1974). A Theoretical Critique of the Societal Reaction Approach to Deviance. The Pacific Sociological Review, Vol No 287- 312. Foster, J. D., Dinitz, S. & Reckless, W. C. (1972). Perceptions of Stigma following Public Intervention for Delinquent Behavior. [...]
[...] Also the theory claims that for a criminal to be successfully labeled an audience must be present to provide a reaction to the crimes committed. What about all the crimes committed that no one but the criminal is ever aware of? Does this mean that if a murder is committed where the killer successfully avoided anyone's suspicion that the act is then not criminal and the killer will not think of him/herself as such? It should be noted that this would not be a problem if the criminal were capable of initial self-labeling, but the theory clearly states the labeling must come from a 3rd party (Hagan, 1973). [...]
[...] The second is the audience's reaction to this act and subsequent treatment of the person who committed it. In a study of a sample of 196 boys who had engaged in delinquent activities brought before a court of law, it was found that the majority of the subjects' peers and parents exhibited little change in how they viewed and treated the delinquents (Foster & Dinitz & Reckless, 1972). Though these children did experience feelings of stigmatization from members of law enforcement, having undergone the degradation ceremony in a court of law, they reported these feelings were negligible compared to those whose family members no longer viewed them in the same light. [...]
[...] In a study of drunk drivers it was concluded that socioeconomic status, race, sex, and age can indeed influence whether labeling theory has an effect on people. Unfortunately it was not specified exactly how each of these factors altered the effect labeling theory had on the study subjects. Presumably this reflected actual behavioral differences that were reacted to differently by others (Marshall & Purdy, 1972). The one aspect of this theory that could be regarded positively is that it is very parsimonious. [...]
[...] The other possibility is that a formal ceremony which would cancel the stigma associated with the degradation ceremony could be held. Perhaps a court declaration or letter that the offender is hereby rehabilitated could be used after the offender has served his/her punishment (Broadhead, 1974). The social reactions theory is undoubtedly flawed in many ways, but it does provide some insight into how both formal and social audiences can have a negative effect on the criminal and increase the likelihood of repeat offenses. [...]
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