Punished with Labeling Theory

Labeling theory is how the self-identity and behavior of individuals may be determined or influenced by the terms used to describe or classify them. It’s almost acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy and way of stereotyping.

Reading the book, Punished, made me think of labeling theory often. The book, Punished, is an ethnography about policing the lives of black and Latino boys in Oakland, California. The opening scene of the book, the ethnographer and one of the boys the story highlights, are sitting on the curb eating burritos when they are stopped and searched by police. This opening scene is a great illustration of the frequency of labeling theory being played out throughout the entire book. The opening scene showcases the police projecting and assuming that the boys are causing trouble, when they are actually simply eating burritos. This projection by the authorities that the boys are criminals causes the boys to indeed believe they are criminals themselves and live lives filled with trouble, which in turn causes them to get into trouble.

Because of the way these boys look, the color of their skin, the way they dress, where they live, they are labeled as deviant. Labeling theory is associated with the concepts of self-fulfilling prophecy and stereotyping. Labeling theory holds that deviance is not inherent to an act, but instead focused on the tendencies of majorities to negatively label minorities or those seen as deviant from standard cultural norms.

According to this author, early labeling theorists brought to center stage the role of government agencies, social processes, in the creation of deviance and crime. This author describes labeling theory as often referred to as social reaction theories, because it focuses primarily on the consequences or reactions to crime, which then causes the labeling.

“These responses or reactions typically focus on three sets of actors: (1) informal social others, such as the friends, parents, or partners of persons committing crimes, and who disapprove of the offender’s behavior; (2) organizations or institutions such as the criminal justice system, whose function it is to “do something about” crime; and (3) those who perceive a threat by some behavior and want to see legislation passed to outlaw it.”

All of these diverse actions have one thing in common; they are all reactions to crime. They are “labels” because they have attached a name or a signature to a person or a behavior, which explains the name of “labeling theory”. The author explains that labeling theory can be understood as involving two main hypotheses. First, that labels are imposed due to the status of those doing the labeling as well as those being labeled. And second, that deviant labels create problems that the labeled person must adjust to and live with, and under certain conditions these labels can cause greater involvement in crime for the labeled person.

This explanation for labeling theory is seen played out throughout the entire book Punished. As already mentioned, the boys are labeled based on how they look, which in turn causes many of the boys to live the lives that the authorities expect of them. This article, goes further into detail about labeling theory and the connections it has to deviance.

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