ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Youth Deviance: The Labeling Theory Approach

Updated on November 19, 2011

Deviance is a complex social issue; consequently, the study of deviance has developed many varied theories and perspectives. While functionalism and conflict theorists focus on macro aspects of society such as social structures and arrangements, symbolic interactionism takes a different approach, instead concentrating on micro aspects such as the social processes used by people to interpret and give meaning to life experiences (Dotter, 2004:2). An interactionist perspective that has contributed much to the study of deviance is labeling theory. As outlined by Traub & Little (1999:375), this approach works on the premise that the labeling of an individual by society may force that person into a deviant role, regardless of structural conditions and social controls. This paper analyses how symbolic interactionist perspectives of deviance differ from functionalist views, focusing on labeling theory and how it contributes to youth involvement in gangs and subcultures.

By definition, symbolic interactionism is a school of sociology that looks at social processes through which individuals define life experiences, subsequently giving meaning and practicality to cultural norms such as behaviour and conduct (Dotter, 1999:2). According to Becker (1963:9), the most relative interactionist theory of deviance is that “social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance”.Becker’s claim suggests that deviant behaviour is a consequence of social controls rather than the quality of the act committed by the individual. Alternatively, functionalists attribute deviance to an individual’s lack of socialisation or attachment to the culture (Van Krieken, et al., 2010:412).

In contrast to Becker’s perspective of deviance, functionalists believe deviance occurs when a person’s behaviour departs from the shared values of a society. This value consensus of a society reflects the laws created to control deviance (Haralambos, Van Krieken, Smith, & Holborn, 1996:533). Durkheim (as cited in Van Krieken et al., 2010:412) argues that punishment of deviation from this value consensus functions to restore shared values and moral sentiments. Therefore, functionalists believe deviance contributes to the maintenance of society by defining moral boundaries and reinforcing social solidarity. Edwin Lemert disagrees with the concept of value consensus, arguing that deviance is not necessarily defined by the consensus of society, but by those holding positions of power. For example, according to Lemert’s argument, a colonial nation such as Australia, having imposed its own laws on the conquered inhabitants, effectively labeled many of those inhabitant’s behaviours and customs deviant. This labeling of the inhabitants behaviour is based only on the perceptions of those with the power to enforce the labels. The symbolic interactionist view of deviance supports Lemert’s argument, maintaining that there is no general agreement about what constitutes deviance (Haralambos et al., 1996:554). Interactionism’s contrasting perspective inevitably prompts criticism from other sociological theorists.

As indicated by Dennis & Martin (2005), symbolic interactionism is often seen as being limited by it’s focus on micro aspects of society, which some believe makes it unable to conceptualise macro elements such as social structure, inequality, and power. Similarly, Ritzer (1996:225) criticizes symbolic interactionism for it’s downplay of larger structures and conversely, that it is not sufficiently microscopic, as it fails to account for such factors as emotions and the unconscious. In spite of such criticism, symbolic interactionism has made a significant theoretical contribution to the study of deviance with the development of labeling theory.

The labeling theory of deviance deals primarily with what happens to people after they have been identified and defined as deviants. Rather than attempting to explain why an individual engages in nonconforming behaviours, labeling theory focuses on the role social definitions and sanctions play in pressuring individuals to continue engaging in deviant behaviour (Traub & Little, 1999:376). Two key figures in the development of labeling theory are Edwin Lemert and Howard Becker.

Edwin Lemert identifies two forms of deviant acts: primary deviation and secondary deviation. He explains primary deviation as being deviant acts committed by an individual before they are publicly labeled. However, he believes that identifying causes of primary deviation is relatively unimportant, because it has little consequence on the person’s social status and self-perception. Consequently, his theories are more concerned with secondary deviation. Lemert defines secondary deviation as being the response of an individual to the societal reaction to their behaviour. This societal reaction is what Lemert believes to be the cause of further deviance (Haralambos et al.,1996:554). Howard Becker elaborates on Lemert’s theories.

Becker (1963) agrees with Lemert’s theory that the study of deviance should focus more on an individual’s response to the reactions of social control agents to primary acts of deviance. Becker also introduces a notion that a development process precedes the attainment of a deviant identity or career. He believes that self-perception is derived from the responses of others to a person’s behaviour, and that being labeled may produce a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which the deviant identification becomes a controlling self-concept.

As a result, when an individual is labeled as deviant they may be rejected by social groups such as family and friends, ultimately leading to further deviant acts. The deviant identity or career is complete when an individual integrates into a deviant group or sub-culture; subsequently, confirming and accepting their new status within society (Becker 1963:25). An example of this is a juvenile becoming involved in a gang or deviant subculture as a result ofbeing excluded from their conventional groups due to a primary act of deviance.

Becker (1963:33) postulates that labeling theory claims that official labeling from social control agents (such as the juvenile justice system) increases the likelihood of a person becoming involved in gangs or deviant subcultures, resulting in further engagement in deviant behaviour. Labeling theorists refer to this concept of behaviour escalation as deviance amplification (Van Krieken et al., 2010:417). Smith & Paternoster (1990) argue an alternative explanation to this behaviour escalation. Specifically, that those referred to the juvenile justice system may simply have more attributes related to future offending than those who are diverted from the system. They explain this hypothesis using the example of intake officers in the juvenile justice system being more likely to refer high-risk youth to juvenile court. Therefore, the sample of young people processed by the courts will contain a large proportion of individuals who possess a greater likelihood of engaging in future delinquency. However, this theory does not offer an explanation as to why an individual possesses a greater likelihood of future deviant behaviour, whereas labeling theory does.

According to Bernberg and Krohn (2006), a young person having been labeled by the juvenile justice system is increasingly likely to become involved in a deviant group, as these groups represent a source of social support and shelter from those who react negatively towards their new deviant status. Bernberg and Krohn also claim that labeled and non-labeled youth often find interaction uncomfortable and tend to avoid each other. Inevitably, this social exclusion from conventional groups leads to further participation in deviant groups, and ultimately, further deviant behaviour. Additional reasons for involvement in deviant groups put forward by Bernberg and Krohn, include a desire for companionship with those sharing a similar self-concept, and access to opportunities that the conventional world no longer offers.

Supporting the ideas of Bernberg and Krohn are the results of a study of ethnic youth gangs in Melbourne (White, Perrone, Guerra, & Lampugnani, 1999:26), which found that the membership of a defined group revolved around youth having similar interests, similar appearance or identity, and a need for social belonging. Social exclusion or alienation was also found to be central in explaining youth offending by research undertaken in Sydney’s western suburbs (Collins, Noble, Poynting & Tabar,2000:82).Although the results of these studies are supportive of the labeling concept, not all sociologists accept labeling theory as being a practical approach to analysing deviance.Some argue that it fails to explain why individuals engage in deviant behaviour in the first place (Haralambos et al., 1996:550). Gibbs (1966) suggests that a problem with the labeling approach is that it cannot identify why one person, as opposed to another, commits deviant acts. Labeling theory is also accused of lacking empirical verification (Bynum & Thompson, 2002:213).

Symbolic interactionism is an alternative approach to the traditional perspectives of sociology such as functionalism and conflict theories.Through focusing on social processes, rather than structures, symbolic interactionism and labeling theory puts forth a logical argument in its explanation of deviance. Additionally, the arguments of labeling theory are particularly relevant when applied to the issue of juvenile deviance.


Becker, H., S. (1963). Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance, New York:

Free Press.

Bernberg, J., G., Krohn, M., D. & Rivera, C., J. (2006). Official labeling, criminal

embededness, and subsequent delinquency: A longitudinal test of labeling theory. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency. 43 (1), 43-67.

Bynum, J., E., & Thompson, W., E. (2002). Juvenile Delinquency: A

Sociological Approach (5th ed). Boston: Allyn and Bacon .

Collins, J., Noble, G., Poynting, S., & Tabar, P. (2000). Kebabs, Kids, Cops & Crime:

Youth Ethnicity and Crime. Sydney: Pluto Press.

Dennis, A., & Martin, P., J. (2005). Symbolic interactionism and the concept of

power. The British Journal of Sociology, 56(2), 191-213.

Dotter, D. (2004). Creating Deviance: An Interactionist Approach. California:

Altamira Press.

Gibbs, J., P., (1966). Conceptions of deviant behaviour: The old and new. Pacific

Sociological review, 9(1) 9-14.

Haralambos, M., Van Krieken, R., Smith, P. & Holborn, M. (1996). Sociology:

Themes and Perspectives. Melbourne: Addison Wesley Longman Australia Pty Ltd.

Ritzer, G. (1996). Modern Sociological theory (4th Edition). United States of America,

The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Smith, D., A. & Paternoster, R. (1990). Formal processing and future delinquency:

deviance amplification as selection artifact. Law & Society Review, 24(5) 1109-1132.

Traub, S., H., & Little, C., B. (1999). Theories of deviance (5th Edition). Illinois:

F. E. Peacock Publishers.

Van Krieken, R., Habibis, D., Smith, P., Hutchins, B., Martin, G., Maton, K., (2010).

Sociology. New South Wales: Pearson Australia.

White, R., Perrone, S., Guerra, C., & Lampugnani, R. (1999). Ethnic Youth Gangs in

Australia: Do They Exist? Retrieved from:


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • profile image


      4 years ago

      He is so right on!

    • Jaims profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from North Queensland

      Because you are wicked!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Yes I can't explain why I have deviant behaviors at first place! why!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      dear thanks for sharing beautiful thoughts.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)