Differential Labeling Theory

Alex Heckert, Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Druann Heckert, Fayetteville State University

Many criminologists reject labeling theory becase of limited quantitative support. Qualitative research, however, has supported labeling theory. We argue that self-identity influences deviant behavior and should be integrated into general theories of crime. We attempt to formalize labeling theory by recasting it in terms of differential association theory. Essentially, we argue that deviant self-identities are influenced by social interaction, primarily within primary groups. Both positive and negative labeling processes (reinforcements and punishments) are associated with specific self-identities (e.g., exotic dancer) and general self-identities (e.g., delinquent). Individuals will have a deviant self-identity when they have an excess of definitions (accepted labels) favorable to a deviant self-identity over definitions unfaborable to a self-identity. In addition, differential label varies in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity. The process of acquiring a deviant identity is the same as the process of acquiring any type of self-identity. Integrating labeling theory and differential association theory is appropriate since the roots of each theory are symbolic interactionism. We explore a number of important issues (e.g., self-labeling, self-identity vs. social identity, manipulating social identity, and others) including how self-identity is considered in current dominant criminological theories. Finally,w e recommend integrating our proposed "differential labeling theory" with Akers' social learning theory.

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Updated 05/20/2006