Whereas theory also suggests that people society labels as “criminals” are probably members of subordinate groups, critics argue that this oversimplifies the situation. As examples, they cite wealthy and powerful businesspeople, politicians, and others who commit crimes. Critics also argue that conflict theory does little to explain the causes of deviance. Proponents counter, however, by asserting that the theory does not attempt to delve into etiologies. Instead, the theory does what it claims to do: It discusses the relationships between socialization, social controls, and behavior.
A type of symbolic interaction, labeling theory concerns the meanings people derive from one another's labels, symbols, actions, and reactions. This theory holds that behaviors are deviant only when society labels them as deviant. As such, conforming members of society, who interpret certain behaviors as deviant and then attach this label to individuals, determine the distinction between deviance and non‐deviance. Labeling theory questions who applies what label to whom, why they do this, and what happens as a result of this labeling.
Powerful individuals within society—politicians, judges, police officers, medical doctors, and so forth—typically impose the most significant labels. Labeled persons may include drug addicts, alcoholics, criminals, delinquents, prostitutes, sex offenders, retarded people, and psychiatric patients, to mention a few. The consequences of being labeled as deviant can be far‐reaching. Social research indicates that those who have negative labels usually have lower self‐images, are more likely to reject themselves, and may even act more deviantly as a result of the label. Unfortunately, people who accept the labeling of others—be it correct or incorrect—have a difficult time changing their opinions of the labeled person, even in light of evidence to the contrary.
William Chambliss in 1973 conducted a classic study into the effects of labeling. His two groups of white, male, high‐school students were both frequently involved in delinquent acts of theft, vandalism, drinking, and truancy. The police never arrested the members of one group, which Chambliss labeled the “Saints,” but the police did have frequent run‐ins with members of the other group, which he labeled the “Roughnecks.” The boys in the Saints came from respectable families, had good reputations and grades in school, and were careful not to get caught when breaking the law. By being polite, cordial, and apologetic whenever confronted by the police, the Saints escaped labeling themselves as “deviants.” In contrast, the Roughnecks came from families of lower socioeconomic status, had poor reputations and grades in school, and were not careful about being caught when breaking the law. By being hostile and insolent whenever confronted by the police, the Roughnecks were easily labeled by others and themselves as “deviants.” In other words, while both groups committed crimes, the Saints were perceived to be “good” because of their polite behavior (which was attributed to their upper‐class backgrounds) and the Roughnecks were seen as “bad” because of their insolent behavior (which was attributed to their lower‐class backgrounds). As a result, the police always took action against the Roughnecks, but never against the Saints.
Proponents of labeling theory support the theory's emphasis on the role that the attitudes and reactions of others, not deviant acts per se, have on the development of deviance. Critics of labeling theory indicate that the theory only applies to a small number of deviants, because such people are actually caught and labeled as deviants. Critics also argue that the concepts in the theory are unclear and thus difficult to test scientifically.