Labeling approach

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The labeling approach (also: definition or social reaction , labeling perspective , control paradigm ; English: labeling approach / theory ) is a sociological mindset with which deviant behavior is explained by the fact that the deviation socially attributed and is not objectively known. The labeling approach differs fundamentally from previous etiological deviations and crime declarations.

De-objectification of deviation

“Classical” sociology of crime and deviance is based on the existence of social norms and the thus, in principle, clearly possible determination of deviation. In it, norms are social facts which, in comparison with social action , allow such an action to be clearly classified as criminal or deviant. On the basis of this assumption, classical approaches ask why this action was carried out; they ask about the reasons why a person has become criminal or deviant. Therefore, this position is also called the etiological, ie causal research perspective.

The labeling approach no longer assumes such uniqueness of deviation. Early advocates of the approach come from the school of symbolic interactionism in the USA . This is based on the premise that social phenomena of any kind do not already have meanings, but are given meaning in social negotiation processes. In terms of deviation, this means that actions are not already criminal or deviant in themselves, but must first be defined as such in a social negotiation process.

This makes the question of the causes of the action seem irrelevant: If the behavior did not already have an objective meaning, but only gained it in a negotiation process, the question “why does the person become a criminal?” Is shortening. The question should rather be: Macro : Why have certain categories of behavior been defined as criminal or deviant? Mikro : Why was this specific behavior successfully classified in this category? Who made this classification? With what authority? What are the consequences? Against what resistance?

Origins and advancements in the labeling approach

The most original source is i. d. R. Frank Tannenbaum's sentence “The young delinquent becomes bad because he is defined as bad” (1938). Tannenbaum was, however, a historian and can therefore only be understood as an early source of inspiration. An early sociological formulation can be found in Edwin M. Lemert , who in 1951 differentiated between “primary” and “ secondary ” deviance and thus laid the foundation for the career thesis. An early core source of the approach is considered to be a collection of essays by Howard S. Becker that appeared in the 1950s and summarized in the book Outsiders in 1963 , in which the most cited section of the approach can be found:

Deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an 'offender.' The deviant is one to whom the label has successfully been applied; deviant behavior is behavior that people so label.

( Deviance is not the act per se, but rather the consequence of applying rules and sanctions to a “criminal.” The deviant is someone who has been successfully labeled; deviant behavior is behavior that is defined as such by society . )

However, Becker continued to differentiate between "standard breaks" on the one hand and "deviations" on the other, which made deviation an attribution , but norm break a fact. Lemert argued quite similarly when he differentiated “primary deviation” from “secondary” and thus allowed the attribution to step behind the deviation (or that was read as such). Malcolm Spector and John I. Kitsuse argued against both that the reorientation towards attribution processes was only partially carried out here. In Germany, the same point of criticism can be found with Wolfgang Keckeisen. Correctly understood, breaches of the norms in the labeling approach as well as deviations do not exist, but are attributed to social negotiation processes.

On the basis that all discrepancies are attributable, two subsequent discussions arise. (1) Stigmatization allegation: If deviation is “only” ascribed, are the “perpetrators” - ie those to whom crime or deviation was attributed - to be understood as victims of stigmatization processes? (2) Accusation of relativism: If all deviation, in fact all designation, is an attribution, does this plunge the field into the space of greatest possible arbitrariness?

Stigmatization allegation

The analysis of attributions and stigmatizations quickly aroused sympathy for the stigmatized. Erving Goffman analyzes how the “damaged identity” is dealt with , and Howard Becker notes that the sociologist, who does ethnographic work with outsiders, cannot avoid developing sympathy for these marginalized people and often senses them as “more against than sinning ”. (This testifies to the proximity of the labeling school to the Chicago ethnographic school , from whose context interactionism and thus the labeling approach originate.) The claim that deviants are only those who receive this label in a social process aroused sharp criticism . If the “perpetrators” are in truth the recipients of public labeling, they are degraded to “reaction idiots” who have been pushed into a stigmatized role without their own responsibility . Ronald Akers noted bitingly: “ One sometimes gets the impression from reading this literature that people go about minding their own business, and then - 'wham' - bad society comes along and slaps them with a stigmatized label. ”The“ liberation ”of the stigmatized can receive great public approval, whether it is about sexual individualities or personal drug use. However, Helge Peters asks : "Who would like to see skinheads as addressees of the stigmatization of instances of social control, as their construct?" However, that was not the aim of the approach. Edwin Lemert has clearly distanced himself from this stigmatization reading of the approach and calls it "a disservice to Mead ", namely a step back from the pragmatic and interactionist idea that all meaning is a social ascription that arises in a social negotiation process in which all participants be perceived as agents. The fact that people only get into a different role if their social environment ascribes one to them, ie if they lose, does not make this ascription right or wrong; In the labeling approach, attributions are not pre-marked as right or wrong (then they would be objectified again), but simply exist or not, and also regularly exist differently in different groups. “But the LA does not already bring a condemnation of stigmatization with it, but never excludes (any) such condemnation (ie: the stigmatization of a certain stigmatization).” That makes such ascriptions conflictual and thus political; Edwin Schur speaks of “stigma contests”, stigma competitions in which different groups try to gain influence by naming actions.

Relativism charge

On the basis of his position that nothing is inherently different, but only experiences a different assignment in a social process of naming, has brought him the reproach of absolute arbitrariness.

However, this confuses relativism with the position that all knowledge is perspective. The allegation of relativism supposedly includes the charge that every position is as good as any other; To be able to make such a statement, however, requires a perspective from which the different positions that are supposed to be “equally good” can be viewed and compared in an abstract manner from the outside and would therefore no longer be relativistic. This difficulty in thinking has its origin in a misunderstanding of the word 'relative' and the term 'relativism'. The property of an assertion, which is denoted by the word 'relative', means that the relative assertion depends on conditions which must be examined to determine whether they are valid for an assertion to be true. And relativism is an epistemological position that denies that any claim can be made that is not relative. The opposite of this is characterized by the concept of arbitrariness; for whatever is true is that it is not subject to any condition, whereas the relative is always conditioned. The labeling approach does not shift the naming into arbitrariness, but into the space of the always necessary, perspective classification and assessment and thus also depending on conditions. Relativism is therefore not a reproach against the labeling approach, but a correct characteristic of this criminological theory.


Helge Peters offers the famous example of two women - one poor, one rich - who put a bottle of perfume in their pocket in the shop and leave the premises without paying. In everyday life, we would speak of both of them as shoplifters and want this to be an objective fact of the situation.

The labeling approach, however, would interpret this as a false assumption: A woman is a thief if it is defined that she has stolen the bottle - legally: if it is judicially determined that she has broken custody of a foreign, movable property and established new custody, and this deliberately and with the intention of appropriateness . None of these constituent elements are in the world. Rather, it must be determined in this way by authorized actors.

While such determinations may seem obvious in many everyday situations, they are not. They can all be challenged in a negotiation process. The question of intent is particularly problematic. Intention is determined by confessing intention and believing the confession or, in the case of a lack of confession, by reconstructing motives. While the motive that she wanted the perfume but could not pay and therefore stole it can easily be ascribed to the poor woman, this reconstruction of the motive fails in the case of the rich woman. This, in the absence of a confession, renders the attribution of intent to failure. However, since the breach of expectations has to be explained, there is now the chance to define this removal as a symptom of “kleptomania”: The woman would be sick as a result, not criminal.

Side effects of the labeling approach

Based on the positions of the labeling approach, career models, institutional research and criticism of criminal law emerged as side effects. However, these are not to be understood as constituent elements of the approach and are not universally shared by representatives of the approach.

Career models

Even the early advocates of the labeling approach offered approaches for career models that assumed that the dramatization of breaches of expectations influenced the person's later behavior in the direction of stronger and repeated deviations. That was already to be found with Tannenbaum (see above). With Lemert this idea lies in the separation of “primary” and “secondary” deviation, with Becker in the figure of the “self-fulfilling prophecy”. In Germany z. B. Stephan Quensel constructed a step model of the criminal career from this.

The basic assumptions of the career model are based on the position that deviation and crime as well as personal identities ultimately arise in social negotiation processes, thus in an interplay of external and self-attributions. If a role has been assigned in a case, this is available in the social space as a “memory”, which now has consequences: Since social action does not already bring meaning, but must first be interpreted (see above), there is always a breadth of differences Attribution of meaning possible. If a person already has a history of being “deviant”, “criminal” or the like, this influences the later interpretation of their actions. This is e.g. B. became recognizable in the context of the examination of psychiatry: If there is an attribution as "mentally ill", behaviors that would otherwise have been normalized as normal suddenly become symptoms. David Rosenhan's famous psychiatry experiment shows how in pseudo-patients who were admitted because of pretended psychoses, symptomatic behavior was now seen in all actions. Since 2019, however, it has been doubted whether Rosenhan actually carried out the experiment as described. Existing deviating role assignments influence the interpretation of actions away from normalization and towards the discovery of new clues for “deviation”. This applies not only to people who have already been apprehended, but also to those who correspond to the “profiles” of those who have already been apprehended. In addition, people who have already committed criminal offenses are exposed to increased social control and thus a higher risk of being apprehended. They already exist in police records, are regularly counted among the suspects when similar offenses are uncovered, and are more often found under police control. This micro-amplification goes hand in hand with a macro-amplification: In areas where “known criminals” live - ie mostly areas with low incomes and a low level of education - there is more control and patrol. If these factors come together, roles can become rigid. If the person is confronted with social expectations of being “deviant”, this can lead to a role being assumed.

Institutional research

On the basis of the (misunderstood, see above ) assumption that deviation is only the result of an external ascription, the critical reception of the approach in Germany has long been concerned with institutional research. If deviation is an external attribution, then the judges are the perpetrators, the stigmatized the victim. The critical reception argues here that the attribution of deviating identities to people and the meaning “deviating / criminal” to categories of actions are the result of power and domination relationships, which is why the powerful institutions must be analyzed. The "unequal distribution of power in the various strata and the relative power of the authority in relation to it" is the reason why "the label is only really negotiated" in the middle class, while it is "simply assigned to the lower class [...]" will. However, as discussed in "Stigmatization" above, this contradicts the basic interactionist assumption that meanings are not assigned unilaterally, but are negotiated in a social process, and that in a field in which objects and people always appear with a history of assignments of meaning. which, however, can be opened and moved. Therefore, against this orientation the following is argued: "Anchoring the approach in power structures and the separation between power and law contradicts its pragmatic-interactionist roots". A theory that no longer addresses deviation and identity as objects that can be found in the world with discoverable meanings cannot do the same for “power” either.

See also


  • Howard S. Becker (1973): Outsiders. On the sociology of deviant behavior . Frankfurt: Fischer-Taschenbuchverlag.
  • Helga Cremer-Schäfer, Heinz Steinert (1998/2014): Lust and repression. On the criticism of populist criminology. Westphalian steamboat: Münster.
  • Erving Goffman (2003): Stigma: on techniques for coping with damaged identity. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
  • Wolfgang Keckeisen (1974): The social definition of deviant behavior: perspectives and limits of the labeling approach. Munich: Juventa.
  • Stephan Quensel (1964): Social-psychological aspects of criminology: action, situation, etc. Personality. Enke: Stuttgart.
  • Stephan Quensel (1986): Let's abolish theories of crime: On the latent deep structure of our crime theories. In: Kriminologisches Journal 1. Supplement 1986, pp. 11-23.
  • Hans-Dieter Schwind (2006): Criminology. Heidelberg: Kriminalistik-Verlag.

Individual evidence

  1. cf. as a representative of etiological perspectives Robert King Merton (1969): Social structure and anomie , in Sack F./König R. (Eds.): Kriminalsoziologie , Frankfurt am Main, pp. 283–313; Edwin Sutherland (1969): Theory of differential contacts , in Sack F./König R. (Ed.): Kriminalsoziologie , Frankfurt am Main, pp. 395–399; Albert Cohen. 1955. Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang. Glencoe, IL: Free Press. To distinguish between etiological vs. Reaction approaches cf. Helge Peters. Deviance and Social Control . Weinheim 2009.
  2. Michael Dellwing: The label and the power. The labeling approach from pragmatism to social criticism and back. Criminological Journal 41: 162-178.
  3. ^ Herbert Blumer : Symbolic Interactionism . Berkeley 1969.
  4. ^ Frank Tannenbaum: Crime and the Community. New York and London: Columbia University Press. 1938.
  5. Kitsuse, John I. and Malcolm Spector (1975): Social Problems and Deviance: Some Parallel Issues , in: Social Problems 22 (5), 584-594, doi: 10.2307 / 799692 , JSTOR 799692 .
  6. Keckeisen, Wolfgang (1974): The social definition of deviant behavior. Perspectives and limits of the labeling approach , Munich.
  7. Erving Goffman. 1967. Stigma. About techniques of coping with damaged identity. Frankfurt.
  8. Becker, Howard S. 1967. Whose Side Are We On? , in: Social Problems 14, 239-247, doi: 10.2307 / 799147 , JSTOR 799147 .
  9. ^ Trutz von Trotha . 1977. Ethnomethodology and Deviant Action. Comments on the concept of the 'reaction dapple' , in: Kriminologisches Journal 6 .
  10. Ronald Akers (1968): “Problems in the Sociology of Deviance: Social Definitions and Behavior”, Social Forces 4: 455-465, doi: 10.1093 / sf / 46.4.455 , JSTOR 2575380 , translated accordingly: “When reading this literature you get the impression that people just take care of themselves and then - bam - the bad company comes along and puts a stigma on them. "
  11. Peters, Helge (1996): As partisan science obsolete, as theory but not mortal: the labeling approach , in: Kriminologisches Journal 28 , 107ff.
  12. ^ Edwin Lemert (1974): Beyond Mead: The Societal Reaction to Deviance. Social Problems 21: 457-468, doi: 10.2307 / 799985 , JSTOR 799985
  13. Michael Dellwing: Mental Illness as Persistent Negotiation . In: Social Problems . tape 19 , no. 2 , 2008, p. 150–171 , urn : nbn: de: 0168-ssoar-244691 .
  14. ^ Michael Dellwing (2008): Remnants: The Liberation of the Labeling Approach from Liberation . Criminological Journal 40: 162 ff.
  15. ^ Edwin Schur: The Politics of Deviance. Englewood Cliffs. 1980
  16. ^ Jack P. Gibbs (1966): Conceptions of Deviant Behavior: The Old and the New. The Pacific Sociological Review 9: 9-14, doi: 10.2307 / 1388302 , JSTOR 1388302 ; Karl-Dieter Opp (1972): The 'old' and the 'new' criminal sociology. Criminological Journal 4: 32-52.
  17. Cf. Birgit Mensel and Kerstin Ratzke (eds.): Limitless constructivity? Positioning and future perspectives of constructivist theories of deviant behavior. Festschrift for Helge Peters. Leske and Budrich, Opladen 1997.
  18. On the sociology of motives and their social attribution cf. Blum, Alan F. and McHugh, Peter. 1968. The social attribution of motives. In: Klaus Lüderssen and Fritz Sack: Seminar: Deviant behavior II. Frankfurt; Charles Wright Mills : Situated Action and Vocabularies of Motive. In: American Sociological Review 5: 904-913, JSTOR 2084524 .
  19. ^ Edwin Lemert: Social Pathology , 1951
  20. ^ Howard Becker: Outsiders . New York 1963.
  21. David Rosenhan (2002): Healthy in a sick environment . Kölner Schriften zur Kriminologie und Kriminalpolitik 3, pp. 103–125.
  22. Susannah Cahalan: Stanford professor who changed America with just one study was also a liar. In: New York Post. November 2, 2019, accessed November 4, 2019 .
  23. ^ Johann Grolle: Journey into the realm of madness. In: Der Spiegel No. 50, December 7, 2019, p. 112f ( online with payment barrier ).
  24. Smaus, Gerlinda (1986): Attempt at a materialistic-interactionist criminology , in: Kritische Kriminologie heute , 1. Supplement to the Kriminologische Journal, 179-199.
  25. Michael Dellwing: The label and the power. The labeling approach from pragmatism to social criticism and back. Criminological Journal 41: 162-178.