The labelling approach explains delinquency using the interactions between the delinquent and those that define delinquency. Unlike earlier theories, he does not ask for the reasons why someone becomes criminal (etiology), but looks at those processes at the macro level that lead to the criminalisation of certain actions. At the micro-level, the labelling approach explains how the attributes “criminal” or “delinquent” are assigned to individuals and groups. Here it is assumed that the person labelled as a “deviator” will adopt this attribute and adapt his behaviour to it. Accordingly, punishment has the paradoxical effect that it can reinforce delinquent behaviour. Starting from the basics of labelling, later theories examine the different modes of action that punishment can have.
Labelling theories were first developed in the 1950s in the USA. They gained particular popularity in the 1960s. Many, especially younger, scientists at US universities began to question the given power structures and thus to shake the basic concepts of criminology. They criticized the fact that criminology was primarily concerned with the crimes of the powerless and neglected political backgrounds. For these theorists it became increasingly important to question the basic assumptions of criminology. Based on the assumption that the nature of crime is a attribution process, they developed new questions. Theoretically, the theories of these scientists are based on the considerations of symbolic interactionism, as represented by Georg H. Mead or Charles Horton Cooley, for example.
When people are labelled as criminals, as a result of stigmatisation they assume the role of criminals assigned to them in their self-image. Stigmatisation and the new concept of identity close access to conventional, non-criminalised roles.
Labelling theory is mostly attributed to Frank Tannenbaum (1893-1969). In his study “Crime and the Community” (1938), he was the first to describe that defining, identifying, naming and emphasizing certain properties can produce precisely these properties.
Based on Tannenbaum, Edwin Lemert’s “Social pathology: Systematic approaches to the study of sociopathic behavior” was published in 1951 and Howard S. Becker’s “Outsiders” in 1963. Becker and Lemert can be seen as the main representatives of the labelling approach.
In the 1960s German sociologist Fritz Sack brought the labelling approach to Germany. He radicalized it there and developed it into the “Marxist Interactionist Theory”, which sees attribution as the exclusive cause of crime. Since sociological theories had hardly been developed in Germany before, the labelling approach represents a radical departure from the criminological way of thinking prevailing at the time. Even more so than in the American region, we can speak here of a paradigm shift in which the etiological paradigm was replaced by the interactionist paradigm.
Talking about a labelling approach, or even a labelling theory, is shortened. There are various suggestions as to which term should be used to describe the different theories. Other suggestions are: Reaction to society (Societal Reaction), sociology of deviance, social interactionism, neo-Chicago school (Beirne & Messerschmidt, 1991), control paradigm, reaction approach or definition approach (Lemmert, 2007). Due to its close connection to conflict theory, the term “Marxist-interactionist” is also proposed (Sack, 1972). Since the term encompasses so many considerations, it is generally more meaningful to speak of an approach than of a theory.
New theories developed out of the labelling approach which examined the effect of punishment more closely (e.g. Braithwaite, 1989 and Sherman, 2004). These theories assume that punishment can have different effects in different contexts. They thus react to the realization that social reactions sometimes amplify deviations and sometimes limit them.