Juvenile Delinquency and Labeling Theory

Cite this


There are multiple theories applicable to the study of delinquency in general and juvenile delinquency in particular. Although they all aim to answer roughly the same question of how delinquent behaviors emerge for the first time and which factors contribute to their continuation, the approaches and focuses differ. One of the sociological theories seeking to explain delinquent behaviors is the labeling theory. It focuses on the effects of labeling people as delinquents and has considerable explanatory power for secondary acts of delinquency but is ill-suited to analyze the first act prior to the emergence of the label.

Main body

Labeling theory explores how marking a person as a delinquent impact this person’s behavior and affects the likelihood of similar actions in the future. Its cornerstone assumption is that social reaction to certain behaviors, including juvenile delinquency, is a crucial and often defining factor in the reenactment of such behaviors in the future (Abrah, 2019). In more specific terms, the labeling theory maintains that as soon as a person commits a socially undesirable act, society swiftly labels this person a delinquent. This mark does not go away easily and, if invoked frequently enough by sufficiently powerful labelers, begins to impact the person’s self-perception (Bates & Swan, 2021). After being told enough times that they are delinquents who are not welcome in a civilized society and cannot behave according to its norms, the labeled people eventually internalize this perspective. Having incorporated delinquency into their identity due to social stigma, they continue with the behaviors that earned them the designation in the first place. This is how the labeling theory explains second and subsequent acts of delinquency, especially in juveniles, whose social scripts are more malleable.

However, while the theory has significant explanatory power when it comes to recurrent delinquency, it cannot be used to identify the causes of the original act. The reason for that is simple: since the labeling theory focuses on the effects of marking someone as a delinquent, it largely overlooks the events preceding the act of labeling. However, labeling occurs after the original delinquent act, not before. This is why the labeling theory makes such a sharp distinction between primary deviance and secondary deviance and focuses overwhelmingly on the latter (Bates & Swan, 2021). Although society may mark people as potential delinquents based on prejudice, the actual label emerges after the first offense, which is hardly analyzed insofar as the labeling theory is concerned. As a result, the most that the labeling theory can say about the causes of the original delinquent act is that it “can initially stem from various causes and conditions” (Bernburg, 2019). As one can note, this is hardly an assumption that would require a special sociological approach, which highlights the limitations of the labeling theory when it comes to explaining the first delinquent act.


To summarize, the labeling theory may be a potent sociological tool for analyzing the causes of juvenile delinquency, but it has considerable limitations as well. The idea of social stigma resulting from the label of delinquency may be incorporated by the offenders and become a driving force behind the second and subsequent acts is a powerful explanatory model. However, the simple fact that the stigma in question emerges after the initial act of delinquency makes the labeling theory unable to explain the causes of the original offense.


Abrah, P. B. (2019). Labeling theory and life stories of juvenile delinquents transitioning into adulthood. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 63(2), 179–197.

Bates, K. A., & Swan, R. S. (2021). Juvenile delinquency in a diverse society (2nd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Bernburg, J. G. (2019). Labeling theory. In Krohn, M. D., Hendrix, N., Hall, G. P., & Lizotte, A. J. (Eds.), Handbook on Crime and Deviance (2nd ed., pp. 179-196). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

Cite this paper

Select style


Premium Papers. (2023, March 6). Juvenile Delinquency and Labeling Theory. Retrieved from https://premium-papers.com/juvenile-delinquency-and-labeling-theory/


Premium Papers. (2023, March 6). Juvenile Delinquency and Labeling Theory. https://premium-papers.com/juvenile-delinquency-and-labeling-theory/

Work Cited

"Juvenile Delinquency and Labeling Theory." Premium Papers, 6 Mar. 2023, premium-papers.com/juvenile-delinquency-and-labeling-theory/.


Premium Papers. (2023) 'Juvenile Delinquency and Labeling Theory'. 6 March.


Premium Papers. 2023. "Juvenile Delinquency and Labeling Theory." March 6, 2023. https://premium-papers.com/juvenile-delinquency-and-labeling-theory/.

1. Premium Papers. "Juvenile Delinquency and Labeling Theory." March 6, 2023. https://premium-papers.com/juvenile-delinquency-and-labeling-theory/.


Premium Papers. "Juvenile Delinquency and Labeling Theory." March 6, 2023. https://premium-papers.com/juvenile-delinquency-and-labeling-theory/.