A comprehensive test of labeling theory's intervening mechanisms




Fernandez, Allison J.

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Labeling theory hypothesizes that once an individual is labeled as a deviant that individual will act in accordance with the expectations of the deviant label imposed upon them by others by committing subsequent acts of delinquency due to blocked access to conventional opportunities, an alteration of self-identity, and the acquisition of delinquent peers. While labeling theory is clear in its expectations, the majority of prior research has focused solely on testing for the general idea of deviance amplification (i.e., delinquency is increased following a justice system contact); this has resulted in a lack of clear support of labeling due to the theoretical propositions not being explicitly modeled (Barrick, 2014; Tittle, 1980; Paternoster and Iovanni, 1989). This study expands upon previous research of labeling theory by exploring the extent to which delinquent labels, specifically an involuntary police contact, lead to blocked access to conventional opportunities, the formation of a negative self-identity, and acquisition of delinquent peers using a sample of adolescents. This study uses data from the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN) to provide a comprehensive empirical test of labeling theory using path analysis. The use of path analysis provides a more comprehensive theoretical test of labeling theory allowing for the modeling of multiple mediating pathways. Results indicate that an involuntary police contact has a significant direct effect on negative self-identity and association with delinquent peers, net of fourteen control variable constructs. Importantly, delinquent peers were the only significant mediator found to influence subsequent delinquency. In sum, there is a statistically significant total effect, marginally significant direct effect, and statistically significant total indirect effect of police contact on subsequent delinquency. Delinquent peers serves as the only significant mediator of the relationship through police contact and subsequent delinquency. Approximately 57% of the total effect of police contact on delinquency is direct and 43% is indirect, operating exclusively through the delinquent peers mechanism. Due to these findings, criminal justice agents, communities, and school officials should seek to reduce the negative effects resulting from an involuntary police contact. Particularly, the acquisition of delinquent peers should be targeted in order to decrease these formations and policy efforts should also seek to prevent adverse changes in identity.


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labeling, labeling theory



Criminal Justice