By David Mayeda

In the 1960s and ’70s, labeling theory (a.k.a., social reaction theory) gained criminological prominence. Demonstrating a shift towards the critical criminology school of thought, labeling theory questions the broader power structure by asking two overarching questions:

  1. How do those with substantial power in society label people with less power and their behaviors deviant?
  2. What effects do those labels have on the future lives and behaviors of the people being labeled?

Labeling theorists, such as Edward Lemert, note that almost all people engage in primary deviance – petty crimes (e.g., truancy, petty theft) during their youth. This is normal. However, when people engage in these types of behavior and get caught, sometimes the social reaction is overly punitive. When this happens, the normalized behavior is redefined as criminogenic behavior, and the individual’s identity transforms from normal, everyday kid to “screw up,” “problem child,” “criminal,” etc.

As the self-fulfilling prophecy manifests, the individual becomes ostracized from conventional peers and adults, and finds comfort engulfed by similarly defined peers, all leading to engagement in secondary deviance, where the individual’s roles and identities revolve increasingly around criminalized behaviors. In turn, the individual’s deviant master status is further cemented.

Labeling theorists also suggested a deviant master status gets cemented as one goes further through the criminal (or juvenile) justice system, from arrest to conviction to incarceration, and that degradation ceremonies in formal, state justice systems are highly effective in cementing the criminally stigmatized master status.

Also of critical importance, Howard Becker argued that moral crusaders were those with conventional power who thrust their values upon society by stigmatizing minority groups. Working in concert, moral entrepreneurs included those who would utilize propaganda purported by moral crusaders in order to profit financially through minority groups’ stigmatization.

This aspect of labeling theory is important to remember because it is those with power who create society’s rules and laws, and use the law to protect their privilege. Hence, moral crusaders and entrepreneurs have the social capital – the money, the connections, the clout – to work with media, businesses, and politicians in suppressing any contestation to the status quo by labeling threats as deviant.

Of course minorities are not only labeled deviant as criminals. Additionally, they can be stigmatized through labels tied to mental illness. Such labels rely on the medical field’s social prestige, and focus on individuals’ alleged mental health problems (e.g., inability to focus, propensity to resist authority, substance use concerns), thereby detracting attention away from broader social inequities that ultimately cause disproportionately high levels of mental health concerns in minority communities.

And now onto The Wire

In this series of clips from season four, we see “Major Colvin” (or “Bunny,” now retired from the Baltimore police force) working with a university professor and his graduate students. The team is running an experimental alternative middle school class for students who have not adjusted well to mainstream courses, which includes main character “Namond.” The alternative course’s developers feel by removing disruptive students, the mainstream courses can function more smoothly, while the sequestered students can receive more attention. Still in the class’s early stages, Namond, does not trust the situation he has been forced into:

Notice how at 0:45 of this video, graduate assistant, “Miss Mason,” labels students with a variety of mental health conditions. In doing so, concerns are individualized, disconnected from the poverty that encapsulates the students’ proximal surroundings, as well as from the extensive social stratification that characterizes Baltimore as a whole.

And at the end of the video as Namond challenges the class leadership, notice how he embraces his identity as a “troubled youth,” talking back to the teachers and offering his hands so he can be cuffed. He fulfills the prophecy tagged upon him, while engulfed by similarly defined students.

Now fast-forward to a point when this class has matured a bit. Most of the students have developed a better rapport with the teachers, but still question the value that their educational system offers:

Here the “corner boys” (and girls) educate the teachers on the ins and outs of slingin’ drugs. At 2:00, see how Major Colvin likens the education system to any other system that teaches youth to manipulate their surroundings, to “practice getting over, try runnin’ all different kind of games. You know it’s practice for the corner (where drugs are sold), right?”

Perhaps Major Colvin is critiquing the youth and their efforts in the mainstream education system. However, the youth go on to explain how the capitalist system works in their neighborhood, with the panopticon persistently present; someone with higher authority is always watching the subordinate workers to ensure management is not cheated. Here, we see the labeled youth, segregated from their peers demonstrate their skillsets, which have been ignored by the mainstream system.

And at 4:42, Namond returns to drive home labeling theory’s key dimension. Although these youth of color are labeled animals, larger institutions in society – Enron Corporation, government, alcohol and cigarette industries, sports – also cheat, and do so in much more profound ways as society’s real killers. “D” straight up asks, “And drugs, pays your salaries, right?,” revealing that Major Colvin and his colleagues may inadvertently be moral entrepreneurs who profit through governmental funding to run programs for youth that have been labeled “troubled.”

Namond begins to sum it up: “We do the same thing as you all. Except when we do it, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, these kids is animals,’ like it’s the end of the world comin’. Man that’s bullshit… Hypocritical.” Zinobia closes out, “I mean yeah we got our thing but, it’s just part of the big thing.”

Yup, but in accordance with labeling theory, those with widespread power who truly profit by exploiting others through the big thing (i.e., capitalism) are labeled innovative businessmen, not animals.

One thought on ““The Wire” and Labeling Theory

  1. Labels are social constructions originally created to separate and organize people as seen in “The Wire” and Labeling Theory. More often than not it is not the label that is the problem but the meanings associated with the label that is the point of issue. Labels assigned negative connotations and applied to specific groups of people have a tendency to reduce targeted groups to othering, stereotyping and limit said groups opportunities and resources for upward mobility. In “The Wire” we see how this process has already manifested a culture of lower socioeconomic high school students into believing they are what the label implies and only capable of replicating and reproducing their existing circumstances. Although the people in power in this situation, the teachers, school faculty, security, law enforcement, and juvenile and criminal justice systems, appear to be designed to help these students overcome existing deficient circumstances, they are still part of institutional level oppression. The students are directly affected by the labels and stereotypes assigned to them creating a culture of self-fulfilling prophecy and maintenance of the underprivileged, low SES status.

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