The labeling theory was developed from the interactionist perspective of criminology. Interactionists believe that a person does not become a criminal on their own. Interactionist theories "assume that everyone has the potential to violate the law and that criminality is not an innate human characteristic," according to Schamlleger (2005, p. 245). While social constraints are the primary cause of crime, this alone does not cause someone to act unlawful. Instead these deviant behaviors must be learned and reinforced, which is why the process of socialization is an important factor in determining if someone is going to become a criminal. This means that interactions with society, peer groups, family, the education system, and other social groups play a prominent role, as these interactions provide the individual with morals, values, and a slate of norms in which to adhere to. In addition, this theory believes that a person's position in society will influence their involvement in crime, with those in higher positions in society less likely to partake in criminal behaviors.
The labeling theory helped criminologist differentiate between primary and secondary deviance. An offender's initial act of deviance is considered primary deviance. However, continuing these acts is considered secondary deviance, especially if these acts occur as a result of being around other deviant individuals (Schmalleger, 2005). For example, while someone may initially rob a gas station as their primary deviance, secondary deviance may come from being sentenced to jail, meeting fellow criminals, and engaging in additional deviant behavior with them that would not occur if the individual was not associated with them. However, the individual does not have to have direct interaction with other deviant individuals for it to be considered secondary deviance. The action of simply being labeled a criminal can result in secondary deviations (Schmalleger, 2005). Noting and studying labeling in regards to secondary deviance is important, because the negative labels put on an individual eventually become internalized. The individual labels himself as deviant, and therefore performs deviant behaviors to fit these labels (Schmalleger, 2005).
In the 1960s and 70s, criminologists began to question the labeling and interactionist theory. It was during this time that there were a lot of social problems that were causing criminologists to question their loyalty and support to these and other earlier proposed theories. Some of these social problems included the civil rights movement, which gave blacks and whites equal rights, and the war in Vietnam, which was hugely unpopular. Criminologists began to question how they could support theories and interpret laws that discriminated against people and reinforced or caused human suffering.
It was at this time that things in the world of criminology began to shift, as a new perspective, Marxist criminology, began to develop. This criminology theory strongly questioned the labeling theory and other theories before it. It was founded upon the writings concerning capitalism by Karl Marx. He was an individual who believed that capitalist societies were divided into two social classes, a small, rich, elite and a large, poor, working class. The elite class served as the ruling class and exploited the poor class