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Labeling and delinquency

The article by Adams, Robertson, Gray-Ray and Ray (2003) looked into the issue of labeling and its possible association with adolescent involvement in delinquent behaviors. The researchers believed that labeling on the part of parents, peers and teachers can have a potential impact on adolescent behavior and consequently that negative labeling may be an important predictor of different types of delinquent behaviors. The researchers therefore had three objectives in their research. The first was to assess the usefulness of a semantic differential scale methodology in measuring self-concept.

The second was to compare the effects of formal and informal labeling on adolescent involvement in delinquent behaviors. The third was to determine how well different categories of labeling were able to influence involvement in three types of delinquent behaviors – general, serious and drug-related offences. The research was a quantitative, cross-sectional study of adolescents using a community-based sample. The study was conducted in the state of Mississippi and thus the researchers targeted the two sole juvenile training schools.

All school-aged youths who were detained at the facilities for different reasons were required to participate. Exclusions were done for only 60 of the potential 337 juveniles who were detained at the facilities at the time of the survey because these were unable to participate in the survey due to issues such as court appearance. Thus no randomization was done and the method of choosing participants is relatively free of bias since the researchers had no control over the juveniles who would have been present in the facilities at the time of the survey.

The resulting participants were therefore 277 youths made up of close to 90 percent males and just over 75 percent African Americans. The juveniles’ ages ranged from 10 to 18 years. The data collection procedures involved group-administered questionnaires. Sets of approximately 25 participants each were given a questionnaire which the researchers assisted them in completing by reading the instructions and the questionnaires from an overhead projector.

The questionnaire measured the variables of informal labeling experienced by adolescents by asking them to report on their prior involvement with social control agencies in any form. The ten variables provided were coded and scored using a dichotomous 0 or 1 scale. Higher total scores represented greater perceptions of formal labeling. Another variable assessed was informal labeling which was measured by asking juveniles about their perception of labeling by parents, teachers and peers. A semantic differential scale using six sets of contrasting adjectives was used.

Juveniles were required to which of the two adjectives would best suit how they felt that either of the three groups perceived them. Possible responses were either the positive adjective, a neutral response or a negative adjective scored 0, 1 or 2 respectively with higher scores representing greater negative perceptions. The other variables measured were involvement in general, drug-related or serious delinquent behaviors. These were measured by asking respondents to indicate frequency of previous involvement in a range of delinquent acts scored on a scale of 0 to 5.

Higher scores represented greater frequency of involvement in these acts. The researchers also gathered background variables in relation to gender and ethnicity for purposes of analysis. The researchers correlated all of variables in order to discover the relationship between involvement in the different categories of delinquent behaviors and perceived negative informal labeling by parents, peers and teachers. The major finding of the research was that teacher and formal labeling were the greatest predictors of involvement in general delinquent behaviors.

More specifically teacher labeling was the most important predictor of participation in general delinquency and formal labeling was the second most significant variable in predicting this category of delinquent behaviors. On the other hand background variables were often found to be significantly correlated with general delinquency. Being white, male and older were more closely correlated with involvement in general delinquency where approximately 30. 4 percent of these behaviors were attributable to demographic variables.

With respect to serious delinquency family and peer labeling were the most significant correlates but no variables were correlated to a significant enough degree with drug-related delinquency. Overall the researchers found that their methodology was effective in determining self-concept and that labeling was indeed an important issue to be considered when examining juvenile delinquency as adolescent negative behaviors can be shaped or influenced by perceived labeling either formally at the level of social organizations or informally via the perceptions of teachers, parents and peers.

For the categories of behaviors highlighted by the researchers all three categories of informal labeling were related in some way to at least one group of negative behaviors. Formal labeling was found to be even more important than informal labeling in predicting these behaviors. Only in one category of behaviors – general delinquency – did formal labeling show any level of significance. Additionally a secondary objective of the researchers was to determine the validity of compressing the three categories of informal labeling groups into one based on the trend of previous researchers.

However the researchers found that parent, peer and teacher labeling had differing effects on different categories of behaviors and thus this approach is not reliable in explaining how these groups influence delinquent behavior. The most interesting finding of the research was that all categories of labeling had some amount of effect on delinquent behaviors. Formal labeling had a significant effect on general delinquency, parents and peer labeling impacted serious delinquency while teacher labeling impacted general delinquency.

This emphasizes that labeling from all aspects of society influences delinquency in some way. Since adolescents are exposed to most, if not all of these factors in their everyday reactions and since labeling is a common feature of our perceptions of each other, adolescents will constantly feel the effects of labeling. This means that in order to impact any change in behavior of adolescents programs cannot be geared solely at those involved only but has to take a community approach.

This community approach would involve those in the home, school and the residential environment of adolescents. Perceptions, though difficult to change, will have to be addressed if any meaningful long-term change is to be seen. However the findings with respect to this aspect of the research must be approached and accepted with caution. The researchers only collect data from a single source, adolescents and do not attempt to get a fuller understanding of the labeling or different perceptions that families, friends and teachers actually have on adolescents.

The input of these groups would help further an understanding of the phenomenon and then impact decision-making on dealing with the effects of labeling on juvenile delinquency. Nevertheless this approach is not completely useless since it is how adolescents perceive that they are labeled and not what truly exists outside of these perceptions that could have the greatest impact on behavior. Adolescents, of course, are not well placed to gather and understand the facts and would thus act based on their feelings.

It is therefore up to persons in the community to ensure that, as far as possible, they do not give the perception of labeling. Moreover it is important to acknowledge that no one variable is adequate to explain the full range of delinquent behaviors. Additionally based on the seriousness of the behaviors different variables were important and thus those planning strategies to address the issue must bear in mind the multiple variables that may be significant. Also demographic variables were very significant predictors of delinquency.

Thus when designing programs to target certain behaviors the demographic characteristics of the population they are targeting and the type of behaviors the population is involved in must be taken into account so as to ensure that behaviors are appropriately targeted using the correct approaches for the specific group of adolescents. This finding emphasizes an extremely useful point made by the researchers that the different categories of labeling cannot be applied holistically to an understanding of their contribution to delinquent behaviors since each of them impact different categories of behaviors.

Thus the researchers were able to effectively measure self-concept using a semantic differential scale. Both formal and informal labeling were significant predictors of involvement in delinquent behaviors but not the same extent or in relation to the same behaviors. Formal labeling was significantly correlated with only general delinquent behaviors while informal labeling – including parent, peer and teacher labeling – was significantly correlated with both general and drug-related delinquency.

Though the research was overall useful, well presented and utilized an effective and appropriate methodology in explaining the contribution that labeling within different societal settings can have on the development of different categories and intensities of delinquent behaviors it had a few weaknesses. The main concern is with respect to the data gathering techniques and the subjects chosen. While the group of adolescents chosen was appropriate for the type of research it must be emphasized that these adolescents were already offenders.

Furthermore no comparison group of adolescents not located in an institutional setting was used as comparison. It is therefore difficult to determine the true extent to which labeling could have influenced delinquent behavior. With a control group the researchers would have been able to compare the perceived labeling and demographic characteristics. Subsequently the researchers would have been able to discern any differences between the groups and then draw conclusions about the effects that labeling had on one study group as compared to the control.

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