The materials contained within this week's on-line readings represent the contributions made by FSU School of Criminology to labeling theory, principally the work of Professor Thomas Blomberg. He was a student at the University of California Berkeley during the period in which David Matza and others were defining this model. During the late 1960s and early 1970s the University was deeply involved in the student revolt of that era, and its campaigns for racial equality, women's rights, and ending the Viet Nam War.
Labeling theory represented a rejection of the dominant structural functionalist models within criminology popular during the 1950s. As such, labeling theory shifted focus from positive systemic benefits of deviance to the negative consequences of stigmatization for those so labeled as criminals, delinquents, and deviants. This perspective would become part of a larger shift toward conflict models within criminology. Labeling theory continues to be a widely discussed model today, though Pfohl points out the difficulties in empirically testing a number of its propositions.
Blomberg's major contribution to criminological theory has been to show how, paradoxically, the development of diversionary programs aimed at reducing labeling and its resultant stigmatization instead led to increased social control over larger and larger proportions of the population. Youth and adults who would have previously dropped out of the system without sanction, are now placed under the authority of agencies, either state or private, and mandated to complete programs or risk criminal justice reprisals. Net widening, as the phenomenon came to be known, occurred largely as a result of not using diversion as originally intended, as a way to reduce institutionalized populations. As Blomberg sees it, there is a "...tendency of penal reforms to become implemented as supplements instead of alternatives to previous practices, thereby increasing the overall proportion of the base population subject to social control." While states such as Massachusetts did experiment with deinstitutionalization of their juvenile facilities in the 1970s and others responded to law suits (e.g., Bobby M. in Florida), the overall pattern of the 1980s and 1990s has been dramatic increases in both the use of institutional and community-based sanctions.
Social control is rapidly expanding in a number of other ways besides diversionary programs, according to Blomberg. These include the dramatically increased use of incarceration, growing use of surveillance techniques (see work of Gary Marx on this topic), and the loss of privacy characterized by extensive computerized record keeping now done by many agencies and organizations. The latter are being collected and sold to information seekers hoping to run background checks, credit histories, etc.
The Future of Labeling Theory: Foundations and Promises by Charles Wellford and Ruth Triplett (1993)