I was wondering if labeling people and actions based on intent has had any observable affect on the actual action itself.

i.e. Things like Terrorism or hate crimes

Intuitively I can only see these categorizations making people martyrs for their causes, but I am unable to find any information in regards to the growth even looking at the IRA in the 80's-90's in Britain or since the inception Patriot Act.

Historical or Modern sources on how the labeling based on intent affects the growth of said intent would be appreciated.

  • 3
    Great question. I'm working on an answer, but I believe the concept you are looking for is issue framing. Maybe that will help you focus your thoughts. Aug 21, 2017 at 15:52
  • 1
    @indigochild keeping me in suspense
    – SCFi
    Sep 28, 2018 at 14:52
  • Oh dang. Thanks for the reminder. Sorry for the very long delay! Sep 28, 2018 at 16:48
  • Would we surmise that you think that vilification is the primary motive for naming these crimes like they are? There is justifiable jurisprudence in breaking these crimes out into their own definition because they have purposeful externalities. Lynchings and bashings are 'deliberately' intimidating and oppressive on a greater scale than private disputes.
    – Eikre
    Sep 29, 2018 at 18:00
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    And even for hate crimes, how could one distinguish the effect of intent-based labelling from mere labelling that would just reflect the [perceived] importance of the phenomenon? The latter is also conductive to the creation of task forces, accumulating official statistics etc. Just think of sex crimes. Oct 2, 2018 at 2:10

3 Answers 3


Hate Crime section

This article discusses the track record of hate crime legislation.

If you define success as hate crime laws actually deterring hate crimes, then they probably aren’t successful by that standard — since no good research shows they’re an effective deterrent. But if you define success as hate crime laws providing resources for marginalized communities so they can feel protected and accepted, then there’s a strong argument, experts said, that they’re successful.

If the discussion is whether hate crime legislation has reduced hate crime incidence, there is a confounding factor, which is that the majority of hate crimes go unreported. The first link corroborates the shortcoming of official statistics.

Over the past two decades, the FBI reported between 6,000 and 10,000 hate crimes each year in the US. But when the US Bureau of Justice Statistics surveyed large segments of the population between 2007 and 2011 to try to gauge the real number of hate crimes, it concluded that there are nearly 260,000 such crimes annually.

However, without hate crime legislation, there would be no effort to categorize or track hate crimes, or have any information about their frequency. So, without the legislation, you don't even have a framework to begin studying and addressing the problem.

Terrorism Law section

In America, it is also difficult to measure the effectiveness of terrorism modifiers to criminal law. The reason for this is because Title VIII of the Patriot Act modified terrorism criminal law at the same time that other provisions* of the Patriot Act provided for numerous other measures to prevent terrorism. Therefore, it is difficult to separate the success or failure of individual provisions that were instituted simultaneously, except by correlating terrorism frequency with the expiration dates of individual provisions (there have been various extension bills to the Patriot Act, causing some provisions to expire as early as 2006 and others as late as 2019). The sample size of terrorism in the US may also be too low to make such a correlation with any statistical significance. Ultimately, I would conjecture that the Title VIII terrorism laws likely have not been an effective deterrent at all, because not enough people know that Title VIII exists, nor the severity of the penalties it establishes.

*Provisions originally created by the Patriot Act include various expansions in funding for counter-terrorism centers and task forces, enhanced surveillance procedures, anti-money laundering measures, border security, removing investigative obstacles, a fund for helping victims, increased information sharing between agencies, required prioritization and dissemination of collected intelligence, and miscellaneous provisions for hazmat suits, electronic surveillance, first responders, studying biometric identifiers, study of a no-fly list, private contractor security, and regulation of charitable telemarketing.


Labeling Theory

There is a sociological theory which seems to match your description: labeling theory. I won't cite individual peer-reviewed articles because sociology is pretty far outside my expertise, but the wikipedia article seems well-referenced.

Labeling theory is interested in deviant behavior. In their view, deviant behavior is whatever society labels as deviant. It need not initially be illegal, immoral, or harmful, though once labelled as deviant it may become any of those things.

This influences how individuals view themselves (and others). Labeling theory has some common roots with interactionism, as foundations in both fields were laid down by George Herbert Meade. According to his work, people understand their place in society by interacting with others. Each interaction provides feedback about how other people view them. Over time, identities are built based on the sum of these interactions with others.

More specifically about your question: yes, society uses labels like "terrorist" or "hate crime" to enforce expectations on people. And yes, some people build their identity on these labels. Howard Becker's work focused on how deviants build identities around their deviance. The over-all process seems to go like this:

  1. A person engages in deviant behavior.
  2. Through their interactions with other people, they receive feedback letting them know they are deviant.
  3. They can abandon their deviant behavior, or accept the role of being a social deviant. If they accept the role, they start internalizing a new set of behaviors which match their new label.

The answer to your question.

As far as your actual question regarding whether labeling activities with deviant labels (like "hate crime" or "terrorism") increases or decreases the activity, I can't tell from the literature I've seen. However, labeling theory seems to suggest that people will accept the new label ("terrorist", "white supremacist"), which would lead to an increase in the deviant behavior.

However, I haven't seen anything which provides a quantitative assessment which shows the magnitude or direction of this effect. My guess is that it's because it would be almost impossible to measure well: how many hate crimes go unreported? And do they go unreported in equal proportions everywhere? This makes for a tricky research endeavor.

  • Based on sjsu.edu/people/james.lee/courses/soci152/s1/… it looks to me like labelling theory more commonly asserts that labelling will lead to the 2nd alternative at your #3, i.e. labelling criminals (as such) will aggravate critme etc. Also, I'm not sure this answers the OP's question, who is talking of a narrower form/aspect of labelling based on intent. Oct 2, 2018 at 1:17
  • @Fizz I don't disagree, but I haven't seen any quantitative study which shows that it's true. It's entirely likely that they out there, but my very limited search didn't uncover them. Oct 2, 2018 at 1:50
  • Actually, I think that for some of the issues the OP asks about, e.g. terrorism, such studies are nearly impossible to conduct; see my comment under his question. Oct 2, 2018 at 2:07
  • @Fizz I agree with that also. It's part of my answer. Oct 2, 2018 at 4:00

It depends not on a given label's intent, but rather its objective accuracy. Intention is merely incidental.

However abstract and politically arbitrary they might seem, competing frames, categories, ontologies, systems, etc. and their attendant lexicons vary in accuracy when applied to the actual objects and people in our world. The consequences of using a particular lexicon therefore depend greatly on the relative accuracy of its underlying system, compared to whatever was used before.

A very inaccurate set of labels can exponentially worsen conditions. For example, if a medieval society labels its neighborhood herbalists and their cats as witches and familiars, (implying a vast system of diabolical allegiances), and thus ceremonially immolates both in hopes of reducing witch-borne diseases, the public health consequences are unpleasant and surprising. Instead of disease being reduced, it increases, since the cats would catch rats, which carried fleas, which carried the microbes that originated the diseases; and since the herbalist would offer relatively benign and inexpensive remedies to their public.

A more accurate set of labels tends to improve conditions and makes planning more feasible.

  • 2
    going to need some sources
    – SCFi
    Oct 2, 2018 at 15:34
  • @SCFi, Can do... but sources for what specifically?
    – agc
    Oct 2, 2018 at 15:43
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    just sources to back claims such as "set of labels can exponentially worsen conditions". Just if it's a claim back it up!
    – SCFi
    Oct 2, 2018 at 16:14
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    @SCFi, Ahem, a very inaccurate set -- the adjective is important. Sorry if this seems obtuse, but it's still unclear what you'd like sourced. "A very inaccurate set of labels can exponentially worsen conditions" is not a claim, so much as a platitude; we don't claim what we've already owned, or know. The history of science, (and history in general), proves an inaccurate model and its jargon is less useful than than the labels from a more accurate model. Surely we agree all labels imply models. QED, barring some step I've missed.
    – agc
    Oct 2, 2018 at 17:34
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    I'd ilke the whole answer sourced. Can you provide a link to some kind of analysis that confirms your thesis is correct? Oct 3, 2018 at 21:17

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