Labeling theory is a critical theory which argues that the application of a deviant label can have the effect of solidifying a deviant identity for the labeled, thus potentially exacerbating the problem that it purports to address. Labeling theory, therefore, prioritizes the study of social and legal processes by which certain behaviors and individuals come to be labeled as deviant, as well as the impact of such labels.
One of the greatest contributions of labeling theory has been its challenge to the traditional notion of deviance as a fixed, objective category of study, suggesting instead that the application of the label of “deviant” is highly context specific. This suggests that deviance is the result of the labeling process, not a quality intrinsic to certain individuals or actions. For example, a labeling theorist would critique the assumption that an 18-year-old who drinks alcohol is inherently deviant; whereas this behavior would be against the law in the United States, it would not be considered deviant in some countries. Thus, deviance is better conceived as a product of labeling processes than as a category of behaviors or individuals.
Labeling theorists suggest that labeling individuals as deviant has the potential of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Drawing from the social psychological concept of symbolic interactionism, labeling theorists argue that individuals’ self-concepts form partly through their social interactions; when an individual is labeled as deviant, the individual will incorporate the label into his or her self-definition, increasing the likelihood of future actions consistent with the label.
A deviant label can have an impact extending beyond its effect on an individual’s self-definition. The label can directly influence how others relate to the labeled. For example, an individual with a felony conviction might have difficulty finding a job because of the label of felon, even if the label is not incorporated into that person’s self-definition.
Labeling theory draws a distinction between deviant acts and deviant labels. Those who perform acts that society considers deviant can evade detection and, as such, avoid the labeling process; alternatively, the wrongly accused can be subject to the consequences of a deviant label without having performed any truly deviant actions.
Labeling theorists note that a wide range of labels have the potential to constitute a master status, in which an individual’s actions come to be interpreted in the context of his or her label without regard to other facets of the individual’s personality. While initially applied to the concept of delinquency, the framework of labeling has been applied to other forms of deviation as well, most prominently with regard to mental illness and disability.
- Bemberg, Jon G., Marvin D. Krohn, and Craig J. Rivera. 2006. “Official Labeling, Criminal Embeddedness, and Subsequent Delinquency: A Longitudinal Test of Labeling Theory.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 43:67-88.
- Davies, Scott and Julian Tanner. “The Long Arm of the Law: Effects of Labeling on Employment.” Sociological Quarterly 44:385-404.
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