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What is the Labeling Theory?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Labeling theory is a sociological theory that deals with various aspects of human behavior, especially with regard to how a person’s behavior is viewed by others and compared to social norms. In general, this theory is used in sociology and criminology, as well as in various approaches to “mental illness” among different professions. The basic idea behind the theory is that society constructs a concept of what is normal, and anyone who engages in any type of “deviant” behavior is then labeled in a way that compares him or her to the “norm.” Labeling theory is used to examine how people view themselves, and has been used in the study of mental illness and criminal behavior.

Sometimes called social reaction theory, labeling theory was developed by a number of different sociologists and researchers with regards to various aspects of human behavior. Regardless of how it is applied, or argued for or against, the basic structure behind this theory is typically the same. The idea behind labeling theory is that society creates roles and actions that people are commonly expected to fit into and perform. Whenever someone behaves in a way that goes outside of or against those expectations — the norms of behavior — then he or she is labeled in a way that indicates his or her deviant behavior.

Labeling theory is usually used to argue that once that label has been applied to a person, and is recognized and internalized by the person labeled, then his or her actions are altered by that label. In regard to criminal behavior, for example, this theory can indicate that once someone is labeled a “criminal,” it will be difficult for him or her to act in any other way. Labeling theory has been used to argue that others will continue to see the person only as a criminal, and that he or she will internalize that label and be more likely to act like a criminal to justify the label.

This theory has been used in several different ways with the study of mental illness and psychology, and some have used labeling theory to argue that such illness is merely a social construct. The theory is used to argue that once someone is diagnosed and “labeled” with an illness, others only see him or her as someone with the illness. Those who use this argument also state that he or she will begin to act in accordance with the label as well, and the diagnosis becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Labeling theory has been used to explore other areas of behavior that have been viewed as “deviant” as well, such as homosexuality. There have been arguments made against the use of terms like “homosexual” since this term serves to identify a person based solely on one aspect of his or her personality. Such arguments, and those against them, have often been regarded as highly controversial, and they continue to be a source of debate.

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Discussion Comments
By Ruggercat68 — On Mar 18, 2014

@Phaedrus, I think a lot of people get labeled early in life and don't want to disappoint people by behaving differently. I'm not saying it's a healthy way to live, but I think back on my own days at school and remember acting like the "nerd" other people thought I was. Even if I went home and did something the "cool" people did, like listen to the best rock albums or see the hippest movies, I still felt like I had to act like my label in class.

It's one thing if you're talking about personality quirks, like being intellectual or athletic, but labels like "queer" and "loser" can really scar people for life. I can joke about being a nerd, and I actually embrace that lifestyle now. But if someone is labeled a criminal as an adolescent, he or she might not be able to shake it off as an adult. I think back on some people I ignored back in the day just because of their labels. Some did go on to commit serious crimes, or harm themselves out of shame.

By Phaedrus — On Mar 18, 2014

I have seen plenty of examples of this labeling theory in my life. I think of all the labels we put on each other back in school. Some people were "jocks", some people were "band geeks", some people were "nerds", and so on. I attended my 20 year high school reunion last year and almost everyone I met was still acting like their labels from back in the day.

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