The labeling theory of deviance (also known as social reaction theory) states that individuals become deviants as a result of the labels imposed on them by society.
This process operates through two mechanisms:
- The Social Construction of Deviance – What constitutes deviance in a society is not a pre-existing given, but is defined by hegemonic groups, individuals or institutions. Which is to say that social norms and by extension, the concept of deviance from these norms, are socially constructed.
- The Internalization of Deviance – Once the label of a deviant is applied to an individual or a group, they begin to internalize it, consciously or unconsciously. Like the phenomenon of a self-fulfilling prophecy, the subjects then begin to behave in the manner expected of them as deviants by society.
The labeling theory developed out of key insights provided by the influential American sociologist, George Herbert Mead (1863-1931), about the social construction of the self.
Mead (1934) theorized that we construct our self-image based on what we believe others think about us. Our interactions with others, and with society at large, thus help us to construct our selves.
This implies that the self, with its two critical characteristics of being socially constructed and of being born out of social interactions, is thus not a biological given, and hence liable to be shaped by social interactions.
A few years later, the sociologist Frank Tannenbaum (1938) built upon Mead’s ideas with his famous formulation of “the dramatization of evil”, in which he summarized that once society labels someone as a deviant, they eventually end up becoming one.
Definition of Labeling Theory
Howard Becker (1963) defined the labeling theory of deviance as follows:
“deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an ‘offender.’ The deviant is one to whom that label has been successfully applied; deviant behavior is behavior that people so label.”
It is important to note that deviance is not the same as delinquency. Deviant behavior could be any behavior not adhering to the norms of a society at a particular time, ranging from queer sexuality to consumption of certain substances to association with subversive musical genres like Punk or Death Metal
Primary Versus Secondary Deviance
According to the labeling theory of deviance, deviance is of two types:
1. Primary Deviance
Primary deviance is an act of deviance that occurs before the subject has been labelled a deviant. The sociological process of interest here is the transgression of socially constructed norms or the social construction of deviance.
For instance, a teenager painting political graffiti on public walls may be considered a primary deviant. In some cultures and under certain legal codes, this act may be termed vandalism, or defacement of public property, whereas in many societies, it may be perfectly acceptable to paint messages on walls, thus highlighting the social construction of deviance.
2. Secondary Deviance
Secondary deviance occurs after the subject has been labelled a deviant, and they begin to construct their self-image from their understanding of how others perceive them.
The sociological process of interest here is the internalization of deviance by the subject. The subject may even begin to use the label imposed upon them as a justification for their deviant acts.
In the previous example of the teenager caught painting graffiti, if the teenager is reported to the police and is charged with vandalism and labelled an anti-social element, they are likely to internalize this label, and begin to think of themselves as a vandal and anti-social element.
This could result in even more deviant behavior, progressively increasing in its gravity with time.
Examples of Labeling Theory
1. McCarthyism and Moral Entrepreneurship
Howard Becker (1963) used the term ‘moral entrepreneur’ for the judicial, political, and social system that took liberties in defining moral norms, and by extension, deviance from these moral norms.
For instance, the American politician Joseph McCarthy is known for his vitriolic campaigns to label communism as subversive, and thus deviant behavior. The definition of “subversive” soon began to expand exponentially in a display of moral entrepreneurship at work, to include a wide variety of ideologies, acts, and behaviors ranging from homoexuality to feminism to rock music.
2. The Black Lives Matter Movement
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) is a global decentralized movement that started in the USA after a series of incidents of police violence targeting black people.
The underlying rationale behind the movement was the belief that black people are inherently labeled as criminals by both the state and the society, and this leads law enforcement agencies to use disproportionate force when dealing with deviants from the community.
This labeling can in turn lead to further ghettoization and marginalization of black people, thereby completing the self-reinforcing cycle of secondary deviance.
3. Religious Observances and the Charge of Fundamentalism
Certain religious communities, for instance Muslims, are often labelled in the west as being religious fundamentalists and thus marginalized, when in fact, they may be doing little more than following the tenets of their religion peacefully.
For instance, the debate on the Islamic headscarf (Burqa/Hijab) in France and Canada often degenerates into accusations of religious fundamentalism against the Muslim community, wherein the act of wearing the headscarf is construed as deviance by their detractors.
Strengths of Labeling Theory
1. Draws Attention to the Discriminatory Implementation of Law
The law and the judicial system can often operate under subtle, invisible biases and the labeling theory of deviance lays bare these biases by showing how the appending of labels to individuals and groups influences both the society’s perception of them and of their own perception of themselves.
This especially assumes significance in multicultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-racial societies where certain minority groups are liable to be labeled with stereotypical notions of deviance, that then shape the attitudes of law enforcement and judiciary towards them.
2. Shows the Inadequacy of Penal Measures
The labeling theory of deviance convincingly shows that penal measures alone play a limited role in the correctional and rehabilitative process.
In fact, in many cases, they may have the opposite effect than that intended, as the phenomenon of secondary deviance may kick in and push the subjects deeper into deviant behavior as they begin to identify more strongly with the labels imposed on them by the judicial system.
3. Demonstrates the Cultural Construction of Deviance
The labeling theory of deviance shows that deviance is often a cultural construct. This is especially helpful as the world increasingly becomes more globalized and multicultural on account of migration, and the labeling theory helps us understand that what might be considered deviant in one society may not be so in another.
For instance, the consumption of cannabis has long been a part of the cultural and religious traditions of various communities in South Asia such as Hindus and Sikhs.
The same applied to opium which was both an important cash crop and a part of everyday social customs in the Indian subcontinent.
However, with the advent of colonialism, the British administrators labelled cannabis an intoxicant, its users as deviants, and imposed penalties on the sale and consumption of cannabis and related products. As a result, the consumption of a culturally and religiously significant substance came to be construed as deviance when viewed from the perspective of an alien culture.
So ingrained has this cultural construction of deviance become that the postcolonial states that emerged out of the British empire in South Asia continue to enforce the British-era prohibitions on these substances and label their consumption as deviance.
Howard Becker (1963) summarized this cultural construction of deviance when he wrote that “social groups create deviance by creating the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance, and by applying those rules to particular people and labeling them as outsiders. “
Criticisms and Weaknesses of Labeling Theory
1. Does Not Explain the Etiology of Deviance
Etiology means causation.
Labeling theory does a great job of demonstrating how labeling people as deviants only serves to exacerbate the deviant behavior in a spiraling self-fulfilling prophecy. It does not however help us in understanding how deviant behavior is caused in the first place.
2. Tends Towards Absolute Moral Relativism
The labeling theory of deviance states that acts are not deviant in and of themselves but are labeled thus by society (this also happens to be an argument in the conflict theory of deviance). Deviance, thus, is a social construct rather than an actual, pre-existing given.
This is not always true, as we know that certain acts can be considered deviant by any standards of morality present in almost all human societies.
3. Ignores the Positive Effects of Labeling
The labeling theory of deviance assumes that all forms of labeling and shaming are counter-productive. In doing so, it ignores the constructive role played by certain labeling practices such as reintegrative shaming.
Reintegrative shaming is a concept proposed by the Australian criminologist John Braithwaite (1989) which states that labeling can be positive when it labels the act, not the person or the group.
It thus tries to avoid stigmatizing the offender, while at the same time drawing attention to the adverse effects of their act. By doing so, it tries to integrate the offender back into the community, rather than marginalizing them.
For instance an adolescent caught stealing from a store could be reported to the police where he or she would be tried and sent to a correctional facility.
This would be stigmatic shaming or negative labeling, as they would now have a police record and a history of being confined to a correctional institute. This is likely to stay with them for life and affect their future prospects such as employment and personal relationships.
If on the other hand, they are made to apologize to the store owner, and given a form of constructive punishment, such as working a certain number of hours at the store every day for a fixed period of time so that they may see the hard work and labor that goes into running a small business, they are likely to both repent their action, and be able to reintegrate into the community.
The labeling theory of deviance draws our attention to the very complex, malleable, and fragile constitutions of human selves, and how they can be permanently altered by the application of labels and the accompanying stigma.
As Frank Tannenbaum summarized in his ‘dramatization of evil’ hypothesis, once we label someone a criminal, we, in effect, condemn them to a life of crime.
The theory also helps us understand how notions of deviance can be socially constructed, and not pre-set norms. Through these insights, the theory leads us to thinking of better solutions to the problems of deviance and delinquency in society.
Becker, H. (1963) Outsiders. London: Free Press.
Braithwaite, J. (1989) Crime, shame, and reintegration. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mead, G.H. (1934) Mind, self, and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Tannenbaum, F. (1938) Crime and community. Columbia: Columbia University Press.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.