The social reaction theory, also termed the labeling theory, focuses on the way a majority group’s act of labeling a defiant person negatively (often as a ‘deviant’) pushes them to more deviant acts.
When an act is labeled as deviant by society, a chain of events is set in motion further pushing the individual into greater deviation.
A simple example of social reaction theory is when a child in a classroom is labeled ‘the bad kid’. This child may then realize they’re expected to misbehave, so they do it more and more. They play up to the label they have been given.
In the labeling theory, social reaction refers to the various informal and formal agencies of social control such as the police, family, law, and the media, whose reaction towards defiance affect the deviant outcomes (Grattet, 2011).
The theory is concerned with how individuals’ behavior and self-identity may be influenced by the way the community defines them.
This theory assumes a self-fulfilling prophecy where one may tend to adopt a certain behavior based on how the community classifies or describes the behavior (Barmaki, 2019).
Generally, these theorists separate deviance into two types, which are explained in detail in the following articles:
- Primary Deviance – Deviant behavior that has not been labeled.
- Secondary Deviance – Deviant behavior that has been labeled, and the actor has internalized the label ascribed by society.
Examples of the Social Reaction Theory
- If someone is labeled a criminal and subjected to a correctional facility such as a prison at a young age, he may tend to see himself as a criminal and live as a criminal forever.
- A person may volunteer to help look after children in case of their parent’s absence. However, if the community has labeled the person as untrustworthy, the parents may refuse, and the person comes to internalize the belief that they are, indeed, untrustworthy.
- A person may be seen as deviant by the community because his three older brothers ended up being felons. As a result of this labeling, he sees that his destiny is to follow his brothers’ paths.
- A child may seem to be having defiant behavior in the presence of the grandparents who may tend to be lenient. However, in the presence of teachers or parents, the child may tend to behave appropriately as he understands the reaction of the latter towards defiant behavior. Here, we see different adults’ labeling of the child affect the child’s sense of self in different contexts.
- A shopkeeper may decide to go for lunch in a nearby hotel and decide not to close his shop. If a guy labeled as untrustworthy with money volunteers to look after the shop while the owner is away, he may be suspected of wanting to steal from the shop.
- A child whose parents are professors may be expected to follow their example and perform exemplary in his studies. Even if the child intends to drop out of school, societal expectations may encourage the child to continue learning and finish his studies because he must have “hereditary potential”.
- When a child is declared a troublemaker from childhood and treated as such, he may grow up comfortable being defiant and a troublemaker.
- If a young man has a friend who is considered untrustworthy, he too may be labelled as untrustworthy by association. Because he resents society’s labeling of him, he rejects society and plays up to the stereotype. A self-fulfilling prophecy has been created.
The Best Examples
1. The Repeat Offender
A person who breaks the law and ends up in a prison at a young age gets a formal label as a criminal as he has already gone through the legal process and is found to have broken the law.
even after coming out of jail, the community may still fail to see him as a changed person and still treat him as a criminal.
This type of labeling may subject the individual to live forever as a criminal as the community has already accepted his status. He may continue a life of breaking the law, and getting in and out of prison without seeing it as a big deal.
2. Guilt by Association
A person may be seen as untrustworthy by the community because his brothers are both known to misbehave. As a result of this labeling, he may eventually end up playing into the stereotype.
This is a further example of stereotyping and a self-fulfilling prophecy. A boy may have a surname that the community labels negatively, so society has low expectations of him.
Upon realizing this label, he feels like society has rejected him, and so he turns his back on society in return.
As this is the way the community sees the boy, he may grow comfortably as a defiant child because he knows that this is simply what’s expected of him.
3. Lenient Grandparents
A child may seem to be having defiant behavior in the presence of the grandparents who may tend to be lenient. However, in the presence of teachers or parents, the child may tend to behave appropriately as he understands the reaction of the latter towards defiant behavior.
This example illustrates the effects of social interactions on defiant behavior.
The interaction between a child and a grandparent may be less serious with few disciplinary actions and the child may not fear the associated punishment from the grandparents.
However, in the presence of a teacher or his parents, the child may tend to behave as the reaction to deviance from the parents or teachers may be different.
As the parents may severely punish the child, he may opt to behave appropriately to avoid this punishment. This shows how the reaction of various community control organizations influences deviant behavior.
4. The Substitute Teacher’s Labelling
A substitute teacher turns up at a classroom and instantly labels a child as the “bad kid” for a small transgression. This child is usually placid and well-behaved but resents the teacher’s characterization of him.
As a result, the child ends up disrespecting the substitute teacher and misbehaving throughout the day. He refuses to do the work, plays up to the teacher’s initial characterization of him as bad, and demonstrates defiance by very slowly conducting tasks assigned.
The next day, when the regular teacher returns, the child acts like an angel again. Here, the child’s behavior is a reaction to society’s reaction to him – it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy!
5. The Slow Learner
A child is labeled a slow learner. He is placed in the lowest-tier math class, teachers get visibly impatient with him, and he notices that his teachers don’t have high expectations for him.
Over time, the child internalizes the belief that he’s not academically smart. He stops worrying so much about his grades because he thinks it’s a foregone conclusion: he’s going to fail.
Fast-forward ten years and he gets a teacher who realizes that he’s not unintelligent, he just has dyslexia. He’s given tools to address his dyslexia, such as audiobooks for learning, and it turns out that he loves the process of learning. Ten years have been lost because society labeled him unintelligent and he came to believe the label he was ascribed.
Criticisms of Social Reaction Theory
Social reaction theory may be criticized for its under-theorization of agency and free will. Instead, it places emphasis on the influence of society on individuals’ self-perceptions.
Furthermore, the theory can at times be used to dismiss people’s genuinely held self-beliefs or, indeed, actual differences from societal norms. For example, the theory has been used to explain homosexuality, failing to take into account modern consensus that homosexuality can be innate in a person from birth.
Response to Criticisms
Nevertheless, the theory is a useful framework for looking at society’s role in recidivism rates, education’s role in shaping negative self-beliefs, and attribution bias (i.e. grading a child more harshly based on presumptions about their skillset).
Similarly, the theory is useful in explaining the concept of moral panic, where entire groups are labeled based on hostile biases of media. Often, the labeling of a group (e.g. the working class, or a counterculture) helps to push that subculture into labeling themselves as social outsiders.
The social reaction theory focuses on the way a community labels a certain group as deviant, which has the effect of forming a self-fulfilling prophecy. The theory’s usefulness in criminology, social studies, and educational studies continues to this day. Often, students are taught about the theory in order to encourage them to question how their constructed biases can have harmful effects on the communities they serve.
Barmaki, R. (2019). On the origin of “labeling” theory in criminology: Frank Tannenbaum and the Chicago School of Sociology. Deviant Behavior, 40(2), 256-271. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/01639625.2017.1420491
Gay, D. (2000). Labeling theory: The new perspective. The Corinthian, 2(1), 1. Available at https://kb.gcsu.edu/thecorinthian/vol2/iss1/1/
Grattet, R. (2011). Societal reactions to deviance. Annual review of sociology, 37, 185-204. doi: https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-soc-081309-150012
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. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]