Labeling Theory

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Sociologyindex, Sociology Books 2008

Labeling theory arose from the study of deviance in the late 1950's and early 1960's and was a rejection of consensus theory or structural functionalism.

Tannenbaum was among the early labeling theorists. His main concept was the dramatization of evil. He argued that the process of tagging, defining, identifying, segregating, describing, and emphasizing any individual out for special treatment becomes a way of stimulating, suggesting, and evoking the very traits that are complained of. A person becomes the thing they are described as being.

Labeling theory or social reaction theory, focuses on the linguistic tendency of majorities to negatively label minorities or those seen as deviant from norms.

Labeling theory or social reaction theory is concerned with how the self-identity and behavior of individuals may be determined or influenced by the terms used to describe or classify them, and is associated with the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy and stereotyping.

Lemert was as the founder of the "societal reaction" approach. Briefly, this approach distinguishes between primary deviance (where individuals do not see themselves a deviant) and secondary deviance (which involves acceptance of a deviant status).

Primary deviance arises for a wide variety of reasons, biological, psychological, and/or sociological.

Secondary, or intensified deviance becomes a means of defense, attack, or adaptation to the problems caused by societal reaction to primary deviation.

Societal reaction theorists claim that the process of defining and suppressing deviance is important to social solidarity.

Considerable attention is now being devoted to informal labeling, such as labeling by parents, peers or teachers. Informal labeling has a greater effect on subsequent crime than official labeling.

Informal labeling

Informal labeling is not simply a function of official labeling. Informal labeling is also influenced by the individual's delinquent behavior and by their position in society.

Informal labels affect individuals' subsequent level of crime by affecting their perceptions of how others see them. If they believe that others see them as delinquents and trouble-makers, they are more likely to justify this perception and engage in delinquency.

These approaches to deviance assumed that deviance could be understood as consisting of behaviour that violates social norms. Deviance is therefore something objective: it is a particular form of behaviour.

Labeling theory rejected this approach and claimed that deviance is not a way of behaving, but is a name put on something: a label. Law is culturally and historically variable: what is crime today is not necessarily crime yesterday or tomorrow.

For example in 1890 it was legal to possess marijuana, but illegal to attempt suicide. Today, the law is reversed. This shows that deviance is not something inherent in the behaviour, but is an outcome of how individuals or their behaviour are labeled.

If deviance is therefore just a label it makes sense to ask: where does the label come from? How does the label come to be applied to specific behaviours and to particular individuals?

The first question leads to a study of the social origins of law. The second question leads to an examination of the actions of labelers such as, psychiatrists, police, coroners, probation officers, judges and juries.

Individuals who are arrested, prosecuted, and punished may be labeled as criminals. These people are viewed by others as criminals, and this increases the likelihood of subsequent crime for several reasons. Labeled individuals generally have trouble obtaining legitimate employment, which increases their level of strain and reduces their stake in conformity. Labeled individuals also find that conventional people are reluctant to associate with them, and they may associate with other criminals as a...
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