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labelling theoryan analysis of the social processes involved in the social attribution (‘labelling’) of positive or (more commonly) negative characteristics to acts, individuals or groups. This approach has been particularly influential in the sociology of deviance. It developed within the interactionist perspective (see SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM) and is sometimes also referred to as SOCIETAL REACTION theory
The classic statement of labelling theory is by H. S. BECKER (1963) in which he pursued insights developed by earlier theorists like Tannenbaum (1938) and Lemert (1951), and argued that acts are not ‘naturally’ good or bad: normality and deviance are socially defined (see also DRUG TAKING FOR PLEASURE). In Becker's famous formula, ‘deviance is not a quality of the act a person commits but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an “offender”’. This may seem no more than a sociological application of truisms like ‘give a dog a bad name’ or ‘throw enough mud and it will stick’. What takes the labelling approach beyond common sense or cliché is the way in which the symbolic interactionist approach is drawn on to explore the effects of negative labels on individuals’ self-conceptions, especially the development of ‘deviant identity’, DEVIANT CAREER, and deviant subcultures. Examples are the way in which ‘societal reaction’ – the condemnation and criminalization of specific types of social act by judges, media, police, etc. – can be shown to lead social actors to alter their individual identities, and to adopt the values of deviant subcultures which the labelling process itself helps to create (see also DEVIANCE AMPLIFICATION, MORAL PANICS, FOLK DEVILS).
The labelling approach gained great currency in the 1960s and 70s, and constitutes a movement away from ‘Positivist’ approaches in the study of deviance. The antipositivist aspect is found especially in the fact that unlike many previous approaches, normality and deviance were not seen as unproblematic but as ‘issues’ to be studied in their own right. An important outcome of the labelling approach has been its establishment of a distinctive interactionist approach to SOCIAL PROBLEMS. Issues which researchers have studied in these terms have included the ‘social construction’ and regulation of mental illness (e.g. see ANTIPSYCHIATRY), the effects of labelling in classrooms, or gender labels. Since interactionist approaches not only raised the question, ‘Who gets labelled?’, but also, ‘Who labels?’, and why ostensibly the same acts, when committed by people from different social backgrounds are responded to by labellers (e.g. the police or courts) in different ways, Marxists and conflict theorists have also developed an interest in labelling theory.
Labelling theory has been criticized on numerous grounds, e.g. for presenting an over-deterministic account of the effects of labelling, for ignoring the element of moral choice by actors, and for romanticizing deviance and ignoring victims. Also, the approach largely ignores pre-existing individual psychological predispositions which may, in part, explain individual deviance, offering accounts which are complementary to those provided by labelling theory Finally, there exist many forms of criminal or deviant behaviour which cannot be explained by the reaction of social control agencies, e.g. CRIMES such as embezzlement, or gay social identity.