Labelling Theory

Deviance, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. There is nothing inherently deviant in any human act, something is deviant only because some people have been successful in labelling it so.

J. L Simmons

The definition of the situation implies that if you define a situation as real, it is real only in its consequences.


Labelling theory, stemming from the influences of Cooley, Mead, Tannenbaum, and Lemert, has its origins somewhere within the context of the twentieth century. However, Edwin Lemert is widely considered the producer and founder of the original version of labelling theory. This paper, not a summary, provides a brief history of labelling theory, as well as, its role in the sociology of deviance. It attempts to explore the contributions made by labelling theorists, the criticism towards labelling theorists, and the discussion surrounding its reality as an actual theory. In essence, the main focus of this paper besides proving an understanding of Howard Becker, is to describe and evaluate `labelling theory` to the study of crime and deviance, by way of an in depth discussion.


The theoretical study of societal reaction to deviance has been carried out under different names, such as, labelling theory, interactionist perspective, and the social constructionist perspective. In the sociology of deviance, the labelling theory of deviant behaviour is often used interchangeably with the societal reaction theory of deviancy. As a matter of fact, both phrases point equally to the fact that sociological explanations of deviance function as a product of social control rather than a product of psychology or genetic inheritance. Some sociologists would explain deviance by accepting without question definitions of deviance and concerning themselves with primary aetiology. However, labelling theorists stress the point of seeing deviance from the viewpoint of the deviant individual. They claim that when a person becomes known as a deviant, and is ascribed deviant behaviour patterns, it is as much, if not more, to do with the way they have been stigmatized, then the deviant act they are said to have committed. In addition, Howard S. Becker (1963), one of the earlier interaction theorists, claimed that, social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitute deviance, and by applying those rules to particular people and labelling them as outsiders. Furthermore, the labelling theoretical approach to deviance concentrates on the social reaction to deviance committed by individuals, as well as, the interaction processes leading up to the labelling.


Labelling theory was significantly influenced by the Chicago School and Symbolic Interactionism. The sociology department in the University of Chicago is where early labelling theorists received their graduate training. These theorists were trained in terms of symbolic interaction and specific methods of participatory field research. The symbolic interaction theory exposed early theorists to the study of social interaction, as well as, the interpretation of society from the actor's point of view. Everett Hughes and Alvin Gouldner were two of the earliest theorists to train at the Chicago School. However, the foundations of this view of deviance were said to have been first established by Edwin Lemert (1951) and were subsequently developed by Howard S. Becker (1963). As a matter of fact, labelling theory has subsequently become a dominant paradigm in the explanation of deviance. Furthermore, the symbolic interaction perspective was extremely active in the early foundations of labelling theory.

Labelling theory is constituted essentially by two propositions. The first is that deviant behaviour is to be seen not simply as the violation of a norm, but as any behaviour which is successfully defined or labelled as deviant. The deviance does not inhere in the act itself but in the response of others to that act. In other words, the deviance is said to be in the eye of the beholder. The second proposition claims that labelling produces or amplifies deviance. The deviant's response to societal reaction leads to secondary deviation by which the deviant comes to accept a self-image or self-definition as someone who is permanently locked within a deviant role. Furthermore, the distinctiveness of the approach is that it draws attention to deviance as the outcome of social imputations and the exercise of social control.

Labelling theory is very complex, making it quite different than other theories. Instead of looking at why some social groups commit more crime, labelling theory asks why