Labeling Theory

Originating in sociology and criminology, labeling theory (also known as social reaction theory) was developed by sociologist Howard Becker[1]. Labeling theory holds that deviance is not a quality of the act because it is the result of personality factors associated with committing deviance. It focuses on the linguistic tendency of majorities to negatively label minorities or those seen as deviant from norms. The 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. The theory was prominent in the 1960s and 1970s, and some modified versions of the theory have developed. Unwanted descriptors or categorizations (including terms related to deviance, disability or a diagnosis of mental illness) may be rejected on the basis that they are merely "labels", often with attempts to adopt a more constructive language in its place.

Theoretical basis

As a contributor to American Pragmatism and later a member of the Chicago School, George Herbert Mead posited that the self is socially constructed and reconstructed through the interactions which each person has with the community. Each individual is aware of how they are judged by others because he or she has attempted many different roles and functions in social interactions and has been able to gauge the reactions of those present. This theoretically builds a subjective conception of the self, but as others intrude into the reality of that individual's life, this represents objective data which may require a re-evaluation of that conception depending on the authoritativeness of the others' judgment. Family and friends may judge differently from random strangers. More socially representative individuals such as police officers or judges may be able to make more globally respected judgments. If deviance is a failure to conform to the rules observed by most of the group, the reaction of the group is to label the person as having offend against their social or moral norms of behavior. This is the power of the group: to designate breaches of their rules as deviant and to treat the person differently depending on the seriousness of the breach. The more differential the treatment, the more the individual's self-image is affected.

Whether a breach of a given rule will be stigmatized as "boo boo politics" will depend on the significance of the moral or other tenet it represents. For example, adultery may be considered a breach of an informal rule or it may be criminalized depending on the status of marriage, morality, and religion within the community. In most Western countries, adultery is not a crime. Attaching the label "adulterer" may have some unfortunate consequences but they are not generally severe. But in some Islamic countries, zina is a crime and proof of extramarital activity may lead to severe consequences for all concerned.

There are also problems with stereotypes. The breach of a rule may be treated differently depending on personal factors such as the age, gender, race, etc. of the rule-breaker, or there may be relevant structural factors such as the offender's social class, the neighborhood where the offense took place, the time of day or night, etc.

The "criminal"

As an application of phenomenology, the theory hypothesizes that the labels applied to individuals influence their behavior, particularly the application of negative or stigmatizing labels (such as "criminal" or "felon") promote deviant behavior, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, i.e. an individual who is labeled has little choice but to conform to the essential meaning of that judgment. Consequently, labeling theory postulates that it is possible to prevent social deviance via a limited social shaming reaction in "labelers" and replacing moral indignation with tolerance. Emphasis is placed on the rehabilitation of offenders through an alteration of their label(s). Related prevention policies include client empowerment schemes, mediation and conciliation, victim-offender forgiveness ceremonies (restorative justice), restitution, reparation, and alternatives to prison programs involving diversion. Labeling theory has been accused of promoting impractical policy implications, and criticized for failing to explain society's most serious offenses.[2]

Some offenses including the use of violence, fornication and weapons are universally recognized as wrong. Hence, labeling either habitual criminals or those who have caused serious harm as "criminals" is not constructive. Society may use more specific labels such as "murderer" or "rapist" or "child abuser" to demonstrate more clearly after the event the extent of its disapproval, but there is a slightly mechanical determinism in asserting that the application of a label will invariably modify the behavior of the one labeled. Further, if one of the functions of the penal system is to reduce recidivism, applying a long-term label may cause prejudice against the offender, resulting in the inability to maintain employment and social relationships.

The "mentally ill"

The social construction of deviant behavior plays an important role in the labeling process that occurs in society. This process involves not only the labeling of criminally deviant behavior, which is behavior that does not fit socially constructed norms, but also labeling that which reflects stereotyped or stigmatized behavior of the "mentally ill". Labeling theory was first applied to the term "mentally ill" in 1966 when Thomas Scheff published Being Mentally Ill. Scheff challenged common perceptions of mental illness by claiming that mental illness is manifested solely as a result of societal influence. He argued that society views certain actions as deviant and, in order to come to terms with and understand these actions, often places the label of mental illness on those who exhibit them. Certain expectations are then placed on these individuals and, over time, they unconsciously change their behavior to fulfill them. Criteria for different mental illnesses are not consistently filled by those who are diagnosed with them because all of these people suffer from the same disorder, they are simply fulfilled because the "mentally ill" believe they are supposed to act a certain way so, over time, come to do so.[3]

Scheff’s theory had many critics, most notably Walter Gove. Gove consistently argued an almost opposite theory; he believed that society has no influence at all on "mental illness". Instead, any societal perceptions of the "mentally ill" come about as a direct result of these people’s behaviors. In Gove’s view, the mentally ill behave unnaturally a lot of the time because of their disorders, so we treat them differently. Most sociologists’ views of labeling and mental illness have fallen somewhere between the extremes of Gove and Scheff. On the other hand, it is almost impossible to deny, given both common sense and research findings, that society’s negative perceptions of "crazy" people has had some effect on them. It seems that, realistically, labeling can accentuate and prolong the issues termed "mental illness", but it is rarely the full cause.[4]

Many other studies have been conducted in this general vein. To provide a few examples, several studies have indicated that most people associate being labeled mentally ill as being just as, or even more, stigmatizing than being seen as a drug addict, ex-convict, or prostitute (for example: Brand & Claiborn 1976). Additionally, Page’s 1977 study found that self declared "ex-mental patients" are much less likely to be offered apartment leases or hired for jobs. Clearly, these studies and the dozens of others like them serve to demonstrate that labeling can have a very real and very large effect on the mentally ill. None of these studies, however, proved that labeling is the sole cause of any symptoms of mental illness.

Peggy Thoits discusses the process of labeling someone with a mental illness in her article, "Sociological Approaches to Mental Illness." Working off of Thomas Scheff’s (1966) theory, Thoits claims that people who are labeled as mentally ill are stereotypically portrayed as unpredictable, dangerous, and unable to care for themselves. She also claims that "people who are labeled as deviant and treated as deviant become deviant," (Thoits 1999, p. 134). This statement can be broken down into two processes, one that involves the effects of self-labeling and the other differential treatment from society based on the individual’s label. Therefore, if society sees mentally ill individuals as unpredictable, dangerous and reliant on others, then a person who may not actually be mentally ill but has been labeled as such, could become mentally ill.

The label of "mentally ill" may help a person know to seek help, for example psychotherapy or medication. Labels, while they can be stigmatizing, can also lead those who bear them down the road to proper treatment and (hopefully) recovery. If one believes that "being mentally ill" is more than just believing one should fulfill a set of diagnostic criteria (as Scheff – see above – would argue), then one would probably also agree that there are some who are labelled "mentally ill" who need help. It has been claimed that this could not happen if "we" did not have a way to categorize (and therefore label) them, although there are actually plenty of approaches to these phenomena that don't use categorical classifications and diagnostic terms, for example spectrum or continuum models. Here, people vary along different dimensions, and everyone falls at different points on each dimension.

Modified Labeling theory

Bruce Link and colleagues have conducted several studies which point to the influence that labeling can have on mental patients. Through these studies, which took place in 1987, 1989, and 1997, Link advanced a "modified labeling theory" indicating that expectations of labeling can have a large negative effect, that these expectations often cause patients to withdraw from society, and that those labeled as having a mental disorder are constantly being rejected from society in seemingly minor ways but that, when taken as a whole, all of these small slights can drastically alter their self concepts. They come to both anticipate and perceive negative societal reactions to them, and this potentially damages their quality of life.[5]

Modified Labeling theory has been described as a "sophisticated social-psychological model of 'why labels matter'". In 2000, results from a prospective two-year study of patients discharged from a mental hospital (in the context of deinstitutionalization) showed that stigma was a powerful and persistent force in their lives, and that experiences of social rejection were a persistent source of social stress. Efforts to cope with labels, such as not telling anyone, educating people about mental distress/disorder, withdrawing from stigmatizing situations, could result in further social isolation and reinforce negative self-concepts. Sometimes an identity as a low self-esteem minority in society would be accepted. The stigma was associated with diminished motivation and ability to "make it in mainstream society" and with "a state of social and psychological vulnerability to prolonged & recurrent problems". There was an up and down pattern in self-esteem, however, and it was suggested that, rather than simply gradual erosion of self-worth and increasing self-deprecating tendencies, people were sometimes managing, but struggling, to maintain consistent feelings of self-worth. Ultimately, "a cadre of patients had developed an entrenched, negative view of themselves, and their experiences of rejection appear to be a key element in the construction of these self-related feelings" and "hostile neighbourhoods may not only affect their self-concept but may also ultimately impact the patient's mental health status and how successful they are".[6]

Hard and soft labeling

One of the most important approaches to the understanding of criminality.


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