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Labeling Theory

Labeling Theory

Author: Paul Hannan

Examine labeling theory, and how it is connected to deviance. 

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain Images from; Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Welcome to this episode of Sociology-- Studies of Society. Today's lesson is on labeling theory. As always, don't be afraid to pause, stop, rewind, or even fast forward to make sure you get the most out of this tutorial.

So today we're looking at labeling theory. Labeling theory is really a part of the symbolic interactions approach. And again, this approach is that society is really the result of all these many individual and everyday interactions.

Now, labeling theory is specifically looking at deviance and conformity. And it's saying that the results of deviance and conformity really result from how others react to one's actions. So in this tutorial, I'll go through and explain exactly what that means.

So Erving Goffman is a sociologist. And he really set up this idea that humans act differently in different settings. So it's not really fair to judge a society when we're looking at the whole. We have to look at society within specific contexts.

Now, one of the contexts that he liked to study-- he studied the deviant career. So he's looking at people that spent their whole life as a deviant. And one of the terms that kind of fits closely with that is a "stigma." Now, a stigma is a negative label, which changes a person's self-concept or identity.

So there can be-- not can be. He found that deviant careers, often they were labeled with this negative label of being a deviant. And this really changed their own identities. And because of that stigma, it was a positive feedback loop that continued to make them more and more deviant.

Now, one way that labeling works in this theory is that labeling can go backwards or forwards. So retrospective labeling is once someone's labeled as a deviant, or labeled as anything actually, you reinterpret their past actions based on the current situations. So you say, oh, well, I guess that one time that this happened, it must have been him acting poorly because he's a deviant.

Projective labeling is going the other direction. So it's using one's current situation and trying to predict their future actions. So you say, oh, well, this person is always going to be bad until he gets caught. So again, labeling can go backwards or forwards.

Now, another way that labeling works, that's kind of interesting, is the medicalization of deviance. So deviance has kind of been changed from just a moral condition to a medical condition. So acting could be considered as being good versus bad. It can be sick versus well. So that's a sick person versus they're acting bad. There's also some caution to this though, because if you label someone as mentally sick, that can really also cause a negative stigma towards someone.

So today's take-away message. Labeling theory is just a theory that says that deviance and conformity results from how people react to one's actions. And Erving Goffman was a famous sociologist, who-- that we all act differently in different settings. And so you have to look at how people act in specific settings, specific contexts, to really understand them. And a stigma is a negative label, which changes a person's self-concept and identity.

There's retrospective labeling, which is reinterpreting a past action in the current situations. And then there's the medicalization of deviance, which is changing deviance into a medical condition, rather than just a moral condition.

Well, that's it for this lesson. Good work. And hopefully you'll be seeing me on your screen again soon. Peace.

Terms to Know
Labeling Theory

The idea that deviance results from the meanings and labels that people give to our actions.

Medicalization of Deviance

The transformation of deviance from labels of good and bad to labels of sick and well.

Projective Labeling

Labeling into the future in response to deviant behavior in the present.

Retrospective Labeling

Labeling back into the past in response to deviant behavior in the present.


A highly negative label that signifies the status of a deviant outsider, having profound effects on self-image, identity, and worldview.

People to Know
Erving Goffman

Famous sociologist who contributed to developing the symbolic-interaction perspective and gave us the idea of social "stigma."