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Labeling Theory

Labeling Theory

Author: Zach Lamb

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

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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Hello, and welcome to Sociological Studies. As always, thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to study society. In today's lesson, we're going to look at labeling theory. Labeling theory is the way that symbolic interaction theorizes deviance.

Remember that symbolic interaction holds that society is constructed through micro level interactions. So if I'm talking to you, I'm constantly interpreting your words and your actions to arrive at some kind of definition of the situation. Meanings get created this way. Meaning is nothing but social interaction. We create meaning in social interaction.

But we might not always be on the same page with these meanings, and that can cause problems. We could be having this conversation, and I could think you mean this, but you actually mean that. So you see there's a difference in meanings.

How does this relate to deviance? Well, as you might predict then, how we define deviance is subject to the same process of interpretation. And labeling theory holds that observers to a deviant action may define the situation differently and attach different labels and thereby arrive at different meanings and interpretations of the action.

If you look at this little diagram here, this will help to explain labeling theory and deviance. It starts with some kind of social action, and then people, observers to this action, interpret this action. And then in the interpretation process, they arrive at some kind of meaning of the action. What is the person doing? What do they think the person is doing? What do they intend? So this is the interpretation meaning-making phase.

And then from there, two, we define is this deviant? Is it not deviant? So when we define the action as deviant, the action then takes on a whole new meaning in our eyes. And if we make it known that we think the action is deviant, the person themselves might internalize this deviant category. That's something we'll talk about a little bit later in the lesson. But you see it's a triangular process. Action, interpretation, labeling, reverting back on to action, interpretation, and labeling.

So to give you an example, I had something like this happen to me. My roommate just moved out to go to Seattle. I had a set of plates that I brought to the house, pretty nice plates. So I go there, he's packing up his stuff, plates are gone.

I was thinking, well, why did he take the plates? Did he do this maliciously to bother me, in which case that was deviant behavior, or was he just that oblivious that he thought the plates were his, and he had no idea that they were mine?

Either way, it's frustrating, but you see there, I was engaged in this interpretive process of trying to interpret his actions. And I was going to label them as either malicious and deviant or careless and oblivious. So somewhere in there was reality, and his definition of the situation, taking the plates, and my way to interpret that, there's reality there, and it was being contested and constructed through the interaction. And I had to interpret the facts and arrive at a definition. I had to label his behavior, and how I decide to label is not an inconsequential event because it has consequences for the future interaction among the people.

So what actually happened was I was right. He was just oblivious, thought the plates were his, and to make matters worse, he decided he didn't like them enough to take them to Seattle with him so he gave the plates to Goodwill. So in the process, I lost the plates, but it wasn't a deviant act. It was just an oblivious act, but had I labeled it deviant, I would have been really, really mad at him, like why would you want to do that? So we see how labels are not innocent things. We're going to elaborate on those now.

Well, people respond to the labels that they're given. When we define situations and label them, people can internalize these labels and then adjust their actions based upon how they're being labeled. Erving Goffman theorized this process. Goffman was a famous sociologist, and he contributed immensely to developing the symbolic interactionism perspective. And he theorized deviance.

Primary deviance is the first act of deviance. Once something you do gets labeled deviant, that's primary deviance. Might not be all that consequential at the moment, but then it can become secondary deviance, which is when deviance builds off of the internalization of the original label as deviant. And stigma is one step up then. Stigma is what sociologist Erving Goffman called the beginning of one's deviant career.

So a stigma is a social label that one acquires, a negative social label as that of an outsider, that profoundly affects their idea of themselves and their world view. So this is a very social process. We don't arrive at these things on our own. We get labeled deviant by society with our initial acts of deviance, and then it's possible that these labels will result in secondary deviance, furthering the original label and can work itself into a stigma.

Stigmas can be and commonly take things such as prostitute, child abuser, meth addict, alcoholic, social pariahs like that of all kinds. These are stigmas.

And we also adjust the way we see the past biography of a person, as well as their future potential for action, when we label them deviant. So if somebody gets labeled deviant, then we go and reinterpret their past actions in light of the new deviant behavior.

So for instance, think of all of the media coverage that surrounds a mass shooting. When the shooter goes into a place and shoots in a public place, all the media coverage then, we try to understand the past. Well, yeah, he always was a little shy. He always did keep to himself. Then all of these interpretations start to come out of the woodwork because we go back and look at the person's past and interpret their past action in light of the deviant behavior. That's retrospective labeling.

Projective labeling, on the other hand, project forward, is the opposite where we look into the future and theorize their behavior in relation to the deviance. Like, OK, they acted like this now so they're always going to act like that in the future. So next time, they're going to act like this. Even though it hasn't happened yet, we label them prior or beforehand.

In the last bit of the lesson here, I'd like to shift gears and discuss the medicalization of deviance. What's really happening with the medicalization of deviance is that behaviors that used to be labeled deviant or else good, on the other hand, get transformed and labeled as sickness.

So you're either sick or you're well. And there's an entirely different institutional fabric designed to treat. Somebody who's deviant might go to prison or jail, but somebody who's sick needs treatment. And they'll go to a hospital to be dealt with by doctors and psychiatrists. So what's really happening with medicalization is the labels are shifting so the treatment is shifting.

In the last half of the 20th century, the growing influence of psychiatry in medicine contributed to the medical deviant, such that we have more and more behaviors in society coming to be seen as medical conditions. So for instance, this happened in the 20th century with alcoholism and alcohol and drug abuse. At one point, when you were an alcoholic, you were just labeled as a drunkard, but now, you're labeled as somebody who suffers from the disease of alcoholism. And doctors today are even looking for the gene for alcoholism and discussing whether or not we have genetic propensities towards alcoholism.

So behaviors that were once punishable are now seen with pity, and people are seen in need of treatment. And there's an entire power structure embedded with this medicalization of deviance because the doctor is the one who gets to determine the label. So the doctor decides what the patient, who is powerless relative to the doctor, is experiencing so the doctor then decides the appropriate prescriptions. And then we'll give them specific treatments. So the doctor then is really important to this labeling process.

And another example, think of like a jury trial. Think about how much effort in some trials that the defense will go to to paint a picture of their client as criminally insane. If they can establish insanity, well, then a whole other set of treatments follow. They won't necessarily go to prison. They'll go to a hospital.

And we're living in interesting times because more and more processes, or more and more deviant acts are coming to be seen as medically. Think about Tiger Woods and sex addiction. Sex addiction is now a legitimate sickness, and it never used to be that way. So medicalization is happening as we speak.

Thank you for joining me in this lesson of labeling theory and the medicalization of deviance. Have a good day.

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."