Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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Labelling theory

core definition

Labelling theory is concerned with the social process by which individuals and groups classify and categorise social behaviour and other individuals.

explanatory context

Labelling theory works on the basis that in social settings, individuals are labelled and grouped into certain 'types' of person and a set kind of behaviour is expected of them and towards them.


The 'tenacity' of a label is related to the authoritiveness of the labeller. For example, if an aquaintance tells you are you 'mad' you will probably not take this seriously, but if a psychiatrist tells you that you are a 'chronic schizophrenic' you probably will.


Labelling theory also incorporates a thesis about how labels affect behaviour of both the labelled person and of others in respect of the labelled person. There is an element of 'self-fulfilling prophecy' in this kind of analysis.


Examples of research in this area include: studies of the way in medical students and psychiatrists apply labels to different kinds of patients; teachers apply labels to pupils of different types; policemen apply labels to criminals of different types.


Labelling theory is largely used in the study of deviance.

analytical review

HistoryLearningSite (2000–2012) states:

Instead of looking at why some social groups commit more crime, the labelling theory asks why some people committing some actions come to be defined as deviant, while others do not. Labelling theory is also interested in the effects of labelling on individuals. Labelling theorists note that most people commit crimes at some time in their lives but not everyone becomes defined as a deviant or a criminal. So how does this process of defining a person as deviant work?

Deviant behaviour can be defined as behaviour that differs from the normal, behaviour that incurs public disapproval and behaviour that is usually subject to some form of sanction.

Once someone has been successfully labelled as criminal or deviant, the label attached may become the dominant label or 'master status' which is seen as more important than all the other aspects of the person. He or she becomes a 'hooligan' or 'thief' rather than a father, mother or friend. Each label carries with it prejudices and images and this may lead to others interpreting the behaviour of the labelled person in a particular way. For example, a person who volunteers to stay late at work is usually seen as worthy of praise, but, if a person has been labelled as a thief, people might be suspicious that they will steal something. For some people once a deviant label has been applied this can actually lead to more deviance. This happens when people start acting in the way they have been labelled. Paul Willis examined male youth behaviour in schools and found that those labelled ‘bad’ by staff effectively lived out that label and even revelled in it.

Anonymous (undated) states:

Howard Becker's approach to the labeling of deviance, as described in Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance (1963), views deviance as the creation of social groups and not the quality of some act or behavior. Becker (1963) criticizes other theories of deviance for accepting the existence of deviance and by doing so, accept the values of the majority within the social group. According to Becker (1963), studying the act of the individual is unimportant because deviance is simply rule breaking behavior that is labeled deviant by persons in positions of power. The rule breaking behavior is constant, the labeling of the behavior varies (Becker 1963). Becker (1963) describes rules as the reflection of certain social norms held by the majority of a society, whether formal or informal. Enforced rules, the focus of Becker's (1963) approach, are applied differentially and usually facilitate certain favorable consequences for those who apply the label. In short, members of the rule-making society may label rule breaking behavior deviant depending on the degree of reaction over time (Becker 1963).

Becker (1963) views those people that are likely to engage in rule breaking behavior as essentially different than members of the rule-making or rule-abiding society. Those persons who are prone to rule-breaking behavior see themselves as morally at odds with those members of the rule-abiding society (Becker 1963). Becker (1963) uses the term "outsider" to describe a labeled rule-breaker or deviant that accepts the label attached to them and view themselves as different from "mainstream" society. Deviants may consider themselves more "outside" than others similarly labeled (Becker 1963). Deviant outsiders might view those rule making or abiding members of society as being the outsiders of their social group (Becker 1963).

Becker (1963) details the process of how these deviant outsiders become involved in secondary deviance. Primary deviance is the first "step", and this primary act may be either intentional or unintentional (Becker 1963). Becker (1963) believes that most people think or fantasize in a deviant manner, and the study of why certain people conform while other give in to deviant impulses is crucial. The process of being caught and labeled deviant by a person in position of authority is the most crucial step on the road to secondary deviance.

The second "step" on the way to secondary deviance and a career in crime involves the acceptance of the deviant label (Becker 1963). Becker (1963) describes how certain rule-breakers come to accept the label of "deviant" as their master status. The master status is the role to which one most relates the view of oneself (Becker 1963). The rule breaker that identifies with the deviant label as their master status becomes an outsider and is denied the means of carrying on with their everyday lives (Becker 1963). Becker (1963) makes it clear that not every rule breaker progresses in this manner and that certain people have alternative paths to take. An outsider, denied the means to carry out daily routines, turns to illegitimate means to make a living (Becker 1963).

The final step in the creation of a career delinquent involves the movement of a rule breaker into a deviant subculture (Becker 1963). The affiliation of the labeled deviant with an organized provides the person with moral support and a self-justifying rationale (Becker 1963). Becker (1963) describes how those involved in an organized crime may learn new forms of deviance through differential association.

Becker (1963) also focuses on those in positions of power and authority that make and enforce the rules. Rules are created by a moral entrepreneur, a person that takes the initiative to crusade for a rule that would right a society evil (Becker 1963). The moral entrepreneur's motive may be to elevate the social status of those members of society below him/her (Becker 1963). The success of the crusade may lead to the entrepreneur to become a professional rule creator (Becker 1963). Becker (1963) states that the success of each moral crusade brings along with it a new group of outsiders, and a new responsibility of an enforcement agency.

According to Becker (1963), the enforcement of society's rules is an enterprising act. The enforcement of a rule occurs when those that want a rule enforced, usually to some sort of gain to their personal interests, bring the rule infraction to the attention of the public (Becker 1963). The rule infraction, brought to the attention of those in positions of authority, is dealt with punitively by the entrepreneur (Becker 1963). The enforcement of the rule may involve the mediation of conflicts between many different interest groups by those in positions of power (Becker 1963). The enforcers themselves may have a moral crusade to stop crime, but most engage in the process strictly as a part of their occupation (Becker 1963). Rule enforcers use the process of formal enforcement to satisfy two major interests, the justification of their occupation and the winning of respect from the people he/she patrols (Becker 1963). The enforcer is armed with a great deal of discretion and may use his/her power to label an innocent person in order to gain respect (Becker 1963). The misuse of labeling powers by enforcers may create a deviant out of a person who otherwise would not be prone to rule breaking behavior (Becker 1963).

Becker (1963) recognizes four types of citizens according to the behaviors of those in society and the successful attachment of the deviant label. The members of society that are rule-abiding and free of labels are described as conforming citizens, while those who are labeled without breaking a rule are termed the falsely accused (Becker 1963). Those citizens that exhibit rule breaking behavior and are labeled deviant are referred to as pure deviants, while those that break rules yet avoid labeling are called secret deviants (Becker 1963).

Becker's Outsiders (1963) uses two cases to illustrate his approach to labeling theory. Becker (1963) analyzes the history of marijuana laws in the United States and how individuals progress into the recreational use of the drug. Becker (1963) chooses to analyze marijuana because the progression of use can be observed. The first time user of marijuana finds the experience as somewhat unpleasant, but as the user imitates peers he/she learns to perceive the effects of marijuana as enjoyable (Becker 1963).


Elwell's Glossary of Sociology (undated) defines labelling theory as:

A social theory that holds that society's reaction to certain behaviors is a major factor in defining the self as deviant.  People become `deviant' because certain labels (thief, prostitute, homosexual) are attached A to their behavior by criminal justice authorities and others. The resulting treatment of the individual pushes them into performing the deviant role. Also called "societal reaction" theory.


Richard Schaefer (2017):

Labeling theory: An approach to deviance that attempts to explain why certain people are viewed as deviants while others engaging in the same behavior are not.

associated issues


related areas

See also

Researching the Real World Section 1.5.2


Anonymous, undated, untitled, available at, accessed 28 January 2013, page not available 22 December 2016.

Becker, H., 1963, Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance.

Elwell's Glossary of Sociology, undated, available at, page not available 20 December 2016.

HistoryLearningSite (2000–2012), 'The Labelling Theory', available at, accessed 28 January 2013, still available 9 June 2019.

Schaefer, R. T., 2017, 'Glossary' in Sociology: A brief introduction, Fourth Edition, originally c. 2000, McGraw-Hill. Available at, site dated 2017, accessed 11 June 2017, 'not found' 1 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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