Society & Us

Society & Us: Labeling Theory

One of the most important theories to understand deviant and criminal behavior, American sociologist Howard S. Becker’s1963 book Outsiders is one of the clearest, if not the earliest, statements of the “labeling” approach to the study of deviance.


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The theory is rooted in the idea of the social construction of reality and makes two radical assertions:

  • First, acts are not of themselves criminal or deviant: these are social comments on acts. Hence, deviance is not a property of the act but of the societal reaction to it.
  • Second, people may well become what the labellers thought they already were. For example, British sociologist Paul Willis’s study on male youth behavior in schools in a town in the West Midlands referred to as ‘Hammertown’ in the 1970s found that those labeled ‘bad’ by staff effectively lived out that label and even reveled in it.

The labeling perspective became immensely popular in the sociology of crime and deviance in the 1960s, raising vital questions about how rules were made and enforced.

However, this theory is not without drawbacks.

Many deviants are not naive victims of labeling but are perfectly aware that their behavior is rule-breaking. Moreover, some deviant characteristics are present before any acts of labeling. For instance, some forms of mental illness do indeed have biological causes.

Further, some deviants wish to engage in their chosen deviance irrespective of how others regard it. The theory has also been criticized for emphasizing on the interactive process of labeling while ignoring the processes and structures that lead to deviant acts.


  • Bruce, Steve, and Steven Yearley. The Sage Dictionary of Sociology. London: SAGE Publications, 2006. Print.
  • Becker, Howard S. “My Books.” HOWIEs Home Page. Howard S. Becker, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2016.
  • Crossman, Ashley. “An Overview of Labeling Theory.” Education. About, Inc., 01 Nov. 2016. Web. 10 Dec. 2016.
  • Trueman, Chris. “The Labelling Theory.” The History Learning Site. Chris Trueman, 25 May 2015. Web. 10 Dec. 2016.
  • “Paul Willis.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Nov. 2016. Web. 10 Dec. 2016.
  • Thompson, C. H. “Willis Anti-school Subculture.” N.p., 27 Dec. 2008. Web. 10 Dec. 2016.

Author: Stuti Das, India

Categories: Society & Us

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