Labeling Theory

Essay by pepper01University, Bachelor'sA+, April 2004

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Deviance, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. There is nothing inherently deviant in any human act, something is deviant only because some people have been successful in labelling it so. J. L Simmons The definition of the situation implies that if you define a situation as real, it is real only in its consequences.


Labelling theory, stemming from the influences of Cooley, Mead, Tannenbaum, and Lemert, has its origins somewhere within the context of the twentieth century. However, Edwin Lemert is widely considered the producer and founder of the original version of labelling theory. This paper, not a summary, provides a brief history of labelling theory, as well as, its role in the sociology of deviance. It attempts to explore the contributions made by labelling theorists, the criticism towards labelling theorists, and the discussion surrounding its reality as an actual theory. In essence, the main focus of this paper besides proving an understanding of Howard Becker, is to describe and evaluate `labelling theory` to the study of crime and deviance, by way of an in depth discussion.


The theoretical study of societal reaction to deviance has been carried out under different names, such as, labelling theory, interactionist perspective, and the social constructionist perspective. In the sociology of deviance, the labelling theory of deviant behaviour is often used interchangeably with the societal reaction theory of deviancy. As a matter of fact, both phrases point equally to the fact that sociological explanations of deviance function as a product of social control rather than a product of psychology or genetic inheritance. Some sociologists would explain deviance by accepting without question definitions of deviance and concerning themselves with primary aetiology. However, labelling theorists stress the point of seeing deviance from the viewpoint of the deviant individual. They...