An Overview of Labeling Theory

A man from behind in handcuffs being lead away
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Labeling theory states that people come to identify and behave in ways that reflect how others label them. It is most commonly associated with the sociology of crime and deviance: labeling and treating someone as criminally deviant can foster deviant behavior. Labeling someone as a criminal, for example, can cause others to treat them more negatively—and the response to being treated more negatively can be in turn for that person to act more negatively.

The Origins of Labeling Theory

Labeling theory is rooted in the idea of the social construction of reality, which is central to the field of sociology and is linked to the symbolic interactionist perspective. As an area of focus, it flourished within American sociology during the 1960s, thanks in large part to sociologist Howard Becker. However, its core ideas can be traced back to the work of founding French sociologist Emile Durkheim. The theory of American sociologist George Herbert Mead, which focused on the social construction of the self as a process involving interactions with others, was also influential in its development. Others involved in the development of labeling theory and the conduct of research related to it include Frank Tannenbaum, Edwin Lemert, Albert Memmi, Erving Goffman, and David Matza.


Labeling theory is one of the most important approaches to understanding deviant and criminal behavior. It begins with the assumption that no act is intrinsically criminal. Definitions of criminality are established by those in power through the formulation of laws and the interpretation of those laws by police, courts, and correctional institutions. Deviance is therefore not a set of characteristics of individuals or groups, but rather it is a process of interaction between deviants and non-deviants and the context in which criminality is being interpreted.

To understand the nature of deviance itself, we must first understand why some people are tagged with a deviant label, and others are not. Those who represent forces of law and order and those who enforce the boundaries of what is considered normal behavior, such as the police, court officials, experts, and school authorities, provide the main source of labeling. By applying labels to people, and in the process creating categories of deviance, these people reinforce the power structure of society.

Many of the rules that define deviance and the contexts in which deviant behavior is labeled as deviant are framed by the wealthy for the poor, by men for women, by older people for younger people, and by ethnic and racial majorities for minority groups.

In other words, the more powerful and dominant groups in society create and apply deviant labels to the subordinate groups.

For example, many children engage in activities such as breaking windows, stealing fruit from other people’s trees, climbing into other people’s yards, or playing hooky from school. In affluent neighborhoods, these acts may be regarded by parents, teachers, and police as innocent aspects of the process of growing up. In poor areas, on the other hand, these same activities might be seen as tendencies towards juvenile delinquency, which suggests that differences of class and race play an important role in the process of assigning labels of deviance.

Research has shown that Black girls and boys are disciplined more frequently and more harshly by teachers and school administrators than are their peers of other races, though there is no evidence to suggest that they misbehave more frequently. Similarly, and with much more severe consequences, statistics that show that police kill Black people at a far higher rate than whites, even when they are unarmed and have committed no crime, suggests that the misapplication of deviant labels as a result of racial stereotypes is at play.

Once a person is labeled as deviant, it is extremely difficult to remove that label. The deviant person becomes stigmatized as a criminal or deviant and is likely to be considered, and treated, as untrustworthy by others. The deviant individual is then likely to accept the label that has been attached, seeing himself or herself as deviant, and act in a way that fulfills the expectations of that label. Even if the labeled individual does not commit any further deviant acts than the one that caused them to be labeled, getting rid of that label can be very hard and time-consuming. For example, it is usually very difficult for a convicted criminal to find employment after release from prison because of their label as ex-criminal. They have been formally and publicly labeled a wrongdoer and are treated with suspicion likely for the remainder of their lives.

Critiques of Labeling Theory

One critique of labeling theory is that it emphasizes the interactive process of labeling and ignores the processes and structures that lead to deviant acts. Such processes might include differences in socialization, attitudes, and opportunities, and how social and economic structures impact these.

The second critique of labeling theory is that it is still not clear whether or not labeling has the effect of increasing deviant behavior. Delinquent behavior tends to increase following conviction, but is this the result of labeling itself as the theory suggests? It is very difficult to say, since many other factors may be involved, including increased interaction with other delinquents and learning new criminal opportunities.

Further Reading

  • Crime and Community by Frank Tannenbaum (1938)
  • Outsiders by Howard Becker (1963)
  • The Colonizer and the Colonized by Albert Memmi (1965)
  • Human Deviance, Social Problems and Social Control by Edwin Lemert (1967)
  • Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs by Paul Willis (1977)
  • Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys by Victor Rios (2011)
  • Identity andWomen Without Class: Girls, Race by Julie Bettie (2014)