Is Social Reaction Theory the Same as Labelling Theory?

Understanding the various sociological theories can be a daunting task, especially when there are similarities between them. Two theories that often get confused are social reaction theory and labelling theory. While they share some commonalities, it is important to note that they are not the same.

The Basics: Social Reaction Theory

Social reaction theory, also known as the labeling theory, focuses on how societal reactions to individuals’ behaviors contribute to their self-identity and future actions. It suggests that when individuals are labeled as deviant or criminal, they tend to internalize these labels and engage in further deviant behavior.

According to this theory, the way society reacts to an individual’s behavior can shape their identity and influence their future actions. For example, if someone is repeatedly labeled as a troublemaker or criminal, they may start to believe it themselves and continue engaging in deviant activities.

The Basics: Labelling Theory

Labelling theory emphasizes how societal labels affect individuals’ self-identity and behavior. It suggests that when individuals are labeled as deviant or criminal by others, it can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy where they conform to those labels.

This theory argues that individuals who are labeled as deviant by society may face stigmatization, which can limit their opportunities and push them further into deviant behavior. For example, if someone is labeled as a troublemaker at school or work, they may be treated differently and excluded from certain opportunities.

The Similarities

While social reaction theory and labelling theory have different names, they both explore how societal reactions impact individuals’ self-identity and behavior. Both theories acknowledge that labels assigned by society can influence individuals’ future actions.

The Differences

Despite their similarities, there are notable differences between social reaction theory and labelling theory. The key distinction lies in their focus and scope.

Social reaction theory places more emphasis on the reactions of society as a whole to an individual’s behavior. It looks at how societal labels and stigmatization shape an individual’s self-identity and subsequent actions. This theory examines the broader impact of labeling on individuals within a social context.

On the other hand, labelling theory focuses more on the specific labels assigned by others to individuals. It explores how these labels affect an individual’s self-perception and behavior. This theory highlights the role of labeling in creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.


In summary, while social reaction theory and labelling theory share similarities in exploring the impact of societal reactions on individuals’ self-identity and behavior, they have distinct focuses. Social reaction theory considers how society as a whole reacts to an individual’s behavior, while labelling theory concentrates on the specific labels assigned by others.

By understanding these differences, we can gain deeper insights into how societal reactions and labeling influence individuals’ lives. Both theories contribute to our understanding of deviance and offer valuable perspectives in the field of sociology.