Labeling theory, also known as social reaction theory, is a sociological perspective that explains how people and society perceive and react to behaviors that are considered deviant or abnormal. This theory suggests that individuals are not inherently deviant but rather become deviant due to the labels attached to their behavior by society.

Origins of Labeling Theory

Labeling theory emerged in the mid-1960s as a response to the dominant theories of the time, which focused on individual pathology and biological factors as explanations for deviant behavior. Sociologists such as Howard Becker, Edwin Lemert, and Frank Tannenbaum argued that these theories overlooked the social context in which deviance occurs.

Central Tenets of Labeling Theory

The central tenet of labeling theory is that social labels attached to individuals or groups can have a profound impact on their behavior. If someone is labeled as deviant, they may begin to see themselves as such and adopt behaviors consistent with this label. This phenomenon is known as self-fulfilling prophecy.

Labeling theorists also argue that there is no inherent difference between criminal and non-criminal behavior. Rather, it is the label attached to certain behaviors that makes them criminal or deviant. For example, smoking marijuana might be considered criminal in some jurisdictions while it may be legal in others.

The Process of Labeling

The process of labeling begins with an initial act that violates a norm or law. This act may go unnoticed or it may be detected by others who then label the individual responsible for it.

Once labeled, the individual may experience secondary deviance, which involves further acts of deviance in response to societal rejection and stigmatization. The individual may also experience strained relationships with family members and friends who disapprove of their behavior.

Implications of Labeling Theory

Labeling theory has significant implications for how we understand and respond to deviance in society. It suggests that our responses to deviant behavior may actually create more deviance rather than reducing it.

If we label someone as a criminal or deviant, we may be contributing to their future criminal behavior by limiting their opportunities and social connections. Additionally, labeling theory highlights the importance of understanding the social context in which deviance occurs and addressing the underlying structural issues that contribute to it.


In conclusion, labeling theory challenges traditional notions of what constitutes deviant behavior and suggests that our societal reactions to such behavior can have significant impacts on individuals and communities. By understanding the process of labeling and its implications, we can work towards creating a more just and equitable society for all.