Social Reaction Labeling Theory is a sociological concept that posits that individuals are not inherently “deviant,” but rather the label of being deviant is applied to them by society. This theory is also known as the labeling theory or social labeling theory.

Background and History

The social reaction labeling theory was first introduced in the 1960s by sociologists Howard Becker and Edwin Lemert. The crux of this theory is that society’s reaction to an individual’s behavior determines whether or not that behavior is considered deviant.

For example, if someone steals a candy bar from a store, their act of theft is not inherently deviant. However, if society labels them as a “thief” and treats them as such, then they may begin to internalize this label and continue engaging in criminal behavior.

Key Concepts

The social reaction labeling theory has several key concepts that are essential to understanding its principles:

Primary Deviance:

This refers to the initial act of deviance committed by an individual. It could be something as simple as stealing a candy bar or as serious as committing murder.

Secondary Deviance:

This occurs when an individual internalizes the label of being deviant and begins to engage in more deviant behaviors. For example, if someone is labeled a “thief,” they may begin to steal more frequently after internalizing this label.


This refers to the negative social label that is applied to an individual who engages in deviant behavior. Once someone has been stigmatized, it can be difficult for them to escape this label.

Moral Entrepreneurs:

These are individuals or groups who create and enforce societal norms regarding what constitutes deviant behavior. For example, politicians who campaign on “tough on crime” platforms can be considered moral entrepreneurs.