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Giving an Explanation of Labelling Theory and Its Application

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Table of contents

  1. Critical Evaluation of the Labeling Theory
  2. Labelling Theory and Robbery
  3. Bibliography

Labeling theory provides a framework to understand social labeling’s role in developing crime and deviance in society. The theory posits that individual tends to identify and behave in ways that reflect how the society labels them. The theory stems from the assertion that individuals, being part of society, are influenced by society’s norms and social constructs. They will tend to identify and behave just as the society has designated or labeled them. The social interactions of individuals within society give rise to norms and assign meaning to actions and behaviors which every member of the society must abide by lest one be labeled a deviant. Those who contradict the social norms and violate social contracts are thus labeled as deviant or crimes, which they tend to internalize and live by.

Labeling theory explains the role of stereotyping, especially how the powerful use stereotype to promote deviance in society. Proponents of the theory posit that powerful individuals, especially lawmakers, create a crime by labeling some behaviors as inappropriate.. Since certain behaviors and actions are labeled as deviant or criminal, those who engage in them tend to accept and internalize the label over time, identifying with the deviant or criminal tag. For instance, when the state criminalizes Marijuana, those who smoke Marijuana are labeled as offenders, and society begins to treat them. In the long run, they internalize that tag, accepting that they are offenders. Thus, labeling reinforces an individual’s deviant or criminal behavior.

Critical Evaluation of the Labeling Theory

There are certain strengths and limitations associated with the labeling theory. Due to the methodological flaws and its inability to withstand the principle of generalization, the labeling theory’s limitations outweigh its strengths. One strength of the labeling theory is that it suffices in furthering social cohesion and stability. Labeling theory creates stability in society by identifying and designating certain actions and behaviors as deviant and criminal, thus assigning negative reinforcement to such actions and behaviors. Imagine a society without norms and social constructs, and where there is no way to identify what is wrong and right? Such a society would be in turmoil as there will be no clear guidelines and labels to direct individuals’ actions and maintain social order. As such, labeling theory presents a framework through which the society can regulate itself by labeling actions and behaviors of members and devising appropriate reinforcement mechanisms.

Additionally, labelling theory is critical in understanding and management of disability in children. Labelling can create more tolerance for children with disability, while lack of labelling may create criticism. In most cases, disabled children are misunderstood for their abnormal behaviors, which conflict with the expected norms and behaviors in society. However, with labeling, stakeholders have an opportunity to identify the problem of the disabled child and can lobby for it to be addressed on behalf of an individual. Consider a case of an autistic child who behaves abnormally. With proper labeling, such a child’s deviant behaviors can be easily understood and can prompt the provision of specialized education to the child.

However, there are numerous limitations of the labelling theory. First, the theory fails to withstand the generalization principle, which is one of the main tests of a good theory.Labelling theory assumes that criminal and deviant behaviors apply across all races, social class, sex, and age. However, this generalization does not apply in the real-world scenario since a person’s race or social class affects how they are labeled. For instance, African Americas who live in the same society as their white counterparts are more likely to be labeled as criminals as opposed to their white counterparts. In such a case, society’s efforts to label certain individuals as deviant or criminal are based on race and not their actions or behaviors. Additionally, the theory fails to recognize the universality of certain deviant behaviors or crimes. Labeling theory posits that no acts are inherently deviant or criminal and that actions are only criminal when society considers them to be so. However, actions and behaviors such as murder or arson are universally deviant and criminal across all societies. This methodological deficit accounts for some of the limitations of the theory.

Lastly, labeling theory fails to recognize the concept of self-labeling. The theory posits that society must label certain actions as deviant for an individual to accept and regard themselves as deviant. However, there are cases where individuals’ conscience compels them to label themselves as deviant even without society rebuking their actions. Consider a man who is almost getting away with murder and has cleared all the evidence but still comes out to confess due to self-guilt. Such a person has labeled himself as a murderer even without society knowing and assigning such a label on him.

Labelling Theory and Robbery

Labeling theory can be used to explain robbery, which is a deviant behavior across all societies. Labeling triggers a criminogenic process that progresses in three linear patterns. First, labelling influences the development of a deviant concept among individuals. As society labels an individual a robber, heshe accepts and internalizes that he is a robber. The next stage is social exclusion, where such stigma stemming from labeling results in exclusion from conventional interaction with others in the society. Lastly, those who are labeled as robbers and secluded from society tend to form a deviant group, which reinforces their behaviors. Simply put, the prevalence of robbery results from society labeling certain individuals as robbers, which they then internalize and accept themselves as robbers, then seclude themselves from the stigma associated with such labeling and form a group of robbers to reinforce their activities and actions. Thus, robbery can be reduced by limiting instances of labeling offenders as robbers.


  • Charles Wellford, ‘Labelling theory and criminology: An assessment.’ (1975) 22(3) Social Problems 332–345.
  • Howard Becker. Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance (Free Press 1963)
  • John Hagen, ‘Labelling and Deviance: A Case Study in the “Sociology of the Interesting’ (1973) 20(4) Social Problems 447-458
  • Jón Bernburg, ‘Labeling theory.’ In: Marvin D. Krohn, Alan Lizotte

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