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In the 1960’s, Howard Becker reintroduced Emile Durkheim’s main concepts of labeling when he created The Labeling Theory. Becker’s Labeling theory stems from the theoretical perspective, symbolic interactionism, and states that when one is labeled by a person of higher prestige or status, the labeled person is likely to accept the label and conform to it, due to the self-fulfilling prophecy (Thio 34). On the other hand, society is not the only contributor to how one is labeled. In Cooley’s “ Looking Glass Self Theory,” Cooley states that one sees themselves how they perceive others see them, resulting in individuals becoming more self-conscious of how society views them. Both of these theories created a basis for my labeling experiment due to the fact each provides evidence to the influence of society on an individual .
Though it may seem disgusting and unsanitary, in an effort to lead people to believe my actions, I decided to break the norm of washing my hands in the communal bathroom on my hall. What the ‘public’ (those who shared the bathroom on my hall) was unaware of was the fact that I would actually come back into my dorm room and wash my hands in my personal sink. On the surface, if one is asked why people wash their hands after using the restroom, the normal response would be because it is sanitary. Although saying it is sanitary is true, and consequently prevents sickness and diseases from spreading, it is arguable that people mainly wash their hands because people will see someone who does not wash their hands as dirty or gross, and therefore treat them differently.
In the beginning of my experiment, I found it extremely unnerving to walk out of the bathroom with people believing that I did not wash my hands. It was common for girls to watch me as I walked out, waiting to see whether or not I was truly not going to wash my hands. The more people that noticed I was not washing my hands in the bathroom, the easier it was for them to collectively label me as ‘the girl who doesn’t wash her hands’. People that had seen me violate the norm now would now project their notion of what they had seen and apply it to the kind of person they saw me to be; an unsanitary, filthy person who was unable to do something as simple as maintaining my hygiene. I decided to continue this experiment for more than one day in an effort to get as many different results as possible.
The second day was fairly similar to the first in that nobody stopped to ask me if I was going to wash my hands or comment on the general act of being unsanitary. Most of the people that watched me walk out in disbelief were different than those on the previous day, but when one of the same girls from earlier saw me in the restroom, she made a point to watch what I was going to do; analyzing whether or not I was going to make a habit out of my lack of handwashing. On the second day, I encountered two girls whom I recognized from the initial day of my experiment. To my surprise, the same two girls that had silently ridiculed me the day before actually performed the same actions they were judging me for. After only two days, I had managed to convey that it seemed to be socially acceptable, to an extent, to walk out of a public facility without washing your hands, regardless of the fact that sinks are available in each individual room.
In conducting this experiment, I discovered how reliant individuals in society are on how their actions are perceived, which ultimately determines whether or not they will be accepted by the greater society surrounding them. Simply by refusing to wash my hands in public, I was given judgment-filled looks and the ‘full body look down’ by girls in the bathroom, even though internally I knew I was still going to wash my hands, therefore not actually committing a deviant act. Labeling theory imposes societal pressures in the sense that people seek certain labels in order to maintain a ‘likeable’ status, or more importantly, preventing themselves from being labeled as the deviant ones. In addition, Labeling theory fundamentally divides society into two polarizing groups, those who label (often the ones with more power or social status), and those who are labeled (often the ones without status and power). It often happens that those who are labeled must reluctantly accept their labels, regardless of if they are rightfully imposed on them or not, simply because they have no other alternative. This limitation placed on the lower of the two groups, allows for the more powerful group to have that much more power, allowing them to have the liberty to impose labels as they see fit and for their own convenience. To avoid being caught in the lesser of the two groups, people are constantly monitoring what they do, say, and act like, so as to not disrupt the societal norms put in place. Society is very apt at realizing what is ‘normal’ and what isn’t, which makes individuals hypersensitive to both their own actions and the actions of others; something I clearly was able to demonstrate by blatantly disregarding the norm of washing your hands after using the bathroom.
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