Labeling and the theory of labeling is the process of assigning certain categories of people in positions of generalized negative characteristics, leading to the evocation or reinforcement of these behavioral characteristics. Labeling is a subject of such influential groups as the police, law enforcement officials, journalists, and social workers. As a result, people tend to justify negative labels such as “addicts” or “mentally ill”, reinforcing appropriate behavior. In such cases, it is difficult to prevent the consequences of labeling. Individuals or groups of people with labels can have a deviant identity.
A common definition of deviance is that it is not a quality feature of committed human action but the consequence of sanctions’ usage and rules of other people. Labels are a kind of landmark in community. Modernity is building the lives of people in such a way that there is no individual property deeply in someone’s personality. All people live in the linear way. Thus, most of their existence is moving in a horizontal line on the social scale. Only a small percentage of humanity is trying to live in the vertical way, philosophically comprehend what is happening, realize the infinity of the universe and the finite category of existence. This is sufficient for the most ordinary behavior of everyday life, and there will always be different patterns for each situation.
On the one hand, the representation of social scientists about the impact of labeling may seem trivial. On the other hand, according to one of the theoretical approaches in sociology, the main aspect of the symbolic interactions theory, labeling theory, draws attention to certain features of social behavior:
- person’s behavior depends strongly on the social expectations of others;
- it does not always successfully explain deviant behavior, for example the scientific approach to positivist sociology and genetic theories of criminal behavior are not labeled;
- labels that are common in modern society and used by individuals and organizations are often based on stereotypes of certain categories of the population;
- individuals that fall into the clutches of shortcuts are more removed from usual social interaction;
- officials are prone to the persistent attachment of labels, particularly social workers and government officials can have a stronger impact on people’s lives.
Labeling theory can be seen in the context of social interaction approach to solving human problems. Opponents of the theory indicate that it overestimates the importance of labeling, while paying attention to the domestic preconditions of deviant behavior. However, social workers should be aware of the consequences of labeling for two reasons. Firstly, many clients of social services are suffering from it, and, secondly, they have to consider their own role in this process.
The need to compensate for the serious consequences of labeling is the focus of social services, working to eliminate discrimination in social work and social life. Moreover, the uncontrolled usage of labels can produce the emergence of stigmas and lead to discrimination that is the real action that limits the rights of a group. Although in civilized countries a clear stigma and related discrimination are prohibited by law or condemn culture, almost every society is full of stigmas.
With several other positions, the focus on the social and psychological mechanisms of formation of deviant behavior of community members approached the problem in the theory of adhesive labels.
Theoretical and methodological basis of the theory is the labeling of symbolic interactions by George Herbert Mead, who sees social life as a constant interaction between people and their environment, in which human behavior is determined by social expectations and stereotypes in most cases. This theory caused that the scientist from Columbia University F. Tannenbaum started to analyze the formation of deviant behavior. Tannenbaum puts the focus on how society reacts to different kinds of social rejection and thus affects their subsequent self-reproduction. It turns out that labels are predominantly the negative assessments of individual company. Their action is two-sided: on the one hand, they raise the level of behavior, but on the other hand, they use it inappropriately, which can cause antisocial behavior. According to Tannenbaum, such process is called the dramatization of evil.
In this case, this theory and the theory of conflict have a common point of view that the social inequality of people in society still influences the character of behavior, which is considered deviant and which is not. This also refers to the process of labeling people because of their behavior. Advocates of labels say that whenever any members of the public are called “criminals”, “alcoholics” or “mentally ill”, this is a process of attaching labels. It includes a person or group, to which the label is applied. Mark is a negative definition, retaining individual or group on the scale of values of “good” or “bad”. Those who apply labels are the agents of social control, often labeling part of their social functions.
Advocates of labeling support the point of view of the conflict in that deviant label is not applied uniformly. Minority groups and the poor will soon label deviants for any offense rather than more affluent and privileged members of society, who behave the same way. Labeling people that belong to different social groups also brings in some new deviant points of view. Individual strangeness of a neighbor can be perceived as a sign of mental illness, and the same strange behavior of pop stars can be seen as “extravagant.”
Alcoholism of the neighbor is a sin while alcoholism of a world-known film actor is a spicy touch to his portrait. These realities have led observers to the conclusion that it is more likely for the label to be applied to mentally ill people, who are poor, occupy a low position in society or are in similar unfavorable conditions. People in more privileged social position often avoid label deviants, despite manifestation of the same behavior.
The theory also helps understand label’s deviance from the victim’s perspective of deviant actions. There is a significant contribution to the study of these phenomena by representatives of feminist sociology (Lind 286). Studying a variety of domestic violence cases, it was found that when husbands spoke harshly about their wives, more often it was a woman, whom they declared to be deviant.
The study of labels and deviant behavior took place long time ago. Here are the research results exploring answers of 1689 adults in New York in 1947. It was found that 91% of respondents violated the law after 16 years. For criminal offenses, 64% of men and 29% of women participating in the study could be sentenced. About 90% of all respondents had stolen something. Four men said they stole a car, and one of the ten committed robbery. Thus, the actions that could be identified as agents of social control of deviant behavior are common.
Still, the theory is mainly engaged in shortcuts of secondary deviant behavior, which examines the behavior of person trying to arrange personal life and relationships with others based on their deviant status, or even trying to eliminate deviant label (Prasad 51). The theory of labels focuses on the social mechanism, by which individuals are assessed as criminals, and the label is just one more confirmation of this definition.
Although this approach focuses on how society uses labels to individuals, it is also possible that individuals apply labels to themselves. For example, sick people are glued to their label patients in hope that others recognize the label and react accordingly an expression of sympathy, disease treatment or release the patient from normal duties. For example, many “difficult students” under the influence of failure in learning label themselves as “incapable” even before the teacher will make it. While some criticism was put forward against the theory of labels, it nevertheless remains a powerful sociological theory of deviant behavior. Many of the following ideas are a reflection of the basic theory of adhesive labels.
Thus, the theory of labeling describes the process of forming a new attitude towards people, who are seen as deviants, in contrast to previous theories that emphasize on the characteristics of individuals contributing to the deviation. The theory of labeling has been criticized. Many researchers believe that its supporters “are on the side of the underprivileged”, who were at the bottom of society, and may be resisted by those, who are sticking labels.