The labeling theory as discussed below is attributed to writing of constructionists especially (Becker, 1963) as written by J. Mitchell Miller. Other contributors include Edwin Lemert, (Erikson 1964), and (Warren and Johnson, 1972). According to Schur (1971), this theory emerged out of the perspectives of symbolic interaction to explain the connection between deviancy and society. Symbolic interaction places emphasis on human interactions and meanings attributed to these interactions. A symbol can be a sign, language or artifacts and can have different meanings depending on its users.
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Therefore, as we interact we assign meaning to different symbols and this influences how people will react to the symbol. Symbols have different reactions in different parts of the world or societies. Something may be perceived as negative or wrong in one place but it could also be seen as normal in a different place or period, depending on the meanings attributed to it. This therefore explains labeling and deviancy according to Becker via (Kuper, 2003), when he says that deviancy relies on the subjective interpretation of a behavior.
The labeling perspective explains the theory of deviance in relation to audiences and stigmatization. The group of researcher who came up with this perspective argues that deviance is a label given by certain figures in society including authorities, families, friends and certain institutions. If a behavior or the individual who acts in a certain behavior is not labeled as deviant, there is no deviant or the deviant behavior. A behavior may be unacceptable in one society but the same behavior is seen as normal in another as explained before. Consequently, a behavior could have been unacceptable years ago but is tolerated presently. Therefore, deviancy in their argument is all a matter of meaning attached to a behavior and once a behavior is labeled as deviant, any person acting in such a way will automatically become deviant. These are perspectives of (Becker, 1963) via (Miller, 2009) which he sees as an unfair way treating individuals.
According to (Lemert, 1951) via (Conrad, 2006), deviant behavior can be categorized into primary and secondary deviance. In his argument, Lemert says that primary deviance is caused by a variety of factors that are socially constraining. An example, heavy drinking could be because of work or home stress while secondary deviance is a response to the reactions of society to primary deviance. When an individual exhibits primary deviance and is stigmatized for it, the society “forces” the individual into secondary deviance. This is because the individual faces new challenges of dealing with stigmatizations and other social problems created by the society. Therefore, the labeling caused in primary deviance results to secondary deviance, which is an advance state of deviance. If no labeling occurred, there could have been lesser probabilities of the behavior advancing. Constructionists place the following factor at the core of their explanations towards deviance:
- Labeling and stigma
- Inner world of deviance
- “Stickiness” of labels
- Self-fulfilling prophecy
These factors follow each other consequentially as explained by the constructionists. The first mistake done by society in creating deviance is judgment. The audience of a behavior does this. Audience in this case refers to anyone watching and judging a behavior. They could be family members, friends or authority figures. Whether the audience sees or hears about the behavior, they tend to judge and label it “deviant” which is subjective. The labeling occurs as a two way process. First, the behavior is labeled as deviant then the individual is also labeled deviant. Once someone has been stigmatized, normal life becomes difficult and problematic. This stigmatization is wrong, as a person could be wrongfully accused and when this happens, the individual surrenders to the deviancy.
The labeling and stigmatization leads to reflexivity, which means that we perceive ourselves as others, perceive us. Once an individual knows that they are viewed as deviants and are publicly unacceptable, they tend to remain within groups who perceive them as normal. Unfortunately, these are minority deviant groups. This leads the individual deeper into deviance. One way to solve this deviance would require going into the world of deviance and understanding their perspectives about their way of life. This can be done through qualitative research like ethnography and participant observation.
Labeling leads to “stickiness” of the behavior making the individual more deviant. What follows is a self-fulfilling prophecy, a situation where an individual becomes deviant so that the judgment becomes true. I think this theory explains what happened in conventional societies though it touches a bit of contemporary societies. In the contemporary world, most people have become liberal and tend to understand deviants more. This change of perception could be attributed to sociological and psychological studies that provide reasons for abnormal behaviors, human rights activists and empowerments provided for minorities. Unlike in traditional societies where most behaviors were seen as abnormal, the contemporary world has become more tolerant towards issues.
However, this does not mean that the constructionists’ perspective is not beneficial in the present world. Even though people are liberal, deviants are still viewed differently in most societies. An example is that of homosexuals. Some states and countries are tolerable towards them while others totally reject them. Even in countries where they are not persecuted, they are denied certain human rights and freedom. This is to say that this theory is still useful in understanding and combating deviance in our societies. When we stop labeling and stigmatizing people, we lower their chances of behaving abnormally as they perceive themselves positively.
I am not of the opinion that there should be no correctional institutions. However, I think before an individual is labeled deviant there should be other strategies for understanding the person. Psychological help as well as empowerment strategies should be initiated for people exhibiting primary deviance. The corrective measures should also differ by the intensity of offense and the calculated damage caused to the society. I however do not agree with the constructionists’ view that we should not at all label behaviors as deviant.
This labeling acts as a social control technique as it discourages people from engaging in certain behavior. Without the labeling, we would not know what is or not acceptable. By fear of being viewed differently, the labeling discourages prospective offenders therefore controlling their behaviors. An individual who acts “abnormally” may also strive to reform by the mere fact of fearing to be viewed as abnormal therefore the labeling acts as a social control measure. What should be avoided is the stigmatization.
People who are viewed as deviants should be accepted in the society and helped to resume normal life by being allowed to interact with conventional individuals. With the understanding that an individual is not born deviant and that there are several factors that contribute to deviance, we should seek to find reasons why people behave the way they do before we judge and brand them. Certain factors such as environment, socialization process and agents, and social factors all contribute to deviance. Society usually puts enormous pressure on individual by defining how a person should live and this could drive a person into deviant behavior.
To exemplify this fact, we know that children are expected to grow, go to school, proceed to college and later find jobs. This is a normal mind process in the minds of everyone in the society. However, there are social constraints that may hinder this. An individual may not be able to go to college because of other reasons, disrupting the completely “normal” life process. This individual will need to do many things to survive and earn a living, which may include stealing. If labeled, the individual may become a murder or a robber.
In summary, the labeling theory is fundamental in understanding deviance in the contemporary world. The constructionists provide perspectives of viewing deviance and combating social problems. Their theory provides the process of deviance starting with labeling and stigmatization by audiences, reflexivity and self-fulfilling prophecies. We can help deviancy by employing this perspective while dealing with the minorities in society. By understanding this theory, we are capable of seeking other ways to deal with deviants like counseling and empowerment strategies. We must accept others, appreciate and respect their views if we want to successfully correct them.