Labeling Theory

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Labeling Theory

Labeling theory is a pretty simple theory that is based on social deviations which result in the labeling of the outsider. In his article Becker defines deviance as being created by society. Social groups create deviance through the establishment of social rules, the breaking of these rules results in the perpetrator being labeled as a deviant.

Because of the objectivity involved it is needless to say that these labels are not always accurately applied to people. Once a label is given to an individual they become part of  all the generalizations that go with that label. For example, some one who has been convicted of a crime might be seen as someone who has no respect for the law.  These labels also present a self fulfilling prophecy. Being identified as a deviant, a person is usually ostracized from conventional social groups, and therefore is forced to become part of less desirable ones. Being a member of less desirable social groups will only reinforce that they are a deviant, and increase their chances of engaging in deviant behaviors. The first time some one is labeled for deviant behavior, is known as the primary deviance, the secondary deviance is the deviant behavior that occurs after being labeled. Secondary deviance behaviors are  reactions to effects of being labeled in the first place.


Labeling theory (aka social reaction theory) was first proposed during the late 1950’s in opposition to normative theorists. Several people who contributed to it’s development were Howard Becker (1963), Tannenbaum (1951), and Lemert (1938).  Lemert is considered to have been the first to really introduce the ideal and Becker is the one who became the leader of the movement.

  • Lemert did not consider himself to be a labeling theorist however he introduced primary and secondary deviance. Primary deviance  is the behavior that causes the initial labeling of a person as a deviant. Once that label has been established deviant behaviors afterward are called secondary deviance. Secondary deviance happen when the person begins to identify with and classify themselves by the label which society impressed upon them.
  • Howard Becker wrote the book Outsiders in 1963.  The definition of labeling theory presented in his book became the generally accepted one. Becker stressed the need for a dynamic approach to the studying of labeling theory rather than a simple cause and effect one.
  • Tannenbaum’s interpretation of labeling theory was called the dramatization  of evil. He thought that through the identification, and treatment of a  deviant trait with in and individual (labeling) that trait was therefore emphasized causing it to become a larger and larger part of the deviant’s life.

An important study in regards to labeling theory was conducted by William Cambliss in 1973 in Chicago. In his study Cambliss identified highschool students who had a tendency to drink, steal, break curfews, and vandalize property. He divided this group into two different groups and gave them the labels the “Saints” and the “Roughnecks”. The saints were boys who over all had decent grades, came from stable middle class house holds,  and where careful about being caught by law enforcers. The “Roughnecks” were boys from lower class houses that were not as stable. They were more likely to be hostile in a confrontation with law enforcement and did not take as much care in not being caught. The boys in the “Roughneck” group were therefore labeled as deviants. The “saints”, even though they committed similar crimes, were not labeled because of they were polite to law enforcers when caught and they were from a higher social class.  Ultimately the police consistently and often took legal action when dealing with the “Roughnecks”. The “Saints” were treated far more leniently in that they never had legal actions taken against them.


Becker, H. (n.d.). Retrieved October 15, 2010, from Labeling Theory:

Cambliss, W. (1978). Cambliss, The Saints and the Roughnecks. Retrieved November 28, 2010, from ALPHA.FDU.EDU:,_The_Saints_and_the_Roughnecks.html

Larson, D. (n.d.). Serial Murders: The Construction.Retrieved october 12, 2010, from Serial Murders: The Construction:

Orcutt, J. D. (2010, August 23). Unit 2:. Retrieved November 17, 2010, from Deviance and Social Control:

Townsend, K. (n.d.). Frank Tannenbaum: “Dramatization of Evil”. Retrieved November 28, 2010, from Frank Tannenbaum:

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