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In sociology the concept of labeling is used in two interrelated ways. One involves the labeling of people as deviants. When people receive a negatively evaluated label – delinquent, cheat, pervert, etc. – it is assumed the individual did something to deserve the label; however, this is not always the case and people may be falsely accused for a number of reasons. Regardless of the accuracy of the label it has important psychological and sociological consequences. The negative attributes associated with the label are assumed by others to be true about the person with the label which in turn impacts the labelee’s social interaction and self-concept.
The other is the labeling of actions as deviance. Sociologists struggled with an operative definition of deviance because normative definitions and their application vary widely across situations. Groups often differ in their normative definitions; an individual may move through several settings each day each with a unique set of norms, and normative definitions in groups and settings tend to change over time. For these reasons the reactive definition – deviance is defined by a negative social reaction to a behavior – is most often favored by sociologists. This definition allows sociologists to focus on the social processes that lead to an act being defined as deviant rather than on the validity of the moral arguments in favor of the label.
Several factors determine which behaviors are labeled deviant and who is more likely to be labeled. Behaviors are more likely to be labeled as deviance if they are actions more typical of less powerful actors in a society. This is true as well for deviants, as less powerful and lower status group members are more likely to be labeled, especially falsely. Social distance and visibility are other factors that affect labeling.
- Goffman, E. (1963) Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
- Scheff, T. (1966) Being Mentally Ill: A Sociological Theory. Aldine, Chicago, IL.
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