Labeling Theory

Theory Development:

Labeling theory, also known as social reaction theory, was developed by Howard Becker in 1963.  Born in 1928, Becker, a Chicago native, received all of his degrees- bachelors, masters, and doctorate- from the University of Chicago by the age of 23.  Kathy Stolley, in her The Basics of Sociology, claims Howard Becker is a sociologist “[that] has authored, coauthored, or edited books and articles on topics including social problems, research methods, and arts.” Howard Becker is most known for his publishing of The Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance in 1963.  In this book, Becker first mentioned his theory on labeling as how people see themselves and others.  Becker described the “outsiders” as deviants being labeled, thus he developed a theory for labeling deviants.


Labeling theory is defined in The Basics of Sociology as “the response of others that defines (labels) the behavior as deviant and impacts further deviance” (Stolley, 2005).  It contributes to how people see and identify themselves.  Further, it “can impact the way others see the person who committed the behavior as well as the labeled person’s behaviors and self-perceptions” (Stolley, 2005).  Labeling any person as deviant is something people assign to others; no one person can be defined by themselves as being deviant.

Labeling theory is often used in the study of criminology to determine why certain individuals tend to deviate from the norms.  Encyclopædia Britannica identifies the criminal aspect behind labeling theory as “portray[ing] criminality as a product of society’s reaction to the individual” and that once any one person is convicted of a crime, they automatically acquire a criminal identity for any future actions they will have.  Therefore, the idea of labeling theory can negatively affect a person for life.

Labeling affects the true identity of a person.