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Labeling others is common in our society. In this lesson, we discuss the specifics of labeling theory, including when and why people are labeled. We also distinguish between retroactive and projective labeling and briefly discuss Travis Hirschi’s control theory.

Labeling Theory

In a previous lesson, we discussed deviance: any action that is perceived as violating a society’s or group’s cultural norm. Robbing a store and driving faster than the speed limit are examples of deviant behavior.

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However, labeling theory proposes deviance is socially constructed through reaction instead of action. In other words, according to this theory, no behavior is inherently deviant on its own. Instead, it’s the reaction to the behavior that makes it deviant or not.Labeling theory helps to explain why a behavior is considered negatively deviant to some people, groups, and cultures but positively deviant to others. For example, think about fictional vigilantes, like Robin Hood and Batman.

Batman is labeled in different ways depending on the public’s reaction to his escapades. Some people have a negative reaction and label him as a criminal. Others have a positive reaction and label him as a hero. Different reactions are typically based on group or cultural norms and values.Another example is when a person is responsible for the death of another.

When are they labeled as a ‘murderer’ or a ‘killer?’ The reaction to death sometimes depends on the circumstances. The person responsible will be viewed differently depending on the reason, whether it’s murder, war, self-defense, or an accident.

How people react to or label a killing depends on the reason behind it.
Labeling Theory Murder Example

Primary vs. Secondary Deviance

Studies related to labeling theory have also explained how being labeled as deviant can have long-term consequences for a person’s social identity. Consider primary deviance, which is an initial violation of a social norm – about which no inference is made regarding a person’s character.

Primary deviance includes minor deviant acts that just about everyone does once or twice, like playing hooky from school or work. These behaviors have little reaction from others and therefore, have little effect on a person’s self-concept.On the other hand, secondary deviance is when a person repeatedly violates a social norm, which leads others to make assumptions about that person and assign a label to him or her.

Some examples of labels are ‘criminal,’ ‘psycho,’ ‘addict,’ and ‘delinquent.’ Secondary deviance gets such a strong reaction from others that the individual is typically shunned and excluded from certain social groups.For example, the dynamic between nerds and jocks is portrayed in popular culture all the time. Typically, there is someone who is intelligent but socially awkward and becomes labeled as a ‘nerd.’ Once labeled, that person is considered unpopular and shunned by the popular ‘jocks.


Once a person has been labeled by others through secondary deviance, it is common for that person to incorporate that label into his or her own self-concept. They develop a stigma, or a powerfully negative label that greatly changes a person’s self-concept and social identity.Someone in high school that has been labeled as a nerd, for example, may begin to think of himself or herself as a loser due to other people’s opinions and treatment. Someone who has been stigmatized usually has lower self-esteem and may even behave more deviantly as a result of the negative label. The stigmatized person may find it easier to come to terms with the label rather than fight it.

Playing hooky from work is an example of primary deviance.
Stigma can have a significant negative impact on social identity.
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