Sociology ShortCuts: Labelling Theory

Labelling is a staple theory in the sociology of crime – both in its own right (Becker’s concept of the Outsider, for example) and in terms of its incorporation into other theoretical explanations (Radical Criminology, for example) – and in this ShortCut Professor Sandra Walklate outlines some of the theory’s key ideas:

  • Outsiders
  • Social interaction and shared understandings
  • Labelling process
  • Social contexts
  • Social reaction
  • Primary and secondary deviation
  • Tolerance levels
  • Deviant labels
  • Self-worth and self-identity

Labelling does, however, have wider applications across Sociology Specifications because it is primarily a theory of deviance (in its widest sense) rather than just crime.

Within the family, for example, labelling can be applied to our understanding of gender socialisation and it’s conventionally applied in education in terms of things like differential achievement and the effect of self-fulfilling prophecies.

Less conventionally it’s possible to explore how labelling – as a form of social interaction – is embedded in social structures. In terms of crime, for example, ideas about how labels are created, applied and policed are conventionally related to concepts of power and the various ways they are embedded in control structures (such as laws).

While these processes are also evident in education systems (in areas like debates over different types of schools or school uniform policies) one area that has received a lot less attention is the role of education itself and, in particular, the issue of grading – particularly, but by no-means exclusively, at a very young age.

There is, for example, no necessary connection between “education” and “grading students” – and an interesting idea for students (and teachers) to discuss is the extent to which teachers are drawn into wider control processes by their ability to not just grade students (primary deviation for those who fail to meet a certain (arbitrary) standard for “success”) but also the extent to which teachers, as control agents, actively contribute to secondary deviation through the remedial actions they take to resolve “the problem”…

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