Labeling Theory of Deviance: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:02 Labeling Theory
  • 0:28 Primary & Secondary Deviance
  • 1:48 Retrospective &…
  • 2:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kimberly Moffitt

Kimberly has taught college Sociology and Criminal Justice classes and has a Master's Degree in Criminal Justice.

The central contribution of symbolic-interaction analysis is labeling theory, the assertion that deviance and conformity result not so much from what people do as from how others respond to those actions. Take a look at a few key concepts and test your knowledge with a quiz.

Definition of Labeling Theory

Labeling theory was created by Howard Becker in 1963. Labeling theory takes the view that people become criminals when labeled as such and when they accept the label as a personal identity. Important concepts in labeling theory include primary and secondary deviance, retroactive and prospective labeling, as well as the importance of being stigmatized. Let's examine these concepts and take a look at a few examples.

Primary and Secondary Deviance

Labeling theory stresses the idea that deviance is a relative term. Under this perspective, people become deviant not because of the act itself, but how people react to that act. As part of this theory, there are two types of deviance. Primary deviance refers to episodes of deviant behavior that many people participate in. Secondary deviance is when someone makes something out of that deviant behavior, which creates a negative social label that changes a person's self-concept and social identity. We call this negative label a stigma.

To illustrate this theory, imagine the scenario of two married men away on business trips. Both men have an affair while on this trip, but in only one of the scenarios does the married man get caught, and word gets back to his wife and family back home. He certainly isn't the only married man to have an affair - the fact that he got caught is when secondary deviance sets in - when people start to 'make something' out of his behavior. It is quite possible that the man who got caught will be labeled and will develop a stigma as the result of his behavior. The man who did not get caught (while the act is the same) will not develop the same stigma because his action will go unnoticed. The consequences are not because of the act itself, but because of someone finding out about his behavior and labeling him.

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