Minority-oriented sociology and rule-breaking


Within sociology there are many currents and theories that try to explain human relationships from different points of view.

One of the most popular in recent times is the labeling theory . Let us discover how this thought arises and what are the implications of the postulates it raises.

Definition of labeling theory

The labeling theory, or labeling theory, is one of the currents exposed within the sociology of deviation (the part of sociology that studies the conventions and social norms) whose foundation is that the deviation from the norm would not go hand in hand with the act in itself, but that the person who performs it belongs to a minority , and therefore the social majority automatically labels it as negative, because they consider that they are far from common norms.

It is a theory that emerged in the 60s of the last century. One of the pioneers in labeling theory would be Howard Becker. This author, after conducting extensive research on interactions between social groups, concludes that deviation from the norm is not a quality that can be attributed to behavior but is given by the social majority, who would dictate a series of norms and apply the corresponding penalties if someone transgresses them.

In this case, the sanction would be the fact of classifying the fact as a deviation from the norm and therefore, the one who exercises it, as a deviant (outsider is the original term used in English). Therefore, deviant conduct is so because it is established by a majority group with respect to the minority that exercises it, and that is perceived as negative by others because of it.

Self-fulfilling prophecy and stereotypes

To a certain extent, the theory of labeling would be drawing on two concepts widely used in psychology, such as that of stereotypes and that of self-fulfilling prophecy. The first refers to those generalizations we make to attribute certain characteristics to a person just because they belong to a certain group , while the second refers to the mechanism by which many times what we think is going to happen happens, because we make it easier for it to happen. .

The group of the social majority would be using stereotypes regarding the people they label in minority groups, so that they automatically attribute a series of characteristics, generally negative, because we have already seen that they consider them to be transgressors of the norms that must be met. comply, because they dictate this, as they represent the majority of that population.

In the case of self-fulfilling prophecy, it would take place as follows. Members of the majority anticipate that an individual belonging to a minority (with respect to them) will commit a violation of a norm . As the social norms are given by them, who are the majority, in front of the minority groups, it happens that the behavior that the individual carries out differs from what is considered normative, so, effectively, for them what they anticipated has been fulfilled.

Types of deviation

One of the great contributions to the labeling theory is the one made by Edwin Lemert, a leading sociologist, who established the distinction between two types of deviations from the norm: primary and secondary. This classification offers a deeper perspective on the theory by allowing us to discriminate between two very different ways of perceiving non-compliance with a norm .

On the one hand, the primary deviation or main deviation, would be referring to that type of behavior that a person carries out and that would be transgressing a certain norm, but it would not be enough for him to consider himself a "deviant" (using the term referring to norm), nor for others to consider him like this.

What the main deviation is referring to is that non-compliance with the norm that can be carried out by any person, whether or not they belong to the majority group, but that does not imply a tendency, that is, it is an isolated event and therefore, it does not reflect his habitual attitude, so there would be no negative view of this person in advance .

On the other hand, there would be the secondary deviation, which would refer to all behavior contrary to the norm that would entail a labeling of the author as deviant from the norm by the bulk of the population, which would also generate a different perception of himself It is the product of said labeling that others make of it, so it has very important implications, since the individual himself experiences a change in self-perception .


It is here, with the concept of secondary deviation, where the labeling theory would have to do with stigmas, understood as a negative cataloging that a population performs on an individual. This is a concept defined by Erving Goffman, another of the most outstanding authors in the Sociology of the mid-20th century , which is why he can be considered as another parent of the labeling theory.

The issue of stigma is very important, because it is so powerful that it becomes more relevant than the person himself, in such a way that once the person deviates from the norm and has acquired a certain label, each one will go to court. of the acts that he has carried out since then through that stigma that has been assigned to him, causing continued social rejection.


The labeling theory has great relevance in many criminology studies , since stigma, through the self-fulfilling prophecy mechanism that we have seen previously, can cause the person to typecast and act as they have cataloged, in the case of criminology, like a criminal.

This process can occur due to the rejection of those who define themselves as the majority, so the individual can go on to seek the approval of other individuals who, like him, share the category of criminals , encouraging those behaviors to be repeated. in the future. It is a theory proposed by the sociologist Robert King Merton.

This circle of stigma occurs in many other areas, not only with criminal behavior. That is why it is important to stop and reconsider the power that the labels that we put on continuously have, because we can be promoting, without being aware of it, that some people fall into bad habits because of a disproportionate rejection that has caused us specific behavior, causing it to reproduce, which is just the opposite of what we would really like to see happen.

In fact, many crime prevention programs are based on reversing that vicious circle , trying to destroy the labels that many people have received, promoting behaviors to repair the behavior that caused the loop, and working so that both the self-concept that the individual as the concept that society has of him, evolve into another that leaves behind the negative aspect that had been assigned to him and how complicated it was for him to abandon.

Psychological disorders

Another area where historically the phenomenon of stigmatization by secondary deviation has occurred, according to the terminology of the labeling theory, would be in everything related to psychological pathologies. And it is that many of these disorders involve a series of behaviors that cause social rejection, whether due to fear, ignorance or other reasons, causing the isolation of these people, who suffer doubly from their ailment, for this reason.

The first author to refer to this problem was Thomas J. Scheff through his publication Being mentally ill , where he states that the label of mentally ill is placed by society itself, and not by psychological pathology itself. The problem is that by classifying the person with the name of the corresponding disease, they are already predisposed to behave in a certain way, causing, once again, a self-realized prophecy.

Seeing the repercussions that the use of these terms can have on people's lives, it would be important that we all knew in depth the mechanisms of labeling theory in order to minimize the effects that we can unconsciously produce when using labels that become stigmas . Society is made up of all individuals, so it is a shared responsibility to ensure the welfare of all peers .

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