Howard Becker developed his theory of labeling (also known as social reaction theory) in the 1963 book Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. Becker's theory evolved during a period of social and political power struggle that was amplified within the world of the college campus (Pfohl 1994). Liberal political movements were embraced by many of the college students and faculty in America (Pfohl 1994). Howard Becker harnessed this liberal influence and adjusted Lemert's labeling theory and its symbolic interaction theoretical background. The labeling theory outlined in Outsiders is recognized as the prevailing social reaction approach by Lemert as well as most other sociologists ( ). Becker's approach has its roots in the symbolic interaction foundation of Cooley and Mead, and the labeling influences of Tannenbaum and Lemert.


Charles Cooley's Human Nature and the Social Order (1902) examines the personal perception of oneself through studies of children and their imaginary friends. Cooley develops the theoretical concept of the looking glass self, a type of imaginary sociability (Cooley 1902). People imagine the view of themselves through the eyes of others in their social circles and form judgements of themselves based on these imaginary observations (Cooley 1902). The main idea of the looking glass self is that people define themselves according to society's perception of them ( ). Cooley's ideas, coupled with the works of Mead, are very important to labeling theory and its approach to a person's acceptance of labels as attached by society.

George Mead's theory is less concerned with the micro-level focus on the deviant and more concerned with the macro-level process of separating the conventional and the condemned (Pfohl 1994). In Mind, Self, and Society (1934), Mead describes the perception of self as formed within the context of social process (Wright 1984). The self is the product of the mind's perception of social symbols and interactions ( ). The self exists in objective reality and is then internalized into the conscious (Wright 1984). The idea of shifting the focus away from the individual deviant and looking at how social structure affects the separation of those persons considered unconventional has a great influence on how Becker approaches labeling theory.

In 1938, Frank Tannenbaum presented his own approach to labeling theory in response to his studies of juvenile participation in street gangs ( ). Tannenbaum describes the process of defining deviant behavior as different among juvenile delinquents and conventional society, causing a "tagging" of juveniles as delinquent by mainstream society ( ). The stigma that accompanies the deviant "tag" causes a person fall into deeper nonconformity (Pfohl 1994). Although Lemert discounts the influence of Tannenbaum on the development of labeling theory ( ), Tannenbaum's approach is incorporated in many societal reaction theories.

Social Pathology (1951) outlines Edwin Lemert's approach to what many consider the original version of labeling theory. Lemert, unhappy with theories that take the concept of deviance for granted, focuses on the social construction of deviance (Lemert 1951). Lemert (1951) describes deviance as the product society's reaction to an act and the affixing of a deviant label on the actor. Social Pathology details the concepts of primary and secondary deviance. According to Lemert (1951), primary deviance is the initial incidence of an act causing an authority figure to label the actor deviant. This initial labeling of a deviant act will remain primary as long as the actor can rationalize or deal with the process as a function of a socially acceptable role (Lemert 1951). If the labeled deviant reacts to this process by accepting the deviant label, and further entrenches his/herself in deviant behavior, this is referred to as secondary deviance (Lemert 1951). Lemert considers the causes of primary deviance as fluid, and only important to researchers concerned with specific social problems at a certain time. In the years following Social Pathology, Lemert argues for the decriminalization of victimless crimes, advocates pre-trial diversion programs, and has backed away labeling determinism (Wright 1984).

Howard Becker's approach to the labeling of deviance, as described in Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance (1963), views deviance as the creation of social groups and not the quality of some act or behavior. Becker (1963) criticizes other theories of deviance for accepting the existence of deviance and by doing so, accept the values of the majority within the social group. According to Becker (1963), studying the act of the individual is unimportant because deviance is simply rule breaking behavior that is labeled deviant by persons in positions of power. The rule breaking behavior is constant, the labeling of the behavior varies (Becker 1963). Becker (1963) describes rules as the reflection of certain social norms held by the majority of a society, whether formal or informal. Enforced rules, the focus of Becker's (1963) approach, are applied differentially and usually facilitate certain favorable consequences for those who apply the label. In short, members of the rule-making society may label rule breaking behavior deviant depending on the degree of reaction over time (Becker 1963).

Becker (1963) views those people that are likely to engage in rule breaking behavior as essentially different than members of the rule-making or rule-abiding society. Those persons who are prone to rule-breaking behavior see themselves as morally at odds with those members of the rule-abiding society (Becker 1963). Becker (1963) uses the term "outsider" to describe a labeled rule-breaker or deviant that accepts the label attached to them and view themselves as different from "mainstream" society. Deviants may consider themselves more "outside" than others similarly labeled (Becker 1963). Deviant outsiders might view those rule making or abiding members of society as being the outsiders of their social group (Becker 1963).

Becker (1963) details the process of how these deviant outsiders become involved in secondary deviance. Primary deviance is the first "step", and this primary act may be either intentional or unintentional (Becker 1963). Becker (1963) believes that most people think or fantasize in a deviant manner, and the study of why certain people conform while other give in to deviant impulses is crucial. The process of being caught and labeled deviant by a person in position of authority is the most crucial step on the road to secondary deviance.

The second "step" on the way to secondary deviance and a career in crime involves the acceptance of the deviant label (Becker 1963). Becker (1963) describes how certain rule-breakers come to accept the label of "deviant" as their master status. The master status is the role to which one most relates the view of oneself (Becker 1963). The rule breaker that identifies with the deviant label as their master status becomes an outsider and is denied the means of carrying on with their everyday lives (Becker 1963). Becker (1963) makes it clear that not every rule breaker progresses in this manner and that certain people have alternative paths to take. An outsider, denied the means to carry out daily routines, turns to illegitimate means to make a living (Becker 1963).

The final step in the creation of a career delinquent involves the movement of a rule breaker into a deviant subculture (Becker 1963). The affiliation of the labeled deviant with an organized provides the person with moral support and a self-justifying rationale (Becker 1963). Becker (1963) describes how those involved in an organized crime may learn new forms of deviance through differential association.

Becker (1963) also focuses on those in positions of power and authority that make and enforce the rules. Rules are created by a moral entrepreneur, a person that takes the initiative to crusade for a rule that would right a society evil (Becker 1963). The moral entrepreneur's motive may be to elevate the social status of those members of society below him/her (Becker 1963). The success of the crusade may lead to the entrepreneur to become a professional rule creator (Becker 1963). Becker (1963) states that the success of each moral crusade brings along with it a new group of outsiders, and a new responsibility of an enforcement agency.

According to Becker (1963), the enforcement of society's rules is an enterprising act. The enforcement of a rule occurs when those that want a rule enforced, usually to some sort of gain to their personal interests, bring the rule infraction to the attention of the public (Becker 1963). The rule infraction, brought to the attention of those in positions of authority, is dealt with punitively by the entrepreneur (Becker 1963). The enforcement of the rule may involve the mediation of conflicts between many different interest groups by those in positions of power (Becker 1963). The enforcers themselves may have a moral crusade to stop crime, but most engage in the process strictly as a part of their occupation (Becker 1963). Rule enforcers use the process of formal enforcement to satisfy two major interests, the justification of their occupation and the winning of respect from the people he/she patrols (Becker 1963). The enforcer is armed with a great deal of discretion and may use his/her power to label an innocent person in order to gain respect (Becker 1963). The misuse of labeling powers by enforcers may create a deviant out of a person who otherwise would not be prone to rule breaking behavior (Becker 1963).

Becker (1963) recognizes four types of citizens according to the behaviors of those in society and the successful attachment of the deviant label. The members of society that are rule-abiding and free of labels are described as conforming citizens, while those who are labeled without breaking a rule are termed the falsely accused (Becker 1963). Those citizens that exhibit rule breaking behavior and are labeled deviant are referred to as pure deviants, while those that break rules yet avoid labeling are called secret deviants (Becker 1963).

Becker's Outsiders (1963) uses two cases to illustrate his approach to labeling theory. Becker (1963) analyzes the history of marijuana laws in the United States and how individuals progress into the recreational use of the drug. Becker (1963) chooses to analyze marijuana because the progression of use can be observed. The first time user of marijuana finds the experience as somewhat unpleasant, but as the user imitates peers he/she learns to perceive the effects of marijuana as enjoyable (Becker 1963).

Becker (1963) begins his study of marijuana through analysis of the historical context by which American rule creators labeled marijuana use as deviant in the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. The moral entrepreneur in this case is the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, formed as a part of the Treasury Department in 1930 (Becker 1963). The Federal Bureau of Narcotics started a moral crusade against the use of marijuana in accordance with the public sentiment at the time, and as a way to justify their existence (Becker 1963). The Protestant ethic, the prevailing sentiment during the crusade, looked unfavorably upon actions taken solely for the purpose of achieving ecstasy, emphasized personal responsibility, and stressed the importance of releasing people from the "slavery" of drugs (Becker 1963). The Federal Bureau of Narcotics saturated the media with stories of marijuana-crazed Mexican immigrants, children out of control, and marijuana induced rape (Becker 1963). The media accounts of marijuana facilitated new legislation criminalizing the drug and provided the enterprising Federal Narcotics Bureau with a great deal of money and power (Becker 1963).

Becker (1963) identifies three stages of marijuana use: the beginner, the occasional user, and the regular user. The three self-explanatory categories of marijuana users can be manipulated through the use of social controls (Becker 1963). Control of the marijuana supply has both positive and negative effects (Becker 1963). A diminished supply of marijuana may lead to a decreased use of the drug among some people, but it may also drive a user to associate with an organized group of deviants to obtain marijuana (Becker 1963). Becker (1963) believes that while control of marijuana supply is an important social control, it does not deter use. The best way to deter a user is to control his/her individual moral view of marijuana use.

Becker (1963) uses a participant observation study of the lives of Chicago dance musicians to illustrate the social life of a deviant subculture. Although dance musicians as a group are law-abiding, their unconventional lifestyles lead them to feel as outsiders (Becker 1963). Becker (1963) describes how being a dance musician involves a change in attitudes and opinions in order to conform to the subculture. The culture of the dance musician is rich in its own language and gestures (Becker 1963). Many of the dance musicians live a conventional family life during the day and change into their role as musician at night (Becker 1963).

Becker's theory of labeling, while maintaining a great deal of popularity today, does encounter several criticisms (Pfohl 1994; ; Ridlon 1988). Many sociologists view labeling theory as untestable and, by definition, not a true theory (Ridlon 1988). Becker (1963) acknowledges that his labeling theory is a theoretical approach, not a true theory, and that sociologists should attempt to establish empirical tests for his approach. Another major criticism of labeling theory is its failure to explain primary deviance ( ). Both Lemert (1951) and Becker (1963) believe that primary deviance is influenced by many different and changing variables and the research of primary deviance causes is futile. Pfohl (1994) details the criticism of many sociologists that labeling theory is causal or deterministic. Becker (1963) qualifies his approach to social reaction theory by stating that some groups of rule-breakers may be able to choose alternative courses of action.

Becker concludes Outsiders (1963) by emphasizing the need for empirical research of his approach to labeling theory. Social scientists produced a vast amount of literature in response to Becker's request. Much of the research involving labeling theory directly reflects Becker's approach, while others use Becker (1963) as a foundation for theory development.

Gideon Fishman tests Becker's labeling theory by studying a sample of midwestern juvenile delinquents (Friday and Stewart 1977). Fishman's research design measures negative self-perception and whether this self-perception affects future delinquency (Friday and Stewart 1977). The results of Fishman's study show that secondary deviance is not universal and individuals react to deviant labels in different ways (Friday and Stewart 1977).

A popular application of Becker's labeling theory (1963) is in the area of mental health. Thomas Scheff embraces Becker's approach to labeling and describes how people are labeled mentally ill in order to explain certain rule-breaking behavior that society can't categorize (Holstein 1993; ). Scheff is not concerned with occasional acts of deviance, rather it is the residual or episodic deviance that often falls under the label of mental illness (Wright 1984; Pfohl 1994). People labeled as mentally ill adopt the behaviors of the stereotypical mental patient as portrayed through the mass media (Wright 1984). Scheff argues that those who express the stereotypical behavior of the mentally ill are rewarded by enterprising psychology professionals (Wright 1984; Pfohl 1994). According to Scheff, everybody expresses the popular symptoms of mental illness at some point in their life and labels are attached to those without power (Wright 1984). Scheff provides empirical evidence in the form of several studies of the process of mental hospital commitment (Holstein 1993; Pfohl 1994; Wright 1983; ).

Many social scientists challenge Scheff's arguments on theoretical and empirical grounds. James A. Holstein (1993) attacks Scheff's approach for focusing on the deviant and not the moral entrepreneurs that attach the labels. Florence Ridlon (1988) criticizes Scheff's work for being deterministic and argues for a less causal model to explain mental afflictions such as alcoholism. Walter Gove (1980), an adamant critic of Scheff, believes that Scheff should not dismiss the influence of psychopathological variables on mental illness. Gove (1980) also criticizes Scheff's empirical methodology and operations.

Edwin Schur modifies Becker's labeling theory in Labeling Deviant Behavior (1971) by shifting some of the focus to the individual deviant. Schur (1971) also theorizes that as persons labeled deviant gain power and organize, they progress in social definition from an uprising, social movement, and civil war to the formation of a mainstream political party. Schur argues in Labeling Women Deviant (1983) that women in America are automatically labeled deviant by the male-dominated society. Women accept the deviant label as their master status and limit their life chances (Schur 1983).

Social scientists disagree on the future of labeling theory. Pfohl (1994) recognizes labeling theory as very influential in today's studies of deviance. Some social scientists view labeling theory as declining in importance due to lack of empirical support and a conservative political climate ( ). Becker (1963) believes the future of labeling theory lies in the widespread empirical study of deviance and kinds of deviance.