Labeling Theory

Labeling theory was named because of its focus on the application of stigmatizing deviant labels or tags by society on some of its members. The theory treats such labels as a dependent variable and an independent variable, effect and cause. Labels are viewed as dependent when it attempts to explain why certain behavior is socially defined as wrong and certain persons are selected for stigmatization and criminalization.  Labels are independent when it hypothesizes that discrediting labels cause continuation and escalation of the criminal or delinquent behavior. (Akers & Sellers, 2009)

            Labeling theory was derived from general symbolic interactionism theory in sociology. Symbolic interactionism is a theory that human interaction and communication is facilitated by words, gestures, and other symbols that have acquired conventionalized meanings (symbolic interactionism, 2012). One major concept in symbolic interactionism is the “looking-glass self”. In this concept the self-image an individual forms by imagining what others think of his or her behavior and appearance (Looking-glass self, 2012). What others think about us is communicated by applying labels to us. By applying labels, our own self concept and actions can be shaped by such societal labeling.


 

                                              

 


                                                   Philip Zimbardo and The Stanford Prison Experiment

Philip Zimbardo was the creator of The Stanford Prison Experiment. The purpose of the experiment was to understand the development of norms and the effects of roles, labels, and social expectations in a simulated prison environment. Students were told that they would be assigned to play the role of prisoner or guard in a study of prison life. 24 students were chosen: 12 to role play prisoners (9 plus 3 alternates) and 12 to role play guards (also 9 plus 3 alternates). These students had no prior record of criminal arrests, medical conditions, or psychological disorders. The assignment was done randomly, as with the toss of a coin, to make sure that the prisoners and guards were comparable to each other at the beginning of the experiment. Prisoners remained in the prison throughout the day and night, but guards generally rotated in three 8-hour shifts. Thus, there were typically three students guarding nine prisoners. There were many results, but perhaps the most important was simply this: The simulation became so real, and the guards became so abusive, that the experiment had to be shut down after only 6 days rather than the two weeks planned. (Zimbardo, 2012) The only thing given to these students was a label and they in turn took the meaning of that in their own hands. They may have used images portrayed on television or stories that they may have heard from others to base what they believed how a prisoner or a guard may act. This is a prime example of how labeling theory works.



The Stanford Prison Experiment Documentary


    Thomas Szasz

Thomas Szasz is Professor of Psychiatry. His classic The Myth of Mental Illness (1961) made him a figure of international fame and controversy. He believes that there is no such thing as “mental illness”. The following is a quote from Thomas Szasz’s Mental Illness: Sickness or Status?

        “Being the member of a community, a religion, a nation, a civilization entails joining the cast of a particular national-religious-cultural drama and accepting certain parts of the play as facts, not just props necessary to     support the narrative. Thus, we in the West today accept as facts that the earth is spherical, that lead is heavier than water, that malaria, melanoma, and mental illness are diseases. As against this perspective, I maintain that while there are mental patients, there are no mental illnesses. There is no mental illness or madness either -- in the bodies of the denominated subjects or in nature. Instead, there is a mental illness role into which a person is cast by his family and society, which he then assumes and plays, or against which he rebels and from which he tries to escape. Occasionally, individuals teach themselves how to be mental patients and assume the role without parental or societal pressure to do so, in order to escape certain unbearably painful situations or the burdens of ordinary life ( Szasz, 2006).”

All these things mentioned are labels. We accept them as a society because it’s what we are taught when we are growing up but who’s to say that we are right. By labeling these people mentally ill, gives them a negative on themselves and others have a negative view as well. By doing so, it causes people to be isolated and act as they are labeled.


    


Labeling Theory and Mentally Ill

Mental illness is defines as “Any of various disorders characterized chiefly by abnormal behavior or an inability to function socially, including diseases of the mind and personality and certain diseases of the brain. Also called mental disease , mental disorder (mental illness, 2012).” What first comes to mind when you hear the words mental illness, may differ from person to person but most people have a common understanding that the person has something wrong with them. This is the problem with diagnosing people with this label. The word its self has its own negative stigma about it regardless who is labeled as so.

            In a research study called The Power of a Label: Mental illness Diagnoses, Ascribed Humanity and Social Rejection, they examined how ascribing humanity to an individual labeled with mental illness may influence perceptions of dangerousness and motivations for social rejection(Martunez, Piff, Mendoza-Denton & Hinshaw, 2011). Their findings were that people who were labeled as having a mental illness had serious social costs. The stigma associated with a mental illness label can have devastating social consequences. Individuals bearing such labels experience devaluation and rejection in their communities, effects that exceed those attributable to the symptoms  of  the  mental  disorder  itself (Link, Struening, Rahav, Phelan, & Nuttbrock, 1997). The question then is why people have such a negative view about mental illness. A frequent stereotype about persons with mental illness is that they are dangerous, with media portrayals emphasizing an extremely heightened potential for violence (Wahl, 1995). Knowing that someone has a mental illness gives the person who is given that label little chance for a social life and people have already stereotyped them in their heads. Americans report more comfort with individuals who are deaf or have facial disfigurement than people with mental disorders (see Hinshaw, 2007). With that said, that puts people with mental illnesses at the bottom.  It makes their lives a lot more complicated in general, not taking into consideration the adjustments they have to make with the symptoms they will have due to certain illnesses.


Overview

Looking at all the examples of labeling theory we have here, I think that I would be fair to say that it is not the best theory to be using in many of the situations that can be found. Whether it is labeling someone’s sickness and using labels as an experiment, the results have been negative.  In some cases, labeling theory maybe appropriate, but in the few that I have explained here it has not.

 


References

Akers, R. L., & Sellers, C. S. (2009). Labeling and

reintergrative shaming theory. In Criminological

theories (pp. 151-175). New York, NY: Oxford

            University Press, Inc.

 

Hinshaw,  S.P.  (2007). The  mark  of  shame:  Stigma  of  mental  illness  and  an  agenda  for

change . New York: Oxford University Press

 

Link, B.  G., Struening, E.  L., Rahav, M.,  Phelan,  J.  C., & Nuttbrock,  L.  (1997). On

stigma and its consequences: Evidence from a longitudinal study of men with

dual  diagnoses  of  mental  illness  and  substance  abuse.  Journal of Health  and

Social Behavior, 38, 177-190.

 

Looking-glass self. (n.d.). Dictionary.com

Unabridged. Retrieved April 16, 2012,

 from Dictionary.com website: http://

dictionary.reference.com/browse/

looking-glass self

 

Martunez, A. G., Piff, P. K., Mendoza-Denton, R., & Hinshaw, S. P. (2011). The power of a label: Mental

illness diagnoses, ascribed humanity, and social rejection. Journal od Social and Clinical Psychology, 30(1), 1-23. Retrieved from http://web.ebscohost.com.libserv-prd.bridgew.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=96d7bfc4-2898-44e7-9e1c-84ae290bf123@sessionmgr11&vid=9&hid=24

 

mental illness. (n.d.). The American Heritage® Stedman's Medical Dictionary. Retrieved

 April 24, 2012, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.

com/browse/mental illness

 

Symbolic interactionism. (n.d.). Dictionary.com

Unabridged. Retrieved April 16, 2012,

from Dictionary.com website: http://

dictionary.reference.com/browse

symbolic interactionism

 

Szasz, T.S. (2006). Mental Illness: Sickness or Status?

The Freeman 56: 25-26 (July / August).

 

Wahl, O. F. (1995). Media madness: Public images of mental illness. New Brunswick, NJ:

Rutgers University Press.

 

Zimbardo , P. G. (2012). Stanford prison experiment.

    Retrieved from http://www.prisonexp.org/faq.htm

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

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