Labelling Theory

The effects of labelling on individual and society

Labelling Theory

Though we think that our generation is full of labels, and the that effects can be noticed as universal effects shared among people from different walks of life, it not very much of a new field that we are going into; as the theory of labelling had its origin since 1897 when a French author Emile Durkheim first suggested that behaviours are deviant only when society labelled them as deviant. The effects of labelling people can be observed in numerous wide spectrums, as the variables can vary among different people and the society they are in, such as different effects on labelling of gay people may vary from country to country, or how the effects can vary from labels associated with the person’s socioeconomic status or mental health. Even though these labels may be deemed negative, it is pretty much an undeniable fact that they are essential and pretty much incorporated in our social daily life, and to have them dismissed from our lives are just impossible.

Labelling people can easily be defined as a word or a phrase that describes someone, or puts someone into that certain category. From my perspective in this matter, labelling has its negative effects on people and certain labels should not exist or be used as they are only used negatively. For example, labels such as "sluts" and "faggots" that are increasingly used by people and obviously used as a negative label. But in spite of how these labels are deemed as bad and should not be used, our lives in reality might be too complex to go through without labels at all. Even though Durkheim was the first one to suggest labelling theory, this theory was really acknowledged after Howard Saul Becker, an American sociologist, wrote a book called Outsiders about it. Like any new theories then, it pretty much confused other experts as it was thought to be a book of deviancy, but then Becker released a final chapter titled “Labelling Theory Reconsidered," showing that he was indeed trying to explain the labelling theory. Becker (1963) built up this theory based on the exact same idea as Durkheim, which was “a social deviant is not an inherently deviant individual; rather they become deviant because they are labelled as such."

The only problem we have could have is because these labels are increasingly used to define, rather than being used as they are, as just labels. As proposed by the American linguist Benjamin Whorf in the 1930s, the linguistic relativity hypothesis is when the words we use to describe what we see are not just labels, but actually determine what we see. In other words, the labels which should just stay as labels are used to define a person, when obviously there is no real sense in defining a person from a single word or label. Even though labelling may seem to be a trivial matter, the effects are very much not trivial. In fact, there had been studies and experiments done to prove and to investigate these effects that can be traced back from decades ago.

One of the study that really captured my attention is a study of how labels of socioeconomic status can affect how people see a person’s academic ability. In this classic study by John Darley and Paget Gross (1983), two groups of college students were shown two separate videos describing a girl’s life background. One video showed her being labelled as “middle class," and another as “poor," and the students were supposed to evaluate her academic ability from that. Included in the videos were the girls answering a series of questions inconsistently, to maintain the difficulty of discerning her academic ability. Even so, the students were capable of using her socioeconomic status as a proxy for academic ability, and the results were that the “middle class” girl was thought to be at a fifth grade level, and the “poor” girl was thought to be at a fourth grade level. This shows just how much labels can cloud our judgements using just simple words to define complex matters, when they are very much indefinable by just a word or a label.

These effects do not just stop at defining complex targets with labels, however, it can even lead to a deterioration of health as argued in numerous psychology papers. One of the effects is known as the nocebo effect, the opposite of placebo effect. Basically, the nocebo effect is when negative effects result from suggestions of negative clinical outcomes. Even though the placebo effect is well documented, the sources on the nocebo effect are quite limited because to remove labels on patients would almost mean removing the services to help and cure these patients. This is a good example of the positive side of labelling, where the positive effect is indirect and through the receipt of services, even though there is an increase in nocebo. But there is inconsistency in the outcome, showing how people may react differently to suggestions of negative clinical outcomes; but as health care is almost universal, this should be taken seriously as these effects may affect many people. Such things as risk screening and prior negative knowledge or expectations may impact on health outcomes. Incidences ranging from 3-27%, and it is shown that pre-existing psychological characteristics such as anxiety may make it worse for the patients. It is argued that it is impossible to remove this effect, as you need the labelling to differentiate the patients. But according to Symon (2015), “nocebo outcomes may be preventable through careful consideration of information provision and the prior identification of potentially high risk individuals." This just shows how much we can still improve in our health care by understanding and eventually reducing the negative effects from labelling, by not directly reducing the labels, but by controlling and making sure a label is used and delivered wisely and in consideration.

Furthermore, there is also the Pygmalion effect from labelling, also called Rosenthal’s effect, as Robert Rosenthal, a Distinguished Professor of Psychology in University of California was the pioneer in showing the Pygmalion effect from studies in schools in the 90s. This is another example of a positive effect from labelling. Basically, the Pygmalion effect is the situation whereby higher expectations lead to increase in performance. One of the studies by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson really showed how this effect comes into play, focusing on relationships between students and teachers. In this study in 1992, students from elementary school was randomly and baselessly identified as "academic bloomers." Even though they were not really "bloomers" and were chosen randomly, most of the students tended to produce a self-fulfilling prophecy, and ended up outperforming their peers by 10-15 IQ points. This just shows how the labels and expectations can affect and define us even when there is no fact behind the labels and expectations.

Numerous of tests have been done since the 1930s to determine the effect of labelling people, and another one that had really caught my attention is where Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt, a social psychologist at Stanford, and her colleagues showed their students a picture of someone who can be classified as black or white. As the results showed, half of the students claimed that it was the face of a white man and the other half claimed that it was the face of a black man. But then they were asked to sketch his face, and those who tended to believe that race is an entrenched human characteristic, drew a face of either a stereotypical white or black man, showing that they cannot perceive them independently without the racial labels in their minds.

Next, in a recent Japanese study at Osaka University by Tsukasa Teraguchi and Naoki Kugihara (2015), they focus on something a little bit different than most of the other studies, which is the effects of labelling and group category of evaluators on evaluations of aggression. In brief, this study investigated whether the effect of labelling on people’s evaluation of aggression varies according to the group category of the evaluators. The interesting part of this study is that they focus on both negative labelling and positive labelling, reducing bias in their results and increasing the spectrum of the effects of labelling. The negative labelling was used towards the victims and positive labelling was used on aggressors in this experiment. From the results, they suggested that the negative labelling strategy causes in-group members to evaluate aggression in a more positive light, while the positive labelling strategy has the same effect, but on third parties instead. Seeing that, it is shown that labelling strategies may increase the severity of aggressors’ reaction and could also be a factor that can escalate a war or conflict. This experiment showed a different perspective of how labelling can affect us, and how severe it can be if it is misused to trigger aggression, which can lead to conflict, or even war.

Another hot topic in effects of labelling, is the effects of labelling towards homosexual people, in other word, gay people. Lots of words and labels can come to mind when talking about gay people, not necessarily what a person really feel about gay people, but the labels from media and friends usually get the best of us and turning us into a labelling and offensive person, especially for gay people. Even after gay marriage being legal and in a time when more gay people are being open about themselves, there is no denying that the negative labels on them are still around and used (maybe not as much as before), but the existence of the labels themselves still affects how people are perceived. From a recent article in Sexuality & Culture, by Ludici and Verdecchia (2015), “the abnormal or deviant view in many countries towards gay people triggers stigmatization and labelling that affects how people, not just homosexuals, represent themselves and how they interact,” (p. 737-758). In the same article, a study also stated that labelling on the part of friends and acquaintances has affected people’s lives, especially during adolescence. This is another example of the effects of labelling towards people and how it can affect not only people’s views, but also lives.

As this subject matter is closely associated with social stereotype and self-fulfilling prophecy, this shows how much we are affected by the words and views of our community. Women in our community are also not a stranger to derogatory or negative labels, and an article was written by Jeffrey S. Victor titled "Sluts and Wiggers" that focused on negative labels towards women, deviant behaviours, and how these are associated with HIV infection. So overall, this research investigates the effects of derogatory labelling and stereotyping on the self-concepts and behaviour of poor teenage girls, whose sexual behaviours exposes them to high risks of contracting HIV. Like any other research on labelling effects, this research built up with the core insight of labelling theories of deviant behaviour where someone labelled deviant can result in a self-fulfilling prophecy; in other words, a person trapped by being stereotyped becomes what others assume them to be. How this research stands out from others is that it indirectly studies other, different labels that usually comes up in a teenage girl’s live, such as race. For example, one of the subjects quoted in the research makes the statement that "a girl who was 16 dropped out from high school due to hanging out with black people." Even though this research studies and investigates the behaviours of the girls after dropping out and being abundantly being labelled negatively, I was able to see the effect from labelling even before that, when she decided to be friends with people that were negatively labelled especially when joining together with others who are similarly negatively labelled will amplify a person’s deviant behaviour. When you have teenagers who ended up dropping out from school and going towards deviant behaviour from the labels, this just shows how much labelling can be a downside if used in a wrong manner.

As a matter of fact, labelling and the effects of labelling do expand in quite a wide spectrum of people and one area that had been focused by numerous psychologist and labelling theorists had been the effects of labelling on the mentally ill or have mental disorders. According to Rosenfield (1997), “subjective quality of life or life satisfaction is a critical component of well-being, and well-being is damaged by stigma according to the modified labelling approach, but is improved by services according to the psychiatric view." From this article, it opens up people’s view on how negative and positive effects from labelling can co-exist, making it an essential tool, but has the ability to result in destructive outcomes too. At the same time, this creates a complicated situation among people with the illness or disorders and their families. According to Farina et al. (1971), “When patients know others are aware that they are in psychiatric treatment, they perform more poorly, feel less appreciated and are more anxious in their interaction compared to patients whose labels are concealed." This just shows more how much the existence of the labels affects the patients, when those labels are exposed and openly discussed, it becomes a stigma for those patients that can be associated with lowering the self-esteem too. However, when we focus on the contrast of the effects of stigma, undeniably there are some good points too. For example, how the labelling leads to availability of the services that can positively affects patients’ self-conceptions. According to Weber (1946), “some evidence suggests that the receipt of services increases perceptions of control. Specifically, services that give patient’s greater power in terms of status or economic resources," in other words, the services that improve the patients’ levels of self-efficacy. According to Link (1987) however, official labelling towards the mental patients gives personal relevance to views about how the community perceive mental patients. In other words, “transform a person’s beliefs about the devaluation and discrimination of mental patients into an expectation of rejection”. Based on Link’s article, he stated that the negative effects can appear through at least two social psychological mechanisms. Firstly, mental patients devalue themselves because of they are in a category where most people view negatively, and secondly, patients tend to lead to strained interaction, isolation, and other negative consequences due to their concern of how other will respond to them and end up being defensive. Showing just how much labels, which we usually take for granted in using, can have a significant effect on another person’s live.

In a nutshell, labelling is an important tool in our daily lives, especially to differentiate complex matters. But, at the same time, it can affect us in a negative and destructive way too. However, it is quite clear that, the labelling can only affect us when we perceive them as they are. From most of the studies and researches, it is obvious that the effects come after those who are labelled, perceive the labels as they are. No matter in which any minority group or any negatively viewed group or category, most of the negative effects take place when you believe and approve the views from other people. From my view however, the best way to remove the negative consequences and effects from labelling is by simply taking control of your own lives. For example, not taking any views and any comments about yourself as factual and just taking it in as what they are, comments and labels. From my observation and research, most of the negative effects come in place when those labelled, perceive everything that is thrown to them, and even self-fulfill them without even realizing. Like what Link (1987) stated, “labelling effects those with mental disorders or even may ‘produce’ mental disorder." Showing just how much people accept the views of a majority group or the community they live in, and even fulfill what they say.

The world is getting more diverse and open, like how there are other ethnicity than the original ethnic people there in almost every country. But somehow, people still want to be divided and classified differently even though we are the same species. Imagine a world without these labels, people would be one and we might never even hear ‘inequality’ anymore as everything can be equal then, without those labels holding us back. But as we have already used it for centuries, surely we cannot remove them completely. However, if only those labels were not taken as though they are definite facts, maybe the whole world might be a more united place.

Works Cited

Darley, J.M., Gross, P.H. (1983). A hypothesis-confirming bias in labelling effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 20-33

Eberhardt, J. L., Dasgupta, N., & Banaszynski, T. L. (2003). Believing is seeing: The effects of racial labels and implicit beliefs on face perception. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 360-370

Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1992). Pygmalion in the classroom: Expanded edition. New York: Irvington.

Carroll, J. B. (ed.) (1997) [1956]. Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge, Mass.: Technology Press of Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Teraguchi, T., & Kugihara, N. (2015). Effects of Labeling and Group Category of Evaluators on Evaluations of Aggression. Plos ONE,10(12), 1-11.

Symon, A., Williams, B., Adelasoye, Q. A., & Cheyne, H. (2015). Nocebo and the potential harm of 'high risk' labelling: a scoping review. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 71(7), 1518-1529 12p. doi:10.1111/jan.12637.

Rosenfield, S. (1997). Labelling Mental Illness: The Effects of Received Services and Perceived Stigma on Life Satisfaction. American Sociological Review, 62(4), 660–672.

Link, B. G. (1987). Understanding Labelling Effects in the Area of Mental Disorders: An Assessment of the Effects of Expectations of Rejection. American Sociological Review

Ludici, A., & Verdecchia, M. (2015). Homophobic Labelling in the Process of Identity Construction. Sexuality & Culture, 19(4), 737-758. doi:10.1007/s12119-015-9287-0. ew, 52(1), 96–112.

Victor, J. S. (2004). Sluts and Wiggers: A Study of the effects of Derogatory Labelling. Deviant Behaviour, 25(1), 67-85. doi:10.1080/01639620490248943.

Durkheim, E. (1897). Suicide: A study in sociology. The Free Press. ISBN 0-684-83632-7

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Ashrul 'Bob' Saifudin
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