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Labeling Theory

Labeling theory is a theory in sociology that refers to the deviance of the actions of the person in comparison to society. The behaviour which is not in accordance with the societally accepted manner. The labeling of a person by other people causes that particular person to behave in the same way as he or she is being labeled (Maurice, 2010).

For instance, if an adolescent is living in a neighbourhood where the gangsters or group members of a gang reside, that adolescent probably is labelled by many as a part of a particular gang and thus would label him as a gangster. This theory was first propounded by Edwin Lemert, a sociologist, who gave the idea of secondary deviance. It deals with society’s labeling of a person that eventually affects his personality (Bennett & Brickley, 2014).

Labeling has an adverse effect on a person’s personality. When society labels someone or gives a person any particular name, he or she starts to act like that. For instance, in the above example, if society starts to call him a gangster or a member of a gang, it is more often than not that the adolescent would start to act and behave like a gang member, even if he is not. It is very much possible that that adolescent would not be directly or indirectly related to any of the gang members, let alone a gangster. But he would start acting like one. The reason behind this labelling is society. The people around us would not think for a second before calling each other by different names and without knowing their history and actual background. People did not take it very seriously because labelling people who they were did not cause problems in society, but more importantly, made that particular person worse from the inside and out. Even though Edwin Lemert came up with the idea, it was Howard Becker, a sociologist, who took this theory to fame and played a key role in promoting it with the help of his book ‘Outsiders’ (Becker, 2014).

John Gotti is one of the most famous gangsters in American history. He was an Italian-American don who, along with his brother, took control of the most powerful crime family in the world: the Gambino family (Anello & Glaser, 2016). John Gotti had thirteen siblings, all of whom were extremely poor. They were brought up in extremely dilapidated and abysmal conditions. His father was the only breadwinner of the family, but he did not have a permanent job. He moved from one job to another. The family also did not stay in one particular place, always moving from one place to another. John was constantly furious with his father and blamed him for not providing for the family. The family ultimately settled in New York. The area they settled was constantly surrounded by criminals and gangsters.

The Labeling theory states that the reasons for a person to deviate from normal life are the environment a child is brought up in and the conditions of his family. Labeling theory is pertinent to the case of John Gotti; he lived a very poor life when he was a child and was constantly surrounded by outlaws and gang members. When John was 12 years old, he began to work for an underground club. The club was managed by Carmine Fatico, who was one of the members working for the Gambino family. By working for Fatico, John made several connections that made his connections with the Gambino family.

Labeling Theory suggests that a person has different sides when he interacts with different people, and he chooses to act in a way that most people view him. The environment played a key role in John Gotti’s life as a criminal. He did not get a good and suitable environment to be a good person. He was constantly friends with those who were neither educated nor living an average life, but instead, he befriended people who were just like him. The reason for John Gotti’s involvement in the crime world was more of a compulsion himself than a choice. He did not necessarily choose to get himself involved in a crime world, but it was the conditions and the surroundings that forced him to enter the bleak world. He was poor and wanted to make money, and the crime world had a lot of money involved.


Muncie, J. (2010). Labeling, social reaction, and social constructionism. The SAGE handbook of criminological theory, 139-152.

Bennett, K., & Brickley, T. (2014). Labeling and Symbolic Interaction Theories of Crime. The Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

Becker, H. S. (2014). Definitions of deviance. Understanding Deviance: Connecting Classical and Contemporary Perspectives, 18.

Anello, R. J., & Glaser, M. L. (2016). White Collar Crime. Fordham L. Rev., 85, 39.



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