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labelling, labelling theory Labelling theory was a major thrust of the sceptical revolution in the sociology of deviance during the 1950s and 1960s. The orthodox criminology of the immediate post-war period, both in Britain and America, treated a crime or act of deviance as an unambiguous occurrence which could readily be explained as a product of individual psychology or (even) genetic inheritance. Crimes were committed by criminal types–people with particular psychogenetic attributes or socio-cultural backgrounds.

This positivist tradition was challenged by members of the Society for the Study of Social Problems (in the United States) and the National Deviance Conference (in the United Kingdom), who argued that the established criminology was biased because it favoured authoritative definitions of deviance, was overly deterministic in its view of what caused deviant behaviour, and was uncritical of the thesis that the deviant was a particular type of person. The orthodoxy posed only behavioural and motivational questions about crime: ‘Why did they do it?’; ‘What sort of people are they?’; and ‘How can we stop them doing it again?’. Labelling theorists introduced a new relativism into the study of deviance by addressing a number of definitional issues hitherto largely ignored: ‘Why does a particular rule, the infraction of which constitutes deviance, exist at all?’; ‘What are the processes involved in identifying someone as a deviant and applying the rule to him or her?’; and ‘What are the consequences of this application, both for the society and the individual?’

In this way, the labelling perspective can be seen as a development of Edwin Lemert's distinction (in Social Pathology, 1951) between primary and secondary deviance; that is, between the initial behaviour (which may arise from a variety of causes), and the symbolic reorganization of self and social roles which may occur because of the societal response to any deviation from norms. The leading American proponent of labelling theory was Howard S. Becker, who argued in Outsiders (1963) that deviance is created by society, in the sense that ‘social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance and by applying those rules to particular persons and labelling them as outsiders’. From this point of view, deviance is not a quality of the act a person commits, but rather a consequence of the application of rules: ‘deviant behaviour is behaviour that people so label’. Others (for example, S. Cohen in Folk Devils and Moral Panics, 1972
) developed the proposition that labelling can induce amplification of deviance. That is, attempts at social control may stigmatize individuals by defining them in dehumanized ways (as thugs, acid-heads, or whatever), and have the unintended consequence of encouraging the deviance they seek to eliminate, by constraining individuals to employ a deviant identity as a means of defence, attack, or adjustment to the problems created by the societal reaction. In this way amplification may occur. An act of non-conformity or alleged deviance is defined as being worthy of attention and is responded to punitively; the deviant is therefore isolated from conventional society; begins to define himself or herself in deviant terms, and to associate with others in a similar position, leading to more deviance; which in turn exposes the group to further punitive sanctions by conformists.

Although labelling theory quickly generated an impressive body of empirical studies it was subjected to considerable criticism during the 1970s. The most common complaints were that it ignored the sources of deviant behaviour; could be applied to only a limited range of criminal activities; was too deterministic in its conception of the labelling process; and neglected issues of power and social structure. To those on the political right, the theory seemed tantamount to a claim that many criminals were in fact victims, more sinned against than sinning. It made societal reaction (especially the activities of the police, courts, and other agencies of social control) the crucial variable. The accusation was often made that this new sociology of deviance seemed more intent on excusing than explaining criminal activity. Labelling theory was particularly vulnerable to this charge since it could be caricatured as offering a crude ‘no deviance, leads to slam on label, leads to deviance’ model of crime. This perception was heightened by the fact that the theory could most obviously be applied to expressive deviance, and for the large part victimless crimes, such as homosexuality, drug addiction, alcoholism, gang membership, and mental illness. The labelling perspective thus became known in some quarters as ‘the sociology of nuts, sluts, and perverts’.

Critics on the political left argued that the theory did not go far enough in its attack on the status quo. By directing attention towards lower-level agencies of social control–the media and social welfare departments for example–it ignored the governing e´lites in whose interests these institutions actually operated. Labelling theorists studied rule-enforcers rather than rule-makers. Their sympathy for the underdog was not translated into a systematic critique of private property and other allegedly repressive and exploitative structures of capitalist societies. Ironically, some of this criticism later emerged from within the National Deviancy Conference itself, among so-called radical criminologists such as Ian Taylor, Paul Walton, and Jock Young (The New Criminology, 1973).

Much of this criticism was undoubtedly unfair and stemmed from a fundamental misunderstanding about the aspirations of the labelling theorists. The definitive defence of the theory is Ken Plummer 's ‘Misunderstanding Labelling Perspectives’ (in D. Downes and and P. Rock ( eds.) , Deviant Interpretations, 1979)
. Plummer points out that the labelling perspective was concerned only with the social processes governing the nature, emergence, application, and consequences of labels. For this reason it could easily be accommodated to studies of deviancy conducted from a variety of otherwise incompatible theoretical standpoints. Many labelling theorists worked within the interactionist tradition, which posits that society is constructed via an exchange of gestures, involving symbolic communication and the negotiation of meaning between reflexive actors. This general perspective is obviously consistent with the particular propositions of labelling theory. But some labelling studies were predominantly functionalist, phenomenological, dramaturgist, or ethnomethodological in character. It often transpired, therefore, that critiques of labelling theory were actually critiques of its supposedly irreducible interactionist, phenomenological (or whatever) premisses and propositions. In fact labelling arguments can be accommodated to a range of social theories.

Seen in this light many of the standard criticisms of the theory simply miss the point. Labelling theory does not identify the causes of primary deviance because it does not set out to do so: it offers an explanation of labels rather than of behaviour. Most exponents drew on other sorts of explanations to account for the primary deviance towards which societal reaction was directed. Not even Becker makes the claim that labels themselves are the root cause of deviant behaviour. Nor is there anything inevitable about labelling or amplification. The transition from primary to secondary deviance is a complicated process full of contingencies. Labels may be provisional, negotiable, or rejected. Similarly, it is unfair to complain that labelling theorists ignored large areas of deviant behaviour, since they clearly did not purport to offer a universal explanation for every known form of crime. Rather, proponents made the considerably more modest claim that labelling may alter the direction, intensity, and incidence of the deviant experience. At worst, therefore, labelling theorists can only be accused of setting themselves rather modest aetiological objectives.

Despite many new developments in the study of deviance since the 1970s, labelling theory has remained a prominent influence, especially in North America. Indeed, and ironically (given its radical roots), it may have become something of a new orthodoxy. See also CRIMINOLOGY, CRITICAL; DEVIANCE AMPLIFICATION; FOLK DEVIL; MORAL PANIC; SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM.

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la·bel / ˈlābəl/ • n. 1. a small piece of paper, fabric, plastic, or similar material attached to an object and giving information about it. ∎  a company that produces recorded music: independent labels. ∎  the name or trademark of a fashion company: she plans to launch her own designer clothes label. ∎  a classifying phrase or name applied to a person or thing, esp. one that is inaccurate or restrictive: my reluctance to stick a label on myself politically. ∎  (in a dictionary entry) a word or words used to specify the subject area, register, or geographical origin of the word being defined. ∎  Comput. a string of characters used to refer to a particular instruction in a program. ∎  Biol. & Chem. a radioactive isotope, fluorescent dye, or enzyme used to make something identifiable for study. 2. Heraldry a narrow horizontal strip, typically with three downward projections, that is superimposed on a coat of arms by an eldest son during the life of his father. 3. Archit. another term for dripstone. • v. (la·beled , la·bel·ing ; Brit. la·belled, la·bel·ling) [tr.] attach a label to (something): she labeled the parcels neatly. ∎  assign to a category, esp. inaccurately or restrictively: people who were labeled as “mentally handicapped.” ∎  give a name to (something): she labeled his new Riviera a “Star Wars” car. ∎  Biol. & Chem. make (a substance, molecule, or cell) identifiable or traceable by replacing an atom with one of a distinctive radioactive isotope, or by attaching a fluorescent dye, enzyme, or other molecule. DERIVATIVES: la·bel·er n.

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1. Hood-moulding extending horizontally across the top of a late-Gothic Perpendicular or Tudor aperture, returning downwards vertically on each side and terminating in label-stops, often elaborately carved. While the term is mostly applied to rectangular drip-mouldings (often forming spandrels between a low four-centred or Tudor arch and the label), it can also be applied to certain curved hood-mouldings.

2. Rectangular tablet, framed or plain, with wedge-shaped tab-projections on each side, commonly found in Neo-Classical architecture, but having its origins in Roman architecture, where it was used for inscriptions.

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1. (tape label; volume label) A record at the very start of a magnetic tape, holding the identity and other characteristic information about the tape. Labels are written by the utility program, and checked at run time by the operating system to ensure that the specified tape is the one that has been loaded. A tape label only holds information about the physical tape, which remains constant irrespective of the file(s) held on the tape. Labels are thus distinct from file headers, which precede every file on a tape.

Magnetic and optical disks normally have similar labels, though there is no commonly accepted term for them.

2. (statement label) A numeric or alphanumeric identifier associated with a line or statement in a program and used in other parts of the program to refer to that statement.

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pulse labelling A technique in which radioisotopes are used for the measurement of the rates of synthesis of compounds within living cells. A suspension of cells or organelles is exposed to a small quantity of an isotope for a brief period (seconds or minutes), hence the term ‘pulse’. This is achieved through the addition to the suspension of a much larger quantity of the stable (unlabelled) isotope of the same compound following the required period of exposure to the radioisotope. The effect of competition between the two isotopes is to reduce to a negligible level the further uptake of the latter. Measurement of the levels of activity in samples under various experimental conditions can yield useful information regarding the factors influencing the uptake and metabolism of compounds.

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labelling The process of replacing a stable atom in a compound with a radioisotope of the same element to enable its path through a biological or mechanical system to be traced by the radiation it emits. In some cases a different stable isotope is used and the path is detected by means of a mass spectrometer. A compound containing either a radioactive or stable isotope is called a labelled compound and the atom used is a label. If a hydrogen atom in each molecule of the compound has been replaced by a tritium atom, the compound is called a tritiated compound. A radioactive labelled compound will behave chemically and physically in the same way as an otherwise identical stable compound, and its presence can easily be detected. This process of radioactive tracing is widely used in biology and medicine.

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pulse labelling A technique in which radioisotopes are used for the measurement of the rates of synthesis of compounds within living cells. A suspension of cells or organelles is exposed to a small quantity of an isotope for a brief period (seconds or minutes), hence the term ‘pulse’. This is achieved through the addition to the suspension of a much larger quantity of the stable (unlabelled) isotope of the same compound, following the required period of exposure to the radioisotope. The effect of competition between the two isotopes is to reduce to a negligible level the further uptake of the latter. Measurement of the levels of activity in samples under various experimental conditions can yield useful information regarding the factors influencing the uptake and metabolism of compounds.

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labelling In the USA nutritional labelling is obligatory, and information must be given in a standard format per serving (as defined by the Food and Drug Administration), and may optionally be given /100 g or /100 mL. Voluntary in the EU; if nutritional information is given, it must be in a standard format. The information must be given /100 g (or /100 mL), and may also, optionally, be given per serving of a stated size.

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label †narrow band or strip XIV; narrow strip carrying the seal of a document XVI; slip containing name or description of an object XVII; dripstone XIX. — OF. label ribbon, fillet (now lambeau rag), perh. — Gmc. form rel. to LAP1, with dim. suffix.
Hence vb. XVI.