Labelling theory

Authored by: Stefan Sjöström

Routledge International Handbook of Critical Mental Health

Print publication date:  September  2017
Online publication date:  September  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138225473
eBook ISBN: 9781315399584
Adobe ISBN:


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Labelling theory is one of the most influential theoretical approaches that has been systematically applied to understand mental illness as a social phenomenon. It can be seen as a social constructivist approach with a kinship to notions such as medicalisation, stigma and normalisation. Broadly speaking, labelling theory takes an interest in the social processes whereby certain people are defined as ‘deviant’ by society. This always involves certain power dynamics, and the labelling is often understood as a form of social control. Groups that in various respects disturb dominant views of social order might be labelled as deviant – for example, ‘criminals’, ‘adulterers’ and ‘homosexuals’. Since its introduction in the early 1960s, labelling theory has inspired empirical research into a wide variety of mental health issues investigating lay as well as professional settings. Labelling theory has fuelled intense debates regarding both the extent to which it can be verified empirically and what theoretical and epistemological implications it brings about. Furthermore, the specific application of such theory to mental illness has stimulated new theoretical discussions among those interested in labelling theory as part of a more general approach to deviance. This chapter discusses the labelling theory of mental illness as originally presented by Thomas Scheff in 1966, as well as the debates and developments that have followed his work. Within a mental illness context, the discussion of labelling theory has a natural starting point in Scheff’s book Being Mentally Ill: A Sociological Theory (1966). His work was part of a broader strand of research on labelling and deviance founded in symbolic interactionism. The early contributions were primarily made by scholars interested in crime such as Tannenbaum (1938) and Lemert (1951), but also with other deviant groups in focus such as the classic research on drug takers from Becker (1963).

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