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Labelling or Labeling (US) is defining or describing a person in terms of his or her behavior. For example, describing someone who has broken a law as a criminal. The term is often used in sociology to describe human interaction, control and identification of deviant behavior.

In sociology, the word is used more as a metaphor, than a concrete concept. The general function of labels are widely known and recognized as a method of distinction that helps people recognize one product from another. In social terms, labels represent a way of differentiating and identifying people that is considered by many as a form of prejudice and discrimination.

Overview of the sociological labelling theory

The most common method of 'labelling' people derives from a general way of perceiving members of a certain nationality, religion, race, ethnicity, gender, or some other group. When a majority of people hold a certain concept of a certain group, then that concept becomes a stereotype. That stereotype affects the way that other people perceive the groups in question, and the result is a 'label' that is metaphoricly imposed upon the members of the group in question. A member of a targeted group is thus 'labelled' by the larger society, and along with it, the nuances underlying the label, be it positive or negative, that aids in the formation of social stereotypes.

Main article: Labeling theory

Labelling in mental health

In sociological terms, labelling is the attachment of a diagnosis of a mental illness to a person who has been given a specific diagnostic label. More generally, this person becomes identified as someone who has received mental health treatment- a "mentally ill" person. It is because of that labelling that many people refuse to receive treatment for certain symptoms that are associated with mental illnesses. American society appears to have certain negative stereotypes of mental illness, such as unpredictability and instability, which would be applied to the labelled individual, which, in return, may cause other people to reject the labelled individual. Such reactions may introduce new sources of stress into the mentally ill person's life, which limits their life changes through discrimination, damage to their self-concept, and impair the way they cope with and confront the world.

Main article: Labelling in mental health

Hard & soft labeling

  • Hard labeling - People who believe in hard labeling believe that mental illness does not exist. It is merely deviance from the norms of society that cause people to believe in mental illness. Thus, mental illnesses are socially constructed illnesses and psycotic disorders do not exit.
  • Soft labeling - People who believe in soft labeling believe that mental illnesses do, in fact, exist. Unlike the supporters of hard labeling, Soft labeling supporters believe that mental illnesses are not socially constructed.


Our conceptualization of stigma is a two-part definition of the concept as a "mark" or label. Stigma: 1) sets a person apart from others and 2) connects the labeled individual to undesirable characteristics. When the second of the above two occurs, a third aspect of stigma comes into play-people reject and avoid the stigmatized individual. With regard to mental illness, an individual could be hospitalized for mental illness and then assumed so dangerous and unstable that social avoidance and isolation ensue. Stigma is a matter of degree; the worse the undesirable characteristics, the more strenuous the rejection.

Main article: Social stigma

See also

References & Bibliography

Key texts


  • Horwitz & Scheid. A Handbook for the Study of Mental Health: Social Contexts, Theories, and Systems. Cambridge; New York, NY. 1999.


  • Link B.G. & Phelen J.C. The Labelling Theory of Mental Disorder (II): The Consequences of Labeling

Additional material



External links