The Sociological Study of Deviance


Proponents of the theory of stigmatization have taken the main idea of conflict resolution theory as a basis. Individuals often cannot get along with each other because they differ in their interests and views on life. At the same time, those in power have the opportunity to express their opinions and principles in the norms governing institutional life and successfully hang negative labels on violators of these norms. They are interested in the process by which individuals receive the stigma of deviant, and begin to consider their behavior as deviant.

Labeling Theory

Deviant behavior is the conduct of an individual or group that does not comply with generally accepted norms, resulting from which they violate these norms. This behavior is a consequence of an unsuccessful process of socialization with a person: as a result of a violation of the processes of identification and individualization of a person (Jón, 2019). Such an individual easily falls into a state of social disorganization when cultural norms, values, and social relationships are absent, weaken or contradict each other.

Adherents of the theory of stigmatization argue that, firstly, no act in itself is criminal or non-criminal. The negativity of an act is not due to its internal content but to how others evaluate it and react to it. It is worth noting the fact that in this case, the deviation is always the subject of social definition (Jón, 2019). All people tend to deviant behavior associated with the violation of some norms. Proponents of this theory deny the popular idea that people can be divided into standards and have some pathology. For example, some people exceed the speed limit, commit shoplifting, cheat on homework, hide income from the tax office, get drunk, participate in acts of vandalism, violate private property rights, or roll out their friend’s car without asking. Proponents of the theory of stigmatization call such actions primary deviation, defining it as behavior that violates social norms but usually escapes the attention of legal structures.

Whether people’s specific actions will be considered deviant depends on what they are doing and how other people react. Thus, this assessment depends on which rules society prefers to follow strictly, in which situations, and concerning people (Jón, 2019). It is worth mentioning that the behavior of individuals can be condemned as deviant. However, it does not violate any norms simply because they were indiscriminately accused of such acts, which they may never have committed. Of particular importance is the social environment and whether it labels a particular individual as a violator or not.

Labeling people entails inevitable consequences for such people. It creates conditions leading to secondary deviation – deviant behavior developed by an individual in response to sanctions from others. Adherents of the theory of stigmatization argue that such a new deviation from the norm is initiated by hostile reactions from the legislative bodies and law-abiding citizens (Jón, 2019). The individual receives a public definition, which is raised into a stereotype. Such a “main” status suppresses all other statuses of an individual in the formation of his social experience and, as a result, plays the role of a self-fulfilling prophecy (Rock, 2018). Violators of norms begin to perceive their status as a specific type of deviance and form their own lives based on this status.

Those who have received the stigma of delinquents usually find that law-abiding citizens condemn them and do not want to deal with them. Friends and family may turn away from them; in some cases, they may be imprisoned or placed in a hospital for the mentally ill. Universal condemnation and isolation will push stigmatized individuals to deviant groups consisting of people whose fate is similar to their own (Jón, 2019). Participation in a deviant subculture is a way to cope with a critical situation, to find emotional support, and an environment where people are accepted for who they are. In turn, joining such a deviant group strengthens the individuals’ idea of themselves as an offender, contributing to a deviant lifestyle and weakening ties with a law-abiding environment.

As a result, according to the theory of stigmatization, the deviation is determined not by the behavior itself but by the reaction of society to such behavior. When people’s behavior is seen as deviating from accepted norms, it gives rise to several social reactions (Jovanoski, 2021). Thus, the main problem is that others define, evaluate, and label behavior. The violator of norms begins to coordinate his further actions with such labels. In many cases, the individual develops the very idea that coincides with this label, resulting in which they can enter the path of deviation.

Influence on Sociological Approaches

The theory of stigmatization, without focusing on the reasons for committing deviant acts, helps to understand why the same action can be considered deviant or not, depending on the situation and characteristics of the individual in question. Many proponents of the theory turned to the provisions of the theory of conflict, primarily to the inequality existing in society, to understand the basis of the structure of social institutions and how laws are drawn up and enforced (Jovanoski, 2021). Although the theory of stigmatization makes it possible to understand how individuals become criminals of others, it does not show what initial factors caused deviant behavior. Indeed, with many forms of deviation, the living conditions are responsible for labeling such people (Jón, 2019). Thus, it seems evident that most people placed in mental hospitals experience acute disorders associated with internal psychological or neuralgic pathologies. Their confusion and suffering cannot be explained solely by other people’s reactions. Nevertheless, many facts suggest that professional psychiatrists provoke the social manifestation of mental illness through the use of stigmatization systems and not just “detect” internal pathologies.

The problems of stigmatization lie in the consequences of stigmatization. Since its result is always social labeling, that is, the isolation of an individual or a group of individuals from the community, followed by the opposition of them to the rest of the community (Jovanoski, 2021). The final stage of stigmatization will be a complete or partial rejection of the community’s branded individual or group of people (Rock, 2018). Often, social labeling becomes a factor that determines the programming and self-programming of the behavioral response of the labeled individual on its basis.

In most cases, stigma as a social phenomenon is characterized by a negative orientation and is based on the rejection by society of any apparent distinctive external signs. This is reflected in, for example, the appearance of an individual, the qualities of their character, and the specific features of his behavioral reactions (Jovanoski, 2021). The peculiarity of an individual often does not pose a danger to the surrounding society, but this does not prevent their stigmatization, which leads to his condemnation in various forms of expression. It also leads to attributing their character traits or personality traits to deviance.

As a result, stigma affects individuals’ behavior and self-awareness, either unduly humiliating or exalting them based solely on external signs. This labeling is dangerous for individuals, as it negatively affects their social independence and can provoke deviance. In addition, stigmatization is not safe for society either (Jovanoski, 2021). After all, the labeling of individual groups affects public morality, and the humane attitudes of society cause conflicts within the community. Consequently, the phenomenon of stigmatization is a kind of vicious circle since social stigma and fear of being punished cause psychological and social alienation, which equally harms both the individual and society.

The peculiarity of the influence of this theory on other sociological approaches is based, in essence, on two positions. The first is that deviant is not just a violation of the norm but, in fact, any behavior that is successfully defined as such, can be labeled as deviant (Jovanoski, 2021). The deviation is contained not so much in the action itself as in the reaction of others to this action. The second provision states that labeling produces or propagates deviation. The deviant’s response to the social reaction leads to repeated deviation, due to which the deviant comes to accept self-image or definition as a person who is permanently enclosed in the framework of the deviance of their role (Jovanoski, 2021). The peculiarity of the approach here is that it draws attention to deviation due to social accusations and manifestations of control by society over the actions of its members.


The theory of stigmatization has important methodological and applied significance. The study of labeling has had a significant impact on the development of sociological and criminological studies of deviation within the framework of conflict theory, radical criminology, modernism, and postmodernism. Sociologists-interactionists vividly outlined the role of socio-psychological, normative, and sociostructurally factors in the processes of labeling. Also, from a completely different perspective, they showed the importance of various formal and informal ways of social control in the formation of deviant behavior. Due to this, this approach has had a significant impact on the development of sociological approaches to the study of deviation.


Jón, G. (2019). Labeling theory. In M. Krohn (Ed.), Handbook on Crime and Deviance (pp. 179–196). Springer.

Jovanoski, A. (2021). Theory of labeling: Contemporary concepts of the sociological understanding of deviance. Nternational Journal of Scientific and Engineering Research, 12(7), 607–615. Web.

Rock, P. (2018). Deviance and social control [E-book]. Taylor & Francis.

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