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Labeling theory (also referred to as societal reaction theory) analyzes how social groups create and apply definitions for deviant behavior. The approach examines how deviant labels emerge, how some social groups develop the power to impose deviant labels onto selected others, and the consequences of being labeled deviant.

Sociologist Howard Becker is credited with the most influential formulation of labeling theory, which appears in his book Outsiders (1973). According to Becker, deviance is not an intrinsic feature of behavior. Acts and individuals are not inherently deviant until some social groups can successfully define them that way. Labeling theory here builds from the symbolic interactionist tenet that people define and construct their identities from society's perceptions of them. Social groups project rules and definitions onto otherwise neutral ...

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