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Are We Too Obsessed With Labels?

Positive Psychology and Labelling Theory

In today’s society, we employ labels for people to denote the fundamentals of human behaviour: Sexuality, politics, gender, class, the list goes on. Why has it become apparent that in contemporary culture, we appear to have a somewhat inherent desire to dissect the most natural elements of human life to marketable, universal and objective labels? Does this, perhaps, offer comfort and clarity, possibly even a sense of belonging and togetherness within these population subdivisions? Is it merely a social tool for us to distinguish between friend and supposed foe, a mechanism to recognise who we can and cannot identify with? Or rather, do we define ourselves by what we are not? I would argue that this ‘labelling’ in fact perpetuates a culture of discrimination and segregation. The fundamentally problematic element of this is that by offering a select and often exclusive term for one group of people, this inadvertently and inevitably causes the remainder of people to be excluded.

The sociologist “Labelling theory”, although more readily applied to specifically delinquent and deviation behaviours, can be used to discuss the issues with the aforementioned ‘labelling culture’ of contemporary society. The theory discusses the interplay between an individual’s self-identity, self-esteem and the terms used to classify them. Labelling theory argues that by overtly defining people by extreme labels, self-fulfilling prophecies mean that individuals naturally succumb to the stereotype associated with their label. For example, a diagnosis of a mental health condition may in fact serve to perpetuate the symptoms. Our self-image is constructed primarily on how we perceive others to be perceiving us. In other words, the roles that other people (and collectively, society) assign to us. For example, research has found that delinquents with a negative ‘tag’ (or label) showed more delinquent behaviours than those without. Labels are adopted as the crux of our identity.

From a positive psychology perspective we, as a society, appear to catalogue and characterise every element of human nature and functioning. This in turn promotes a culture of over-analysis, paranoia and may in fact show a negative correlation with psychological wellbeing. Positive psychology aids the reinvention of psychology to incorporate a vision of optimism. Through this, stress and suffering can be reduced by strengthening and nurturing our internal resources that both inhibit and face life’s challenges – our strengths and virtues. Some researchers have suggested that happiness and life satisfaction is dependent merely on the individual’s allocation of attention, rather than other factors such as personality type or biological makeup. To clarify, this empirical research suggests that individuals can actively work to tailor their thought processes and attention to focus more on life’s strengths than weaknesses which can indeed promote greater life satisfaction and well-being. This approach differs greatly from other more determinist approaches, as it maintains the notion that the source of human’s happiness lies internally. It suggests, almost that happiness and satisfaction are malleable entities which are attainable to all. I believe that this approach promotes great hopefulness and is a pioneering mentality in a field so bound by mention of limits and deficiencies.

Indeed, some critics of psychology have argued that the fundamental core spiritual and humanistic elements have been dismissed and replaced in the translation of psychological practice to our contemporary social culture. It may in fact be argued that the study of psychology has lost these aetiological principles and now instead has shifted focus purely on mental illness and disorder rather than the promotion of spiritual mental health in connection to the human soul. In this context, labels of disorder rather than positive labels. It appears to me that positive psychologists aim to highlight how focusing only on disorder and pathology can limit the understanding of the human condition. In essence, positive psychology addresses the issue of labelling and thus turns the study of psychology on its head and argues that the study of the human mind and behaviours is so much more than merely a study of disorder. Psychologists have debated the topic of mental illness in the context of labelling theory. They, despite varying approaches to the issues, contend that the stigmatisation created through labels of mental illness only serve to exacerbate, accentuate and prolong the condition. Indeed, the human psyche transcends the labels of society in that we exist beyond these stereotypes.

“The notion of the ‘normal human being’ may have its source in the medical approach to humanity, or in the tendency of large scale bureaucratic organisations such as the nation state, to treat all member in some respects as equal. Whatever its origins, it seems to provide the basic imagery through with laymen currently conceive themselves” Goffman, (1963)

Authors Bio


Madeleine Pownall is a second year psychology student at the University of Lincoln. She runs Thought Bubbles – a blog which discusses current issues in a psychological feminist context.

Feminism, positive psychology and body image are all research areas which Madeleine would like to study later in her career. You can get in touch with Madeleine via Twitter

References/Further Reading:

Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Tannenbaum, F. (1938). Crime and Community. London and New York: Columbia University Press.

Kahneman, D., Krueger, A. B., Schkade, D., Schwarz, N., & Stone, A. A. (2006). Would you be happier if you were richer? A focusing illusion. Science, 312. 1908-1910

Peterson, C (2009). Positive psychology. Reclaiming Children and Youth. 18, 3–7.

Seligman, M, Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive Psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist. 55, 5-14.

Scheff, Thomas J. (1984). Being Mentally Ill (2nd ed.). Piscataway: Aldine Transaction.

Gove, Walter R. (1975). Labelling of Deviance: Evaluating a Perspective. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

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