Just Sociology

The Power of Labeling: How Teachers Shape Students’ Identities

Labeling theory is a sociological perspective that posits that the process of labeling is an integral aspect of social life. Labeling theory notes that people evaluate, categorize, and judge others based on their attributes.

Thus, labeling theory posits that labeling, particularly negative labeling, can shape identities, behaviors, and opportunities. This article discusses labeling theory, including teacher evaluation and labeling, the process of label formation, criticisms, and pupil adaptations, including pupil responses to schools, pupil subcultures, and setting and streaming.

Teacher Evaluation and Labeling

Working-class students have long suffered from negative stereotyping and labeling by teachers and the education system. Teachers often use objective measures of ability to grade and classify students.

However, subjective perceptions and biases also influence the grading of non-academic skills, such as appearance, demeanor, and social skills. These non-academic factors can lead to speculation and overgeneralization about working-class students’ abilities, leading to negative labeling and academic disadvantages.

In contrast, middle-class students are often given the benefit of the doubt, and their abilities are overrated due to constructed stereotypes and prejudices.

The Process of Label Formation

Labeling theory highlights the steps involved in labelling: speculations, elaboration, and stabilization. Speculation occurs where impressions are formed, usually base on the first impression of an object.

As elaboration sets in; teachers reinforce the first impression through interaction, seeking confirmation of their speculations. When such an impression has been reinforced, and other teachers agree with the initial impression, the label stabilizes.

The process of label formation is dependent on a student’s non-academic factors, such as appearance, demeanour, and background, as opposed to objective abilities.

Criticism of Labeling Theory

Labeling theorists have been criticized for their deterministic viewpoint and over-simplifying the consequences of labeling to differential achievers. Mary Fuller and Roger Dale have argued that labeling theorists do not confront wider social issues or consider the structures of power that shape classroom expectations and class divisions.

This critique argues that labeling theory overlooks the role of social structures in shaping educational outcomes, including opportunities beyond the classroom.

Pupils Responses to Schools

Pupils often respond differently to school environments and social interactions, with some finding it challenging to negotiate the transition to secondary school. Peter Woods’ study of Lowfields illustrated how pupils change from being enthusiastic and optimistic to being disillusioned and disengaged.

Woods found that students’ perceptions of what was expected of them and their social class position influenced their responses. Students from working-class backgrounds were more likely to be negative, with unfavorable experiences at home and in the neighborhood contributing to their pessimism.

Pupil Subcultures

Pupil subcultures refer to the values and behavior patterns that pupils adopt in response to labeling by teachers and the education system. Hargreaves found that some pupils became anti/counter-school subcultures in response to labeling.

These pupils were often troublemakers and failures in school and had lower attainment due to their rejection of school values. However, some pupils in this subgroup held high-status positions within their peer group, demonstrating that they perceived teacher’s expectations and school values as irrelevant to their own lives.

Setting and Streaming

Setting and streaming are ways schools organize pupils into groups based on their perceived academic ability. Stephen Ball’s micro-political approach to education looks at how schools mediate between formal policies and the classroom.

Ball argues that the context of schools matters, and schools have different power relationships between pupils and teachers, which lead to consequences in terms of pupils conforming or adopting non-conformist behaviors. As pupils become aware of the power relationships between teachers and pupils, they may engage in a lack of effort, which leads to differences in attainment and educational paths based on social class.


Labeling theory highlights the role of teachers in shaping pupils’ perceptions of intelligence, potential, and ability. The process of labeling is subjective and dependent on non-academic factors, which can result in negative stereotypes and prejudices.

Pupils’ responses to schools depend on their social class position and interactions with teachers and peers, resulting in pupil subcultures and differences in attainment based on setting and streaming. Labeling theory provides a framework for understanding the complex interplay between social structures, power relations, and pupil adaptations to the education system.

In conclusion, labeling theory highlights the importance of subjective perceptions and labeling in shaping students’ opportunities and behaviors in the education system. Through exploring the process of labeling and pupil adaptations, this article has revealed how social structures and power relations shape educational outcomes.

Labeling theory offers a critical perspective on the education system, emphasizing the need for teachers and policy-makers to reflect on their perceptions and biases to ensure equal opportunities for all students. FAQs:

Q: Can labeling theory be applied to workplaces and other social environments?

A: Yes, labeling theory can be applied to any social environment where people evaluate and judge others based on their perceived attributes. Q: How can teachers avoid negative labeling and biases towards students?

A: Teachers can reflect on their own perceptions and biases, utilize objective measures of ability, and emphasize a growth mindset that focuses on students’ potential rather than fixed traits. Q: How do pupil subcultures affect educational outcomes?

A: Pupil subcultures can lead to differences in attainment and opportunities, with some students rejecting school values and struggling academically, while others achieve high status among their peer groups. Q: Is labeling theory deterministic?

A: Critics of labeling theory argue that it can be deterministic, overlooking the wider social structures and power relations that shape educational outcomes. Q: How does setting and streaming contribute to social class divisions in education?

A: Setting and streaming create differences in attainment and educational paths based on social class, perpetuating social inequalities within the education system.

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