Data Type: Journal Article

Self-labeling processes in mental illness: The role of emotional deviance.

Thoits, Peggy A. (1985). Self-labeling processes in mental illness: The role of emotional deviance. American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 91, No. 2, pp. 221-249.

This article seeks to construct a theory which will explain and account for the social phenomenon of individuals who voluntarily seek psychotherapy for treatment through a process of “self-labeling.” In identifying themselves as, or by taking up the role of a “generalized other,” individuals gain the perceived ability to find a meaning or cause for their ‘deviant’ impulses or actions as they commit what the author defines as “residual rule-breaking” within a society with defined, normalized values. “Residual rule-breaking” is characterized by any violation of feeling or expression norms.

To develop her theory, the author draws heavily from Arlie Hochschild’s work on “‘residual-rule breaking’” and feeling/expression norms. In addition, to further the construction of her theory, the author discusses and cites studies performed by Pugliesi, which analyze the relationship between social “‘rule-breaking’” and mental illness. After in-depth analysis of the aforementioned social theory and studies, the author begins to detail the primary finding of their research: when individuals observe themselves consistently breaking the “residual rules” or frequently find themselves engaging in stigmatized, abnormal actions, they have a tendency to self-label themselves as “disturbed” and resolve to submit themselves to medical or therapeutic treatment for help. By inserting themselves into a stigmatized community or by self-identifying as socially deviant, individuals find a way to “perform” their perceived illness, coming to terms with or putting into perspective that which they decide is making them disturbed. As subjects continually fail to reverse their patterns of behavior or manage their deviant feelings and actions on their own, the self-labelings of “disturbance” or “mental illness” increase, as does the investigation into professional guidance and assistance in ending or curing the deviant thoughts, behavior or actions.

This research, which illustrates the process by which subjects voluntarily submit themselves to psychiatric or psychotherapeutic treatment by self-identifying as disturbed when noticing their actions or thoughts to be socially deviant, is highly relevant to research on the treatment of deviant bodies, or perhaps even ‘queer’ subjects, in psychiatric practices. However, researchers should take note that the article was published in 1985, and that it provides just one account (discussing only deviant groups at large, rather than any specific social category) for why members of stigmatized or socially deviant groups, such as LGBTQ people, for example, may seek treatment having already decided something is wrong with them. The research found in this piece is useful in that it can begin to account for the reasons why self-labeled ‘deviant’ bodies pursue psychiatric treatment on their own.

Categories: Social Construction, Sociology of Mental Health and Illness
Publication Date: 1985