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Labelling theory and the dilemma of difference
Transcript of Labelling theory and the dilemma of difference
Labels and Categories:
do they help or hinder?
The dilemma of difference
The term 'dilemma' can be used in general conversation to mean 'issue', 'question' or 'problem' but Norwich (2010, p.3) uses the term more specifically to mean a situation where there is a choice between alternatives, all of which are unfavourable and risk negative consequences.
Norwich (2010) argues that the resolution of dilemmas involves some balancing, perhaps some compromise.
Norwich (2010, p.70) notes that the
dilemma (also known as the dilemma of difference) takes the following form:
If children experiencing difficulties in learning are identified and labelled as having 'SEND' then they are likely to be treated as different and even stigmatised and devalued.
If children experiencing difficulties in learning are NOT identified as having 'SEND' then it is less likely that additional educational resources will be identified and ensured for them.
A label can give us an accurate understanding of a child's learning differences and hence be a starting point for addressing their needs appropriately.
Those with a similar type of difference can develop their own identity, culture and advocacy groups
It can lead to a greater self-understanding and empowerment
In some cases, labels can act as mediators in explaining behaviour that might seem unacceptable to the wider public, perhaps leading to greater understanding
Inaccurate labels may lead to inappropriate interventions or assumptions about what a learner can and cannot do and what they do and do not need.
There may be a focus on the 'label' rather than on the capabilities and complexities of an individual learner
Some labels are less acceptable and may trigger judgemental and dismissive actions by others and hence further stigmatisation
Labels may place the deficits within the learner rather than in the teaching or curriculum which will remain unchanged and continue to be a barrier.
Labels can be used oppressively to control or marginalise
different groups of people.
Riddick (in Armstrong and Squires, 2012) provides a summary of
the positive and negative consequences of 'labelling' a learners' difficulties
Many countries use the term 'Special Educational Needs' as an umbrella term to define those children having greater difficulty learning than their peers though in Scotland the term is 'ASN' or 'Additional Support Needs' is used.
ENGLAND - Government uses the following categoric terms to identify 'types of difficulty'
Specific learning difficulty (12%)
Moderate learning difficulty (24%)
Severe learning difficulty
Profound and multiple learning difficulty
Behaviour, social and emotional difficulties (22)
Speech language and behaviour needs (14%)
Autistic spectrum disorder
Derived from : Peer, L. and Reid, G. (2012) 'Special Educational Needs: A guide for inclusive practice.' London: Sage.pp.9-23
Scotland uses the following categories to define
'types' of difficulty' for ASN
Learning disability (20% of pupils with 'ASN)
Social emotional and behavioural difficulties (15%)
Other specific learning difficulty
Physical or motor impairment
Language or speech disorder
Autistic spectrum disorder
Physical health problems
Mental health problems
Looked after children
More able pupils
Peer, L. and Reid, G. (2012) Special Educational Needs: A guide for inclusive practice. London: Sage.pp.9-23
What do the differences between England and Scotland imply about the stability and scientific certainty of categories and labels?
In Scotland, the Education (Additional Support for Learning)(2004) Act broadened the definition of ASN to include children whose difficulties in learning are a result of social factors and problems.
The aim of such broad categories was to diminish the negative impact of labelling and categorisation.
However, this has been difficult to sustain since government (England and Scotland) have always required local authorities to provide information about the particular 'types' of difficulties and parents of children with particular 'types' of difficulty (e.g. Autistic spectrum disorder) have campaigned for official recognition.
What forms of 'categorisation' or
'labels' operate in Scotland and England?
Overall, despite the fact that Scotland's definition of ASN is broader, only 5% if learners are identified as having such difficulties
Riddell, Weedon and Harris (2012, p.13) argue that though the tendency to categorise prevails, it is not necessarily a good thing.
The label might foster low expectations and
an fixed view of a learner's potential.
Ridell (2012, p.24) argues that we must acknowledge that the process of identification can do
good or ill
and that 'a more considered and nuanced approach to labelling and the labelling process is needed that recognises that it can have positive, negative or ambiguous outcomes.'
The following is drawn from a meeting with Michelle who is a teaching assistant supporting a child with a statement of SEND and the label of 'prader-willi syndrome'
Michelle said that for her, the most important thing was getting to know Christopher. She explained that she had done some reading and research on prader-willi syndrome but that ‘no child is a text book child’.
She also commented that meeting with his mother was the most important thing since it put things into context since ‘she told me exactly how it was for them.’ She explained that the ‘theory’ of the condition had not applied much to Christopher yet.
For example, he didn’t forage for food (partly because he had been trained not to at home). She had also pondered on how the list of characteristics for the condition on the one hand didn’t relate to him, but on the other, could have related to lots of other children in the class. She said ‘For me, it was getting to know Christopher and getting to know his mum, meeting his family that was the most useful thing.’ She also said that she thought that knowledge of the ‘theory’ might be relevant though, because behaviours like ‘foraging’ might emerge as he got older and she would know how to interpret that and what to do if it emerged.
Michelle seems to take a cautious but open view about the relevance of Christopher’s condition, being willing to engage particular criteria (such as foraging) if and when they become relevant. Arguably, Michelle is adopting a position that will enable her to manage the identification dilemma
Overall, in England, 19% of children are identified as having
I want to live in a world where it is okay, even admirable to be autistic. I want to live in a world where autism is known to be the unique and beautiful thing that it is. … I want to live in a world where I can say ‘I am autistic’ and not be expected to be a bundle of abnormalities and deficits.
(Baggs, 2003, p. 16)
Being diagnosed [with aspergers] was a huge relief. Finally to have a name for it, to be able to say this is how Claire is and it is not that she's not trying hard enough or being deliberately difficult.
Sainsbury, 2009, p.2
Author of 'Martian in the playground'
I constantly weigh up its good and bad points. Most of the time it has been of benefit, about 80% of the time, 5% of the time I do think I am not happy about being called 'dyslexic'.
University student, cited in Riddick, Farmer and Sterling, 1997, p.32
Looking at this question can help us see
how (despite a concern to avoid them) labels
and categories keep nudging their way back into educational language, policy and practice.
The term Special Educational Needs was also developed to avoid the medicalisation of education and to focus the education system on what a child needed to support their learning. Assumptions about their learning needs were not to be made on the basis of their 'condition.'
Labelling theory has been a significant part of sociological thinking since 1897 when Durkheim presented the theory that people did not commit suicide because of genetic, phsyiological, climate or psychological factors. He argued that suicide was the result of social forces.
Specifically, the extent to which the individual was integrated into a social bond with others. Durkheim argued that people with fragile or weaker ties to their community were more likely to take their own lives than people who have stronger ties.
Labelling theory is related to the concepts of stereotypes
and self-fulfilling prophecy.
It recognises the tendency of the majority to negatively label minorities as deviant from the physical, psychological, social or cultural norms.
Labels become descriptors or categorisations that can carry a 'stigma.' A stigma is a label that has a powerfully negative character that influences a person's self-concept and social identity.
For example, a child who finds it hard to focus in class
may be 'labelled' as wild and unruly and once labelled as such
forms a social identify as a wild and unruly person.
George Herbert Mead argued that self image is formed from
what we believe others are thinking about us.
Albert Memmi (1965) found that central to stigmatic labelling was the attribution of an inherent fault located within the individual.
For Memmi, stigma were tools of oppression which enabled the domination of one group over another.
'The longer the oppression lasts, the more profoundly it effects him (the oppressed). It ends by becoming so familiar to him that he believes it is part of his own constitution, that he accepts it and could not imagine his recovery from it. This is the crowning point of oppression.'
Memmi, 1965, p.321-322
Modified Labelling Theory
Though some factors causing mental
health difficulties are likely to be neurological
or physiological (such as schizophrena), modfied learning theory takes the position that stigma
still has a powerful and persistent influence -
experiences of social rejection and isolation cause stress and potentially, negative self-perception and exclusion.
'patients had developed an entrenched, negative view of themselves, and their experiences of rejection appear to be a key element in the construction of these self-related feelings'
'hostile neighbourhoods.....may also ultimately impact the patients mental health status and how successful they are.'
Wright, Gronfein and Owens (2000), p.88
With reference to educational contexts, Riddick (2012) argues that
it is important to think about the advantages and disadvantages of labelling a child in a given time and context since labelling can be both helpful and unhelpful.
She also argues that the solution to this dilemma is 'wise labelling' which can be enabled through asking the following questions
Is there a need for a label or, with better teaching, will the child's needs be met?
Is the proposed label the most accurate and valid one?
Will the label enable more effective support and help practitoners do a better job?
Will it help other to understand the child and have a more positive understanding?
Will the label help the child understand himself better and feel more positive about themselves?
Riddick's argument assumes that the education system can be trusted with the ethical management of labels.
However, we know that once the label is there, it can have a long lasting, subtle effect on teacher attitudes and children's identities.
However, even with these questions in place it is important to understand the argument that labels represent a 'truth' that can represent a social construction rather than a scientific truth.
For example, Cohen (2006) suggests that the label 'ADHD' represents a cultural preference for particular behaviours (compliance and attentiveness) and the pathologising of particular temperaments.
Riddick, B. (2012) Labelling learners with SEND, the good the bad and the ‘ugly’. In: Armstrong, D. and Squires G. eds., Contemporary issues in special educational needs: Considering the whole child. Maidenhead: Open University Press
This is available as an e-book
Baggs, A. (2003) ‘The world I want to live in’, Inclusion Now, vol.7, Winter, pp. 16–17.
Norwich, B. (2008) Dilemmas of diffrence, inclusion and disability. Oxon: Routledge
Corbett, J. (1996) Bad-Mouthing: The Language of Special Needs. Bristol:Falmer Press.
Davis, J. (2006) ‘Disability, childhood studies and the construction of medical discourses’ in Lloyd,G., Stead,J.and Cohen, D. (eds)(2006)(pp.45–65).
Graham, L.J. (2007) ‘Out of sight, out of mind/out of mind, out of site:
schooling and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder’, International Journal of
Qualitative Studies in Education, Vol.20, no.5, pp. 585–602.
Memmi, A. (1968) Dominated man. New York: Orion Press
Wright, E.R., Gronfein, W.P. and Owen, T.J (2000) Social rejection and the self esteem of former mental patients. Journal of health and social behaviour. Vol 28, March.
Riddick, B., M. Farmer and C. Sterling (2002) Dyslexia and Inclusion: Assessing and Support for Subject Teachers. London: Whurr
Peer, L. and Reid, G. (2012) 'Special Educational Needs: A guide for inclusive practice.' London: Sage.pp.9-23
To evaluate arguments in the field about the value and accuracy of labels and categories.
To understand the relevance of the concept 'dilemma of difference' to barriers to learning.
1. Identifying difficulties and applying a label or category to a learner can bring negative or positive consequences.
2. The dilemma of difference (Norwich) is an important concept since it explains why identification of difference is not a straightforward matter since labels can have stigmatising consequences. Without identification however, we might risk neglecting the needs of learners.
3. Labelling theory explains how marginalisation can arise from stigma. It also explains how labels can be social constructions that serve the maintenance of the status quo (keeping the powerful and privileged, powerful and privileged.
4. Riddick puts forward an argument and strategy for 'wise labelling' though other theorists would reject this on the basis that all labels carry danger.
1. The dilemma of difference
2. The pros and cons of labelling
3. Labelling theory -
the danger of