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Beyond labeling: The case of the mentally retarded


This paper provides a review of the sociological literature on the mentally retarded. It attempts to analyze the reasons why the mentally retarded have been so thoroughly de-valued in our society that even social scientists ignore them as an object of study. The literature that does exist is primarily confined to the mildly retarded and generally applies labeling theory to understand the processes by which individuals unable to succeed in institutions such as schools are diagnosed as retarded. Studies employing labeling theory either ignore the severely retarded or allow the “medical model” as the only appropriate framework for understanding these populations.

The failure to include the severely retarded in the general analysis of the problems of the handicapped by labeling theorists indicates a deficiency in the theory rather than the group excluded. A more critical perspective on the handicapped is required which ties the analysis to the study of other “surplus populations” such as the poor, the illiterate and other disposessed groups. The treatment of the severely retarded provides a “looking-glass” into the way our society can so “de-value” a dependent population that its very survival can be questioned.

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A version of this paper was presented to the Southern Sociological Society Meetings, Memphis, Tennessee, 1982.

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Weiner, T.S. Beyond labeling: The case of the mentally retarded. Contemporary Crises 14, 119–136 (1990).

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  • Social Scientist
  • General Analysis
  • International Relation
  • Medical Model
  • Critical Perspective