Joy Moncrieffe & Rosalind Eyben (Editors) The power of labelling: How people are categorized and why it matters. Earthscan: London, 2007, ISBN: 978-1-84407-394-8, 189 pp.

As the title aptly suggests, the book investigates and offers reflections on the impact of the labels (names) and categories we ascribe to individuals or sections of society or organisations and the responses made by various actors.  In spite of the fact that both those doing the labelling and the labelled are not always aware, labels can have positive and negative effects.

Among the labels the book identifies include the following: the poor, the marginalised, sex workers, Muslim women, and target population, development, the most needy, voice of the poor, empowering the poor, the destitute, meeting basic needs, and target populations. Early on in the book, the editors present the notion that labels help us to construct our social world. By this they mean that the labels we put on people do not just help us in identifying who others are, but also to understand and make meaning of our social (political and economic) environment and how we engage with it. In the development context, for instance, labels help to “…define needs, justify interventions and to formulate solutions to perceived problems” (p.1).

The book makes three main assertions. First, that the labelling process involves relationships of power. Governments, development organisations, business, communities and families produce and use labels to influence people and issues. Second, labels are made and ‘pasted’ on others for a variety of reasons that lead to certain outcomes. Some of these outcomes are intended while others are unintended. Third, labels create relationships of who is responsible for what and to whom. While labels do help set the stage for who will give support to who, they also create conditions for conflict as people make claims to their entitlements.

The contributors to the book, in various ways and making reference to practical and historical examples, argue that development organisations, just like governments, multi-lateral and bi-lateral institutions and business organisations, can and do create labels that positively and negatively impact on people and communities. Sometimes these labels are created and popularised, not because they work for those who are labelled but because they serve those who produce the labels. This self-serving act mainly happens when a label camouflages the “voice of the powerful” for voice of “the voiceless” (p.54).

In its final chapter, the book presents how the pitfalls of labelling can be avoided. I found the following to be the key ones:

  • Awareness of the power and impact of labels: Those producing and using the labels must grow their awareness of how the labels impact on others and themselves. Lack of awareness tends to create the blind spot that prevents powerful or influential individuals and institutions from seeing, and subsequently having the positive impact they may want to have on others. Peter Senge and his co-authors in the book called Presence[1] provide techniques on how one can learn to see the whole or larger picture rather than one’s perspective only. This is especially essential for policy makers and development practitioners as labels influence the allocation of resources.
  • Acknowledgement of diversity: Labels tend to treat groups of people, communities and organisations as if they were the same. For instance, categories such as “the poor”, “Muslim women”, and “the marginalized” are not homogeneous. There are differences and degrees within those general categories. Failure to notice and respond to these differences and degrees can and does result in inappropriate policy and practical responses or inability to take advantage of existing opportunities.
  • There is more that one right answer: There are diverse ways of seeing and working with problems. Because people or institutions that produce or use labels are often also powerful, they have a tendency to see their solutions as the only way problems can be solved. Dewitt Jones in a movie[2] on creativity powerfully demonstrates through his work as a professional photographer that we work best and attain incredible results when our mind-set admits and works with the fact that there is more than one right answer to problems.
  • Policy responses and people’s own stories: Unless policy makers and development practitioners learn to listen to people own stories, solutions found are likely to be off the mark and inappropriate. This is in tandem with Margaret Wheatley’s argument that stories are still a useful ‘technology’ for identifying, understanding and seeking solutions to people’s problems[3]. People must be consulted, through genuine dialogue that goes beyond the World Bank’s 1999 consultations with stakeholders (p.59). Genuine dialogue, as Otto Scharmer argues,[4] happens when people engage in conversation having suspended their voices of judgement, cynicism and fear, and are, together, listening to what is moving through and seeking to emerge.

There are two issues that I feel could have made the book even more valuable. First, considering the power and influence of business in determining where people live; the necessities of life that people access and the types of livelihood they have; I am of the view that the book could have been richer with an article investigating how business organisations use labels to influence policies, allocation of resources and the behaviour/responses of their potential and actual customers. Second, the language in most articles could have been simpler. I struggled with the complex and tough words and phrases used in most of the articles. I guess this may be justified by the need to explain complex concepts, situations and relationships. This fact notwithstanding, simple and accessible language could have helped a wider section of people who work in government and the development sector and are in need of hearing the book’s very important message and challenges.

Martin Kalungu-Banda, Leadership & Capacity Building Adviser, Oxfam GB and Wasafiri Partner and Consultant.

[1] Peter Senge,, Presence: An exploration of profound change in people, organisations, and society. New York: Currency Double Day, 2004, pp. 21-68.

[2] Everyday Creativity with Dewitt Jones,

[3] Margaret Wheatley, Turning to one another: simple conversations to restore hope to the future. San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2002, p.3.

[4] Otto Scharmer, Theory U: Leading from the future as it emerges – the social technology of presencing. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Society for Organisational Learning, Inc., 2007, pp. 135 –142.