Primary Deviance: Definition & Examples

By Charlotte Nickerson, published April 21, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD

Key Points

  • The term primary deviance originates from Edwin Lemert (1912-1996), an American sociologist, who conducted early work on the social basis of deviance.
  • Primary deviance refers to the initial deviant act, which may or may not be noticed by others, and which may or may not be subsequently labelled as a deviant act by the formal (e.g. police) and informal (e.g. family, peers) forces of social control.
  • Primary deviance in labeling theory, is the initial act or attitude that causes one to be labeled deviant. However, this label is not internalized and does not become part of a person's deviant iidentity.
  • It is not until the act becomes labeled or tagged, that secondary deviation may occur.
  • Primary deviance has been used to describe both traditionally deviant behaviors in childhood — such as shoplifting, truancy, and alcohol use — as well as tangential matters, such as the experience and stigmatization of disease.

What is Primary Deviance?

Primary deviance is an initial rule-breaking act performed by someone who is otherwise socially compliant (Lemert, 1951). Regardless of whether this deviant behavior is noticed by others, no label is attached. Often, the people who commit primary deviance amend their behaviors and respond to social pressure.

However, if they continue to violate social norms, other people may label them as deviant. For example, an otherwise well behaved teenager who steals a tube of lipstick from a department store, but returns it when reprimanded by their parents, may be said to have exhibited primary deviance (Thorsell & Klemke, 1972).

The important differentiator of primary deviance from other forms of deviance is that it happens before they are publicly labeled, and have only marginal implications for the status and psychology of the person who commits the deviant act (Martino, 2017).


The concepts of labeling and stigma come from the symbolic interactionist school, and focus on the symbolic meanings of actions. That is, interactionists argue that the shared social connotations and imagery that are associated with particular events and objects are the basis for how people carry out action (Lemert 1951, Paternoster & Iovanni, 1989).

Becker (1963) conducted early work on the social basis of deviance. He argued that social groups create deviance by making the rules, the breaking which is considered to be deviant. By applying the rules of deviance to individuals or groups, society can label these people as outsiders.

Becker (1963) also argued that "deviance is not a quality that lies in the behavior itself, but in the interaction between the person who commits an act and those that respond to it.

Thus, a deviant person is someone who has been labeled as deviant. In the case of primary deviance, the person who commits the deviant act is not labeled as deviant, and is thus not cast as an outsider in society (Martino, 2017).

Examples of Primary Deviance


Medical practitioners have applied the concept of deviance and criminological labeling theory to healthcare.

In fact, the sociological phenomenon of labeling has been used to inform medicine since the 1960s in order to draw attention to the view that the experience of being sick has both social and physical consequences (Martino, 2017).

In the case of sickness, the experience of being sick without a diagnosis is akin to primary diagnosis.

For example, someone with breast cancer may suffer from weight loss, swollen lymph nodes, and the feeling of lumps and soreness in an affected area before being diagnosed.

The experience of being ill is differentiated from being diagnosed with an illness in that the labels of sickness carry widely shared public stereotypes that ultimately, in the view of labeling theorists, cause behavior change (Martino, 2017).

Peer pressure and the use of intoxicants

Many adolescents experiment with intoxicants, such as alcohol and marijuana, before they are legally able to consume them.

Often, teenagers are first introduced to intoxicants while surrounded by their peers, away from the supervision of adults, such as at a party (Drew, 2021).

A teenager consuming beer or liquor with friends at a party for the first time — or one who does so on a casual basis, without repercussions — can be considered to be an example of primary deviance.

Although this behavior could deteriorate into substance abuse, with the teenager labeled as "alcoholic," the teenager most often remains unlabelled. Whether or not this behavior deteriorates depends largely on how this act of deviance is handled by the teenager's family and society at large (Drew, 2021).


Truancy is a behavior where a student regularly avoids school without the knowledge of their parents or teachers.

Some societies are more tolerant of truancy than others, with truancy leading to expulsion in some cases, and police officers whose job it is to investigate and deal with chronic absence from school (Drew, 2021).

Truancy can be considered to be a form of primary deviance. Children may at first be avoiding school due to compelling reasons such as family troubles, an inability to get to school, or a fear of violence from a bully (Drew, 2021).

However, truancy can become a more serious matter when the person being truant is labeled. This labeling can devolve into an avoidance of responsibility, commitment, and discipline in adulthood (Drew, 2021).

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, April 21). Primary Deviance: Definition & Examples . Simply Sociology.


Becker, H. S. (1963). Outsiders (Vol. 1973). New York: Free Press.

Drew, C. (2021). 9 Examples of Primary Deviance.

Lemert, E. (1951). Primary and secondary deviation. Crime. Critical concepts in sociology, 3, 603-607.

Lemert, E. M. (1967). Human deviance, social problems, and social control. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice-Hall.

Martino, L. (2017). Concepts of primary and secondary deviance.

Paternoster, R., & Iovanni, L. (1989). The labeling perspective and delinquency: An elaboration of the theory and an assessment of the evidence. Justice Quarterly6(3), 359-394.

Schur, E. M. (1971). Labeling deviant behavior: Its sociological implications (pp. 18-18). New York: Harper & Row.

Thorsell, B. A., & Klemke, L. W. (1972). The labeling process: reinforcement and deterrent?. Law & Society Review, 6(3), 393-403.