Secondary Deviance: Definition & Examples

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

Key Points

  • Secondary deviance refers to the deviant identity or career that results after deviant activity is recognized by society, and the perpetrator is formally labeled as deviant.
  • This is distinct from primary deviance, deviant behavior that occurs unlabelled.
  • The term secondary deviance originate from Edwin Lemert (1912-1996), an American sociologist, who conducted early work on the social basis of deviance.
  • He believed that the deviant label created a deviant self-identity, and ultimately association with outsider deviant groups, further ostracizing the deviant person from the rest of society.
  • Although labeling theory fell out of favor in the 1970s, it has reemerged in modern criminology.


Secondary deviance, first introduced by Edwin Lemert, describes a distinction central to labeling theory, that a deviant identity or career develops as a result of being labeled deviant.

Secondary deviance is triggered by the reactions that follow primary deviance, stigmatizing the deviant behavior.

Thus, the deviant act is witnessed and a label is attached to the person committing the act.

As a result, the deviant is labeled as a deviant, or a criminal. However, this label contradicts the self-image of the person being labeled.

In order to escape the dissonance between their inner, non deviant identity and their outer, deviant one, the individual adopts the label deviant or criminal themselves and adapts their future behavior accordingly.

This creates, according to Lemert (1951a) a process where increasingly stronger deviance is followed by stronger social reactions, ensuring that the deviance stays and solidifies.

Secondary deviation is deviation that becomes a pivotal, central, and engulfing activity to which a person becomes committed. Lemert calls this internalization of the label deviance amplification (Rosenberg, 2010).

Primary vs Secondary Deviance

Lemert was one of the first to define the concept of primary and secondary deviance (1951). Primary deviance is deviant acts that occur without labels put on the person commiting the act.

For example, a teenager who drinks alcohol socially at a party and is caught, but only gently reprimanded by their parents, has committed primary deviance.

Secondary deviance, meanwhile, is a result of the labels that are put onn someone for committing deviant acts.

A person moves from primary deviance (the thing that gets him/her labeled in the first place) to secondary deviance (a deviant identity or career).

The importance of the distinction between primary and secondary deviance is that everyone commits primary deviance acts from time to time, with few social consequences.

More serious social consequences arise from secondary deviance, where the stigmatizing force of the label is likely to lead to changes in relationships between the labelled person and the people around them, and perhaps as change in the behavior and attitude of those being labeled.

Labelling theorists argue that these labels lead the person being labelled to associate more with other people who have been labelled as deviant, impelling them too commit further deviant acts.

Example of Secondary Deviance

Lemert's Errant Schoolboy

Lemert (1951b) uses the example of the "errant schoolboy" to illustrate his point about the process of deviance. In this example, a child plays a prank in class and is punished mildly by his teacher. This is primary deviance.

Later, the boy accidentally causes another disturbance and is again reprimanded. However, because the child has repeatedly caused disturbances, the teacher begins to call him a "bad boy" and a "mischief maker" when dealing with the child.

The child then becomes resentful of these labels and may act out in consequence, fulfilling the role that he sees expected of him, especially if he discovers that there is a certain status among a group of peers that play that role.

This group of peers may then form their own subculture within which this otherwise deviant behavior is accepted and encouraged (Rosenberg, 2010).

Implications for Criminal Policy

Edwin M. Lemert's original discussion of primary and secondary deviance (1951) has had rich and far-reaching implications on various theories of criminal behavior, particularly labeling theory.

He delved into the differentiation between primary and secondary deviance more deeply in his 1967 work, Human Deviance, Social Problems, and Social Control, which painted a fuller picture of how he believed that society's reactions to the violation of social norms can lead someone to continually violate those norms, and eventually self-identify with the behaviors and groups that are outsiders to society.

Lemert's concepts of primary and secondary deviance are drawn from symbolic interactionism, in particular, the work of Frank Tannnenbaum (1938) in Crime and the Community.

Mead's insights focused on how the individual defines themself through the feedback received from the community at large. Through this interaction, an individual learns the rules and norms that the society has developed, and discovers how to act within this context to successfully integrate into wider society.

The individual is then able to communicate those norms to new individuals who seek to join the group (Rosenberg, 2010).

Therefore, labeled deviants are more likely to associate with deviant peers (Wiley, Slocum, and Esbensen, 2013), withdraw from their traditional social pursuits and hobbies (Bernburg, 2009), and ultimately engage in criminal offending at a higher rate than otherwise similar individuals who have not been labeled “deviant.”

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). Secondary Deviance: Definition & Examples . Simply Sociology.


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