Tertiary Deviance: Definition & Examples

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

Key Points

  • The term tertiary deviance describes when someone normalizes behavior that is widely considered deviant by labelling it as nondeviant.
  • Tertiary deviance has the potential to, when done on a large scale, change societal perceptions as to whether an act is deviant.
  • The related concepts of primary and secondary deviance defrive from the work of labelling theorists in the 1950s and 1960s.


Although deviant labels are sticky and difficult to shake, it is sometimes possible for an individual to turn what could have been a negative identity into a positive one. John Kitsuse (1980) calls this tertiary deviance.

Tertiary deviance occurs when the person labeled deviant rejects the notion of deviance entirely and attempts to redefine the stigma associated with a deviant label as a positive phenomenon. Thus, what was once considered deviant attributes or behavior is now normalizes by labelling it as nondeviant.

Tertiary deviants are stigmatized by society for individual actions, but then form a collective that identifies as an “oppressed group … whose oppression is a social problem” (Weitz, 1984, p. 157).

For example, someone may justify stealing a loaf of bread or a wallet, complaining that the prices of these are criminally high.

Lemert (1951) was one of the first to define the concept of primary and secondary deviance. The concept of tertiary deviance came later, and has been used by sociologists to describe as how those who commit deviant acts justify their behavior, and how society can change its view on behaviors once considered deviant so as to be seen as acceptable.

Example of Tertiary Deviance

Social Movements

Tertiary deviance can have both positive and negative effects. One example of tertiary deviannce creating positive effects on people within a society comes in the form of social movements, such as movements to accept the rights of gay and transgender people.

Through much of the 20th century, homosexuality was most often outlawed, sometimes with serious criminal punishments. Those who expressed homosexuality were labellled as deviant ooutsiders, and sjunned from mainstream society.

However, beginning in the 1960s — as symbolized by the Stonewall riots — a "gay rights" movement emerged in much of the Americas and Europe.

As a result, homosexuality transitioned from being considered a crime or disease to being socially acceptable and celebrated.

Laws alsoo changed, allowing people to marry those of the same sex, so that their spouses may receive the same benefits as heterosexual couples (Sorensen & Siemensen, 2006).


Consider a case, mentioned by Alfred R. Mele (1987) of someone taking a multiple choice test.

His strategy is to circle on the question sheet the idenntifying letters nenxt to the answers that he feels certainn are correct and then, after all such circling is coompleted, to fill in the corresponding spaces on his answer sheet.

At that point, he plans on taking up more difficult questions. However, an hour has elapsed, and the student is reading the fourty-fifth question of sixty. He is running out of time.

Although he is certain that the answer is A; however, he notices a peer turnn in the test who has filled in the letter b. He changes his answer to B, which, coincidentally, happens to be the correct answer.

In this case, the student may justify his cheating by saying, for example, that the test was unjustly difficult and time restrictive, or that the statkes of him passing the test were much higher annd more important than any need to not cheat.

In both cases, he is labelling deviant behavior as nondeviant (Mele, 1987).

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). Tertiary Deviance: Definition & Examples . Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/tertiary-deviance.html


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.

Mele, A. R. (1987). Intentional Action and Wayward Causal Chains: The Problem of Tertiary Waywardness. Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, 51(1), 55–60.

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.

Rosenberg, M. J. (2010). Lemert, Edwin M.: Primary and secondary deviance. Encyclopedia of criminological theory, 551-553.

Sorensen, A. M., & Siemsen, C. (2006). Identity Radicalization, Fragmentation and Re-assimilation. Californian Journal of Health Promotion, 4(4), 41-51.

Weitz, R. (1985). From accommodation to rebellion: Tertiary deviance and the radical redefinition of lesbianism." In J. Kitsuse and J. Schneider (Eds.), Studies in the sociology of social problems, pp. 140-161. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.