What Is the Difference Between Primary and Secondary Deviance?

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Primary deviance is a behavior in which the participant does not react negatively to perceived misbehavior, while secondary deviance occurs after a person’s negative reactions to being labeled a deviant by society, according to SparkNotes. Sociologist Edwin Lemert first proposed the theory of primary and secondary deviance in 1951 as part of his labeling theory.

Primary deviance usually occurs within a person’s own peer group that engages in the same behavior. For instance, a teenager who smokes cigarettes with other teens doesn’t perceive any bad behavior because everyone else in the peer group is smoking.

Secondary deviance then occurs when this same teenager moves to a different school and smokes in front of a peer group that shuns smoking. The teen is labeled an outcast and begins to smoke more because people told him or her that smoking was not acceptable. This time, the person knows the behavior is deviant and continues to engage in misbehavior anyway.

In Lemert’s 1951 thesis, he demonstrates that the subject does not realize he or she is deviant during primary deviance. Secondary deviance often occurs as a defense or attack toward the societal reaction of the initial misbehavior, according to Florida State University. After two decades of study, Lemert concluded in the 1970s that social control causes deviance, rather than deviance happening first and societal reaction occurring next.