The labeling theory of deviance states that human behavior is influenced by the labels we give them. If you label someone as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘smart’, or ‘dumb’ then the person will come to believe that about themselves.
As part of labelling theory, there are two types of ‘deviance’ that we can label people with:
- Primary deviance – Temporary deviant behavior. When someone violates social norms without internalizing the belief that they are ‘bad’.
- Secondary deviance – Permanently labelled as a deviant person. This occurs when someone internalizes the label society has given them, so they go on misbehaving because that’s what they see as their role in society. (See more: examples of secondary deviance).
Generally, we can see powerful people and institutions (like schools) defining what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and labelling people accordingly, turning their behavior from primary deviance (instances of bad behavior) to secondary deviance (a person who is permanently labelled as bad).
What is Primary Deviance?
The labeling theory of deviance defines deviance as being of two kinds – primary and secondary.
Primary deviance is usually the first, or an early act of deviance, before the label of ‘deviant’ has been applied to a person.
At this stage, the person has violated social norms in some manner. This breach could be an act as harmless as dyeing their hair pink to something more serious like shoplifting.
At the stage of primary deviance, the person has not yet internalized a social label (such as ‘criminal’) in a way that would influence their actions in the future.
For authorities like teachers, sensitive handling of the act of primary deviance can help prevent its degeneration into secondary deviance.
Examples of Primary Deviance
Below are a few examples of primary deviance.
Example 1 – Peer Pressure and Intoxicant Use
An intoxicant is any substance that artificially stimulates the nervous system to generate feelings of pleasure, excitement, or relaxation, such as alcohol. Often, teenagers are first introduced to intoxicants as a part of a peer-group setting such as a party.
An adolescent consuming beer with friends at a party for the first time can be considered an example of primary deviance. It may or may not deteriorate into a case of substance abuse depending on how the act of deviance is handled by the youth’s family and the society at large.
Example 2 – Nonviolent Youth Gangs
Youth gangs may not necessarily be involved in criminal activities. They can often just be a space for adolescents to explore issues of identity, belonging, and the pressures of growing up. Membership of a non-criminal youth gang may or may not descend into crime.
Youth gangs may have had difficulty answers to questions of identity and belonging within normative institutions such as the family or the school.
Membership to gangs, however, can be viewed by society at large as an act of deviance even when no explicitly criminal acts are performed by the group.
A notable depiction of gangs in popular culture was the 1983 Francis Ford Coppola film The Outsiders.
The protagonists in the film come from broken working-class families and find fraternal bonding within the gang a source of comfort. Even though they are not involved in any criminal activities (beyond underage smoking, drinking, and the occasional face-off with their rivals), the viewer gets a clear sense of their being deviants.
As long as nonviolent youth gang associations do not result in the youths being confined to correctional institutions, they are a form of primary deviance.
Example 3 – Tea Room Trade and Queer Sexuality
Tea Room Trade (1970) is a book by the American sociologist Laud Humphreys in which he studied sexual encounters between men in public toilets, a practice known by the slang “tea-rooming” in America.
Humphrey’s research showed that most of the people studied by him self-identified as either straight, or bisexual.
They were able to avoid being labeled ‘homosexuals’ by keeping their encounters secret and maintaining conventional family and social lives.
Further, this was a time when homosexualty was not just seen as deviant but delinquent behavior.
Humphrey’s research showed that the participants in the “tea-rooming” practice did not pose any public threat, and law enforcement agencies could better spend their resources monitoring more serious, real offences.
Thus Humphreys showed that not only was the classification of homosexuality as deviant behavior a social construct (a ‘label’), but that most of the people he studied had not yet internalized the label of ‘homosexuality’ reserved by society for their sexual orientation.
Thus avoiding the labeling, they were able to return to their everyday, conventional lives without much friction.
Example 4 – Shoplifting
Shoplifting is a classic form of primary deviance, and one that is the most easily observable around us.
Often children tend to pick up things from a store without paying for them. Depending on their age, they may or may not be fully aware of their consequences.
For instance, a 7-year-old accompanying their parent on a trip to Walmart may pick up a chocolate bar without informing their parent of it. A 13-year old on the other hand, may have a better cognition of their actions and their consequences.
In each case however, sensitive handling of the act of deviance and an avoidance of labeling can help the youth recover from the deviancy without being labeled.
Example 5 – Truancy
Truancy is a behavior when a child regularly avoids or tries to stay away from school without the knowledge of his/her parents or teachers.
Societal attitudes towards truancy vary, as with most forms of deviance. While in some societies it may not be thought of as a serious matter, many countries such as the UK have institutional measures in place to check truancy.
The UK, for instance, has ‘truancy patrols’ in place under which a police constable is empowered to take a truant into protective custody (Pratt 1983). The parents of such children can even be booked under law for having committed a criminal offence.
Similarly, the United States has ‘truancy officers’ as a part of its education system whose job it is to investigate and deal with chronic absenteeism among school children.
Truancy is a form of primary deviance as children may at first be avoiding school due to compelling reasons ranging such as family troubles to the fear of violence from a bully or a particular teacher at school.
If labeled and allowed to degenerate into secondary deviance, a truant child may grow up to be an adult who develops a pathological attitude of avoidance towards all forms of responsibility, commitment, and discipline.
Example 6 – Countercultures
Subcultures are groups of people who adopt a unique set of rituals, mannerisms, aesthetics, norms, or values. Countercultures are subcultures that adopt a more oppositional, combative attitude towards mainstream culture.
People may often be unconsciously attracted towards subcultural and countercultural movements for a variety of reasons, without explicitly identifying with their causes.
A classic example of subculture/counterculture associated with deviance is the musical genre known as Punk with its distinct, nonconformist aesthetics of appearance, its intensely political stance often spilling onto belligerence, and the cult-like loyalty it commanded among its adherents at its peak.
But many people love punk music and hang with punks without committing the same crimes. They are engaged in primary deviance, where they do not identify as punks but dabble in the counterculture.
Example 7 – Workaholism
Primary deviance is not something that is observed in children or adolescents alone.
Even professional, disciplined, middle-aged adults can find themselves labeled as primary deviants. An example from the workplace is workaholism.
Workaholism, like other forms of primary deviance, is a classic social construct whose perception as ‘deviant’ behaviour may vary across cultures.
For instance in certain societies such as Japan, working hard to the point of overworking is very common. The Japanese even have a name for death due to overwork – Karoshi (Kanai 2009).
The Soviet Union under Stalin underwent a period of an intense push towards increasing labour productivity by several multiples of the accepted norm.
This movement was known as the Stakhnovite Movement, after a coal miner who claimed to have mined over 100 tonnes of coal in a single shift – more than 14 times his quota.
The Stakhnovite Movement exhorted all Soviet workers to work much more than they were normally capable of, so that they could produce goods and services at several times their allotted quota of work.
In particular places and at particular times then, workaholism was even regarded as a virtue.
In most parts of the First World however, workaholism is today recognized not just as deviant behavior but even as a form of psychological disorder that may need medical attention to treat.
A workaholic may not be aware of their obsessive need to keep working, and often even the people around them may not necessarily be conscious of it. Thus a workaholic displays their “deviant” behavior prior to being labeled.
In fact, given the present popular discourse around maintaining a healthy work-life balance, labeling is likely to push a workaholic to improvement, rather than to an exacerbation of their “deviance”, as happens in the case of secondary deviance. This makes workaholism a good example of primary deviance.
At the other end of the workplace deviance spectrum can be placed people who work at a much slower pace and often get labelled as slackers, shirkers, or laggards at the workplace. Contrasting instances of Japanese workaholism with the cultural stereotypes of a relaxed life, such as the ritual of siesta in Mediterranean countries, also helps us to get a deeper appreciation of the social and cultural relativism of norms and deviance.
Example 8 – Racial Profiling
Racial profiling has become a major area of concern in most countries with multi-racial, multi-ethnic populations. It leads to fears that the dominant group may use the instruments of state power such as the police to racially profile and target ethnic minorities for discriminatory treatment.
In such cases, the race, ethnicity, or religion of the targeted group is perceived as deviant by the state, and the person becomes a deviant simply on account of their existence in that society.
In such cases, deviance is clearly a social construct, and can be countered by having in place a more sensitive and empathetic state and society that does not look upon mere ethnic difference as a form of deviance.
Example 9 – Religious Symbols and Observances
Religious symbols, dress codes, and observances can often be perceived as forms of deviance by a hegemonic culture or group.
A classic example is the debate over the wearing of the Islamic headscarf ( Hijab/ Burqa/ Purdah) in France and the Quebec province of Canada.
The dominant western liberal cultural framework expressed ambiguity over whether the Islamic headscarf is to be viewed as an expression of women’s agency, or a symbol of women’s repression. However, in France and Quebec, the dominant view was that it was an oppressive symbol, leading to a labeling of observant Muslims as deviants and laws outlawing headscarfs in some instances.
Acts of primary deviance have two main characteristics –
- A person transgresses social norms (acknowledging that social norms change across time and place)
- Their behaviors have not been internalized and it has not led to a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies in which the person becomes the very thing they are accused of.
In all the examples listed above, a nuanced and sensitive handling of the act of primary deviance can allow either:
- The person to put the experience behind them and reintegrate into society without being labelled for life.
- Society to evolve and stop stigmatization.
However, if the stigma of the act of primary deviance is made permanent, the subject is likely to internalize it, leading them to acts of secondary deviance.
Humphreys, L. (1970) Tea room trade: Impersonal sex in public places. London: Routledge.
Pratt, J.D.( 1983) Law and social control: A study of truancy and school deviance. Journal of law and society, 10(3), 263-323. Doi: https://doi.org/10.2307/1410233