Secondary deviance is a stage of deviance from the labeling theory of deviance in which a person internalizes the labels applied to them by society.
A fundamental principle of secondary deviance is the social construction of the self, which means that individuals construct their self image based on their perception of what others think of them. In simple terms, they start seeing themselves the ways others see them.
Explanation of Secondary Deviance
When we talk about ‘deviance’, we’re talking about things people do that are considered abnormal, bad, or even exceptional.
There are two main types of deviance: primary and secondary.
- Primary deviance includes things people do that are abnormal, but are not seen as central to someone’s identity. They can get away with doing something ‘different’ or even ‘wrong’ without being labeled as a ‘bad person’. See: examples of primary deviance.
- Secondary deviance includes things people do that are abnormal and have become seen as central to their identity. Both the person doing the act and the rest of society can see them as inherently ‘bad’, ‘evil’, ‘criminal’, and so on.
Examples of Secondary Deviance
1. ‘Smart’ vs ‘Dumb’ Students
Summary: If you label a child as dumb, they may come to see themselves as dumb and therefore not put much effort into their school work. Teachers should always set high expectations to avoid labeling.
When working with my education studies students, we often talk about the labels we give students, and the possible effects they may have.
If a teacher labels a student dumb or inadequate, that student comes to learn that they’re not expected to do well.
The student may begin to set low expectations of themselves. They might label themselves as dumb and incapable, and therefore decide not to try very hard. Here, we have led the student down the path of secondary deviance.
You can also use this example to separate out primary versus secondary deviance.
- Primary deviance: If you tell a student who performs badly in a test that they “can do better next time” or that you “expect better results next time”, you’re constructing primary deviance. In other words, you’re not labelling the student as dumb, but labeling them as capable with effort.
- Secondary deviance: If you label a student who performs badly as ‘dumb’, or even start giving them easier work, you might send them signals that you don’t expect much of them. You’re encouraging them to internalize the idea that they’re not smart.
With this knowledge, teachers should always aim to set high expectations for all students and avoid the temptation to expect less of some students than others.
2. Bullying/Use of Violence
Summary: If you label a child a bully, they may come to see themselves as bullies and continue to do the bullying.
Bullying is a common form of deviance observed among children.
A child may resort to bullying other kids due to various reasons that he or she may not be conscious of, such as a lack of attention from parents, unchannelled aggression, dealing with some form of trauma, etc.
Once labelled a bully or someone with violent tendencies, a child may construct a self-image of themselves as a bad kid. They may then continue to be bullies because that’s what they know society expects of them. They may even grow up into violent adults.
3. Gaps in Professional Resumes
Summary: People who have gaps in their resumes are often permanently labeled as lazy in late capitalism.
You can also think of people who have large gaps in their professional resumes, and the negative perception that recruiters tend to have of them.
Several job descriptions explicitly state that an applicant must not have any gap in their studies or work career.
People with gaps in their resumes may get characterized as deviants in such a hypercompetitive professional environment that rewards constant activity as demonstrated by professional and personal achievements, and penalizes stillness, or the cessation of professional activity.
People may have gaps in their resumes for a variety of reasons ranging from the need to provide care to ailing family members, dealing with personal traumas, or quite simply, to stop and make sense of the often overwhelming nature of life.
In the absence of any discourse normalizing such gaps, these people have no other yardstick to measure their situation by, except for the dominant corporate template in which professional gaps are equated with failure and laxness.
In a system that demands relentless accounting for every year of your life (demonstrated to have been dedicated to the achieving of such professional goals as deemed desirable by the recruiter), hiding such a gap becomes impossible.
The professional CV thus can be thought of as an institution in itself in which the stigma of the gap becomes an indelible negative label. This can result in an internalizing of the dominant narrative by the subject that characterizes their situation as one of deviance.
4. Power and the Juvenile Justice System
Summary: Police often label people of certain ethnicities and social-class as deviants, despite the fact they may commit less crimes that similar demographics.
Aaron Cicourel (1968) in his book The Social Organization of Juvenile Justice argued that the perceptions and stereotypes of police were a major deciding factor in crime statistics.
In his study of two Californian cities with similar socio-economic profiles yet widely varying rates of delinquency, Cicourel demonstrated that it was the difference in the perceptions of the law enforcement and justice systems that created the delinquency, not actual crime.
The police stereotyping included:
- Physical appearance (darker skin color, unkempt hair, disheveled clothing), and
- Manner of speech more closely associated with the wrong social class
In cities where more people possessed those labels, the rates of delinquency were much higher.
Cicourel thus concluded that it was the justice system that created delinquency through its need for labeling that in turn fed into a cycle of long-lasting secondary deviance.
5. The Professional Musician
Summary: Many musicians construct themselves as deviants because they feel society doesn’t understand their culture and skills.
The sociologist Howard S. Becker in his influential work The Outsider (1963) (not to be confused with the movie, or the novel of the same name on which it was based) explains how professional musicians begin to think of themselves as being different from the rest of society.
Professional musicians, according to Becker, begin to feel isolated from society as they feel that their audience, for the most part, has no real appreciation for, or understanding of the nuances of music.
Himself a Jazz musician, Becker spent several years performing with Jazz ensembles in Chicago as part of his fieldwork.
As service professionals whose sense of self is deeply connected to the patronage and appreciation by their audience, musicians are a classic case of symbolic interactionism. That is, a case study in how the self is constructed in interaction with others.
As Becker (1951) observed during his several years of performing as a Jazz musician, the average customer at a Jazz bar did not much care for the more complex, intricate, improvised pieces of music that the musicians themselves loved to play.
Instead, the vast majority demanded the same simple, sugary, commercialized music that the musicians themselves despised, leading to a feeling of contempt and superciliousness developing among the musicians for their audience.
This kind of interaction between the professional musicians and their audience led to the musicians first steadily isolating themselves, and then increasing this isolation through what Becker calls a process of “self-segregation”.
This isolation is not a physical one, but rather a mental and social one, in which the musician becomes obsessed with building a defense in their heads against what they perceive as outside control over their craft, by people ( i.e. their audience, for whom they are bound to perform in return for money) who are utterly incapable of appreciating and understanding their craft.
Musicians did this, for instance, by using slang such as calling the ordinary person “a square”, by extension implying that a professional musician is not a square, but a deviant.
With time, this attitude of perceiving themselves as different from society leads professional musicians into more negative forms of deviant behavior such as drug use, as they feel that the standard norms of social behavior no longer apply to them as deviants.
6. Body Shaming
Summary: Some people internalize the idea that they are ugly due to society’s unachievable beauty ideals.
Victims of body shaming are perceived as deviants on account of their physical appearance that may not always conform to the prevailing norms of physical aesthetics defined by hegemonic groups in a culture.
For instance, in a pop-cultural environment obsessed with size-zero figures for women and muscular, ripped bodies for men, however unattainable these may be, people with body types that fall well outside this norm are likely to be victims of body shaming.
With time they internalize this perception of their appearance, leading to serious conditions such as body dysmorphia, eating disorders, anorexia, etc.
7. Criminal Tribes of British India
Summary: Historically, some people have been labeled as criminals simply based on their ethnicity or locality.
The Criminal Tribes Acts were a series of legislations passed by the British colonial state in India under which entire communities,villages, or tribes were declared as criminals.
Men of such communities were required to report to the local police stations every week, irrespective of whether or not they had committed any criminal act, and were not allowed to leave their designated residential areas without passes.
Thus all members of such tribes and communities were labelled criminals by the state simply on account of being born into that tribe or community.
This led to severe stigma being attached to such tribes that continues to this day. The colonial state attempted to justify its labelling by pointing to higher crime figures attributed to members of the criminal tribes, in what can be perceived of as simply a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies.
In present day India, such tribes are referred to with the only marginally less stigmatizing label of “denotified tribes” or “ex-criminal tribes” – a stark reminder of the lasting effects of institutional labeling.
Thus even though the post-colonial state has attempted to reverse the labeling applied by the colonial state, it can only do so by once again drawing attention to, and thus reinforcing the original act of negative labeling.
If the colonial state “notified” certain tribes as criminal, and the postcolonial state attempts to reverse this action by “denotifying” them, the permanence of the original act of negative institutional labeling persists.
8. Chronic Speech Disorders
Summary: People may develop chronic speech disorders if we label them as stutterers.
Edwin Lemert (1912-1996) in his study of primary and secondary deviance presented a case study of Inuit communities on the pacific coast of Canada among whom stuttering was uncommonly prevalent.
Lemert (1967) pointed out that in Inuit culture, ceremonial speeches were an important ritual, and thus the ability to speak clearly and eloquently in front of an audience without the slightest slip of the tongue was a marker of social prestige.
At the same time, stuttering had an uncommonly high rate of prevalence in the Inuit community. Lemert attributed this apparent contradiction to the prevalence of secondary deviance.
Given the great importance attached to clearly enunciated speech in Inuit communities, someone with even the slightest speech disorder is likely to be considered a deviant.
Thus children, unable to enunciate clearly under social pressure may be considered deviants and labelled as stutterers and stammeres despite the fact they only stuttered in some situations.
Over time, children may internalize this image of themselves as stutterers, resulting in the stuttering becoming chronic, and not just during public speaking.
Origins of Secondary Deviance Theory
Secondary deviance is from the labeling theory of deviance, also sometimes referred to as social reaction theory.
Among the early proponents of the theory was the sociologist George Herbert Mead (1863-1931).
Two decades later, the Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman (1922-1982) built on Mead’s work in his highly influential book, The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life published in 1956.
Goffman compared everyday social interactions with theatrical performances, emphasizing how we all are engaged in influencing other people’s opinions of us.
Goffman (1963) also contributed a seminal text in the exploration secondary deviance with the publication of his book, Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity. This book explored the impact of stigma on people considered abnormal by society whether on account of their physical appearance, their behavior, or their sexuality.
Goffman showed how people’s attempts to manage the stigma placed upon them pervades every aspect of the lives of the stigmatized.
The American sociologist Howard S. Becker (b. 1928), working at about the same time, provided a more detailed explanation of the lasting impact of labeling on those considered deviants. Becker (1963) devised the following schema to represent how secondary deviance works, starting with negative labeling and moving towards a permanent life of deviance:
In Becker’s formulation, the ‘Master Status’ stage represents the definitive stage of secondary deviance, in which the subject’s self-identification as a deviant becomes their dominant conception of themselves, overriding all other conceptions of their selves that they may possess.
Secondary deviance, unlike primary deviance, is of a more lasting nature.
When applied to individuals, it can acquire the form of master status, overwriting any and all other conceptions of the self a subject may possess.
When applied to groups of people or to communities, it can persist stubbornly for generations, and even centuries.
It is clearly a powerful phenomenon. Understanding the effects of secondary deviance empowers us to better envision the issues of delinquency in society, and how to devise more humane solutions to such issues that solve, rather than exacerbate the problem at hand.
Secondary deviance theory also allows us to better understand the notion of deviance and its various forms, and to appreciate that deviance is not the same as delinquency.
Read Next: The Conflict Theory of Deviance
Becker, H.S. (1951) The professional dance musician and his audience. American Journal of Sociology, 57(2), 136-144.
Becker, H.S. (1963) Outsiders. New York: Free Press.
Cicourel, A.V. (1968) The social organization of juvenile justice. Los Angeles: Wiley.
Goffman, E. (1959) The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. Chicago: Anchor.
Goffman, E. (1963) Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity. London: Simon & Schuster.
Lemert, E. (1967). Human deviance: Social problems and social control. London: Prentice-Hall.
Colonial act still haunts denotified tribes (2008). The Hindu. https://web.archive.org/web/20080330203014/http://www.hindu.com/2008/03/27/stories/2008032752100300.htm
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.