Tertiary deviance is when people seek to normalize a certain deviant behavior by advocating for their position in the public sphere.
For example, less than a few decades ago, society saw homosexuality as a kind of sickness. However, since the second half of the 20th century, LGBTQ+ movements have fought hard to change such a perception and re-cast their identities as normal rather than deviant.
So, tertiary deviance involves people who embrace their deviant role, instead of rejecting it, and instead attempt to change society’s perceptions of them. A tertiary deviant strongly identifies with their deviant behavior. Often, they will come together with others who share their worldview to take collective action (protests, rallies, etc.) and change society’s view of their deviance.
Tertiary deviance is often studied along with primary and secondary deviance, within the labeling theory of deviance.
What is Deviance in Criminology and Sociology?
Erich Goode defines deviance as
…the violation of a social norm which is likely to result in censure or punishment for the violator.(2007)
We often use the term “deviance” in absolute terms, that is, we see it as something inherent in a person or behavior. Some sociologists also think of deviance in this, believing that there are unchanging, universal sources—say God or nature—that lead humans to become normative or deviant (Adler, 2007).
However, most sociologists view deviance in a relative sense: it is something that varies with time and place; from culture to culture based on cultural norms. It is socially constructed, so what may be unacceptable in one culture may be normal (or even encouraged) in another one.
Sociologists see deviance not as something inherent in a person/behavior but as a “formal property of social systems” (Scott, 2014). So, a criminal is a criminal not simply because of his “nature”; instead, his “crime” is linked to social structures, the relative social power of the violator (and victim), etc.
Go Deeper: Deviance in Sociology (Full Guide)
What is Tertiary Deviance?
Tertiary deviance is when people attempt to normalize their deviant behavior. Instead of rejecting their deviance, they embrace their role. They firmly believe that their deviance is not a bad thing. Such deviants can adopt either of the perspectives on deviance.
they tend to embrace their deviance as being intrinsically real (and not socially constructed) and attempt to demonstrate to society that their point of view is the truth. For example, LGBT people may argue that their homosexuality is completely natural (‘born with it’) and that there is nothing wrong with it. As a result, they want to convince society of this truth.
Usually, tertiary deviants strongly identify with their deviance and come together with similar deviants to fight against the deviant label that has been applied to them. This often involves engaging in what is called “identity politics”.
To change society’s view of their deviance, they engage in various activities: protests, public speeches, civil disobedience, etc. According to the conflict theory of deviance, it is only through revolt and conflict that change for the better will occur.
Such people may also try to educate people, raise funds, and pursue other forms of political advocacy that we label “positive deviance” because it is causing trouble to change social norms for the better.
Tertiary Deviance Examples
- Race/Ethnicity: Until the second half of the 20th century, being colored was seen as a “deviant” trait in the United States. In many societies, certain racial/ethnic groups are similarly labeled due to discrimination. African Americans faced a long history of oppression in the US: from being brought from Africa as slaves to getting discriminated through Jim Crow laws. However, through collective action, especially the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s), they finally managed to acquire equal legal and civil rights. So, this is an example of how “deviance” can lead to societal change in a good way.
- Homosexuality: Homosexuality had usually been seen as an “abnormal” trait until a few decades ago. Even today, many countries (especially the less-developed or religious ones) treat it as a crime. However, most countries now do not see homosexuality as a bad thing. This has been the result of various LGBTQ+ rights groups throughout the world working towards securing equal rights for their community. They conduct pride parades, create awareness & acceptance in society, and lobby for fairer policies (such as same-sex marriage laws).
- Body Positivity: Body positivity is a belief that advocates for acceptance and appreciation for all body types. Traditionally, only certain body types were seen as “beautiful”, and global standards were also deeply biased towards the West (most brands used slim, white women as models). However, in recent times, there has been a move towards greater acceptance: you might have seen models of different body types in magazines as well as ads. Fatphobia, even if it’s in the form of casual jokes, is now looked down upon by society.
- Environmental Protests: Environmental activists often resort to acts that might be classified as “deviant” by mainstream society. These acts, such as tree-sitting or blockading construction sites, are strategies to draw attention to issues like deforestation or harmful industrial activities. By doing so, activists aim to challenge and resist governmental or corporate actions that lead to environmental degradation. Over time, such “deviant” acts become symbolic of the resistance against environmental harm. By categorizing these activities as tertiary deviance, it becomes evident that the activists are not just resisting a specific policy or action but are also challenging the dominant societal norms that allow for environmental degradation in the first place.
- Neurodiversity Advocacy: Neurodiversity is a concept that challenges conventional views on neurological conditions. Individuals with neurodevelopmental conditions, such as autism, have traditionally been labeled as “disabled” or “impaired” by mainstream society. However, many within the neurodiverse community contest this view. They don’t see themselves as deficient but rather as possessing unique skills and perspectives that might not be common among neurotypical individuals. By highlighting attributes like enhanced creativity or specialized cognitive skills, they redefine societal expectations and norms surrounding their condition. This redefinition is a form of tertiary deviance, as it not only rejects the conventional label but also offers an alternative, more empowering narrative for understanding and valuing neurodiversity.
Primary vs Secondary vs Tertiary Deviance
Primary, secondary, and tertiary deviance are three different stages in the deviant identity career.
Edwin Lemert introduced the concepts of primary and secondary deviance:
- Primary deviance refers to a stage when an individual commits a deviant act, but their deviance goes unrecognized (Adler). Others do not cast any label on them, so they do not assume/perform a deviant role. Let us imagine a teenager, named Jim, who is passionate about art. One day, he sees an abandoned wall and decides to create a graffiti art piece on it. In this first instance, he is unlikely to be caught and does not see himself as a deviant individual. This is an example of primary deviance.
- Secondary deviance is when the individual does get recognized for their deviance. Their actions get discovered, others identify them as “deviant”, and label them. If Jim continues to create graffiti, he may eventually get caught and be labeled as a deviant. Initially, the deviant denies the label; but, eventually, as the label is increasingly thrust upon them, they have to inevitably accept it. They are forced to interact with the “stigma” associated with it, such as getting treated differently by others or being excluded altogether. Labeling significantly affects an individual’s role performance. They may start to identify with the label that has been assigned to them and engage in even more deviant behavior. This is a kind of “self-fulfilling prophecy”, where they become even more entrenched in deviant behavior.
Most people either remain in the primary deviance stage or reach the secondary deviance stage. However, some individuals go to what Kitsuse called tertiary deviance (1980):
- Tertiary deviance is when the individual embraces their role and no longer sees their behavior as deviant. In our example, Jim may begin to believe that graffiti is not something bad at all. He may get together with other like-minded individuals, and they may try to fight against societal perceptions of this “deviant behavior”. Like other tertiary deviants, they may engage in collective actions like public speeches, protests, lobbying, etc., to achieve this goal.
Tertiary deviance is when people try to normalize a certain “deviant” behavior.
They fully embrace their role and try to redefine it positively. They often come together with similar individuals and take collective action (rallies, education, lobbying, etc.) to change societal perceptions about their deviance.
Historically, many societal changes—whether it is the acceptance of homosexuality or the implementation of anti-discriminatory policies—have come about in this manner. Therefore, “deviance” is often a tool for progressive social development.
Adler, P. A. and Adler, P. (2007). Deviant Identity. in George Ritzer (Ed.) The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. London: Wiley-Blackwell.
Goode, E. (2007). Deviance in George Ritzer (Ed.) The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. London: Wiley-Blackwell.
Kitsuse, J. I. (1980). Coming out all over: Deviants and the politics of social problems. Social Problems, 28(1), 1-13. doi: https://doi.org/10.2307/800377
Lemert, E. (1967). Human Deviance, Social Problems, and Social Control. Prentice-Hall, New York
Scott, J. (2014). “Deviance” in A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.