9 Types of Deviance in Sociology

types of deviance

The study of deviance in sociology examines actions or behaviors that go against established social norms (Erikson, 1962; Goode, 2015). These can be formal rules like laws and informal expectations like customs and taboos. 

Types of deviant behavior include: 

  1. Countercultural deviance
  2. Formal deviance
  3. Informal deviance
  4. Serial deviance
  5. Situational deviance
  6. Primary deviance
  7. Secondary deviance
  8. Tertiary deviance

This article will outline types of deviant behavior recognized by two theories: (1) social strain theory and (2) labeling theory. 

  • Social strain theory, developed by Robert Merton, suggests that individuals may engage in deviant behavior as a result of a strain or disconnect between their goals and the means they have to achieve those goals (Merton, 1938). This theory suggests that when individuals can’t achieve their goals through conventional means, they may turn to deviant behavior.
  • Labeling theory, developed by Howard Becker, suggests that deviant behavior is not inherent to an individual but results from society’s reaction to the individual’s actions (Becker, 2008). According to this theory, deviant behavior is not determined by the act but by the social reaction to it.

Types of Deviance in Social Strain Theory

In social strain theory, there are four types of deviance: serial, situational, formal, and informal.

About Social Strain Theory

Social strain theory suggests that hierarchical, unfair, and exclusionary societal structures can induce people to commit crimes.

It builds upon the work of French sociologist Émile Durkheim who founded functionalism. 

The theory posits that not everyone has equal access to the means required for achieving their personal goals. This is due to unequal access to education, employment, and financial resources, and other inequalities.

When individuals cannot achieve their goals through conventional means, they occasionally turn to deviant behavior as a way to do so.

Here are the four types of deviance in social strain theory:

1. Countercultural or Subcultural Deviance

Subcultural deviant behavior refers to deviance enacted by a subcultural group.

It is generally countercultural groups who behave in this behavior, given that countercultures are defined by their rebellion against the dominant culture’s norms.

This might mean, for example, a countercultural group who choose to engage in public vandalism (graffiti artists, for example), or who engage in riots after football matches.

This form of deviant behavior is explicitly explored as one of three deviant subcultures, for example, in differential opportunity theory.

Subcultural deviance can reach the point where it requires task forces specifically put in place to tackle the subculture’s public deviance, such as when biker gangs are explicitly targeted by the police to break them up.

2. Serial Deviance

Serial deviance refers to deviant behavior that repeatedly occurs, to the point that the deviant often needs to be removed from society to prevent the recurrence.

A typical example is recidivism, which refers to instances where people released from prison end up back in prison after committing another crime.

There are, of course, ways to prevent recidivism. For example, giving prisoners an education in a trade or ensuring they have healthy social connections on the outside can help them to re-integrate into society successfully.

In a much less intense version, we can see that a child who consistently misbehaves in class might be considered a serial deviant.

3. Situational Deviance

Situational deviance refers to behavior that might only be considered deviant within a specific situation.

For example, putting your bare feet up on the coffee table in your living room doesn’t seem deviant at all. But if you do it in the board room, you’ll likely be considered insane. Being barefoot at work, and lounging during an important meeting, is situationally deviant.

When turning up in a new culture, your lack of cultural awareness and understanding of cultural norms can get you into situations where you become unwillingly a situational deviant.

For example, walking into a Buddhist temple revealing your knees might seem harmless to you, but offensive to traditional Thai culture.

4. Formal Deviance

Formal deviance refers to deviant behavior that is also a violation of rules or laws.

If you engage in formal deviance, you are breaking either the rules of an institution or government laws, which may land you in real trouble.

For example, a person who engages in formal deviance in a school setting might have broken the class rules and, therefore, be subject to a sanction such as detention or extra homework.

Similarly, in adulthood, driving too fast will lead to a speeding ticket; while more serious infractions may see you in front of a court or even in prison.

5. Informal Deviance

Informal deviance refers to breaking social norms without breaking codified laws or rules.

It occurs when you behave in culturally insensitive ways or ways that might appear shocking to people within the culture. For example, it might simply be the case that you crossed the lines of a cultural taboo.

Examples might include being rude to a waiter or not tipping for your meal in the United States.

You won’t get into trouble off the law for your informal deviance, but you may be judged or even outcast by the people around you.

6. Positive Deviance

A positive deviant is a person whose deviant behavior turns out to have a positive effect on themselves or their community.

A prime example of this is when a person or family chooses a diet that is different from that of the rest of the community. The community may look upon this as abnormal or even inappropriate. But, later, it comes to pass that their diet ends up having positive effects and leading to better outcomes.

Another example is when someone drops out of school to do something non-normative such as traveling or starting a business. They are seen to be making a huge mistake, but in 5 years time, we see that they’re far more successful than their contemporaries.

Scholars will often study positive deviance to see if they can deduce the important lessons that can be applied for others. We see this, for example, in biographies about successful people like Mark Zuckerberg.

Types of Deviance in Labeling Theory

In labeling theory, there are three types of deviance: primary, secondary, and tertiary.

About Labeling Theory

Labeling theory is a sociological theory developed by Howard Becker (2008). The main idea is that people are labeled as deviants, and that process of labeling pushes them into conducting deviant acts..

This goes against the common assumption that deviant behavior is an inherent characteristic of deviant individuals. 

The concept is that deviance is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When people are stereotyped, they lean into that stereotype.

Labeling theory, like social strain theory, has its roots in the work of French sociologist Émile Durkheim. Durkheim was the first to suggest that labeling someone as deviant serves the purpose of controlling their behavior and satisfying the need for order (Durkheim, 2018). 

Labeling theory can be applied to several types of deviant behavior, but the most commonly discussed types are primary, secondary, and tertiary deviance.

1. Primary

Primary deviance refers to a deviant behavior that is an initial and usually relatively minor violation of a social norm. At this stage, the person has not yet been labeled as a deviant.

This type of deviance is a normal and temporary part of socialization and is not necessarily indicative of a long-term pattern of deviant behavior (Lemert, 1967). For example, toddlers often break social norms as a natural part of their development, and it is something they will grow out of.

2. Secondary

Secondary deviance refers to a deviant behavior that is repeated, reinforced, and institutionalized as a result of the social reaction to primary deviance (Lemert, 1967). 

By the time we reach secondary deviance, society has applied the label of ‘deviant’ to the person. This type of deviance may therefore be a result of the labeling and stigmatization process.

For example, a child who is labeled as a “thief” after committing a single act of primary deviance (stealing a toy) may begin to engage in more deviant behavior because they think it’s expected of them. Negative stereotyping and stigmatization can lead to more deviant behavior. 

3. Tertiary

Tertiary deviance usually refers to a stage where the deviant behavior becomes institutionalized and integrated into the individual’s identity.

This type of deviance can thereby become a permanent aspect of the individual’s self-concept.

The individual may view their behavior as normal and may have difficulty understanding why it is considered deviant by others (Weitz, 1982).


Deviance can manifest in various ways, such as criminal activity, substance abuse, and delinquent behavior (Macionis & Gerber, 2010). Other examples of deviant behavior include absenteeism, vandalism, and promiscuous behavior. There are many ways to distinguish different types of deviant behavior. The categories offered by social strain theory and labeling theory are just two perspectives out of many. 


Agnew, R. (2014). General Strain Theory. In G. Bruinsma & D. Weisburd (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice (pp. 1892–1900). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-5690-2_218

Becker, H. S. (2008). Outsiders. Simon and Schuster.

Cohen, A. K. (1965). The Sociology of the Deviant Act: Anomie Theory and Beyond. American Sociological Review, 30(1), 5–14. https://doi.org/10.2307/2091770

Durkheim, E. (2018). Suicide, a Study in Sociology. Creative Media Partners, LLC.

Erikson, K. T. (1962). Notes on the Sociology of Deviance. Social Problems, 9(4), 307–314. https://doi.org/10.2307/798544

Goode, E. (2015). The Sociology of Deviance. In The Handbook of Deviance (pp. 1–29). John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118701386.ch1

Heckert, A., & Heckert, D. M. (2002). a new typology of deviance: Integrating normative and reactivist definitions of deviance. Deviant Behavior, 23(5), 449–479. https://doi.org/10.1080/016396202320265319

Lemert, E. M. (1967). Human Deviance, Social Problems, and Social Control. Prentice-Hall.

Macionis, J. J., & Gerber, L. M. (2010). Sociology. Pearson Education Canada.

Merton, R. K. (1938). Social Structure and Anomie. American Sociological Review, 3(5), 672–682. https://doi.org/10.2307/2084686

Weitz, R. (1982). From Accommodation to Rebellion: Tertiary Deviance and the Radical Re-definition of Lesbianism.

Zhang, J. (2019). The strain theory of suicide. Journal of Pacific Rim Psychology, 13, e27. https://doi.org/10.1017/prp.2019.19

Zhang, J., Wieczorek, W. F., Conwell, Y., & Tu, X. M. (2011). Psychological strains and youth suicide in rural China. Social Science & Medicine, 72(12), 2003–2010. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.03.048

Website | + posts

Tio Gabunia is an academic writer and architect based in Tbilisi. He has studied architecture, design, and urban planning at the Georgian Technical University and the University of Lisbon. He has worked in these fields in Georgia, Portugal, and France. Most of Tio’s writings concern philosophy. Other writings include architecture, sociology, urban planning, and economics.

Website | + posts

This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *