Tertiary Deviance: Meaning And Examples

Deviance or deviant behavior is a sticky subject and can be difficult to differentiate. Tertiary deviance is a case of trying to turn a negative identity into a positive one by rejecting the notion of being wrong.

The term originated in 1980 by John Kitsuse after Lemert had defined primary and secondary deviance (1951).

So, what exactly is tertiary deviance and how is it connected to other forms of deviance?

This guide contains the answer to these questions, practical examples, and all the extra details you need to fully understand deviant labels. 

What is Tertiary Deviance?


Tertiary deviance is the act of trying to normalize a deviant or negative behavior by labeling it “non-deviant”, acceptable, or a positive phenomenon.

This is the case when someone tries to justify stealing a wallet by saying no one on earth can claim to not have stolen something before. 

Tertiary deviants are generally stigmatized within society for their individual decisions. This may result in them forming groups or associations to face stigmatization.

Not all tertiary deviance is harmful to society. Some lead to the establishment of a new sense of awareness. I will explain as we proceed.

Example of Tertiary Deviance

Tertiary deviance can take many forms. However, let’s take a look at two of the most popular forms:

1. Social movements

A social movement is a type of tertiary deviance with a less negative effect on society. It occurs when deviants come together to prove that an action should be acceptable.

A major social movement that yielded positive results is the fight for the acceptance of gay and transgender rights. The fight against stigmatization began in the 1960s in major parts of America and Europe. 

Before this, homosexuality was a big offense that attracted criminal punishments. In other words, those who expressed romantic desires toward people of the same gender were tagged as deviants and ostracized from mainstream society.

2. Cheating or malpractice

Cheating is wrong no matter how you put it but there are cases where deviants can put up a seemingly good fight. Here is a scenario that occurred during a multiple-choice test:

Ali must answer 50 questions in 40 minutes. This exam features 25 verbal and 25 quantitative questions. Within this time, his strategy was to solve questions that involved no calculations first. 

While doing this, he circled the answers to the simple questions in his question sheet with the hope of transferring them to his answer booklet later. This was to ensure that only finalized decisions go into his answer sheet and prevent errors.

He completed the verbal questions and moved on to the mathematical questions with just 20 minutes to go. Ali is running out of time. By the time he answered just 10 questions in this section, he had just 5 minutes left.

Within these 5 minutes, Ali turned to his peer who was through for answers to the remaining 10 questions. The answers he got here went straight to his answer booklet – Malpractice.

This means he has just 1 minute to transfer 40 questions into his answer booklet. Unfortunately for him he was only able to transfer 27 questions into the answer booklet before the deadline and had to submit it. 

In this case, it is glaring that Ali cheated at some point during the test. However, as a tertiary deviant, he can blame his cheating on the fact that the test was extremely difficult and time restrictive.

He can also claim that the need to pass outweighs his tiny cheating. In both cases, he is trying to tag deviant behaviors such as cheating and malpractice as acceptable based on the strict circumstances he was subjected to.

Primary Vs Secondary Vs Tertiary Deviance

1. Primary deviance

Primary deviance is the very first stage of deviant behaviors. This sort of behavior usually goes unnoticed or gets little reaction from the community. 

Almost everyone is guilty of this deviance at some stage. For example, stealing is a bad act but when it is carried out by a little boy, all he gets is punishment to correct what he thinks is right but is not.

The same can be said for teenagers who engage in acts like substance use or alcohol. These acts go against the norms but parents can only ground their kids from bad influence, punish them and watch them closely to correct them.

This means primary deviants are not really called deviants because their actions are not based on a true understanding or are majorly influenced. They can also be corrected when spotted early.

2. Secondary deviance

Secondary deviance unfolds when a primary deviant gets tagged or ostracized and the deviant continues in the light with which the community views him or her. 

In other words, if the little boy in the supermarket with his mom got caught stealing candy and people in the store started calling him names.

Such a kid may consider himself a thief and continue in the act. This is called secondary deviance.

Continuation of secondary deviance usually leads to serious crimes and may lead the deviant to imprisonment or death.

3. Tertiary deviance 

Tertiary deviance is engaging in any deviant behaviors (primary or secondary) and trying to justify them. It often manifests in older persons and may attract various punishments if your case makes no sense.

Other Forms of Social Deviance

Primary, secondary, and tertiary deviance all have variants. They include: 

1. Formal deviant behavior

This is classified as a behavior or an act that violates enacted laws. Examples include murder, rape, and assault, to name a few.

Formal deviant behavior attracts criminal punishments such as jail terms, fines, and even death sentences.

2. Informal deviant behavior

Unlike formal deviant behavior, these acts are seen as minor deviance because they violate social (informal) norms only. They rarely result in legal punishments but can lead to being ridiculed within the community.

Examples of this act include public intoxication, loitering, littering, and more. Please note that deviant behavior like showing up late to work can have serious consequences like getting sacked.

3. Subcultural deviant behavior

Subcultural deviant behavior is an act that violates the norms of a group or an association within a society. This subculture may have strict prohibitions against acts like prostitution, drug abuse, and cultism.

When you engage in them, you are seen as an offender or criminal and get the deserved punishment. Some subcultures also use violent behaviors to indicate their strength.

4. Serial deviant behavior

When there is a recognized pattern to your deviant behavior, it is considered a serial one. In other words, if you keep showing up late at work, it means it is deliberate and it is a lifestyle you enjoy.

5. Situational deviance 

Situational deviance is when you engage in acts that are considered deviant or improper at a particular place or time.

This form of deviance is also largely dependent on if the people around you consider your behavior deviant.

For example, if you are at a nude beach, it is practically okay to display nudity because you won’t be criticized. However, this would not be considered normal in public places like your street.

Situation deviance is often harmless but some cases may attract serious consequences. A good example is driving under the influence of alcohol or drinking while driving. As entertaining as the thought may be, it can lead to death or being fined.


What are some of the main causes of deviant behavior?

Theoretically, social inequality is regarded as the major cause of deviant behaviors.

Theories such as functionalism, labeling theory, and conflict theory will help you better understand the different factors responsible for deviant behaviors. 

What are the types of deviant subcultures?

The 3 types of subcultures include religious communities, musical groups, alternative lifestyles associations, and youth gangs. 

These groups develop sets of values outside the culture of the dominant population and make it their identity.

What are the most deviant behaviors?

Pornography or adult content consumption, drug abuse, poaching, child molestation, and excessive drinking are some of the most common deviant behaviors.

These acts can be found on social media daily.

What is the difference between deviant and criminal behavior?

Deviance is acting outside or against the social norms guiding a society while criminal behaviors are considered an act against the formal law of a country.

Secondary and tertiary deviance can result in criminal behaviors.


Deviant behaviors generally go against formal or informal rules guiding a society. When you engage in such acts and try to justify them, you are practicing tertiary deviance and may get punished after your plea gets disregarded. 

Tertiary deviance on a large scale may also result in the formation of groups or associations. If these associations fight for considerable rights, they may be legalized.

However, this may take a very long time and may not be accepted universally. I hope you found this guide helpful.

Perhaps you would be more interested in learning about morals, please see the importance of high moral standards.

Thanks for reading.