Whether a person engages in deviant behavior or not is predefined by society and the norms that dominate it. Thus deviation is an act or behavior that violates social norms. However, while such behavior might be either intentional or unintentional, deviance might have long-term effects on an individual’s self-image. Indeed, if a person acts in a deviant manner for the first time and is not excluded from society, such deviation is called primary. However, if this person associates their identity with the deviation and continues to engage in it intentionally, such deviation is called secondary. A vivid example of this process might be a story about a third-grade student from an underprivileged community who took his friend’s toy when no one was watching. He engaged in primary deviance since he broke the rules of society. The teacher noticed this incident and scolded the student in front of the whole class, calling him a thief. It altered the boy’s self-image; he associated himself with deviance, and further in life, stealing became his dominant characteristic, making him a secondary deviant.
Conflict theory defines that social norms are imposed by the powerful in society. The boy who engages in the secondary deviation of theft is in an inferior position in society since he lacks the material things other people have. The main propositions of this theory, namely the inequality, privilege, and the social institution of class, reinforce the deviation of the character since he belongs to a lower class (Griffiths et al. 140). However, the weakness of this theory is that it views society as a negative factor in forming human behavior.
Another theory that might be applied to the story is Merton’s Strain Theory. It holds that secondary behavior results from the pressure of society on a person to behave in a way for which a person does not have proper resources (Griffiths et al. 140). Through school as a social institution, the boy was forced to act normally. However, he responded with rebellion and addressed the gap between the social requirements and his ability to conform to them with further stealing. The weakness of this theory is that it primarily addressed deviant behavior that involved monetary benefits while leaving out other types of deviation or crime.
From the point of view of the labeling theory, secondary deviation results from the primary deviation. In the case of the boy from the story, the initial unintentional violation of social norms when he first took another child’s toy was a primary deviation. However, through the power of the social institution of school and the actions of the teacher, the boy was labeled a thief, which reinforced this quality as a part of his identity (Griffiths et al. 141). Therefore, he became a secondary deviant because of labeling; crime began to define his personality. One of the weaknesses of this theory is the transmission of the responsibility for deviation to the members of the society who label a deviant person.
Conclusively, the deviation is a social phenomenon that is characterized by actions or behaviors that contradict or violate the norms of society. It is evident from the discussed theoretical approaches that social institutions and inequality of power play a detrimental role in forming deviant personalities. Nonetheless, the engagement in secondary deviance is a result of both the influence of society and the predisposition of an individual to non-conventional behavior.
Griffiths, Heather et al. Introduction to Sociology. 2nd ed., OpenStax, 2017.