Primary and secondary deviance is best explained through examples, so I’m going to use the character of Tommy to explain what Lemert means by primary and secondary deviance.
So Tommy is five years old and his mother has taking him to WH Smith. Now everyone knows that WH Smith has a pick and mix stand and Tommy loves his chocolate. So when mummy isn’t looking, Tommy takes some chocolate mice and carries on like nothing happened. Unfortunately, the clerk saw him eat the chocolate and he gets into trouble with mummy.
This is primary deviance. The clerk doesn’t call the police because it’s justified as childhood behaviour. When Tommy gets older, he would describe it as a “moment of madness”. No one has labelled Tommy as a thief. It is not affected his status or how society views Tommy, therefore according to Lemert primary deviance is pointless to study as it has no effect on the individual or society.
However, as Tommy gets older he continues to steal and at the age of 18 Tommy steals a car from the local Mercedes dealership. Tommy gets caught and sent to prison for 10 years but when he comes out he is still viewed as “that thief”. This makes it hard Tommy to get a job and because he needs money to survive, Tommy joins the neighbourhood gang and once again reverts to crime.
This is what Lemert calls secondary deviance – crime caused by a societal reaction. Society viewed Tommy as nothing more than a thief, so “thief” became Tommy’s master status. This puts Tommy in a self-concept crisis because he doesn’t know how he fits into society any more – no one likes him, he cannot get a job – therefore self-fulfilling prophecy occurs and Tommy fulfils his label. He joins neighbourhood gang in order to be around people who accept his master status. Therefore, Tommy reverts to crime because of his label.