Sociology of Deviant Behavior- Robert Keel
In order to develop a better understanding of the Labeling/Societal Reaction perspective, a brief introduction to ethnomethodology and its perspective on the phenomenon of deviance is necessary. Stephen Pfohl in his book, Images of Deviance and Social Control: A Sociological History, describes the insights and contributions of ethnomethodology starting with and introduction to Phenomenological Sociology:
Phenomenological sociology is the study of society as it appears within the consciousness of its members. Phenomenological sociologists suspend judgement as to the objective reality of social reality in order to describe social reality as it is constructed in the minds of those who experience it. Many phenomenological sociologists trace their concerns to the writings of Alfred Schutz. Schutz depicted the experience of everyday life as filtered through a set of categorical definitions or Typifications about what the world is and how one should act within it. This stock of typical meanings and recipes for action provide people with a sense that the everyday social world can be taken for granted, that it exists independently of our immediate experience of it, and that, for all practical purposes, others experience it in a similar fashion. (Pfohl, 1985:292)
Through the processes of socialization the meaning of the symbols we use to describe our experience are internalized and come to have a reality of their own. The interactionally produced explanations of deviance and normalcy, good and bad, right and wrong; interpretations of behaviors constructed as a means of making sense out of concrete situations, become "institutionalized versions of social reality...(operating) as controls over what we experience as real." (Pfohl 1985:292)
Ethnomethodology extends the phenomenological perspective to the study of everyday social interaction. It is concerned with the methods which people use to accomplish a reasonable account of what is happening in social interaction and to provide a structure for the interaction itself. Unlike symbolic interactionists [Labeling Perspective], ethnomethodologists do not assume that people actually share common symbolic meanings. What they do share is a ceaseless body of interpretive work which enables them to convince themselves and others that they share common meanings. (Pfohl, 1985:292-293)
Ethnomethodology can be seen as forming the foundation of the Labeling Perspective, focusing on how labels, symbolic meanings attached to behavior, are constructed through the interpretive work of individuals in everyday life situations. Significant here is how the constraints of the situational context, the biographies of the individuals involved , and the organizational demands placed upon the actors interact with the basic features of interpretive work to produce definitions of behavior (deviance).
Given its concern with the processes by which people construct believable, acceptable, or defendable accounts of what social life "really" is, it is not surprising that ethnomethodology has paid particular attention to the problems of deviance and social control. By categorizing certain behaviors as deviant we dramatize the recognizably "real" boundaries of social life. (Pfohl, 1985:293)
Social structure (status, roles, groups, institutions and the cultural system of meaning, values and norms that support these elements) is no longer conceived of as a determinant of human behavior, but as an emerging property of human interaction. This is not to say that social structure is insignificant, but it does indicate that social structure is a fragile, moment-to-moment accomplishment, and it is this process that deserves the attention of the sociologist of deviance.
There are a variety of interrelated features that ethnomethodologists analyze in connection to the interpretive work of actors in everyday situations: indexicality, reflexivity, documentary interpretation, retrospective interpretation and the laws of consistency and economy.
This central concept in the work of ethnomethodologists focuses attention on the sense we make of a particular situation or activity being a product of our personal biographies (the experiences and expectations we bring to the situation) and the contingent elements of the situation. Smoking a joint of marijuana 'means' one thing to the novice, another to an experienced user, and still another to a substance abuse counselor. The 'reality' of being high takes on different significance depending on whether one is entering a "Grateful Dead" concert or a calculus exam.
The term indexicality refers to the fact that all human interpretive work is bound to the context in which it occurs. The "reality" of deviance will be conceived very differently, depending on whether it is viewed from a police patrol car or from the back seat of a vehicle full of partying teenagers. The importance of indexicality to the labeling of deviance is suggested by David Sudnow's study of public defenders. Sudnow describes an overcrowded court context in which public attorneys are pressured toward using commonsense stereotypes about who is and who isn't the "normal" criminal and who should be provided with a certain type of defense or plea bargaining. The stereotypical identification of "normal crimes" is linked to the practical demands of an overworked and understaffed public defenders office. Such contextual or indexical demands significantly influence the shape of societal reaction. (Pfohl 1985: 293)
This concept expresses the ethnomethodologists understanding of the ongoing (re)construction of meaning and the sense of continuity we maintain in our interpretive work. Once defined, a situation or person "becomes," in our understanding, the 'thing" we have defined. And the "objective reality" of that person or situation becomes an indexical feature of our next interaction and interpretive process.
...reflexivity express(es) that paradoxical characteristic of human existence whereby objects only exist in relation to the interpretive meaning they have for the people who behold them. In other words, for all practical purposes, who you are is never independent of the way in which I construct and express my understanding of you....There is no pure objectivity, or for that matter pure subjectivity...Everything is in relation to everything else. By the principle of indexicality I understand my interpretations of you to be bound by the social and material context in which we are related. Thus my grasp of you is never purely subjective. Yet, since I must make interpretive use of our context to arrive at a certain knowledge of you, it is also impossible for my knowledge to purely objective. (Pfohl, 1985: 294) (emphasis added)
This spiral of indexicality and reflexivity is the central interpretive process through which deviant labels are produced and applied, and through which individuals come to be "understood" to be deviant, as well as see themselves as deviant. The key component here is that we typically fail to see, or at least forget, that it is through our "work" that reality is constructed. It takes on a natural, taken-for-granted character.
Garfinkel notes that jurors commonly provide retrospective justifications for decisions which they have already made. They look backward in producing a quasi-legal rereading of the available evidence after having already decided upon a person's guilt or innocence.....They reorder their understandings so as to suggest that "fair deliberations" were guided by the same logic from the beginning--logic which was, in fact, after the fact. (Pfohl, 1985:295)
The point here is that once we arrive at a particular "account" (explanation) of a situation or person (decision making based on typifications and commonsense categories indexically tied to the context of the situation) we reflexively reconstruct our understanding of the process so that our decision or definition appears to us as normal, natural, and "real."
Allen Liska (1987) expands on this process in his discussion of how ethnomethodologists analyze the contextual construction of deviance.
Sacksdiscusses two cognitive rules which people use in organizing information to construct social reality: the rule of consistency and the rule of economy. The former suggests that once people have categorized events and persons, they organize past information and future perceptions consistently with these categories. For example, upon defining someone as a homosexual, people tend to search for and remember confirming cues. They may note a males "feminine walk," high-pitched voice, smooth skin, lack of female companionship, style of dress--all of which would have been ignored and organized differently if they had not initially categorized the person as a homosexual. The economy rule refers to a tendency to "lock in" categories. That is, once a general category is selected for interpreting a situation, people tend not to reorganize situational cues to test the application of alternative categories....As a special case of this cognitive process, ethnomethodologists have been particularly interested in retrospective interpretation--a cognitive process whereby a person's past behavior is reinterpreted on the basis of present typifications....Events which were ignored as meaningless...take on a new significance. (Liska, 1987: 152) (emphasis added)
Erving Goffman provides a relevant discussion of the importance of understanding the process of retrospective interpretation as part of the "moral career" of those defined by deviance. The subjective understandings generated through current experiences allow for "turning points" during which...
...the stigmatized individual may single out and retrospectively elaborate experiences which (then) serve for him to account for his coming to the beliefs and practices he now has regarding his own kind and normals. (Goffman, p. 9)
A disabling event becomes reinterpreted as an opportunity to start on a new life path, an inopportune disclosure that leads to an arrest becomes a "call for help." The individual comes to a new understanding of their past which then serves to (re)confirm their present. Out of the spiral of indexicality and reflexivity a sense of structure emerges as a practical accomplishment of everyday interpretive processes, confirming and elaborating deviant identitiessubjectively for the individuals involved, and objectively for the organizations which may be involved in documenting these identities.
The final element of concern in this review of ethnomethodology and deviance is documentary interpretation. This concept is used to explain the process through which immediately given information (documents); appearance, police reports, past records, and typifications, are used to infer meaning and motive in the behavior of others.
Appearances are treated as documents of something deeper, as expressions of underlying patterns or structures. According to Garfinkel, "Not only is the underlying pattern derived from its individual documentary evidences, but the individual documentary evidences, in their turn, are interpreted on the basis of 'what is known' about the underlying pattern. Each is used to elaborate the other." ...The method of documentary interpretation is used by people to make sense of other people...Wiseman describes the manner in which such things as physical appearance, past performance, and social position are taken as indications of the kind of person a particular offender is and how his or her case should be handled. (Pfohl, 1985:295-296)
We take bits and pieces of information, those presented informally in interaction and those which are part of the "official record," and construct a reasonable account of the individual that then seems to confirm our "reading" of the documents.
Deviant intention is relevant here. How do we infer whether or not a specific act was planned and chosen by a particular individual? Intention is an important, though not specifically necessary, component in defining a person as deviant.
Edward E. Jones and Keith E. Davis (1965) argue that in attributing intentions to others, people are sensitive to whether their acts seemed to be caused by external forces (social pressures and accidents). If external forces are not apparent, people tend to attribute acts to choice and to impart motives, dispositions, and intentions to the actor. For example, homosexual behavior in a constrained single-sex environment (a prison) may not lead to being labeled a homosexual; rather the person may be defined as a heterosexual without choice. (Liska, 1987:152)
It must be understood that this process is not one-sided. People do not always readily succumb to the process of being identified as deviant. The construction of a deviant identity often involves negotiation and bargaining. Often behavior is "normalized," explained away. Information is selectively presented, justifications and excuses are presented and evaluated.
Excuses are verbalizations which mitigate responsibility for an action. For example, an individual may explain his or her wayward action as a manifestation of an uncontrolled biological drive, as an unintended and unforeseen accident, or as a result of misinformation. Justifications are verbalizations which emphasize the positive consequences of an act, particularly under certain situations, while recognizing its negative consequences in principle...A person identified as a rapist may contest the label by excusing the act as the result of drinking... (Liska, 1987: 152)
Audiences weigh and analyze these excuses and justifications as part of the interpretive processes described above. They become part of the indexical reality of the situation and reflexively shape the definition we apply to make sense of other people and their behavior.
This process often takes place within the confines of organizations created to identify and control deviant behavior.
Richard Hawkins and Gary Tiedeman (1975) argue that the constructions used by social control organizations are shaped by organizational needs for efficiency, perpetuation, and accountability. Efficiency requires a stable and simple categorical system in terms of which the complex world can be organized and described...The details and intricacies of individual cases must be ignored if they are to fit into organizational categories and routines. The need for accountability frequently results in esoteric categorical systems (such as the categorical systems of psychiatrists) through which organizations justify their contribution to solving social problems. (Liska, 1987:153)
In these cases the process of negotiation is somewhat strained. The fixed categories and interests of the organization influence the decision making process. Events and behaviors that might otherwise appear quite normal are viewed through the organizational constructions to confirm the typification of the behavior or person in question. Once confirmed within a certain type, the action of the control agent toward a "offender" is determined by the prescribed routines of the organization of social control, (See Sudnow, "Normal Crimes," in the Pontell reader). Based on this analysis, the accounts of deviance provided by official agencies of social control (crime rates, prevalence of mental illness, etc.) are not viewed by ethnomethodologists as information on the reality of deviant behavior, "...but as indicators and reflections of organizational properties and routines." (Liska, 1987:154)
Deviance and the deviant do not exist independently of the social construction of meaning centered in the situational context of everyday life. The work of ethnomethodologists forms a foundation for understanding how deviant labels and categories are created and applied through the social processes of interpretation, typification, and negotiation. The qualities and attributes of a particular individual become lost or distorted as we place him or her within the context of a particular category of deviance. His or her behavior/identity comes to represent the category of deviance and the category of deviance, in turn, becomes an explanation for the behavior or identity in question
Harold Garfinkel (1967). Studies in Ethnomethodology, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Erving Goffman (1963). Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity, New York: Simon and Schuster.
Richard Hawkins and Gary Tiedeman (1975). The Creation of Deviance, Columbus, Ohio: Chas. E. Merril.
Edward E. Jones and Keith E. Davis (1965). "From Acts to Dispositions: The Attribution Process in Personal Perception." In, L. Berkowitz (ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 2, New York: Academic Press.
Allen Liska (1987). Perspectives on Deviance, 2nd ed., Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Stephen J. Pfohl (1985). Images of Deviance and Social Control: A Sociological History, New York: McGraw-Hill.
Harvey Sacks (1972). "An Initial Investigation of Usability of Conversational Data for Doing Sociology." In, David Sudnow (ed.) Studies in Social Interaction, New York: Free Press.
Marvin B. Scott and Stanford M. Lyman (1968). "Accounts," American Sociological Review, 33, 46-62.
Jacqueline P. Wiseman (1970). Stations of the Lost: The Treatment of Skid Row Alcoholics, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
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Last Updated: Monday, May 24, 1999