Ethnomethodological Perspective (on Crime and Deviance)
Robert O. Keel
Department of Sociology
University of Missouri-St. Louis
(from, Encyclopedia of Criminology and Deviance, edited by Clifton Bryant, published by Taylor and Francis)
Ethnomethodology emerged as a distinctive perspective within sociology during the 1960s. It is associated--and confused--with a variety of perspectives (existential sociology, creative sociology, reflexive sociology, interactionism, and most recently constructionism). Specifically, ethnomethodology is a part of the tradition of phenomenological sociology established through the work of Alfred Schutz (1962). Although the primary focus of ethnomethodology differs from that of phenomenology, both are centered on describing the emergence of order out of the shared experience of members of particular societies (Zimmerman and Wieder, 1970, 286-290). This focus on order as a practical accomplishment of the everyday interactions of members of a group produces ethnomethodology's distinctive perspective on deviance in comparison to normative sociologies (1).
Simply put, deviance in and of itself is not a concern for ethnomethodological analysis. Deviance, as a commonsensical designation employed by societal members and organizations, and as a sociological construct, is viewed as an organizing concept that emerges in interaction. These ongoing constructions produce a sense of order within the world of everyday life. It is within the context of these interactional constructions where the normal and ordinary are distinguished from the abnormal and strange that ethnomethodological interest is raised. Here, where the norm is made manifest, the ceaseless interpretive work of societal members which produces a sense of the objective reality of the norm can be observed and described.
Constructions of deviance become convenient windows that allow the observation and description of the interpretational processes that sustain an ongoing sense of an ordered reality for members of a particular group or society. Deviance is a negotiated reality, and through its negotiation members produce a practical sense of an orderly and shared world. This is in stark contrast to traditional sociologies which typically define deviance as disorder, disorganization, or the product of conflict between differing groups--in one way or another an objective reality independent of, and constraining upon, members of a group.
Ethnomethodology and Phenomenology
Phenomenological sociology holds that reality is an intersubjectively shared and socially constructed phenomenon. People act based on the meaning that events and others have for them. Drawing upon the understandings developed by Alfred Schutz (1962) phenomenological sociology focuses on describing the subjective reality understood to be reality by members of society. Schutz suggested that members= subjective experience is a shared reality which draws upon a common stock of knowledge-typifications, recipes and formulas for accomplishing particular tasks, and commonsense understandings and theories that are shared by members of a group.
Through the processes of socialization, these typifications and understandings are internalized. In interaction, as we strive to produce meaningful accounts of the people and world around us, we apply these understandings in an attempt to order our experience. In doing so these understandings, and the objects to which we attach them, come to have the appearance of a reality of their own. The externalization of our shared intersubjective experience results in the objectification of the categories of understanding we have created (Berger and Luckmann, 1967). 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 1994:355). Phenomenological analysis seeks to describe this shared, intersubjective reality as it is perceived and defined by societal members in the course of their everyday lives. To accurately do this, phenomenologists 'bracket' or suspend their own belief in the objective reality of the world around them.
Ethnomethodology goes further. The structures of "objective reality' are characterized as being far more fragile and malleable. For the ethnomethodologist there is no shared set of understanding and meaning which members attach to the world around them. There is no shared sense of "deviance" that can be called upon to order the strange and unusual behavior of others. What members of a group do share are methods for making sense. Schutz's common stock of knowledge is reconceptualized as a shared set of interpretive procedures, sense making activities, that are invoked and employed continually in interaction. These procedures allow members to produce practical accounts of specific individuals engaged in specific activities in the context of particular situations. Deviance and deviants emerge as particular designations which provide practical understandings of everyday life situations. By constructing a sense that particular people and specific behavior are "outside" the norm members produce a shared understanding of the reality of the norm.
By focusing on how deviant labels--symbolic meanings attached to behavior, and norms are constructed through the interpretive work of individuals in everyday life situations, ethnomethodology, along with phenomenological sociology, can be seen as forming a foundation for other interactionist approaches to deviance. However, for ethnomethodologists the idea of an objective 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. Ethnomethodologists suspend belief in (bracket) not only the objective reality of the world, but also the idea that members share symbolic meaning structures. Social structure--conceptualized as a moment-to-moment accomplishment, and its symbolic meanings are analyzed as emerging properties of human interaction. The process of continually negotiating the image of normative boundaries by accomplishing practical accounts of deviant behavior that becomes the focus of the ethnomethodologist.
Significant within the ethnomethodological approach is a focus on 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). There are a variety of interrelated processes that ethnomethodologists analyze in connection to the interpretive work of actors in everyday situations. The spiral of reflexivity and indexicality forms the core of their analysis. Specific interpretational procedures and guidelines such as retrospective interpretation, the rules of consistency and economy, and documentary interpretation are displayed as basic activities out of which understandings of deviance emerge.
Once constructed, understandings of deviance become part of the context from which they emerged. The resulting typifications become explained within the context of common-sense theories. These theories, sometimes rooted in folk wisdomsometimes rooted in science, focus attention on the relevance of specific features of situations as being keys to understanding behavior.
Reflexivity 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 "type" we have constructed. The "objective reality" of this "type" thus created is paradoxically understood as a product of the features of the situation rather than our interpretive process (Pfohl, 1994: 357).
Theories of deviance, shaped within the historical context of understanding the deviant as simply bad, wicked, or evil--or the more contemporary conceptions of sickness and disease; structure our perceptions and allow us to recognize for the practical purposes at hand the meaning of individuals and their behavior. Such understandings, couched in causal terminology, lead to the institutionalization of societal response to deviance. Whether the child molester is electrocuted, chemically castrated, or continually monitored via the Internet is dependent on the prevailing interpretive guidelines of the moment. When officials come to define tobacco as a drug millions of smokers >become= drug users, and a new campaign against drug use ensues.
Relevant here is the phenomenological concern with the subjective meaning behavior has for the actor. Identity (a sense of order within the individual) is constructed and embodied in ways similar to the appearance of order "out there" in society. The individual actor may well become the deviant phenomenon. This social construction of reality produces the context of individual (and group) identity and behavior out of which typifications and common-sense theories emerge.
The central concept of indexicality focuses attention on the (reflexive) sense we make of a particular situation or activity as 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 marijuana cigarette '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 rock and roll concert or a calculus exam. Situational constraints and cues continually shape interpretational processes. Common-sense theories, constraints of time and place, appearances, and the practical demands of the moment organize an actors response to particular situations. The construction of deviance is always from a particular point of view.
Sudnow (1965) describes how the broader context of the social organization of a public defenders office as well as the specific features of particular defendants intersect to "allow" attorneys to arrive at understandings of clients= behaviors as atypical and deserving of special handling, or typical--"normal crimes" which can be processed via a set of standard procedures and plea bargaining. The meaning of being a criminal is not contained within the act one commits but emerges from within the context through which one's act is interpreted.
The ongoing spiral of indexicality and reflexivity describes the central interpretive context through which typified understandings of deviance (labels) are produced and applied as practical accomplishments leading to reasonable accounts of particular individuals and their behavior within the confines of specific situations. These accounts are seen as shaping social response that generates new contexts, both official and unofficial, and the process continues.
Through this process organizations emerge as definers and controllers of deviance, individuals come to be "understood" as deviant, and oftentimes the individuals come to see themselves as deviant. The important component here is that we typically fail to see, or at least forget, that it is through our "work" that reality and our sense of self is constructed. They come to take on a natural, taken-for-granted character. (See also, Pfohl 1994:356-357)
Retrospective interpretation details a particular process in this social construction of reality. The idea here is that the meaning of behavior, in this case past behavior, and the significance of past events, is continually being re-evaluated based on the exigencies of current situations and typified understandings. What was once perhaps confusing or even simply irrelevant for our understanding becomes seen in a new interpretive light.
Garfinkel's (1967) study of jury decision making processes suggests that jurors arrive at understandings of guilt or innocence through a variety of situational cues. Having arrived at this understanding the evidence presented in the course of the trial is organized to conform to the all ready arrived at conclusion. The image of rational decision making is maintained, but the "facts" are constructed to fit the conclusion (See also, Pfohl, 1994: 358). 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."
Sacks (1972) makes a similar claim in his analysis of how suicide threats are constructed out of crisis hotline telephone calls. Describing the process with his "consistency rule," information from the past, as well as newly encountered information, is interpreted as significant within the context of the now known threat; the individual's conversation is seen to have been leading up to the threat all along. Sacks extends his analysis with the associated interpretational process he calls the "economy rule" which suggests that once actors construct an organized understanding of a particular event they are hesitant to take into account competing explanations or constructions (see also, Liska and Messner, 1999:152).
The power of these constructions when they are couched in an assumption of deviant behavior can be so overwhelming as to shape an actors identity and lead to his or her immersion within a world of deviance. The former identity, at best, receives the accent of mere appearance... What he is now is what, "after all, he was all along." (Garfinkel, 1956: 422)
Erving Goffman (1963) discusses 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 1963: 9). A disabling event can become reinterpreted as an opportunity to start on a new life path, or an inopportune disclosure that leads to an arrest becomes a "call for help." The individual may come to a new understanding of his or her past which then serves to (re)confirm the present. Out of the spiral of indexicality and reflexivity a sense of structure emerges. This structure is a practical accomplishment based on everyday interpretive processes and it serves to confirm and elaborate deviant identities--subjectively for the individuals involved, and objectively for the organizations which document and respond to these identities.
Documentary interpretation, a special case representing the indexical-reflexive structure of interpretational processes, refers to a procedure through which immediately given information (documents); appearance, police reports, past records, and other typifications are used to infer meaning and motive in the behavior of others. "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" (Garfinkel 1967: 78).
We selectively take bits and pieces of information, those presented informally in interaction and those that are part of the "official record," and construct a reasonable account of the individual that then seems to confirm the "reading" of the documents. Members work back and forth taking into account particular documents that then are seen as meaningful within the context of common-sense theories of behavior. The theories direct our attention to particular documents, and as these contextual elements are taken into account, they become meaningful. Rosenhahn (1973) displays the workings of this process within the context of psychiatric evaluations. What would otherwise be seen as unremarkable statements about such things as occasional arguments and child spankings become interpreted as signs of an underlying mental disorder. The emerging significance of these statements develops based upon the assumption of the subject's underlying mental disorder.
Deviance, Negotiation, and Imputation of Motive
Sometimes behavior is "normalized," explained away or even ignored. Members are likely to allow certain types of disrupting behavior to pass assuming that clarification and understanding will come later. When clarification does not come or when behavior is too problematic negotiation occurs. Actors do not always readily succumb to the process of being identified as deviant. The construction of a deviant identity often involves negotiation and bargaining. Information is selectively presented. Actors attempt to enable others to see the world from their particular point of view. Explanations are presented and evaluated. Actors may deny intentional activity, or present other rationalizing accounts; the drug user steals to feed his or her addiction, a victim may 'have had it coming to them," or an event may be presented as having been an accident.
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. Interpreting an actor's behavior as being determined by forces outside their own control typically leads to more or less non-deviant designations (Jones and Davis,1965). In the context of modern medical (common-sense) theories of behavior audiences are most likely to arrive at interpretations of sickness. On the other hand, if the audience can not come to accept the actors point of view, nor ascribe cause to external contingencies, then deviant intention becomes a defining characteristic of the interaction.
The "facts" established become part of the indexical reality of the situation and reflexively shape the definition constructed. Social response to the deviant, both formal and informal, is based upon the understandings that emerge from such interactions. If deviant definitions do not emerge, the actor in question may be reintegrated within the group. If understanding of the individual or behavior as deviant develops, processes of exclusion, punishment, or treatment may ensue. Members act toward others based on the meaning constructed out of the situation at hand.
The process of constructing images of deviance and deviants takes place at many levels of interaction. At the level of face-to-face interaction the construction of deviance allows members to account for behavior viewed as problematic and to organize their daily lives. At the more formal level of social organizations, identification and control deviance becomes a practical activity embedded within the routines of organizational life. The rational demands for efficiency, calculability, predictability, and standardized control produce interpretive guidelines and categorical systems that further routinize the social construction of deviance.
At this formal level the process of negotiation is strained. The fixed categories and interests of the organization influence the decision making process. Viewed through the constraints of the organization a variety of behaviors are collapsed into standardized (surveys of illicit drug use which define use during 20 of the past 30 days as daily use and do not distinguish "daily use" at this level from multiple use throughout the day). Once confirmed within a certain type, the action of the control agent toward the "deviant" is determined by the prescribed routines of the organization of social control (Sudnow, 1965). Based on this analysis, the accounts of deviance provided by official agencies of social control (crime rates, prevalence of illicit drug use, 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 and Messner, 1999:154).
The perspective of ethnomethodology suggests that 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 she or he is located within the context of a particular category of deviance. His or her behavior, and 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.
1. I use the concept "normative sociologies of deviance" to refer to those approaches which define deviance as the violation of social norms and that seek to provide a causal analysis of the social forces which propel individuals into norm violation. Traditional strain theories, social control or social bonding theories, and traditional social disorganization theories all reflect this general approach.
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