Phenomenology is a philosophical view that emphasizes the subjective and introspective nature of our experience. A phenomenological approach involves conflict perspective, Interpretivism and micro-sociology that sees deviancy as being relative and situational with no universal standard by which everyone can be measured. A phenomenological approach believes that what in one society may be deemed as deviant behaviour may not be seen as such by another social group in a different part of the world and that it is society itself within a specific area that determines what is deviant behaviour or not. A phenomenological approach also believes that what is seen as deviant behaviour now may not be seen as such in years to come because of changes within society.


A phenomenological approach such as interactionism stresses how people perceive the world and interact with one another and relate to a lived experience. Phenomenological research takes account of participants’ subjective responses to an experience and that the individual is more important than society. A phenomenological approach includes interactionism, labelling theory and also overlaps with postmodernism.


Phenomenologists seek to understand what a phenomenon is. They attempt to discover what deviance is by examining the way in which some acts and individuals come to be defined and labelled as deviant.


Both phenomenology and interactionism emphasize the importance of the way in which the law is enforced. They are concerned with labelling individuals as deviant. They concentrate on studying the subjective states of individuals rather than the structure of societies as a whole.


An approach known as ethnomethodology is an American sociological perspective which attempts to apply the principles of phenomenology to the study of society. Ethnomethodologists are not concerned to explain the causes of deviance as reflected by statistics or social surveys to develop our understanding of deviance. They are concerned to examine how actions or acts come to be defined as deviant and/or criminal. The processing of the deviant through such agencies as the police and courts is seen as the appropriate area for study.  Ethnomethodologists have looked at juvenile justice in America [Cicourel, 1976]. They also look at how juries arrive at their verdicts and the role of coroners [Atkinson, 1978].


The process of defining a young person as delinquent involves a series of interactions based on sets of meanings held by the participants. The formal norms: laws and organisational rules – official standards that apply to a given situation and a punishment is issued at the end of the process. The informal norms: varies from group to group, no formal sanctions; e.g. someone who smokes within a group of friends may not be seen as deviant by those in the group who also smoke but non-smokers even within that friendship group may see such behaviour as deviant even if they are not prepared to ‘issue’ some form of punishment.


Aaron and Cicourel researched juvenile delinquency in two Californian cities. They found that individuals were stopped and interrogated. But anyone from parts of the inner city who came from low-income backgrounds were automatically seen as suspicious and labelled a ‘typical delinquent’ – the key here being their language and appearance. According to Aaron and Cicourel they were arrested and charged with an offence due to their upbringing, education, ethnicity, family and social class background. But Aaron and Cicourel also found that middle class parents could successfully negotiate with the police and courts to acquire a ‘better’ outcome.


Cicourel concluded that such behaviour highlighted how the meanings held by agents of social control led to some individuals being defined as deviant while others were not even if they were arrested for similar offences.


However, there have been critics of Cicourel’s work. Those who have criticised it have said that it was subjective and relative and that it did not explain who has power in society and how powerful groups define crime and deviance. Clearly the police have power in American society and all police forces would have very similar views as to what is deviant behaviour within a community. Yet organised gangs have power within the some communities and their views on deviant behaviour are likely to be in stark contrast to the police. Which view counts? It has to depend on what side you as an individual are likely to put yourself on.


One of the problems is defining deviant behaviour.


Within all societies there are absolute concepts where some forms of behaviour are proscribed (considered deviant) and negatively sanctioned. Murder would be one of these. However, positivists claim that some particular types of individual are inherently (genetically, socially or psychologically) predisposed to deviant behaviour. The problem here is what do you do with people who commit deviant behaviour but cannot, according to positivists, help what they do? For example, at the end of World War Two, numerous young male Germans were arrested for a variety of crimes usually revolving around the abuse in some form or another of people captured during Nazi conquests. Though put on trial, many were spared the death sentence as the argument put forward by their defence team was accepted by the judges involved: that they had been brought up from the earliest of learning years to despise the Jews, gypsies and other groups highlighted by the Nazi regime. Therefore what they did was a knee-jerk reaction to their upbringing and that the real guilty party was the Nazi Party educationalists and propagandists who had effectively ‘brainwashed’ these arrested individuals into acting in a certain manner. It was an argument that saved a number from the gallows.


Another problem about defining deviance is that no behaviour has always been considered deviant in all societies (cross-cultural). Interpretivists believe that deviance is not about what someone does but rather how someone or society at large reacts to that behaviour.


Two forms of deviance can be identified. One is deviant behaviour that society itself has deemed unacceptable and invariably illegal. But also deviant behaviour can be found in social groups whereby members of that group decide what is deviant behaviour and what is not. During the 1970’s English football was blighted by hooliganism both during matches (pitch invasions) and after matches with all-out gang fights. Society at large condemned such behaviour as deviant but within those gangs such behaviour was not only acceptable but also encouraged. If a member of a gang wanted greater acceptance within that gang and move up its hierarchy, he would have to involve himself in such deviant behaviour as it was accepted behaviour within that group. More to the point, the more deviant the behaviour within the remit of that gang in terms of football hooliganism, the more kudos an individual would get within that gang.


If an individual knows what he is doing is seen by society as a whole as being deviant, he is committing culpable deviance – knowingly doing it. Non-culpable deviance is the opposite whereby an individual may not know that what he is doing is wrong. For example, someone on the Autistic Spectrum may not understand that hitting someone over the head with a fire extinguisher hurts and that society as a whole does not tolerate such behaviour. However, he would be ‘guilty’ of non-culpable deviance because of that lack of understanding and his punishment would be different from the norm. However, someone who does the same thing but is not on the Autistic Spectrum would not receive such a response as he would know that what he has done is wrong. 



Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex

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