D. Garfinkel’s Ethnomethodology
Harold Garfinkel’s (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology contributed to the development of social constructionist thinking in that, like Berger and Luckmann, Garfinkel and colleagues, such as Harvey Sacks, David Sudnow, Don Zimmerman, and Melvin Pollner, focused on how social order, social institutions, and social structure emerged from shared mundane interactions among ordinary people in their everyday lives. In defining their world and acting toward its boundaries through routine practices of interpretation, people create and negotiate categories of behavior that are deemed acceptable and categories that are unacceptable or deviant. Exploring the ways or the methods, rather than the shared meaning, by which this everyday interpretive process produces realities is the contribution made by ethnomethodology. For ethnomethodologists it is the routine practices (called methods) that people use to classify other people as deviants or offenders that are important in considering what is and what becomes a crime, rather than the content of the activities of people whose behavior is classified as deviant or criminal.
In studying humans in the process of co-constructing their world through conversation, language, making distinctions, and taken-for-granted assumptions, ethnomethodologists are engaged in a form of radical social constructionism (discussed further in a subsequent section of this research paper), although some scholars maintain that the two are theoretically different (Bogen & Lynch, 1993). It is important to note that ethnomethodologists do not assume the constructions that they study exist independently of the discourse used by humans interacting; neither do they exclude their own analysis from the constitutive process.
E. The Social Interactionism of Mead and Blumer
Whereas ethnomethodologists were concerned with the ways of interpretation was accomplished through routine practices, Herbert Blumer, a student of social psychologist George Herbert Mead and influenced by pragmatic philosopher John Dewey’s ideas about human’s interaction with the environment, had been working on developing an interactionist perspective. His Symbolic Interactionism (1969) demonstrated that, instead of being fixed to objective roles, statuses, and structures in an interrelated system, as functionalist theorists had argued, social meaning was created through interaction and subjective interpretation with others. Mead, in his 1934 work Mind, Self and Society, showed that human identity was the outcome of both people’s own emergent sense of self, derived from their individualized self-concept he called the I, and an internalized sense of the social self he called the me, which was derived from generalized views that others held of them that they perceived through “taking the role of the other.” Blumer (1969) argued that people act toward others and the world around them on the basis of the meaning that they attributed to people, events, and structures. The meanings were not fixed but negotiated through a social process of symbolic communication both with one’s self and with others, during which items were named or labeled.
From the interactionist perspective, crime is defined as a social event, involving many players, actors, and agencies. Thus, crimes can be characterized the following way:
Crimes involve not only the actions of individual offenders, but the actions of other persons as well. In particular, they involve the actions of such persons as victims, bystanders and witnesses, law enforcement officers, and members of political society at large. A crime, from this perspective, is a particular set of interactions among offender(s), crime target(s), agent(s) of social control and society. (Gould, Kleck, & Gertz, 1992, p. 4)
F. Labeling Perspective in the Sociology of Deviance
During this same period, there emerged a perspective on deviance, later applied to crime, that drew on these concepts of the social process of meaning construction through interaction and the routine ways these were accomplished. The fundamental idea was that what became designated as crime and deviance was, as Howard Becker (1963) argued, not a quality of an act a person commits but a quality of the reaction of the audience who interprets it as deviant or not. In other words, deviance was not just the result of actions by a human actor; it depended on the audience, who signified a behavior as an act of importance and judged the act positively or negatively, labeling it good or bad. Labeling theorists argued that whether an issue becomes a public harm and/or ultimately a crime depends on a group’s ability to turn private concerns into public issues or their skills at moral entrepreneurship (Becker, 1963). Creating a public harm from a private issue involves identifying and signifying offensive behavior and then attempting to influence legislators to ban it officially. Becker argued that behavior that is unacceptable in society depends on what people first label unacceptable and whether they can successfully apply the label to those designated as offenders. For example, prior to the 1930s, smoking marijuana in the United States was generally acceptable. Intensive government agency efforts, in particular by the federal Bureau of Narcotics, demonized marijuana smokers as “dope fiends,” a campaign that culminated in the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. As a result, marijuana smoking was labeled unacceptable and illegal, and those who engaged in it were stigmatized as outsiders.
Edwin Lemert (1967) made a distinction between primary deviance and secondary deviance, arguing that many people engage in minor rule violations, but only some of those people are selected to be labeled as “problems.” When this occurs repeatedly, people may internalize the definitions that others have of them and undergo an identity transformation, coming to view themselves as deviants. Lemert and others, such as Erving Goffman (1963), argued that the result of this labeling could be secondary deviance, such that people who were stigmatized by the original label now act deviant because this is part of their deviant identity.
In this sense then, deviance—and, ultimately, crime—is a social construction, first because of the original process of labeling people and second as a result of the amplification of those people’s deviant behavior and the interactive effects of others’ actions toward them. People become deviant or criminal as a result of the iterative process between their own actions and the reactions of others to them.