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The distinctive aspect of phenomenological theories of crime is that they are based upon a stated epistemology: how things are known and a specific ontology—the nature of social reality. This specificity aligns itself with neo-Kantian concern with forms of knowing, interpretation, and meaning, as well as with 20th-century concern with perception, cognition, and the framing of events. While there are influences of phenomenological thinking on varieties of theorizing, such as symbolic interactionism, critical theory, queer theory, and gender-based theories of crime, these ideas are refractions and are inconsistent in their reference to and understanding of the foundational phenomenological works. A phenomenological theory assumes that the practices and associated meanings of actors and the responses of others can produce a valid explanation of crime. These cannot be grasped by counting responses to questionnaires or surveys, or positing the “natural attitude” or the “taken for granted” unless these are shown to be working in interaction. It is only by studying how these processes are revealed in and through routine interactions, especially those between the controllers and the controlled, that valid explanations for crime result. The elegance of an explanation is found in its ability to explicate and reproduce the actors’ perspective. This is not a “micro” view of interaction: social action is always collective, mutual, and intersubjective. Features of phenomenological theories of crime stand in some opposition to the ruling statistical inference and naive positivism that command social science. Phenomenological theories have at least five features. First, they focus on intentionality over the course of action. The question of interest is how orientation to and action toward objects produces such social objects. It is through gestures, postures, signs, and indicators that elicit a response that a social object is made meaningful. A robbery occurs as the robber first selects a place, targets a person, confronts the person-as-target, and creates the illusion of violence to get the preferred response, handing over money. The sequence produces a “working consensus,” a social object, a robbery. It is now a real, shared social fact. Second, they view the field of consciousness or awareness as replete with stimuli cues, empirical indices that are themselves merely appearances, not the relevancies that emerge intersubjectively. These cues must be reduced by means of bracketing to create forms, types, or typifications. These types, in turn, can be identified only through actors’ usage. Think in this regard about the meaning of different types of crime as they are experienced (e.g., homicide, rape, burglary, auto theft). Third, these observed gestures, negotiations, indicators, representations, and postures are made intersubjectively meaningful not by “reading minds,” but by behavior. And what is done is very often emotionally loaded and full of bodily sensations such as anger, passion, greed, or desire. These emotions are an integral aspect of crimes. Fourth, in the phenomenologically grounded versions of crime, even the objective attitude of the scientist must itself be questioned : How is it possible to create sense of actors’ behavior and studying it “objectively” (Heap and Roth 1973, p. 364; cited under Introductory Works)? The answer is to remain true to the observed collective actions and attributions associated with crime. Finally, phenomenological views of crime require an interrogation of action, not attributions of motives. The question is: How is order indicated, sustained, and/or changed in the context of studying things called “crime”? A constant debate is whether and to what extent the actor’s view of everyday life is captured, as opposed to a typification, ideal type, or conceptual scheme. This is one of the few areas of social science that acknowledges philosophical foundations during the course of research. Phenomenological theories of crime recognize the ongoing nature of what is deemed criminal, and keep this awareness in the forefront. Please keep this in mind as you conduct your research. The articles and books discussed here are directed toward academics, graduates, and advanced undergraduates.


This work was originally published in in Oxford Bibliographies Online in Criminology, available at DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195396607-0128



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