In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Phenomenological Theories of Crime

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • General Overviews
  • Phenomenological Research Resources
  • Philosophically Oriented Journals
  • Other Phenomenologically Oriented Journals
  • Emergence of a Sociological Phenomenology
  • English Views
  • The Labeling Approach
  • Foundational Research
  • Goffman’s Contribution
  • Empirical Studies
  • The Exceptions and Variations
  • Careers and Crime
  • Phenomenological Methods and Crime
  • The Field of Crime: Honor and Disrespect
  • Crime as Reflexive, Sequentially Patterned Action
  • The Social Organization of the Control of Crime
  • Limitations and Critiques of Phenomenological Theories

Criminology Phenomenological Theories of Crime
Peter K. Manning, Michael W. Raphael
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 August 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0128


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.

Introductory Works

A phenomenological theory of crime must be assembled because there is no single statement that draws together the insights of philosophers who frame the ideas and of social scientists who study crime. The identified ideas must be connected by inference with authors and traditions, distinguished from criminological perspectives per se and from members of the “family” of phenomenological sociologies (Douglas 1970, Heap and Roth 1973, Maynard and Clayman 1991, Psathas 1973, Tiryakian 1962). This process of making connections is needed in part because the relevant philosophical background of the authors’ work is often unacknowledged by criminologists, and because connections between traditional philosophic questions and everyday sociology have not been elucidated. Modern social science is rooted in positivism and pragmatism. This background elevates the scientific method above other approaches to knowledge and emphasizes the processes by which results are produced. Phenomenological analyses, by contrast, emphasize the ordering and meaning of concrete particulars as they are made sensible. While core ideas are discussed in this article, detailed distinctions between and among the ideas of Husserl and Heidegger and later scholars such as Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Derrida, and Foucault are not undertaken here because the focus is upon theorizing crime (for background, see Moran 2000 and Zaner 1970).

  • Douglas, Jack D., ed. 1970. Understanding everyday life: Toward the reconstruction of sociological knowledge. Chicago: Aldine.

    The earliest collection of sociological essays based on the phenomenological perspective, derived from research, and striving to explicate the patterns of analysis that would lead the way into continuing research. Douglas provides a clear and engaging essay to introduce the book, and many of the scholars who shaped the perspective (Weider, Zimmerman, Douglas, Blum, Cicourel, and others) are included. This book, along with Garfinkel 1967 (cited under Emergence of a Sociological Phenomenology), is the best sociological introduction to the topic.

  • Heap, James L., and Phillip A. Roth. 1973. On phenomenological sociology. American Sociological Review 38.3: 354–367.

    DOI: 10.2307/2094358

    A brief, dense. scholarly article that is a detailed examination of competing phenomenological sociologies and their nuances. The authors criticize and reject the phenomenological sociologies of other authors (Tiryakian, Bruyn, and Douglas). It is a rather technical article and is an early effort to sort out approaches to the phenomenological world. In a final section, the authors argue for a version derived from ethnomethodology, claiming it as the preferred style of doing sociological work. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Maynard, Douglas W., and Stephen E. Clayman. 1991. The diversity of ethnomethodology. Annual Review of Sociology 17.1: 385–418.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    An exposition and critique of the branches of ethnomethodology, a primary version of phenomenological sociology. The review, which is very readable and was written for advanced students and scholars, includes a review of studies of conversational analysis, theory, institutional settings, applied social research, and the sociology of science. The authors explain that the aim of work in this perspective is to explain the achieved orderliness of everyday activities and the organizational features of direct interaction. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Moran, Dermot. 2000. Introduction to phenomenology. London: Routledge.

    A clear and concise introduction to phenomenological philosophies, intended for undergraduates and others interested in the groundwork and fundamental ideas that drove the movement and how these were transformed in the 20th century. Chapters include materials on Brentano, Husserl, Heidegger, and later thinkers such as Gadamer, Arendt, Levinas, Sartre Merleau-Ponty, and Derrida.

  • Psathas, George, ed. 1973. Phenomenological sociology: Issues and applications. New York: Wiley.

    A very well-edited collection of articles on phenomenological sociology, which are well introduced by Psathas. The introduction deftly connects the fundamental concepts, the natural attitude, typification, the life world and its constitutive elements, and intersubjectivity to the articles assembled in the book. The articles range from theoretical overviews to closely observed ethnographic works cast in the phenomenological tradition.

  • Tiryakian, Edward A. 1962. Sociologism and existentialism: Two perspectives on the individual and society. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

    An excellent attempt to integrate sociological thinking derived from Durkheim with existentialism.

  • Zaner, Richard M. 1970. The way of phenomenology: Criticism as a philosophical discipline. New York: Pegasus.

    An accessible introduction for students and social scientists interested in the background ideas that shaped the sociological concern for crime and deviance.

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