Deviance in Society: Ethnographic approaches to the study of deviants

Introduction

This paper examines the approaches and methods used by ethnographers and sociologists in the study of “deviants” or deviant sub-cultures within civilized society.  In this paper, deviant sub-culture as a term will refer to any group of peoples with behaviors that are considered as “outside of the norm” by the society or civilization in which they exist. Such sub-cultures must be approached in such a way in which the participants can be protected in some manner as information is gained from any harm that might come to them from the knowledge and it’s sharing. Such sub-cultures also require a unique approach in each situation to gain trust. Each sub-culture has its own rules and unspoken understandings and all subcultures are to some level untrusting of outsiders or “others”. Specifically, I explore how these studies are conducted, the differences and similarities found between the approaches of sociologists and anthropologists, and how this affects the conclusions of the ethnographers. In this paper, the term ethnographer will refer to both anthropologists and sociologists conducting fieldwork in the study of peoples. The approaches used are more similar than different and the two become interchangeable when in the “throws of fieldwork”. In other words, there are many ways to skin a cat but in the end, you are still skinning a cat.

For the purposes of this paper, I have selected three papers. Two of these are ethnographic studies and the third is what I would term an “ethnographic narrative from the perspective of a sociologist”. I do not believe that the sociological perspective impacts the ethnographic study in any way that would make it significantly different from any other ethnographic study, but merely add this perspective clearly for the sake of clarity as to whom conducted this study and which school of “thought” they hail from. This paper seeks to show that while the approach of the ethnographer will affect the conclusions and insights gained, that the school of thought the ethnographer hails from will not in fact have such an affect if the ethnography or “study” is conducted and planned well. In other words, the conclusion and integrity of the information gained from an ethnographic study is more critically dependent upon how it is conducted and the participants and subject itself are approached as opposed to by whom.

It should be noted that there is some difference in how the term deviance or deviant is defined by the two different schools of thought in question. In sociology, deviance could be defined as any person or persons exhibiting behavior or thoughts different from the typical person within a society. In many cases, deviance is spoken of together with wrong-doing. In many ways, this definition could be described as “othering”, focusing upon the differences between ones-self and another group of peoples. This can make it easier to demonize or treat them poorly. In anthropology, a deviant does not follow the norms within their society. The actions are not necessarily reflected upon as wrong or right as these ideas, within an anthropological perspective, are relative to the culture or society within which they occur. This is known as cultural relativism. This is the belief that what is right to one culture may be wrong within another, everything is seen within the perspective held by the peoples of that culture. Where sociologists tend to come from more of an ethnocentric view, anthropologists tend to approach with more of an open mind. While one might think that this difference might in fact have a huge impact upon the conclusions that would be drawn from an ethnographic study, I argue and show that this is not the case. The very act of ethnography itself neutralizes any effect that this difference of viewpoint might have, when an ethnography is conducted properly.

Theory

In the article, She Got Herself There, Melissa F. Lavin looks at how strippers understand themselves and compare themselves to others while navigating the stigma of their deviance or difference to the mainstream or typical persons in society. It is important to understand that this understanding is emic, they see themselves as strippers, though the fact that are also seen as strippers by the observer and outside world. This etic view is in fact influencing the emic view, but is used and molded to fit their own devices.

To do this, they use “deviance exemplars” (Ronai and Cross 1998:107), like which dancers are sleazy or too immersed in the lifestyle, in order to understand the negative stereotypes as true, but as applicable only to “bad” dancers. (Lavin 2017:294)

Lavin discusses how the strippers use stereotypes forced upon them by the rest of society to their own means in navigating an understanding of who they are and their “normality” or level of good and bad as compared to other strippers. They use the very same stereotyping and judgement that is forced upon them by society, this form of othering, against other strippers and in many ways, continue of this cycle of othering within their own subculture.

While strippers can be friendly with known associates, they are likely to “other” dancers that they do not know well by assuming that the default stereotypes of their occupational group hold. As dancers navigate and (sometimes) deploy judgements regarding drugs and alcohol, their narrative resistance takes two forms: “othering” sister strippers, as stated above, and normalizing drug and alcohol use. (Lavin 2017:294,295)

These are tools that they employ in order to accept and understand what they are doing, to retain self-esteem and a feeling that they are “good” or at least better than others around them.

In the Information Literacies of self-identified sadomasochists, J. Tuomas Harviainen looks at how sadomasochists learn information that is not formally taught, how that information is shared and taught within the group, and how they tell the difference between good and bad information. He talks about why he chose this group of people to study and how this plays into the study of information literacies in groups that share high risk activities.

            The second reason was that in sadomasochists, I had access to studying a group of people who voluntarily engage in potentially risky physical activities, and need to learn skills and behaviors relating to those practices. This directly relates to the third reason: earlier data sets on similar types of ILs come from groups who also engage in risky physical practices: firemen, emergency service workers and so forth. (Harviainen 2015:424)

 He places importance more on why they produce this information and how they manage to do so than they fact that they can. Of course, a sadomasochist could not just take a course in university to learn how to inflict pain on a person without causing permanent damage, or any other myriad of things that a sadomasochist may need or want to learn. Through personal experience, I know that when one decides to “play” within an alternative environment like sadomasochism, there are rules to learn that assist in reducing “actual injury” while still allowing for the experience of pain. But how does one learn which whip or flogger to use and on which willing participant? One “bottom” or masochist might have a high pain tolerance and enjoy caning while another might enjoy flogging and knife play. How does one learn how to flog or cane? There is a wealth of information that must suddenly be learned while avoiding bad information from those who really don’t know what they are doing or those who simply are against what you are doing. This is what Harviainen is studying and discussing.

            So as to be able to utilize those atypical means, sadomasochists develop ILs that help them separate useful information and reliable sources from potentially harmful ones: examples of such include biased medical descriptions, information blunters, and fictional accounts. (Harviainen 2015:424)

In the article titled Muddling through school life, Lin Liu and Ailei Xie study and discuss why students display deviant behavior and form sub-cultures within the context of a Chinese perspective and how it might be beneficial to the students in many ways given the educational setting that they exist within.

            The process leading to them being marginalised by the school system and how they have developed a “muddling through” subculture to counteract this marginalization is revealed for the first time in a Chinese context. It is argued that this group of at-risk youths has capatalised on their subculture and used it to resist authorities, to acquire social skills and to safeguard their psychological well-being. (Liu & Xie 2016:152)

This study looks at how socio-economic standing and Chinese society and its expectations play into the creation and fostering of deviant behavior in children. These structures impact the poorest children the hardest as in most societies. This article takes an etic look at these children and their deviant behavior.

            The present study thus tries to reveal the interplay between the school regime and the transforming social and economic environments in China and how these structural factors experienced by young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are translated into their deviant behavior. (Liu & Xie 2016: 154)         

While all three of these articles focus on completely different sub-cultures and seem to have nothing in common, each is a group seen as different or deviant from the typical or normal as is expected within the corresponding society, regardless of the country of origin. It is this very difference that makes these groups similar, for all of them are viewed as different or as “others” by the societies within which they exist. As such, they are stereotyped to differing degrees. This stereotyping and othering by society leads to the formation of a group, in these persons seeking not to be alone, and then anyone outside of these groups becomes the other. The study of societies within societies, sub-cultures within cultures, then requires the ethnographer to find a unique approach tailored specifically to that group and its level of trust of outsiders, keeping in mind how it is viewed within its own society and how the study must be approached in order to keep the participants safe from any consequence of others learning about them.

Methodology

Lavin describes her study as being ethnographic and using simple observation as well as participant observation. She conducted both formal and informal interviews, using social discussion to her advantage and taking field notes in private. All of those being studied were aware that she was studying them. She took part in their “culture”, dancing on stage and socializing with clients, thus putting them somewhat at ease by acting as one of them.

            I was a complete participant in setting-specific activities (Junker 1960) as a stage stripper who also conducted lap dances. My research design included participant observation and interviewing. (Lavin 2017:295)

The fact that they were aware of her role and purpose there made her both an insider and an outsider, as is often the case with ethnographers and somewhat undermined her ability to blend in. She used snowball sampling, letting one person lead her to other persons of interest, to enlarge her sample size. She also asked those she had studied to read through her work once it was completed to make sure that she had not misrepresented them.  Lavin’s approach was at times narrative but not autoethnographic.

Harviainen attended BDSM parties for over two decades and even assisted in organizing parties. He attended workshops and events but never “played” with those he studied to gain an in depth or more “truer” understanding of their culture and of how they learned.

            Over two decades, I have been to numerous BDSM parties and helped organize several of them. I have attended safety and technique workshops, at some of which I also taught myself. ( Harviainen 2015:428)

He did not take an autoethnographic approach to this study but instead took a participant observer based approach and used informal interviews, sometimes asking the same questions on more than one occasion to ensure that the participants understood his questions fully. He was careful to avoid any confusion in questions and answers given, both on his part and on the part of those he studied. Communication is key in BDSM and it is obvious that Harviainen understood this and took it to heart in how he conducted his study.

Liu and Xie chose to hold their study within what is termed by them as being an “intermediate school” and used an unobtrusive form of observation in addition to participant observation. It appears to me that the initial study was somewhat “selectively honest” in that the ethnographer was introduced as a teaching assistant and while they knew that she was conducting a study on student culture, their wording leads me to believe that they may have downplayed this role.

            Unobtrusive observation and participant observation were used as the main methods of data collection conducted by the first author. She was introduced to teachers and the class by the grade teacher as research postgraduate student who would conduct study on student culture. (Liu & Xie 2016:156)

After identifying 5 specific students as “troublemakers”, both participant observation and interviews were employed, in group and individually. Teachers were also interviewed throughout this process to round things out and ensure that honest answers were given by the students.

            On one hand, teachers’ interview served as triangulation of the students’ account; on the other, it could help forge a better understanding of the school policy, teachers’ attitudes and difficulties in dealing with deviant students. (Liu & Xie 2016:156)

Style

Lavin structures this article in clearly defined sections to keep the information that she presents very clean and organized. I believe that she does this for the same reason that she uses the word ethnography and talks of ethnographic study, to add credence to her study from an anthropological perspective while retaining her own sociological perspective. Lavin appears to write for a sociological based audience interested in drug abuse and perhaps social work in general. I believe that her writing also lends itself to an audience of criminologists and in some ways, to anthropologists. I do not feel that her article would particularly appeal to the public.

Some of the language Lavin uses is rather academic in nature. In her introduction, she discusses narrative resistance, deviance exemplars, and scholarship. These are things that she does not stop to explain and in choosing not to do so, limits the audiences understanding of her article, thereby limiting her audience. The author does not appear to feel the need to insert herself any more than is necessary to tell this story and share what she has learned but writes in a very professional manner. While there is some level of storytelling going on, the wording keeps a certain distance that I can only describe to be much like keeping an arm’s length while dancing. For example, she refers to those she studies as strippers almost exclusively, even reminding us that they are strippers when using their names. At times, it seems that she uses it almost excessively, almost as a method of keeping an unspoken distance between herself and them. She is present in the text, but in such a way that brings the reader to be present with her as a sort of clinical observer, her writing style often reminds me of looking through a window.

I quite enjoyed how she took the title of the article from a conversation with one stripper and it does in fact embody exactly what she was studying, in this case, the “othering” that takes place within this sub-culture of even those like them.

Harviainen structures his article in such a way as to explain his study in a manner which is easy to understand and yet, cleanly organized for browsing. The terms used are highly academic but also defined and explained along the way lending to its readability. He manages to avoid the judgement in his writing style that I see with Lavin. His audience is clearly more academic but lends itself also to being read by those persons interested in the subject who may not be as educated. I quite liked this, being that his topic was information literacy and learning, it’s almost as if his writing style considered those who learned by reading and might look to learn from this study. Harviainen approaches this study with a childlike curiosity, entering as a clean slate and gathering information as he goes by asking questions. His discussion is very much conversational, as he reaches his conclusions, having “grown up”. I feel that the use of this approach not only draws the reader in and helps the reader to understand but also likely assisted him in the gathering of knowledge, taken in by the groups much as the innocent person who must be shown around and taught. He appears to attempt to see things through their eyes, as opposed to his own. In this way, he is opposite in approach to Lavin who sees things through her own lens.

He is present in the text in the beginning of the article but only to a degree that one might expect in the introduction and as is necessary in explaining his methods. While he is obviously observing much like Lavin, his observations seem more personal and less clinical as he discusses not only how they see or feel about things but also why, from their own perspective, in a non-judgmental manner.

Liu and Xie organize their article with readability in mind. Each section is clearly defined as if for a conversation, each topic is clearly explained and leads to the next. The language used in this article is easy to read and easy to understand, keeping its conversational tone throughout and lending itself to an audience of non-academics or public. That being said, it certainly speaks to educators and academics, just not in an exclusive manner.

The authors discuss their limitations at the end, openly admitting where they feel that they fell short in this study and that lends credence and respectability to their article. The reader doesn’t have to look for possible shortcomings as they are already provided in detail. These authors do not seem as present as Lavin or Harviainen and their style of observation seems somewhat in the middle of the other two. They do not hold their subjects at arm’s length in their style of writing but also do not seem as familiar or as much a part of the group as perhaps Harviainen. Of course, they are studying grade 2 and 3 children and they are adults which would provide challenges in participating as closely as perhaps one might with adults. If nothing else, it would make the ethnographer an outsider at all times. I believe that this unintentional “othering” of the ethnographers by the children is what I as a reader am picking up on.

Conclusion

All three studies discussed here end successfully, in that the authors (or ethnographers) do successfully get the information that they set out to get. Lavin does discover exactly how the strippers view themselves and others and how they in fact use their role as deviants within society to define themselves. She also learns of how they “other” those within their own sub-culture, thereby elevating themselves to feel better or less deviant than others. While her approach seems cold, is at times a mix of both emic and etic approaches, and one might envision her literally holding these girls at arm’s length in order to not to touch them; this approach may have assisted in their willingness to talk to her. They do not trust easily and certainly don’t trust anything that seems unrealistic within the purviews of their subculture. They are so used to being judged by outsiders that an innocent or unjudgmental approach might be seen as deceptive and untrustworthy. My only criticism of the integration of theory, method and style in the case of Lavin is that her attempt to be credible as an ethnographer was obvious in her writing and wording, which takes the focus off the intent of her study in the beginning and makes her seem somewhat desperate for acceptance professionally. There was really no need for it as she did exactly what she set out to do, she held her own as an ethnographer and while her approach was unique and certainly carried undertones of sociology along the way, they were more like spices on a roast. They simply added flavor.

Harviainen’ study was fluid, like water. His approach or method was clearly perfect for his theory and it was evident in his approach that he took the time to truly understand the people he was studying. His style was really quite a perfect fit for this study and as a whole, this study and resulting article comes off as pretty much flawless. It’s an interesting read and draws the reader into a subject that few know of while keeping the information entirely readable and not at all as sexually laden as one might expect from the title.

Liu and Xie had a theory that lends itself to more opportunity for pitfalls and challenges, in my opinion. Anything that includes children can become more complicated than expected very quickly. As discussed earlier, studying children does away with any opportunity for an ethnographer to blend in or be anything but the adult watching and asking questions. I felt that the methodology left something to be desired. They appeared to rely more on the opinions of the adults than those of the children and appeared to look at things more through society or the educator’s eyes than the students. I feel that another approach would have yielded more interesting and perhaps “deeper” results. The writing style works well, given the topic and overall, the authors do learn quite a bit about how and why the children form deviant groups as well as which children form or get involved with them.

What I found most interesting was that in each of these studies, the most important part appeared to be the presence of a human being wanting to study and learn about the people in question. While Harviainen seemed quite experienced as an ethnographer, whether he is or not, I was pleasantly surprised that what I had hypothesized to be true ended up being correct. Ethnography appears to be in many ways an act, more of a verb, which can be used by more than just anthropologists. If one has the want to study and is willing to plan an approach to such a study as Lavin did, one can produce an ethnography. While they might stumble or look for acceptance along the way, I must believe that new anthropologists do the same and so, cannot count this to the discredit of non-anthropologists.

In each case, the author or authors devised a unique approach that worked specifically within that group; Harviainen and his innocent and unknowing approach for the self-teachers, Lavin and her cool and distant approach for the strippers, and Liu and Xie with their somewhat unobtrusive surveillance. In each case, that approach was successful to some degree, though those who used an emic approach were more successful than those that used a more etic approach. If anything, I was surprised by the fact that it was an ethnographer as opposed to the sociologist who took the stronger etic approach to their study.

In the end, they may each have skinned the cat differently, but still, the cat was skinned and a skinned cat is just that. Now, isn’t it?

Bibliography

J. Tuomas Harviainen, (2015) “Information literacies of self-identified sadomasochists: an

ethnographic case study”, Journal of Documentation, Vol. 71 Issue: 3, pp.423-439

A study of how sadomasochists learn, what they learn, and how they communicate this knowledge amongst each other.

Lin Liu & Ailei Xie (2016) Muddling through school life: an ethnographic study

of the subculture of ‘deviant’ students in China, International Studies in Sociology of Education,

26:2, 151-170, DOI: 10.1080/09620214.2016.1200995

A study of a group of “at risk” youth, how deviance as a subculture can be used to “fight back” against “norms” and marginalization by “deviants” within society and why it might be used in this way.

Melissa F. Lavin (2017) She Got Herself There: Narrative Resistance in the Drug Discourse of Strippers, Deviant Behavior, 38:3, 294-305, DOI: 10.1080/01639625.2016.1197002

A study on how strippers view drug and alcohol use in themselves and fellow strippers. This study also acknowledges stereotypes about strippers and how they affect their own view of themselves.

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