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It has become commonplace within the social sciences to study criminal behavior such as rape, murder, skyjacking, theft and the like from the point of view of the threatened society. The common theme in this approach can be broadly characterized by the question, ‘What causes people to engage in this particular behavior?’ While this is certainly a pertinent inquiry, its advancement typically ignores the contextual and temporal relativism of social rules which define the activity as criminal or deviant in the first place.1 Dependent primarily on social assessments of appropriate time, place, and participants, behaviorally identical phenomena (e.g. killing a person) can be considered on a continuum from justifiable and necessary to reprehensible and wanton. The failure to recognize such social processes at the assumptive level forces a priori consideration of ‘criminal acts’ and their perpetrators as qualitatively distinct phenomena from that considered conventional. Such a distinction necessarily restricts subsequent formulations by granting ontological status to pretheoretical categories.2

John M. Steiner, the senior researcher, is indebted to Miss Charlsey Cartwright for her assisstance in an earlier draft of this paper.

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Notes and References

  1. For a cogent development of this argument see Jack Douglas, Deviance and Respectability. New York: Basic Books, 1970, ch. s.

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  2. See the similar critiques by D. Matza, Delinquency and Drift. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc. 1964, ch. I. and more extensively, D. Matza, Becoming Deviant. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969, passim.

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  3. Implicit here is Zimmerman and Pollner’s argument concerning the ‘confounding of topic and resource.’ Their central thesis is: ‘Sociological inquiry is addressed to phenomena recognized and described in common-sense ways, while at the same time such common-sense recognitions and descriptions are pressed into service as fundamentally unquestioned resources for analyzing the phenomena thus made available. Thus contemporary sociology is characterized by a confounding of topic and resource’ (p. 81).

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  4. For a full development, see D. Zimmerman and M. Pollner, ‘The Everyday World as Phenomenon,’ in J. Douglas (ed.), Understanding Everyday Life. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co., 1970, pp. 80–103.

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  5. A ‘language of facilitants’ as opposed to a ‘language of causality’ is especially fruitful at the elemental level since it allows for a more detailed consideration of multivariate factors on an exploratory basis. For the logic of this approach and an application, see J. Lofland, Deviance and Identity. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969, pp. 31–33 and passim.

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  6. This general approach, ‘the constant comparative method,’ is described in B. Glaser and A. Strauss, The Discovery of Grounded Theory. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co., 1967, ch. V. Since such procedures are designed for ‘discovering’ conceptual categories, they are well suited to the present purposes where the research as described above is concerned with an uncharted arena of activity.

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  7. The applied logic of this position is argued in B. Glaser, The Patsy and the Subcontractor. Mill Valley, Calif.: The Sociology Press. 1972, pp. vii-viii and ch. IX. Further examples of the logic in use are O. Bigus, ‘The Milkman and His Customer: A Cultivated Relationship,’ Urban Life and Culture. Vol. 1, No. 2, (1972), pp. 131–163 and S. Hadden, ‘The Social Creation of a Social Problem,’ Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, Washington State University, Pullman, Wash.

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  8. As mentioned, no one in our sample had been apprehended at their price tag switching tasks. Had they been, the activity may have attained added importance for self-image. This latter instance is a major proposition of the labeling perspective and is aptly capsulized by Matza in terms of ‘signifying.’ For him, ‘... signifying makes its object more significant as we might expect. The object enjoys — or suffers — enhanced meaning. To be signified as a thief is to lose the blissful identity of one who among other things happens to have committed a theft. It is a movement, however gradual, toward being a thief and representing theft.’ D. Matza, op. cit., p. 156. See also M. O. Cameron, The Booster and the Snitch. Chicago: The Free Press, 1964, pp. 59–66.

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  9. To provide the surveillance necessary to correct the facilitating organizational characteristics (e.g., anonymity, marginal differences in goods, etc.) is seen as possibly offensive to potential customers.

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  10. Some of the technologies developed are described in ‘Crime: They Would Rather Switch,’ Newsweek,July 12, 1971, pp. 76–77.

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  11. C. Durant, ‘Solid Citizens: New Style in Thievery-Price Tag Switching,’ Los Angeles Times, Dec. 18, 1972.

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  12. It is interesting to note that except for specialized cases, the listed price is considered as firm. Exceptions take place in certain types of stores (e.g., second-hand stores) or with certain large commodities such as automobiles, where ‘bargaining’ is socially legitimated. In supermarkets, department stores, and similar retail outlets, bargaining is not seen as a viable alternative. However, at least one experiment demonstrates this ‘common-sense’ restriction can be violated successfully with items obtained for less than the listed price at such stores through bargaining. See H. Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967, pp. 68–69.

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  13. In this sense, price tag switching bears strong resemblance to Lofland’s conception of the ‘adventurous deviant act.’ Here the act itself is an instrumental goal. See Lofland, op. cit.,pp. 104–116.

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  14. For more extensive development and general application of ‘techniques of neutralization,’ see D. Matza and G. Sykes, ‘Techniques of Neutralization: A Theory of Delinquency,’ American Sociological Review 22 (1967), pp. 644–670 and D. Matza, Delinquency and Drift,pp. 69–86. See also, Lofland’s contribution in terms of ‘conventionalization,’ Lofland, op. cit.,p. 86.

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  15. Both the ‘denial of victim’ and ‘deserving victim’ explanations receive more extensive theoretical treatment in Matza, op. cit. pp. 171–176 and Lofland, op. cit. pp. 86–89.

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  16. H. von Hentig, The Criminal and His Victim: Studies in the Sociology of Crime. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948.

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  17. W. C. Reckless, The Crime Problem. (3rd ed.) New York: Appleton-Century Crofts, 1961. pp. 21–22.

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  18. S. Schafer, The Victim and His Criminal: A Study in Functional Responsibility. New York: Random House, 1968, pp. 79–80.

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  19. P. Singelmann, ‘Exchange as Symbolic Interaction: Convergencies Between Two Theoretical Perspectives,’ American Sociological Review, 37 (1972), p. 416.

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  20. Max Weber defines power as ‘the chance of a man or of a number of men to realize their own will in a communal action even against the resistance of others who are participating in the action.’ From H. Gerth and C. W. Mills (eds.), M. Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1946, p. 180. See also Amitai Etzioni, The Active Society. New York: The Free Press, 1968, pp. 314–315.

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  21. Schafer, op. cit.,p. 152.

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  22. R. Dubin. ‘Power, Function and Organization,’ Pacific Sociological Review 6 (1963), pp. 16–23. Also see Schafer, op. cit.,p. 73.

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© 1976 Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht

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Steiner, J.M., Hadden, S.C., Herkomer, L. (1976). Price Tag Switching. In: Criminology Between the Rule of Law and the Outlaws. Springer, Dordrecht.

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