Poverty, Frustration, and Emotion

Numerous theorists and researchers have forwarded links between poverty and violence, but we find it difficult to cull specific mechanisms from these discussions. For example, discussions of the “culture of poverty" do not explain why poor people would be more violent necessarily. Discussions of social structure and segregation, too, tend not to explain why isolated neighborhoods would be more violent ones. Sampson and Wilson (1995) emphasize the concentration of disadvantage in impoverished, inner-city neighborhoods, particularly as it affects African Americans. They explain that the concentration of the “truly disadvantaged" yields cultural isolation from mainstream society and a breakdown in sources of informal social control, such as residential stability, intact families, and neighborhood organization. As basic social control weakens, they argue that maladaptive behaviors become more prevalent. The theory implies that all forms of maladaption are equally likely. While the authors explain that unregulated youths imitate the violence that they see on the street, due to the absence of strong social control, it is not clear why the violence began in the first place.

Anderson’s (1999) ethnographic work in Philadelphia’s disadvantaged inner city allowed him to document the “code of the street” and the violent and aggressive behavior that was an integral part of that code, providing a theory specific to violence. According to Anderson, the code of the street is a by-product of the helplessness of urban poverty. Residents adapt to their circumstances by adopting exaggerated notions of honor and respect. Because they are deprived of opportunities to gain respect through decent jobs, careers, and mainstream “success,” they learn to assert themselves physically and gain status and accomplishment through violent contests with peers.

A limited number of scholars have also articulated the plight of the poor in America and why it might lead to violence. Silberman (1989) tells a story of contemporary strain, emphasizing how hard it is to be poor, to be bombarded with messages about success and imbued with ambition to achieve without realistic opportunities to do so. In a deeper analysis than we have generally seen in treatments of strain theory, Silberman explores the incongruity between human need for self-worth and the inability of the poor to affirm that worth. Like Anderson, Silberman sees patterns of fighting, sexual conquest, and establishing a reputation for toughness as a way for youths in impoverished neighborhoods to achieve feelings of success when they cannot do so through “legitimate” means.

These discussions are consistent with qualitative scholarship on violent events in the literature (e.g., Canada, 1996; Curtis, 1974; Miethe & McCorkle, 1998). Some of the ideas presented by Silberman and Anderson are also explored by Bernard (1990), who emphasizes how the adverse effects of environmental conditions in impoverished neighborhoods generate a heightened baseline level of stress and physiological arousal in neighborhood residents. This increased level of arousal primes individuals to view seemingly-minor conflicts as major provocations. Arousal also increases the likelihood of an angered response, which, in turn, increases the likelihood of a violent reaction. Bernard further posits that the concentration of disadvantage and social isolation that characterize these neighborhoods raises the frequency of the arousal-anger-violence reaction, creating a feedback loop that perpetuates the cycle. Of course, cognitive psychologists will take notice of a clear link to Dodge’s work on “hostile attribution bias” (e.g., Dodge, 1993).

For urban residents in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage, intense physiological arousal associated with low social position, among other factors, increases cognitions related to anger and aggression, and the likelihood of angry aggression itself. Returning to the issue of social isolation, we can now see how a violent culture might evolve in poor communities. People in socially isolated, impoverished neighborhoods are likely to be highly stressed and aroused, to learn a broad set of rules allowing for aggressive retaliation, and to be harmed and to harm others, increasing the perpetuation of aggressive social norms.

This point of view accords nicely with seminal research and theory in psychology. Frustration was one of the very early factors that was studied in the etiology of aggression (formally introduced by Dollard et al., 1939). While psychologists no longer believe that frustration inevitably leads to aggression, they still emphasize that aggression is often a response to negative or frustrating stimuli (Perry et al., 1990). Today, theorists believe that aggression is one possible choice in response to frustration or other aversive stimuli and that the response is cognitively mediated (Perry et al., 1990). Loeber and Stouthamer-Loeber (1998) argue that emotions differ between “overt” (more physically aggressive) and “covert” problem behavior. Conventional wisdom holds that violent acts are much more likely than property crimes to be motivated by negative emotions such as frustration and anger.

Emerging literature also leads to the expectation that chronic poverty, relative to nonchronic poverty, is more likely to produce violent offending. It is possible that even mild poverty can cause the emotional frustration necessary to provoke violence, if it endures for a long time. As Hay (2009) points out, “temporary spells” of poverty are not the central concern of theorists and researchers. Persistent poverty has been associated with property offending, persistent adolescent offending, and, importantly, violent offending (Hay, 2009; Jarjoura, Triplett, & Brinker, 2002). A recent study on the developmental timing of poverty suggests that children who were chronically poor (ages 0-9) had worse problems than children who were poor during only part of the study period (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Early Child Care Research Network [NICHD], 2005).

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