Qualitative Research and Violent Subcultures

Many theorists posit a relationship between community structural characteristics and violent values (Bernard, 1990; Black, 1983; Bruce et al., 1998; Ng-Mak et al., 2002; Oliver, 2003, 2006; Stark, 1987). By combining theories, a compelling set of hypotheses can be developed. Some scholars theorize that the stresses associated with living in areas of concentrated disadvantage, coping with structural racism, and responding to violent victimization increase the degree to which residents of disadvantaged communities perceive a number of social interactions as threats or attacks (Luckenbill & Doyle, 1989) (see Chapter 3). The perception of constant threat increases levels of psychological stress and arousal, which raise the likelihood that individuals will lash out with violence (Bernard, 1990). In addition, violent belief systems and norms emerge under these conditions.

Anderson (1999) provides the most comprehensive qualitative evidence in support of subcultural theories. Conducting ethnographic research in Germantown, a disadvantaged, inner-city community in Philadelphia, Anderson describes a “code of the street” that shapes the interpersonal interactions of residents and reifies a subculture of violence. He describes the code as a set of, “informal rules governing interpersonal public behavior, particularly violence. The rules prescribe both proper comportment and the proper way to respond if challenged” (p. 33). The primary emphasis of the code is to gain and maintain respect, which, to some, is central to warding off victimization (Canada, 1996). However, the primary means of gaining and maintaining respect is through violence and aggression. An individual who can best another person in a fight will be respected by his peers, whereas losers or individuals who shy away from fights are disrespected and repeatedly victimized.

Though not all name it as such, other scholars have independently observed the culture of the code and code-related behaviors. Interviewing a sample of black men from upstate New York involved in violent altercations, Oliver (1994) observes, “A central feature of lower-class black males’ definition of masculinity is the belief that toughness--physical prowess, emotional detachment, and willingness to resort to violence to resolve interpersonal conflict--is an omnipresent characteristic of masculinity” (p. 23). Several of Oliver’s subjects report that insults to a man’s reputation are a frequent cause of violent fights. Indeed, when Oliver asked one respondent if assailants feel more threatened for their physical safety or for their social standing in the community, the respondent replied, “Both go hand in hand. At certain points, one always outweighs the other” (p. 82). In part, this respondent refers to the likelihood that individuals who are unable to assert their masculinity are labeled weak and become more prone to victimization, a phenomenon observed by Anderson (1999), as well.

Fagan and Wilkinson (1998) corroborate the findings of Anderson (1999) and Oliver (1994) with a large sample of young men from the violent neighborhoods of East New York and Mott Haven. One of their respondents states, “Shooting somebody, right there that’s image and reputation. How many bodies you got under your belt, if you don’t got more than three bodies under your belt... . If you ain’t never killed nobody, you ain’t nothing. (p. 145). Indeed, all 125 of their

respondents described the importance of using violence to gain social status and personal security. Likewise, another of their respondents reaffirmed the perceived link between reputation and victimization, saying, “Your image that you hold is your reputation. You need that on the streets cause without that then anybody . and everybody can do what they want to you” (p. 153). Similarly, Brunson and Stewart (2006) present preliminary evidence that the code of the street generalizes to inner-city women as well as men. Interviewing a small sample of young, Black women from Mt. Olive, a disadvantaged neighborhood in Chicago, the authors found that female residents adhered to the code as much as men did. Their respondents reported the need to fight other people in order to protect their reputations, even in response to something as simple as the wrong kind of glance. One respondent stated, “Protecting your rep is important, especially if you have an audience that you have to prove yourself to” (p. 9).

Anderson (1999, 2002) is clear that structural factors play a key role in the genesis of the code of the street. Drawing upon the work of Wilson (1987), Anderson emphasizes that,

The inclination to violence springs from the circumstances of life among the ghetto poor-the lack of jobs that pay a living wage, limited basic public services . . ., the stigma of race, the fallout from rampant drug use and drug trafficking, and the resulting alienation and absence of hope for the future. Simply living in such an environment places young people at special risk of falling victim to aggressive behavior. (p. 32)

In this sense, code-related beliefs, which are most prevalent among young, disadvantaged Black men, are a cultural adaptation to the structural barriers that these young men face. That is, the ability of these young men to gain the appearance of success based on mainstream metrics, such as a well-paying job and a nice home, is severely hindered by classism and racism within society (e.g., Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2004). The consequence, Oliver (2003) posits, is that “. exposure to racial oppression has led some black men to redefine manhood in terms of ideals and roles that they perceive as being achievable for them given their status and social environment’ (p. 293, emphasis added). One of Fagan and Wilkinson’s (1998) respondents spoke to this reality, saying, “Everything goes by image and reputation. . A nigger will quicker praise somebody for busting guns than

praise somebody because they got a degree” (p. 147). Violence becomes intertwined with code-defined masculinity due to the absence of official sources of law in disadvantaged communities. Residents feel the need to defend their reputation against insult, and they also feel that they cannot turn to the police or the courts for redress of more serious grievances because of a widespread perception that the police ignore or malign disadvantaged communities (Carr, Napolitano, & Keating, 2007; Sampson & Bartusch, 1998; Venkatesh, 1997). Thus, in the absence of legal control, residents take justice into their own hands, which gives rise to an “eye for an eye” cycle of assault and retaliation (Anderson, 1999; Black, 1983). The subculture of violence arises not in a vacuum, but rather in response to structural, community-level threats to individual well-being.

Returning to the matter of a differential etiology of violence, places where individuals adhere to a street code have high rates of both violent and nonviolent offending. Indeed, Anderson (1999) documents the use of coercion and violence to acquire desired goods among youths conforming to the code. “Street” youth also make up a large part of the drug trade in disadvantaged communities. It is self-evident, we believe, that the explicit values in a community can be crime specific, but at the same time, it is also no surprise that violent and nonviolent crime go hand in hand in disorganized communities. We reiterate, though, that “street” values need not be exclusively correlated with violent offending in order to be identified as an important predictor of violence. If subcultural values can identify those places where violence will be high, it little matters whether nonviolent offending is high or low. For theory testing, the high correlation between rates of violent and nonviolent crime at community levels makes it very difficult to test the differential association hypothesis, especially when so much focus is centered on high-crime, inner-city neighborhoods. An effort to include places with high nonviolent crime, but low violent crime, could be made; this variability certainly exists at the cross-national level.

Nonetheless, we can provide only two pieces of evidence on this point. First, we can contrast the work of Anderson (1999) with that of Patillo (1998). Patillo conducted participant observation in Groveland, a majority-African-American neighborhood in Chicago. Unlike Anderson’s (1999) Germantown, Groveland is a solidly middle-class neighborhood in which the majority of residents work white-collar jobs, and the vast majority of homes are owner-occupied. The neighborhood is surrounded by communities with substantially higher poverty and violence rates, however.

At the time of her study, Patillo reports that a local gang was firmly established within the community. This gang engaged in extensive illicit activities, including money laundering, various front business, and widespread drug sales. However, violence was exceptionally rare within the community. Patillo states, “In more than three years of fieldwork that included extensive visits to [a central park], two field workers together documented only one fight, no graffiti, and three cases of vandalism at the park. Blatant signs of disorder are absent from the park, and explicit gang-related activities, such as organizational meetings, are infrequent and always inconspicuous” (p. 765). A local supervisor made the case that “the kids really protect this building. No graffiti ... no fighting, no break-ins” (p. 757). Indeed, when drug dealers unaffiliated with the local gang started entering Groveland to sell drugs, a few violent incidents did occur. However, the leader of the local gang, “Lance,” soon intervened and drove the violent offenders out of the neighborhood. One resident said, “I don’t carry a knife. I don’t carry mace ... and I feel that if anything happens to me coming home it will not be someone in this neighborhood. .” (p. 760). Patillo’s description reveals a very circumscribed definition of what was acceptable in Groveland. This implies shared beliefs around this close-knit community where individuals actively exert informal social controls when criminals breach local rules. Indeed, her data strongly suggest that local gangs share the nonviolent values of the community.

We argue that the key distinction between the neighborhood studied by Anderson (1999) and the neighborhood studied by Patillo (1998) is the absence of a subculture of violence in the latter. Though unquestionably criminal, Lance and many other members of the local gang grew up in Groveland, and Patillo and many members of the neighborhood attribute Lance’s lack of violent behavior and efforts to defend the neighborhood against the incursion of outside disorder to the fact that he was raised with the social norms of the middle-class. While most youth in Germantown are also raised by families who adhere to mainstream, prosocial values, the code of the street is prevalent enough that all residents are exposed to its insidious norms and violence, thus giving rise to the “code-switching” in Germantown that Anderson describes. By contrast, no such code switching was noted in Groveland. While we cannot rule out the possibility that the different levels of violence between the two communities are due to Groveland’s markedly higher socioeconomic status, we emphasize that Patillo’s ethnography establishes the possibility of criminal subculture sans violence. The contrast in the form of gang activity suggests that subcultural, criminal values can be crime-specific.

Although no qualitative studies have explicitly tested our differential etiology of violence hypothesis, an example from Brunson and Stewart (2006) is also supportive. In their sample of code-adhering inner-city females, the authors found that 83% of their respondents reported committing assault with a weapon, but only 13% reported damaging property. The size and nature of their sample precludes any firm conclusions, but this finding further suggests that specific “code of the street” violent subcultural beliefs may increase violence more so than property offending.

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