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Issue of Gang Violence

Updated January 14, 2022
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Issue of Gang Violence essay

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Gang violence is a worldwide social issue that is especially prevalent in the United States. Because the causes and norms are heavily rooted in both the individual issues of its members as well as the contextual environment of the gang, gang violence serves as a prime example of an issue that can be analyzed via the sociological imagination. From Chapter 1 of the textbook, sociological imagination is the interplay between individual issues and the historical context.

As individuals, gang members are often ostracized from their families and communities, and their collective desire for social support results in a shared sense of identity through their gang. In the group context, gangs are most prevalent in poor ghetto communities with limited resources. In these communities, the uncertainty of life facilitates risky and violent behaviors that promulgate into the social issue. Two assigned readings that can inform the discussion surrounding urban violence from a sociological viewpoint is Elijah Anderson’s Code of the Street and William J. Chambliss’s The Saints and the Roughnecks.

Code of the Street by Elijah Anderson is a direct analysis of the circumstances of violence surrounding the ghetto poor, involving notions of poverty, hopelessness, and racial stigmas. The article mentions the institution of the “street,” characterized by an oppositional culture with its own anti-mainstream societal values. Culture, as elaborated in Chapter 3 of the textbook, dictates our behaviors and describes patterns in the social world through norms. In this case, the norms that dictate interpersonal conduct, particularly violence, are regarded as the “code of the streets.”

From a sociological viewpoint, we can see that the street code serves pivotal roles in both defining the social structure and regulating urban violence (eg. how to initiate and respond to violence). The street code is fundamentally the expression of a predisposition to violence that commands respect whilst suggesting the capability to defend oneself. In the streets, respect or “juice” is earned by looking for others to fight, all while defending oneself from incoming challenges or potential altercations. This management of one’s social position in the eyes of peers and one’s own self-image are all defining characteristics of street culture that are conducive to urban violence.

The Anderson article categorizes the urban ghetto into two main orientations, the decent and the street. Decent individuals are more accepting of mainstream values and pass on these values intergenerationally. While impoverished, the decent are working members of society that value perseverance and self-sufficiency. In contrast, street individuals are relatively poorer than the decent and have a loose and disorganized family structure. Street-oriented individuals are more likely to be invested in the street code, in which they are socialized to conduct themselves in accordance with its values.

When decent and street individuals interact on the street, there is a social shuffle that takes place, in which the individual has to decide on an orientation. It is during this interaction on the street that children affirm their values and, above all, learn to fight. The toughest of the group becomes the most respected, and social reinforcement for this type of behavior occurs. This social reinforcement, in turn, augments the social reality of the “street,” refines the code of the streets, and promotes urban violence.

The street code directly affects urban violence by serving as a framework by which individuals can negotiate respect through violence. Outside the ghetto, physical altercations can be avoided by extricating oneself from the situation. However, in the urban ghetto, avoiding a fight is not only potentially damaging to one’s identity and sense of respect, but also to one’s subsequent interactions with others. Fundamentally, those of the street are forced to maintain the code because they have no alternative options to gain status or assert themselves. The code is therefore preserved by individuals who are alienated from mainstream culture and lack social support.

Means by which individuals are excluded from society include gender norms and systematic racism. In the street, notions of masculinity revolve around physicality and the manifestation of “nerve,” or the intentional disrespect of another individual to further one’s own reputation and respect. Challenging another’s sense of respect by displaying nerve often results in physical altercations and is a primary mode by which the street code results in urban and gang violence. Systematic racism exacerbates the social issue, in that black youths identify with the street orientation as a means to express their blackness. Thus, the real and perceived racism faced by the ghetto poor validates the oppositional street culture and its expected behavior for violence.

The Saints and the Roughnecks by William Chambliss describes Chambliss’s observations of two gangs with radically different socioeconomic statuses and community perceptions—upper-class Saints and lower-class Roughnecks. Saints were generally popular and successful students. Although rampant cheating had much to do with their good grades, the teachers had generally good impressions of the Saints. In school, the saints engaged in truant behaviors and played pranks in cafés or pool halls. Outside of school, the Saints inebriated themselves through heavy drinking and performed risky behavior, such as reckless driving, walking on moving vehicles, and pranking police officers.

As mentioned in lecture, there are negative sanctions in breaking the law or formalized norms. Surprisingly, the only observed sanctions by law enforcement that the Saints received for their unlawful behavior were a disturbance citation with no permanent record and a speeding infraction that was passed as a simple “error.” This suggests that police typically viewed the Saints as upstanding youths, and there was no need for harsh punishments. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Roughnecks.

The Roughnecks were a similar age gang to the Saints that also performed reckless behavior, albeit more sporadically. However, the community’s impression of the Roughnecks is dissimilar to that of the Saints, as Roughnecks were often conceived to be much more delinquent than they actually were. In school, teachers had poor impressions of Roughnecks and regarded them as troublemakers. Overall, the social class dichotomy between the Saints and Roughnecks guided the way society viewed their deviance and, thus, their socialization.

In regard to urban violence, Roughnecks were more prone to belligerent behavior than Saints. They often sought out and engaged in fights inside and outside their group, to which they’d fight with rival gangs, black people, and those from other schools. While deadly weapons were not included in their brawls, their violent acts threatened the physical safety of community members and the Roughnecks themselves. On the other hand, the Saints were observed to not contribute to urban violence, as they fought rarely or not at all. From Roughneck behavior, we can see that their actions, alongside their socioeconomic disparity, mirrors that of the street-oriented from Anderson’s Code of the Street.

The social class dichotomy of the Saints and Roughnecks can be juxtaposed to the decent and street orientations in The Code of the Street. Like how the street-oriented are typically poorer than the decent, Roughnecks were relatively more impoverished than the Saints. The distinction in socioeconomic status is reminiscent of conflict theory mentioned in lecture, in that a social inequality exists in the dichotomies that should be changed. Furthermore, the coexistence of the two groups shape their social structures and are important for studying urban violence and general deviant behavior in their communities.

From the two readings, we can see that socioeconomic status has a direct impact on the visibility of gang behavior and the frequency of delinquent acts (i.e. accessibility to alcohol). This is especially true for Roughnecks, as they did not have access to automobiles, like the Saints, and were thus more conspicuous to law enforcement and community members. In the ghetto mentioned in The Code of the Street, the street and the decent were both relatively poor, so this distinction was not as prevalent as with the significant income disparity seen in The Saints and the Roughnecks.

Aside from social stratification, the demeanor and behavior of the two groups from the 2 readings were very alike. The Saints were similar to the decent-oriented, in that they, for the most part, complied or feigned compliance with mainstream social norms. In other words, they knew the rules of the game and followed what was expected of them. The Roughnecks were similar to the street-oriented, in that they had violent fighting tendencies and were often labeled as deviants by their community. In the street, individuals were judged by their clothes, outward bearing, and body language.

These qualities facilitated the measure of deserved respect and, in turn, deterred violence and transgressions. In other words, to be respected, they had to have the “look” that deserves respect. In the case of Roughnecks, this “look” resulted in a perceptual bias, such that an individual’s demeanor represented their commitment to deviance as a lifestyle and their perceived potential for criminal conduct. A worrisome issue that arises as a result is when individuals accept their labels as deviants or criminals. This is in accordance with labeling theory and notions of primary/secondary deviance mentioned in lecture: the acceptance of the self-concept reinforces prior deviant behaviors and results in future drastic behavior. Their social networks may also shift towards the inclusion of fellow deviants in their ingroup. These judgments and biases are in direct relation to the aforementioned discussion of class structure, as lower-class youth were seen as troublemakers, whereas upper-class youth were seen as upstanding.

In addition, common to both street-oriented and Roughnecks was the general mistrust and hatred of law enforcement. As police often harassed Roughnecks for circumstantial evidence and minor concerns, Roughnecks viewed the police as unfair and corrupt. While Saints would often get away with a warning, the same transgression would likely have resulted in a more severe punishment for Roughnecks. In Anderson’s article, he describes the code as the product of a severe mistrust of law enforcement and the criminal justice systems.

Police are seen to represent dominant white society and do not perform their due diligence in protecting inner-city people. This lack of police accountability promotes a need for self-accountability. The requirement to fend for oneself teaches one to fight at an early age and results in a dog-eat-dog mentality. Ultimately, the street code fosters the notion that “might makes right” and adversity should be dealt with physically. When drug and firearm accessibility is added to the mix, the situation becomes extremely volatile and predisposed towards self-destructive behavior and urban violence.

Gang violence is an issue that has far-reaching impacts on societal development and public safety. From a sociological viewpoint, the norms and values surrounding urban violence can be traced to the interplay of class structures and a code to negotiate respect and gain status. The real and perceived threat of urban violence, especially involving gangs, can be better understood through the lens of the sociological imagination. Factors such as racial stigmas, economic marginalization, law enforcement attitudes, and street culture must all be taken into account, as well as the historical trajectories and patterns of the groups committing urban violence. Further research on urban violence should be conducted, as it has far-reaching implications for the law enforcement and criminal justice systems, societal attitudes towards violence, public health and safety, the discussion towards adversity faced by the marginalized, and the development of interventions to address delinquency and criminality.

References

  1. Anderson, E. (1994, May). The Code of the Streets. The Atlantic, 101-113.
  2. Chambliss, W. J. (1973). The Saints and the Roughnecks. Society, 11(1), 241-254.
Issue of Gang Violence essay

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