Over the past 40 years, U.S. social scientists carried out hundreds of self-report studies of juvenile delinquency, using as subjects primarily high school and college students. In a typical study, members of a sample complete a confidential questionnaire in which they are asked to report the number of times in the preceding, say, six months they committed each of a list of crimes. Taken together, the results of these studies show that participation in direct-contact theft is not limited to the disadvantaged to nearly the extent suggested by arrest statistics. Although important class differentials in delinquency are apparent even in the findings from self-report research, theft, it turns out, is a surprisingly democratic enterprise. The same, however, cannot be said about men who commit the most serious and largest number of direct-contact thefts and who often persist at doing so despite formal sanctioning by the adult criminal justice apparatus. Their backgrounds are noticeably tilted towards the lower reaches of the working class.
The reasons for this imbalance is numerous, but one of the most important is the distinctive qualities of their cultural capital, defined here as the “general cultural background, knowledge, disposition, and skills that are passed from one generation to the next.” (1) Children of working-class origin inherit substantially different cultural capital than do middle-class children. The cultural capital of working-class males limits their access to the resources needed to entertain and to strive for options readily accessible to the more advantaged. When they make important and consequential life decisions, their attractive legitimate options are few, and their preparation to take advantage of them is weak or nonexistent. Their cultural capital leaves them no better prepared to take advantage of the safest and financially most promising contemporary criminal opportunities. For one thing, they lack both the normative commitment to inequality and the experience required to build and operate effectively hierarchical organisations. In this chapter I suggest some of the ways that the range of options available to the working class, particularly the most disadvantaged and disreputable fraction of it, is constricted. Except in passing, the interpretive focus is not the hard objective facts of class disadvantage; I present no data on education or income. The concern here instead is the cultural and social-psychological consequences of limited wealth and prestige and how these constrain the number and variety of options accessible to working-class men and women.
I will have little to say about the worsening condition of the working class generally in the past two decades. As entire industries have declined or disappeared, the high-paying manufacturing jobs that once were plentiful have been exported to countries where wage levels are far below what U.S. workers traditionally earned. This and other developments related to the growth of a global Economy have increased the size, the misery, and the despair of the underclass, the poorest segment of the working class. (2) To many, for example, it has brought for the first time in their lives the fear of homelessness. (3)
Wealth, Subordination, and Repute
Firmly rooted in the working class, persistent thieves are distinguished principally by their limited Wealth and Income. All their lives most have been poor or just a financial crisis and a few paychecks away from it. No other aspect of their circumstances is so profoundly important for virtually every aspect of their lives, certainly not their own weak or chaotic family ties or their taste for illicit drugs and their effects. The observation that many working-class men and women traditionally have been able to purchase stereo equipment, automobiles, and other expensive consumer goods does not alter this fact. For every debt-free and satisfied owner of one or more of these marvels, there is at least one financially strapped other whose stereo system has been broken for months and whose 10-year-old automobiles fails to start or run reliably. Describing the working-class families she studies, Lillian Rubin noted: “For them, ... deprivation was real – real when they knew parents had trouble paying the rent, when they didn’t have shoes that fit, when the telephone was shut off, when the men came to take the refrigerator away.” (4) Consider, for example, the amount of space available to family members: “It is one of the distinguishing marks of ... working-class family life that there’s not enough room in the house either for the people who live in it or the things they collect as they pursue their lives.” (5) Nor, for that matter, is there enough personal space, or even sleeping space, to permit privacy. Contrasting sharply with middle-class sensibilities and practices, in the poorest and the most crowded working-class households, bedrooms and even beds are shared with others.
Working-class men and women labour in hierarchically low-level, low-paying jobs, increasingly in service industries. When they have employment, they clean office buildings, load and unload machines that extrude endless streams of plastic products and parts, guard prisoners, hang dry-wall, and maintain the dossiers and files crucial to the smooth operation of countless bureaucracies. Much of their work is physically hazardous or harmful. To spend any time at all in their company is to be struck by the high proportion who suffer from work-related ailments and injuries. Infirmities ranging from painful joints to missing fingers and ruined lungs are commonplace. Normally they work under the direct supervision of and on schedules constructed by others. For most, their work neither requires nor permits them to set production goals or to plan and complete tasks as they see fit. This is done by superiors or by other subalterns and in any case is thought to be none of their business. Subordination is one of the most important distinguishing characteristics of working-class employment. Always it features bosses, schedules, and time clocks.
None of this is meant to ignore or obscure substantial variation in the conditions and rewards of working-class employment and lives. At one end of this range are men and women who earn high wages, who have adequate health insurance, and who may own a home. Their work, perhaps in the highly skilled and unionised construction trades, is challenging, allows for exercise of some self-direction, and results in visible, tangible, and enduring products that they often point to with pride. (6) At the other end are persons employed, for example, at the lowest levels of the nursing home industry; their work often requires cleaning the beds and bodies of incontinent residents. The nature of this work ensures that only those with few options chooses to do it, particularly at the minimum wage it pays.
Notwithstanding important variation in the nature and conditions of their employment, few working-class citizens do work that is interesting, exciting, or newsworthy. Much of it is aptly described as “dirty work.” (7) Dirty work is jobs or tasks that most people want carried out albeit the work is undesirable and Morally “dirty.” Collecting and processing household garbage and trash is an obvious example, but much of the work of criminal Justice fits also. “Good people” do not do dirty work, and they prefer not to know very much about it or those who do it. They do not want to talk or know about how “things are going,” just as long as they are going.
The conditions under which men and women earn their living are one of the most important sources of how they are regarded by others and how they regard themselves. Largely because they do work that few people aspire to and most try to avoid, working-class citizens are seen by many as less honourable or respectable than “better” citizens and treated accordingly. Physicians, Supreme Court Justices, and CEOs of Fortune 500 Corporations enjoy higher status and repute than men and women who work with their hands. Apart from their location in a Wealth-and-Property hierarchy, the working class also are located disadvantageously on this Moral hierarchy. Those near its top are touted as exemplars of what is Admirable and Important; the strengths and Virtues of working-class women and men generally are unacknowledged and unchronicled. Respectable people characteristically imagine the most disadvantaged and socially detached among them as shiftless and irresponsible. John Irwin suggested they are seen as “irksome, offensive, threatening, capable of arousal, even protorevolutionary.” (8) Objects of scournful, if colourful, labels, such as “greasers” or “rowdies,” in an age of Television and the videocassette recorder, these Morally dismissive labels are understood and used widely. (9) Throughout much of America, and particularly in the South, the disreputable working-class are dismissed as “rednecks.” In an unusually candid characterisation, rednecks are described as “trash,” men with “rotten teeth” who “kill deer out of season” and perhaps “belong to the Klan.” (10)
Working-class men and women are not unaware of the existence and the dynamics of Moral hierarchies. They understand that persons above them in the Wealth and Status hierarchies are “in a position to judge them, and that the judgement rendered ... [is] that working-class people ... [can]not be respected as equals.” (11) This can exact a heavy toll in self-esteem. About the families he knew while living on “Clay Street,” Joseph Howell said they “felt scorned and looked down on by [those] more affluent than themselves.” (12) Referring to a typical male informant, investigators who interviewed 150 Boston-area working-class men and women said that “he sees himself as receiving the ultimate form of contempt from those who stand above him in Society: he is a function, ‘Ricca the janitor,’ he is part of the woodwork.” (13) Reflecting on her own working-class background, Lillian Rubin noted that she was unable to examine it analytically for many years because “I was ... eager to forget the pain and the shame of feeling deficient.” (14) Even scholars and intellectuals are not immune from the tendency to see working-class women and men as unworthy. [e.g. StevenPinker. PaulKrugman.] Part of the intelligentsia, the former characteristically see themselves as “people who hold the ‘right’ values [and] stand out from a mass whose understanding and sensitivity they believe inferior to their own.” (15) For minority citizens, the result can be “wounding undercurrents of self-doubt, [grounded in the] suspicion that if whites [own] the world, there must be a reason.” (16) For others, the result can be resentment and anger both over the nature and dynamics of Moral hierarchy and the disrepute that looms as their destiny.
An important component of the individual-level impact and meaning of low status is a sense of personal insignificance that is only strengthened by working-class awareness that their views are not solicited and usually are not taken into account by economic and political leaders. Neither they nor their opinions matter much; they are taken for granted as a matter of course. Rarely are we surprised, therefore, when noxious industries, land-fills, and freeways are sited in or traverse working-class neighbourhoods. The great decisions that shape the lives of millions instead are made by remote others who pursue their objectives with little concern for working-class opinion. Thus the working-class patrons of a restaurant frequented by African American men
tend to be very cynical about the motives of the powerful institutions of their Society ... [O]ne of the beliefs they hold is that the World they live in is controlled and manipulated by Powers at the top ... When a man suggests that nothing is an accident, he is making reference to the “fact” that important events are brought about by those who hold the reins of power ... It is taken for granted that Society is run by a set of Elites and Institutions that arrange the most important events. (17)
Although race undoubtedly is one source of this perspective expressed by working-class men, cynicism is not restricted to members of minority racial groups. Reporting on the white patrons of the working-class tavern where he was a participant observer, E.E. LeMasters noted:
It is quite evident that these men don’t trust politicians – whether they voted for them or not. This attitude of cynicism is generalised to include business leaders and trade union officials. As a matter of fact, it is hard to think of any “big wheels” in our Society that these men admire and trust. (18)
Nevertheless, the disadvantages of class and status are intensified enormously for residents of American’s ghettos, barrios, and reservations. Their rates of unemployment are among the highest, and those who do have regular employment often are consigned to some of the dirtiest and least remunerative work. Nor can we ignore gender inequity. To the oppression of working-class women generally, the added burdens borne by those of minority status can be insurmountable. Despite racial, ethnic, and gender variations within the working-class however, “we cannot lose sight of the fact that we are always talking about one working-class – divided as it may be.” Thus, the ‘underclass’ is not some peculiar distortion of Black Culture or psyche; [they] ... are members of the lowest sections of the working-class.” (19) This in no way denies that poverty, disrepute, and race all contribute something to the varied forms and meaning of lower-class street crime.
One of the most important consequences of life in the working-class is that men and women generally do not aim high either educationally or vocationally. This is not hard to understand. It is difficult for the Imagination to soar when life is consumed by the pressures of coping with routine exigencies and near-daily crises. Nor are working-class children exposed to the educational and cultural Experiences that are fertile soil for imagining and comprehending alternatives. Commenting on his working-class childhood, Russell Baker noted that at age 14,
[m]y ignorance of the World beyond schoolroom, baseball diamond, and family circle was remarkable ... I had spent my childhood in the blue-collar World where there was neither Money, leisure, nor stimulus to cultivate an intelligent Worldview. I had never been exposed to Art, nor attended a concert, nor listened to a symphony even on records ... The fierce political passions of the 1930s, the clash of Ideas about Communism, Fascism, Socialism were very remote from the gray depths we inhabited. (20)
Children reared in working-class Worlds frequently do not aspire beyond a good-paying blue-collar job, perhaps in the construction industry, or service in the Military. Of all the consequences of poverty and disrepute, perhaps none is as consequential as this stunting effect on their dreams and Imagination.
The limited aspirations of these children generally are buttressed by their school Experiences. Because of their speech, their behaviour, and other aspects of their cultural capital, they are tagged as students unlikely to succeed:
By embodying class interests and Ideologies, schools reward the cultural capital of the dominant classes and systematically devalue that of the lower classes. Upper-class students, by Virtue of a certain linguistic and cultural competence acquired through family upbringing, are provided with means of appropriation for success in school. (21)
It does not take long for many working-class children to tune out of the school scene, not because they believe “success in school is irrelevant but rather that the odds of ‘making it’ are simply too slim to bet on ... [They] conclude that the possibility of upward social mobility is not worth the price of obedience, conformity, and investment of substantial amounts of time, energy, and work in the school.” (22) It is not difficult to see why working-class children, even if they do not expect it, at least are prepared to accept limited aspirations and accomplishments. This objectively based but self-reinforced damper on dreams and achievement limits their legitimate and illicit pursuits alike. Even their criminal dreams and accomplishments are drawn to modest scale.
Family and Peer Group
The degree to which families remain stable and intact despite the problems of working-class life ranges on a continuum from hard living to settled living. (23) The settled working class are those with an adequate and stable income, many of whom own their homes. They are
the single largest group of families in the country. These are the men and women, by far the largest part of the American work force, who work at the lower levels of the manufacturing and service sectors of the Economy; workers whose Education is limited, whose mobility options are severely restricted, and who usually work for an hourly rather than a weekly wage. They don’t tap public resources; they reap no benefit from either the pitiful handouts to the poor or from huge subsidies to the rich. Instead, they go to work every day to provide for their families, often at jobs they hate. (24)
Another observer has called them “maintainers,” adults who “reproduce Society through the enactment of recurrent processes in the framework of established institutions” and, therefore, play an extremely important part in the life of working-class communities. (25) These men and women often are active in community activities. Whatever the reasons they are able to rationalise their lives and activities, the availability of an adequate income surely is one of the most important.
In contrast to the settled-living, the hard-living generally seem to live from crisis to crisis. Their lives have a chaotic quality. Alcoholism, unstable work Histories, and unstable marital and live-in relationships are commonplace. It is this fraction of the working class that commonly is designated lower class. Most of the analysis in this chapter applies particularly to them. Whether they are unable or simply unwilling to rationalise their lives and pursuits is unimportant when weighed against the consequences of the fact that they do not:
They are the men and women who rebel against the grinding routine of life; the dulling, numbing Experience of going to the same mindless job every day; of struggling with the same problems of how to feed, clothe, and tend the children without adequate resources; of fighting an endless and losing battle with roaches, rats, sore throats, and infected ears. (26)
It is characteristic of working-class life and neighbourhoods that settled families and hard-living families often live in close geographic proximity.
The importance of the family in mediating the effects of overarching economic and status hierarchies is affirmed clearly in Jay MacLeod’s study of the “Hallway Hangers” and the “Brothers,” two groups of young men residing in a public housing project in a northeastern U.S. city. The former, all of whom were white, had turned off to school and had leveled aspirations; they aspired to nothing beyond
the only jobs that they perceive to be available – unskilled manual work. Many expect to enter military service, not because they find it particularly appealing but because of the paucity of other opportunities. The concept of an aspiration is essentially alien to the Hallway Hanger. Most simply expect to take whatever they can get. (27)
The Brothers, who were African American, offered a contrast. The parents of these boys had seen improuvement in their own lives and had conveyed to their children a sense of Optimism and hope. (28) As a result, the Brothers had not lowered their educational and occupational aspirations. The family clearly can reinforce, blunt, or defeat the threat of leveled aspirations.
And there is no doubt some families, particularly the ones that are better off financially than others, make at least a modest effort to inspire their youngsters. Typically, this takes the form of urging them to get an Education or to acquire occupational skills – electrical wiring, perhaps – that will pay off later. Beyond these ambiguous admonitions, however, most working-class parents may have little to offer, and even a directional heading is more than some can provide.
The circumstances and motivations of parents who do not encourage their children to set lofty goals for themselves can be varied and complex. For many it simply is lack of Knowledge; they may not know how to identify key reference points or to provide adequate guidance to those with ambition. Buffeted by the consequences of alcoholism and unstable employment, other parents are so overwhelmed by living day to day that they cannot imagine a future different from what they know. Coping with daily crises simply leaves no time or energy for it. Some parents may not inspire their children intellectually or vocationally for feat that the cost to the latter in frustration and devastated self-esteem if they do not “make it” is too much to risk. Perhaps, as these parents see things, it is best not to “put ideas in their heads.”
Parents and other adults are the most important transmitters of cultural capital, but the peer group is important also. It can reinforce or turn on its head perspectives formed in the world of adults and in relations with authority figures. The results of interviewing and participant observation in a British working-class neighbourhood and school demonstrate this point. The investigator found and described two groups of boys, the “lads” and the “ear’oles.” (29) The former were distinguished by their opposition to the Culture of the school and the objectives of teachers; the latter were conformist in orientation and behaviour. Boys who gravitated towards the lads in the process became less conformist in their stance towards school. The fact that working-class male children are granted autonomy at an early age simultaneously diminishes the influence of parents and increases the potential impact of the peer group, whether it is conformist or oppositional. It is here, for example, that lower-class aversion to many types of white-collar work as unmanly often finds reinforcement. Substituting a white collar for a blue one, as they see it, does not guarantee upward mobility or success. Income and working conditions are critical also. Generally, white-collar employment that subjugates one to a rigid schedule and close supervision is devalued. Tenured full professors at major universities are viewed as successful, accountants are not.
Beyond economic precariousness, an air of inferiority and insignificance, and the leveled aspirations that are staples of lower-class worlds and lives, Experiences of the kind I have sketched give to their cultural capital distinctive qualities. The economic and status Realities of “working-class life,” Lillian Rubin noted, “and the constraints they impose upon living are the common ingredients from which a world of shared understanding arises, from which a Consciousness and a Culture grows that is distinctly working-class.” (30) Noteworthy are two normative commitments and personal stiles that are valued positively, particularly by males with origins in the lowest fraction of the working class.
Independence and Autonomy
Those who have spent time in working-class worlds invariably point to the importance males place on personal independence and autonomy. The independent and unencumbered male ideal is valued highly. As they understand it,
[i]ndependence ... means “minding one’s own business” or not meddling in other people’s business and, at the same time, expecting to be left alone in managing one’s own affairs. This concept is expressed most frequently in the simple phrase, “Ain’t nobody gonna tell me what to do.” (31)
Doubtless one reason working-class males value highly independence and autonomy is because, as the children of families with limited financial resources, they achieve financial independence at an early age. When parents simply lack resources to provide beyond the necessities, their children are aware of it and have little choice but to adapt accordingly. Working-class males understand without being told that whatever they acquire in life will be by their efforts alone. There will be no inheritance or trust fund, no parental indulgence while they take time off to “find themselves,” [Mnemotechnique, Amy Goodman, Jennifer Connelly, Rooney Mara] and no high-powered connexions to draw on. In marked contrast to children of the professional middle-class who enjoy “an extended adolescence – often until the mid-twenties and later,” these working-class children “grow up so fast” because the “moratorium on assuming adult responsibilities is a luxury that only the affluent sector of the Society can afford.” (32) Jay MacLeod described the Hallway Hangers: “At sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen years of age, [they] have gained a maturity ... that is incommensurate with their chronological age.” (33)
One of the taken-for-granted defining characteristics of the Status of adult is the demonstrated ability to provide for oneself all or a substantial proportion of the wherewithal for food, clothing, and shelter. As young males achieve financial independence and adult Status in the realm of occupational performance, others begin treating them as equals in other spheres as well. And what begins as economic necessity and cultural norm is converted gradually into personal and social Right. Bear in mind that young working-class males usually hold a variety of jobs, many for no more than a few days. Often they are paid in cash, in transactions that are unreported. Stable, skilled, and well-paying employment at work with a future remains their ideal, however.
In addition to employment stability and a good Income, work that permits one to operate independently is preferred. This helps explain why many of them hope to acquire specific work skills while young:
Having a job skill was important because the work itself was more rewarding than unskilled work, because the jobs paid more, and because a skill gave a person more independence ... [S]ubcontracting was popular ... The least desirable jobs were factory jobs or jobs where you had to take orders all day and had no Freedom. (34)
Many of these men gain a familiarity with the requisite tools, skills, and organisation of construction while young, which facilitates later employment in this industry. The absence of formalised credentialing processes and career lines also makes it attractive (35) An informant once told me that those who do the hiring on construction sites “don’t care whether you come from Yale or from jail. All they care about is whether they can make any money with you.” Describing how he began working as a bricklayer, the same informant went on to say:
When I got out of prison [the second time] ... I sold a suit for $10 and I bought [some tools], just the bare necessities of what I needed, and I met a guy who carried me on the job ... So at that time I could make $160 a week ... And with this earning power, I didn’t have ... I didn’t have to steal ... This was right down my alley.
Subcontracting, which is commonplace in the social and economic organisation of construction work, only increases its appeal for the independent-minded.
Most working-class males, however, have misinformed or severely distorted notions about the Realities and risks of self-employment. Given their subordinate origins, few of them fully comprehend the discipline and long hours often required to make a go of things as a budding entrepreneur and business owner. In the words and the fantasies of a hustler, “When you work for somebody, he tells you this or that and if you don’t do it he beefs with you. I don’t want to work for nobody. That way, I got no beefs, and I can keep my own hours.” (36) Reality does not concern them; Experience with subordinated and unremunerative jobs has convinced them self-employment is better. Those who venture into entrepreneurship generally find that it requires a degree of rationality and discipline they cannot or will not devote to it. During the one year he lived in south Philadelphia, Dan Rose was employed by a man who owned and operated an automotive transmission repair shop. The business did not run smoothly, and there were endless problems. According to Rose, it was as if the owner-proprietor “wanted to turn the street hustle ... into a capitalist enterprise but with none of the market rationalities of Ownership, legitimacy, licensing, or access to wholesale parts and supplies.” (37) Entrepreneurship and a rationalised life hold little appeal for men like him who want nothing so much as to be free of external constraint. For those accustomed to the Freedoms and the rhythms of the Street, operating a business prudently and closely is too much like confinement.
Although I have elected not to dwell on the pathologies and shortcomings of working-class mates, they should not and cannot be ignored entirely. It is useful to bear in mind that the values and personal stiles of working-class males are celebrated and pursued in a patriarchal World:
In much the same way that it takes a number of support troops to maintain one soldier on the front line, it takes a number of seemingly compliant People to supply the make room for one individualist at home – to honour his whims, provide an audience for his acts of self-expression, and populate the World over which he has dominion. In this, as in so many other respects, one person’s Freedom of Action can easily become another’s bondage.
Nor can the Racism and high levels of interpersonal violence that flourish among lower-class males be overlooked.
In the corners of their patriarchal, racist, and classist Worlds, however, working-class males endorse and expect egalitarian relations with one another. Remarking on the black males he knew in south Philadelphia, Dan Rose noted that “the autonomy of the Self led to a Society of autonomous Selves that were radically democratic.” (39) They are more democratic in some respects than in others. Working-class males do not treat one another without regard for rank of some kind, even if it is informal or reputational. Rank is important. The fact is that some men are looked to with respect, others with fear, and still others with contempt. They are not democratic if by this is meant that all area treated alike.
But they are democratic in believing that interactionally ostentatious displays of the Right to give orders generally is unacceptable behaviour. None should behave as though deference and command are personal entitlements. Egalitarianism and Authority generally are seen as incompatible. This is one of the reasons working-class males may be reluctant to assume an international posture with their peers that could be interpreted as “trying to give orders.”
The high value placed on Egalitarianism and opposition to those who behave as though they are superior finds expression in respect for the unabashedly common. To embrace Egalitarianism completely is to revel in being and being seen as one of the “common folk,” (40) someone who is “never too good to speak to you.” On Clay Street, “a given personality or individual could be admired and accepted regardless of his social position, just so long as he seemed to be an ‘okay guy.’ Being an ‘okay guy’ meant among other things ... being ... unpretentious. The worst kind of person was a snob.” (41)
When Egalitarianism is coupled with strong support for Class or peer-group Solidarity, it can make for reluctance to move out of the familiar World and to regard those who do as traitors. Peer-group influences that cause members to limit their individual aspirations in favour of Loyalty to the group have been noted in research from New York ethnic neighbourhoods to rural West Virginia. (42) One of the characteristics that distinguished the “lads” and the “ear’oles” was the lads’ desire to maintain the identity of the group. In his account of the Brothers and the Hallway Hangers, Jay MacLeod noted that members of the latter placed great emphasis on group identity. (43)
The working-class male cultural emphasis on democratic relations is a mixed blessing, however. It makes these men less likely than contemporaries reared at other levels of the Class hierarchy to strive for and to seek out positions of leadership. They do not relish acquisition or effective use of the skills or the trappings of superordination. Left to themselves, few would choose to become “boss.” Lacking Experience as organisers and leaders, it is hardly surprising they also lack confidence in their ability to do these things. Thus, the emphasis on Egalitarianism augments the leveling of aspirations produced by Class and school Experiences. (44)
For individuals, as for families, the consequences of disadvantage and disrepute and subordination are not invariant. Limited resources and a bleak assessment of prospects for becoming successful through honest endeavour can lead alternately to a profound sense of futility or to rage. (45)
Spurred by identical structural and cultural constraints, some individuals respond with willingness to drive themselves unsparingly on the assumption that anything less only guarantees the quiet fate that awaits most. Regardless of whether they are determined to succeed or simply determined not to fail, these men will not be snared or defeated without struggle. Class and racial memberships that destine one for a life of disrepute and insignificance cause them to elevate near the top of their motives a drive to be noticed and respected. They are less willing than their siblings and peers to rule out criminal options if need be. Even if it must be secured with a pistol, these men will have the wealth and leisure denied to their parents and older neighbours. Asked what made him a criminal, an aging English thief replied, “Seeing my father, a straight man, getting only poverty all through his life for being straight.” (46) Another man is more expansive:
You know, [there’s] a thing the smart-boy preachers and professors and all ought to remember: all the crap they hand you in Sunday school and over the Television and the Radio and through Newspapers and Books about how you got to be good and work hard and go to church and mind your manners and wash your face and comb your hair and clean your fingernails and spray under your arms and say sir to the boss and punch the time clock and tip your hat to the cop and respect the Mayor or Governor or President, all those things if you want to live a happy life, that’s a lot of goddamn lies, and if they know it, what makes them think someone else can’t figure it out, too? (47)
To be successful, these men must construct a life experienced as satisfactory on dimensions such as “dignity, fulfillment, achievement of life goals, or level of gratification.” (48) They are capable of enormous self-discipline and rationality in pursuit of a life better than the one their parents attained. Although their numbers proportionately are not large, the toll they exact is substantial, for they are among the most rational and successful of all whose criminal beginnings stem from the inequity of class.
Responses to Class and Status inequality can take manner forms as well. Nursing anger and resentment, other men situated near the bottom of Class and Moral hierarchies are prepared to use threat or force to acquire what is denied them by inequality. Wealth and Leisure are important components of their motivational quest, but self-validation or recognition is added to the mix. In this way, crime can be a Mechanism and an interactional forum for extracting form an indifferent or hostile World the attention and respect men would not know otherwise.
Class, Constraints, and Decisions
The theory of crime as choice predicts that persons who have few legitimate options, attractive illicit ones, and little fear of the risk of being caught if they choose the latter are more likely to engage in criminal activity than are those who have attractive, attainable legitimate options, few if any illicit ones they are aware of, and fear of the consequences if they are arrested. The reasons working-class men are more likely than middle-class thieves to persist at street crime are easy to understand and entirely consistent with this theory. Working-class men are unlikely to have access to attractive legitimate opportunities or to be sufficiently confident of themselves and their skills to pursue the ones that are available. In a word, they are among the least likely to find close at hand the resources needed to construct and maintain successful lives legitimately. Some of their own decisions limit them even further; they drop out of school and in other ways make decisions that limit what they will be able to accomplish.
If it is understood properly, the decision to commit a crime must be seen in this larger context of prior decisions and constraints. We never have unlimited options in the choices of everyday life. Always our options are constrained by considerations that cause us to ignore or to rule out some. Lower-class children generally do not entertain as a career option becoming a physician, although this is not because they lack potential. Instead, it is because this is not held out to them as a “realistic” or attainable goal by their parents or by school officials, and consequently most do not aspire to become physicians. At some point we must acknowledge and examine how the Class and Status origins of many men who persist at direct-contact theft and the characteristics of their cultural capital constrain their legitimate options. These factors have the same effect on their criminal options.
Class and Compliance
Several years ago, a team of researchers at Stanford University conducted a study of psychological reactions to the Experience of imprisonment. (49) The key component of the research was a simulated prison operated by the investigators. They first advertised for volunteers, who would receive $15 per day for participating in the study. Seventy males, predominantly young, middle-class college students, applied, and two dozen eventually were selected to participate in the study. Half the volunteer participants were arbitrarily designated as guards and the others as prisoners. As one of the investigators later explained:
These were the roles they were to play in our simulated prison. The guards were made aware of the potential seriousness and danger of the situation and their own vulnerability. They made up their own formal rules for maintaining Law, Order and respect, and were generally free to improvise new ones during their eight-hour, three-man shifts. The prisoners were unexpectedly picked up at their homes by a city policeman in a squad car, searched, handcuffed, fingerprinted, booked at the Palto Alto station house, and taken blindfolded to our jail. There they were stripped, deloused, put into a uniform, given a number and put into a cell ... where they expected to live for the next two weeks. (50)
All activities taking place in the mock Prison were observed and videotaped. Participants also were tested and interviewed at various points during the study.
“Guards” quickly developed exaggerated roles of the kind found in real Prisons, becoming high-handed and Tyrannical in the process. [That little spic fucker at Baylor Medical School. That fat fucking prison guard at Harris County Jail.] “Inmates” became docile and showed signs of extreme emotional stress. Three prisoners had to be released in the first four days because of “acute situational traumatic reactions,” such as hysterical crying, confusion in thinking, and severe depression. Others begged to end their participation early. These and other reactions by guards and prisoners caused the investigation to terminate the study after only six days.
The participants in the Stanford research primarily were middle-class university students. (51) Just as they found confinement to be extremely unpleasant, men from white-collar background who chance to spend any appreciable time in real confinement often find it unusually demeaning and difficult. An ex-convict and former thief made this accurate observation:
Straight doing time can’t relate to the lifestyle inside, can’t make peace with being caged, and can’t accept the con code. They don’t know how to keep to themselves, to see nothing, hear nothing, talk about nothing. They don’t know how to protect themselves from the dangers, like wolves that prey on weak, scared ones. They don’t understand that you mustn’t trust no one, mustn’t injure anyone’s feelings, and mustn’t lose at gambling any debts you can’t pay. Squares don’t know how to wheel and deal to stay alive. (52)
When they do become ensnared by the criminal Justice apparatus, respectable white-collar citizens characteristically apply to their criminal acts linguistic techniques that enable them to deny or to minimise the fact they are criminals. They may interpret their arrest and conviction, for example, as evidence of political pressures exerted on or personal bias on the part of prosecutors. Once in custody, they complain, make claims for special treatment, and burden others with accounts of the mistreatment and Injustice they have suffered. (53)
How different they are from working-class males who, once they are arrested and sentenced, typically refer to their activities as “stealing” or “doing Wrong” and who rarely dispute the State’s formal Right to punish them. It is a fundamental and inescapable fact, moreover, that the penalty of Imprisonment is limited principally to blue-collar men and that one of the more noteworthy aspects of their adaptation to it is a high level of taken-for-granted compliance. Reflecting on many years spent in juvenile and adult institutions, an alcoholic former thief and heroin addict could be speaking for many working-class males who, like him, chance to end up in prison:
[N]obody’s done anything to me that I haven’t gone clean out of my way to ask for. And I’ve never complained about being picked on, really. I’ve never had complaints about parole officers or Police. I never have felt that, because I’ve always known that each time that I got here I worked hard to get here. I truly worked harder than other people to get myself put in this goddamn place, you see, and I think the way that I did my time also indicated my willingness to accept the punishment as my lot. (54)
Save for the day-to-day violence inmates conflict upon one another, occasional inmate assaults on staff, and the waves of Riot that periodically course through them, U.S. Prisons are calm places. Active, open resistance to institutional personnel and regimens is as rare as emotional responses were commonplace in the “Stanford County Jail.” The same handicaps and cultural biases that prepare working-class men for street crime also prepares them for Punishment when they are caught.
Those charged with running places of involuntary segregative confinement face the challenge of inducing inmates to contribute to the smooth operation of their facilities or at least not to disrupt daily operations. The challenge of maintaining order and routine in Jails and Prisons is reduced when prisoners can be made to discount or ignore entirely the possibility of joining with their peers to challenge staff actions or to insist upon improuvements in their common conditions of confinement. Their acquiescence is facilitated not only by administrators’ calculated actions to divide inmates but also by the fact that working-class men respond to incarceration in ways that reflect aspects of their cultural background and common values. Their Experience leads them to see as legitimate and to accept as proper an unambiguous link between crime and Punishment. Working-class men are prepared to submit to criminal Justice authority. Two aphorisms often heard in the prisons are “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime” and “If you wanna play, you gotta pay.” They attest to the clear relationship between crime and Punishment that is taken as a given by prisoners from poor and minority backgrounds.
The value they assign to Independence and autonomy is particularly important in this regard. Prison officials promote a “do-your-own-time” interpretation of prisoners’ plight, one that resonates comfortably with the self-defined independent working-class male. Describing how he settled into doing his second prison sentence, Roger Morton said:
I just laid back and let people do what they want to do, just as long as it didn’t involve me. Just laid back and done my time. I was the only one there to do it. I just let most folks alone, I tried not to get involved in loanin’ Money and borrowin’ Money, or get into the drug thing. Every now and then we might throw us up a little julep or something, to celebrate.
This normative ideal and strategy of “live-and-let-live” atomises the prisoner group and complicates enormously the task of anyone who would call for more interaction and trust among prisoners. It is not because of the actions of guards alone that U.S. Prisons “are among our last bastions of the idea of the insurmountable, free individual.” (55)
The brand of Egalitarianism valued so highly by working-class males also finds expression in their compliant behaviour when they are in custody. The notion of differential Authority and leadership is for them of such uncertain legitimacy and distasteful as well that they are reluctant to involve and submerge themselves in organisation. They are not the kind of men who align themselves with or subordinate quickly to self-proclaimed leaders. This wariness decreases further any protest for a collective, perhaps oppositional, response to their treatment.
The emphasis working-class men place on Egalitarianism also makes the task of controlling them easier when they are in the clutches of criminal Justice functionaries and bureaucracies. They are slow to step forward from the ranks, but they are quick to mistrust those who do. This effectively denies to them all hope of acting purposefully and collectively. They are leaderless because it satisfies their egalitarian impulses, because they are slow to subordinate themselves voluntarily, and because they lack Experience organising and leading. [Occupy Movement.] In Chapter 3, we shall see how these same cultural biases limit their ability to exploit crimes that pay well with little risk of arrest or severe penalty.
1. Jay MacLeod, Ain’t No Makin’ It (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1987), p. 12. For an extended development of the concept of cultural capital, see Pierre Bordieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977); and Pierre bordieu and Jean-Claude Passeron, Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1977).
2. William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987). The underclass thesis has been the focus of considerable if often arcane scholarly debate in which the lived Experience of underclass women and men is all but ignored. For an exception, see Ken Auletta, The Underclass (New York, NY: Random House: 1982). The utility of the underclass concept certainly is not limited to urban minority populations. Its application to Appalachia is argued in Lynda Ann Ewen, “All God’s children ain’t got shoes: A comparison of West Virginia and the urban ‘underclass,’” Humanity and Society 13(1989), pp. 145-164. A discussion of the underclass concept and the controversy generated by it is Carole Marks, “The urban underclass,” Annual Review of Sociology 17(1991), pp. 445-466.
3. Sympathetic and insightful accounts of some of these changes include Terry M. Williams and William Kornblum, Growing Up Poor (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1985); and Gregory Pappas, The Magic City (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989). On the fear of homelessness, see Lillian B. Rubin, Families on the Fault Line (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1994), especially p. 113-116.
4. Lillina Breslow Rubin, Worlds of Pain (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1976), p. 30.
5. Lillian B. Rubin, Families on the Fault Line (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1994), p. 17.
6. E.E. LeMasters, Blue-Collar Aristocrats (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1975); and Studs Terkel, Working (New York, NY: Pantheon, 1974).
7. Everett C. Hughes, “Good people and dirty work,” In The Sociological Eye, vol. 1, edited by Everett C. Hughes (Chicago, IL: Aldine Atherton, 1971).
8. John Irwin, The Jail (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985), p. 2.
9. Herman Schwendinger and Julia R. Siegel Schwendinger, Adolescent Subcultures and Delinquency, research edition (New York, NY: Praeger, 1985).
10. This characterisation of Bernard Welch, the man who murdered her spouse, was given by Dr. Halberstam’s widow on the day Welch was sentenced to imprisonment. Mrs. Halberstam, who grew up in the Deep South, said she had known men like Welch “all my life.” See Washington Post, “Welch convicted of murder, robbery, nine other counts,” 11 April 1981, p. 11.
11. Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, The Hidden Injuries of Class (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), p. 38.
12. Joseph T. Howell, Hard Living on Clay Street (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1973), p. 327.
13. Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, The Hidden Injuries of Class (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), p. 50.
14. Lillian Breslow Rubin, Worlds of Pain (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1976), p. 13. Of her childhood spent in rural poverty, songwriter and singer Dolly Parton noted simply that “The worst thing about poverty is not the actual living of it, but the shame of it.” See Dolly Parton, Dolly (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1994), p. 51.
15. Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, The Hidden Injuries of Class (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), p. 69. Although many middle-class academics and activists claim to understand and to act in the interests of the working people, in truth most do not bother to acquaint themselves firsthand with working-class lives and perspectives. The fact that Affirmative Action programs were designed and operate with apparent indifference to the handicaps of Class is particularly revealing. The gulf between middle-class and working-class perspectives and its consequences are explored in David Croteau, Politics and the Class Divide (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1995). A popular treatment of some of these issues is E.J. Dionne, Jr., Why Americans Hate Politics (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1991).
16. Sylvester Monroe and Peter Goldman, Brothers (New York, NY: William Morrow, 1988), p. 161.
17. Mitchell Duneier, Slim’s Table (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 74.
18. E.E. LeMasters, Blue-Collar Aristocrats (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1975), p. 184.
19. Lynda Ann Ewen, “All God’s children ain’t got shoes: A comparison of West Virginia and the urban ‘underclass,’” Humanity and Society 13(1989), p. 154.
20. Russell Baker, Growing Up (New York, NY: Congdon and Weed, 1982), pp. 198-199.
21. Jay MacLeod, Ain’t No Makin’ It (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1987), p. 12.
22. Jay MacLeod, Ain’t No Makin’ It (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1987), p. 104.
23. The distinction between settled living and hard living is made and discussed in Joseph T. Howell, Hard Living on Clay Street (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1973).
24. Lillian B. Rubin, Families on the Fault Line (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1994), p.
25. Mitchell Duneier, Slim’s Table (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 131.
26. Lillian Breslow Rubin, Worlds of Pain (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1976), p. 34.
27. Jay MacLeod, Ain’t No Makin’ It (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1987), pp. 67-68.
28. Jay MacLeod, Ain’t No Makin’ It (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1987), especially pp. 137-162. The same racial difference is reported in Mercer L. Sullivan, “Getting Paid” (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989).
29. Paul E. Willis, Learning to Labour (Farnborough, UK: Saxon House, 1977).
30. Lillian Breslow Rubin, Worlds of Pain (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1976), p. 210.
31. Patricia Duane Beaver, Rural Community in the Appalachian South (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1986), p. 153.
32. Lillian Breslow Rubin, Worlds of Pain (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1976), p. 30.
33. Jay MacLeod, Ain’t No Makin’ It (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1987), p. 55.
34. Joseph T. Howell, Hard Living on Clay Street (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1973), p. 343.
35. For example, Dermot Walsh, Heavy Business (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986), p. 59.
36. James Willwerth, Jones (New York, NY: M. Evans, 1974), p. 186.
37. Dan Rose, Black American Street Life (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987), p. 120.
38. Kai T. Erikson, Everything in Its Path (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1976), p. 91.
39. Dan Rose, Black American Street Life (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987), p. 165.
40. Patricia Duane Beaver, Rural Community in the Appalachian South (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1986), p. 165.
41. Joseph T. Howell, Hard Living on Clay Street (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1973), p. 348.
42. Compare, for example, Herbert J. Gans, Urban Villagers (New York, NY: Free Press, 1962) and Jack E. Weller, Yesterday’s People (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1965).
43. Jay MacLeod, Ain’t No Makin’ It (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1987).
44. Paul Willis, Learning to Labour (Farnborough, UK: Saxon House, 1977); and Jay MacLeod, Ain’t No Makin’ It (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1987).
45. Jay MacLeod, Ain’t No Makin’ It (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1987), p.
46. Tony Parker and Robert Allerton, The Courage of His Convictions (London: Hutchinson, 1962), p. 106. “Robert Allerton,” the thief and ex-convict whose life history is the subject of this book, would go on to serve at least one additional prison sentence after it was published.
47. Ted Thackery, Jr., The Thief (Los Angeles, CA: Nash, 1971), p. 72.
48. John Irwin, The Felon (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentince- Hall, 1970), p. 177.
49. Philip G. Zimbardo, “Pathology of Imprisonment,” Society 9(1972), pp. 6-8.
50. Philip G. Zimbardo, “Pathology of Imprisonment,” Society 9(1972), p. 6.
51. Philip G. Zimbardo, “Pathology of Imprisonment,” Society 9(1972), p. 6.
52. Marlene Webber and Tony McGilvary, Square John (Toronton, ON: University of Toronton Press, 1988), p. 74. For examples of how incarcerated squares are exploited, see Pete Earley, The Hot House (New York, NY: BanTam books, 1992), pp. 156-158; and Nathan McCall, Makes Me Wanna Holler (New York, NY: Random House, 1994), pp. 154-156. In recompense for incarceration with those they typically regard as social inferiors, some respectable ex-prisoners write scournful, classist accounts of their peers. For an example of this, see Jean Harris, Stranger in Two Worlds (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1986).
53. See, for example, Michael L. Benson, “Denying the guilty mind: Accounting for involvement in white-collar crime,” Criminology 23(1985), pp. 583-607.
54. Eugene Delorme, Chief, edited by Inez Cardozo-Freeman (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), p. 153.
55. Joan Smith and William Fried, Uses of the American Prison (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1974), p. 58.