|Title:||Tough Crowd: An Ethnographic Study of the Social Organization of Fighting|
Department of Sociology
University of California, Los Angeles
264 Haines Hall
375 Portola Plaza
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1551
Based on several years of ethnographic fieldwork in Tucson, Arizona and a dataset of 191 violent
interactions (and 50 near-violent), this research develops (1) an interaction-level analysis of how
physical fights unfold and (2) a career-level analysis of violence in a novel sample of affluent,
suburban youth, most of them white.
As the sample members saw it, a fight is a stretch of emotionally serious, competitive, hand-to- hand violence. They understood fighting through the metaphor of the fight-as-athletic contest and as a form of exciting "action" (Goffman 1967). Much of the thrill of fighting was to establish solidarity and membership in the local violent elite and to reveal one's strong character. A further motivation was narrative: to make good stories.
I distinguish three phases in the typical fight career: (1) becoming a fighter in adolescence, (2) remaining open to fighting in late youth, and (3) avoiding fights as an adult. They started their careers in fighting at times when they aspired to membership in rebellious high school cliques and upon discovering gratifying new selves in fighting. After high school their experiences with violence were largely organized around leisure situations. During this period of late youth they found prestige in balancing attachments to conventional lifestyles (e.g., as university students) and "looking for trouble" in a mischievous, youthful spirit. Their positions in the life-course and the American class system made noncommittal dabbling in trouble practical, without necessarily jeopardizing future options--at least for a time.
The meaning of fighting in their culture took several ironic turns as they grew up. During adolescence, it was a way to claim the rights of adulthood. Then, after high school, to reclaim the spirit of youth. However, as they aged, the social networks to which they aspired no longer consisted of receptive, appreciative audiences for their street-wise identities and stories of carousing. They became more committed to what they viewed as adult relationships--as neighbors, professional employees, and family men. Finally, on the brink of full adulthood, they reframed fighting as childish and an obstacle to full membership in the moral and social world of responsible adulthood.