Source: Work of Liuluenhon

The concept of identity is one that holds great appeal; gripping the attention of both scholars and society. Nevertheless, the literature reveals little consensus as to what identity actually means. The term is expansive and the prevailing way to study it is to select out specific aspects of any individual such as their gender, nationality, race/ethnicity, job status, family role, sexuality, and so on. However, there have been dominant theoretical perspectives when considering identity. Additionally, it appears that current social arrangements have – once again – influenced our thinking. The purpose of this post is to outline two theoretical perspectives of identity and show how the rise of a late or postmodern society has influenced these lines of thought.

There can be little doubt that the study of identity has been addressed in various ways across several disciplines. Perhaps the most well-known treatment of identity comes from the field of psychology where identity represents a critical phase in the development of youth. Here, the construction of a reliable and steady identity is seen as one of the highest levels of achievement in adolescent development. This is because the time during adolescence is characterized by Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) in which youth experience both anti-social sentiments and emotional upheaval – provoking a sort of identity crisis.

Early sociological treatments of self and identity did not see individuals and society as separable entities. Instead, micro-sociologists offered a counterpoint to structural functionalism’s emphasis on large scale structures. Central to their perspective was the idea that people create meaning through their social interactions with others – a framework commonly referred to as symbolic interactionism.  Through this perspective, an individual’s identity is understood as a social product, the result of the social interactions and performances, and established within the confines of specific social contexts.

The conditions in which identities form have changed in recent years. Indeed, sociologists have increasingly taken note of new social configurations commonly referred to as late modernity or postmodernity. Perhaps the most defining trait of late modernity is a social world experiencing constant flux. As Ferrell and colleagues (2008: 59) note: “Late modernity’s pluralism can be understood as a kind of hyperpluralism, a swirling proximity of discordant values that confounds the global and local. The shock of the plural, the uncertainty of the hyperplural, derive from everyday exposure to an inordinate variety of cultural meanings, subcultural styles, and definitions of propriety and deviance. Here meanings overlap, values hybridize, and identities collapse onto each other – to the point that ‘normal’ is no longer a certainty, and the taken for granted world begins to blur”.

In essence, late modern societies are characterized as having a greater degree of complexity than in the preceding era marked by modern capitalism. By dismantling traditional forms of society, late/postmodernity has brought about re-culturalizing forces that have placed significance on consumerism, the creation of new lifestyles, and widespread narcissism.

A central feature of contemporary society, then, has been the gradual erosion of traditional bases from which settled identities may develop, including old scripts of work, religion, family, and community. Theorists often note that these unstable grounds providing the base for identity construction are central to the ontological insecurities experienced by many within late-modernity (Hayward, 2004; Young, 2007). Recent work has suggested that – due to the rapid social, cultural, and economic shifts brought about by advanced capitalism – identities have become forever dis-embedded.

Mounting literature has also highlighted the significance of a growing consumer culture to provide the means necessary for constructing an identity within contemporary society. In this regard, the body is objectified, subject to constant modification, and governable to the logic of commodities (Featherstone 2008). Distinct from previous eras, identity has become subject to the principles of aesthetics whereby products and status symbols are actively sought within a burgeoning consumer culture to invest in one’s image. Now, individuals invest in bodily appearances so as to establish, enhance, or maintain their self-identity (Giddens 1991).

Read: Best, A. 2011. Youth Identity Formation: Contemporary Identity Work. Sociology Compass 5(10): 908-922.

Read: Hayward, K. 2004. City Limits: Crime, Consumer Culture, and the Urban Experience. London: Glasshouse Press.

Read: Young, J. 2007. The Vertigo of Late Modernity. London: Sage.

File:A classroom in Parshvanath College of Engineering.jpgA few weeks back, I contributed a post highlighting possible explanations for the rise of criminal justice based practices within schools.  Although these strategies have become popular for managing school crime, growing evidence suggests they are often overly excessive and may produce a host of unintended consequences. Serving as a sort of a Part II, this essay outlines the effects of what has been termed the “criminalization of school discipline” (Hirschfield & Celinscka 2011). As discussed below, the evidence stands against the school criminalization when considering its effects on: social equality, school performance, school crime, and other disciplinary strategies.

When examining the presence of punitive security measures in school, a growing body of evidence finds that they may disproportionately be placed in schools serving a large percent of racial/ethnic minorities. Additionally, evidence suggests that minority and economically disadvantaged students are more likely to receive harsh punishments within school in comparison to their counterparts – leading to what has been termed the “school to prison pipeline”. Kupchik (2010) more broadly illustrates that the trend of school criminalization has been widely felt, that school across the nation – no matter their student population – have all adopted similar harsh, exclusive security strategies.

To further understand the unequal application of school security, scholars have recently examined how minority and poor youth are perceived within the school environment. This literature reveals that these youth are subject to negative perceptions held by school staff. Specifically, minority and poor youth are often (mis)perceived as troublemakers, disruptive, disrespectful, and a challenge to authority. Whether because of race- and class-based stereotypes, their perceived racial threat, or that their posturing, speech, style, and manners do not reflect White middle class norms, evidence suggest that school staff are more prone to punish these youth given the rise of harsh security based practices.

Scholars have also found that schools with harsher disciplinary practices experience lower levels of school performance. More specifically, exclusive based strategies are negatively related to higher dropout rates. Research also finds that the use of criminal justice tactics in schools has the ability to decrease student attendance, SAT taking, and student engagement. In that same vein, mounting evidence shows that such tactics have the ability to create a undesirable school climate and negatively impact the quality of education. Additionally, there is no clear evidence that the criminalization of school discipline is more effective at preventing school violence than prior practices. For example, literature examining the impact of school resource officers on student’s views and attitudes towards offending, found no significant impact. In fact, studies suggest that harsh disciplinary practices may increase student misconduct.

Aside from evaluative efforts, the literature reveals that the rise of school criminalization has placed emphasis on rule compliance above all else. Despite school staff wanting to help resolve student issues, they have become bound to rules that view misconduct through the prism of crime control. Consequentially, counseling based initiatives often fall behind harsh punishments which do little to address underlying problems. Although originally thought to curb violence in schools, he and others conclude that criminal justice based practices in school open the door for harsher punishments that are potentially more damaging to youth and school.

Although the current practices comprising the criminalization of school discipline echo larger rationales of crime control, perhaps it is time to step back and take a critical look at their impact on youth (and larger society). Though tighter security practices were established to curb school crime and keep our youth safe, mounting evidence suggests that the practices associated with modern school discipline have begun targeting youth instead.

Read: Hirschfield, P. and Celinska, K. 2011. Beyond Fear: Sociological Perspectives on the Criminalization of School Discpline. Sociologu Compass, 5(1): 1-12

Read: Kupchik, A. and Ellis, N. 2007. School Discpline and Security: Fair for all Students? Youth and Society, 39(4): 549-574

File:Saladeaula itapevi.jpgOver the past two decades, schools across the U.S. have adopted a host of punitive practices and policies to prevent and respond to student misbehavior (Kupchik 2010). These practices include the use of security cameras, metal detectors, drug-sniffing dogs, and the full-time presence of police officers. Consequentially, the distinction between school discipline and criminal justice has become highly blurred. For a host of reasons, there has been an increase in surveillance over students and a tighter link between the education and criminal justice for a host of (Hirschfield & Celinscka 2011). The purpose of this post is to provide, from the extant literature, explanations for the rise of criminal justice based practices within schools.

Perhaps the most common explanation for contemporary school discipline and security is fear. This explanation interprets the criminalization of school discipline as a socio-political response to anxieties concerning school crime and broader insecurities (Hirschfield & Celinscka 2011). This line of thought reflects others theorizing the rise of crime control practices more broadly. Social theorists comment that individuals’ fear has become a generalized concern, reconfiguring social institutions and contemporary governance. Consequently, crime control practices and policies have made predicting, identifying, and effectively managing behaviors which threaten the rational order a central objective.

Such practices certainly apply to wider sentiments regarding youth. On the one hand, youth are to be protected; they are seen as a vulnerable population that symbolize a sort of innocence. On the other hand, youth represent an unruly population requiring constant monitoring.  Insecurities, when coupled with fears about youth vulnerability, have moved schools to take a proactive stance toward preventing violent acts from occurring within schools. As a result, administrators and policy makers have adopted punitive disciplinary practices and various visible security measures. Initially, these efforts were established to curb societal fears of school crime. However, scholars critical of this trend suggests that these practices have begun targeting youth instead.

Another explanation draws on critical functionalism’s “social reproduction theory”, suggesting that schools perpetuate social and economic inequalities by equipping different classes of youth with skills aligned with their expected position in the labor force. Recent literature suggests that schools ensure social and economic compliance from youth by shifting disciplinary power from the school to the criminal justice system.  For example, Kupchik and Monahan (2006) consider how school criminalization prepares youth for post-industrial employment. Drug testing students normalizes urine screens on the job, educational monitoring systems mimic highly scrutinized work environments, and zero-tolerance reflects a fleeting power among laborers.  It is clear that disciplinary practices within schools socialize youth into modern configurations.

A final explanation links the criminalization of school discipline to broader anxieties of crime embedded in contemporary social and political structures. Recent theorizing, much like Garland’s (2001) work, attempts to understand the rise of a “culture of control” alongside large scale social, cultural, and political shifts. This framework is also noticeable in Johnathan Simon’s (2007) seminal text Governing Through Crime. His work notes that politicians and legislators exploited people’s escalating awareness and bourgeoning fear of crime as new mechanisms of coercion and control. More specifically, crime allowed politicians to frame citizens as (possible) victims to garner support for new – oftentimes more punitive – legislation. Within the context of education, violence in schools, or the potential of violence, overwhelmed fearful schools and paved an avenue for further governance handed out by the criminal justice system.

Read: Kupchik, A. 2010. Homeroom Security: School Discpline in an Age of Fear. NYU Press.

Hirschfield, P. and Celinska, K. 2011. Beyond FEar: Sociological Perspectives on the Criminalization of School Discpline. Sociologu Compass, 5(1): 1-12


Within the last thirty years the presence of adolescent offenders tried in criminal court has become increasingly commonplace. Scholars critical of this growing phenomenon have documented that the number of youth transferred to adult (criminal) court has gradually risen since the mid-1970s. Whilst the ability to transfer young offenders from the juvenile to adult court has long been an option, recent literature notes that the emergence of legislation facilitating the transfer of youth offenders to criminal court is a microcosm of a “penal turn” in criminal justice practices (Kupchik 2010). That is, laws that expanded the ability to transfer youth to adult court fit within a larger social, cultural, and political movement which sought to “get tough” on crime.

Fagan (2008), while examining the proliferation of transfer regimes, notes that the juvenile court has long had the ability to transfer young offenders to the criminal court. He highlights that decisions to evoke such policy were made on an individual basis by a judge taking into consideration background factors, rehabilitative amenability, and public safety concerns. As Kupchik (2006) states, the primary goal of the early juvenile court grew from a parens patriae ethic where the State adopted the role of a surrogate parent to re-socialize youth toward a proper and moral lifestyle. Only those cases seen as unresponsive to treatment and deemed “incorrigible” were removed from the juvenile justice system and denied the protections it afforded.

As alluded to above, the number of adolescents prosecuted in criminal court and incarcerated in adult correctional facilities has steadily increased over the last three decades. Scholars including Fagan (2008) highlight that, since the 1970s, practically all states have either passed new legislation or modified its existing laws to promote the transfer of youth offenders to the criminal court. During this time, the legitimacy of the juvenile court was threatened on a number of fronts. First, given individualized case assessments by juvenile judges, there were disparities from one case to another. Second, the court was attacked for being racially biased against minorities. Third, judges were criticized for ignoring the need for public safety by not considering the severity of the committed crime. Finally, the rising crime rates of the time represented the juvenile courts’ inability to control youth offenders (Feld, 1999). These attacks helped spawn new legislation regarding transfer policies and crime control that were distinctly at odds with the earlier progressive principles of rehabilitation and social welfare (Kupchik, 2006).

Recent theorizing, much like Garland’s (2001) work, attempts to understand contemporary crime control within large scale social, cultural, and political shifts. Garland (2001) argues that “penal welfarism” that characterized the state during the early to mid-1990s has been dismantled as it failed to secure the public from the risks connected with crime. In its place has risen a new crime control initiative that has ushered a bourgeoning “culture of control.” Related to the emergence of punitive transfer laws, Simon (2007) uncovers how politicians gather support for legislation in a new era of social governance. He proposes that, after the 1960s, the collective trust in the state to provide security and social welfare died with rising crime rates, the collapse of the progressive agenda, and fall of the New Deal political order. In order to alleviate this crisis of legitimacy, politicians and legislators exploited people’s escalating awareness and bourgeoning fear of crime as new mechanisms of coercion and control. More specifically, crime allowed politicians to frame citizens as (possible) victims to garner support for new – oftentimes more punitive – legislation. In essence, individuals become governed through crime under an increasingly penal system.

This idea becomes more evident as proponents of transfer policies situate the need for public safety and proportional punishment over the culpability of youth. In comparison to the old welfare/progressive model where youth culpability was diminished and legal recourse was given without public and political criticism, the rise of a penal model of justice made youth both responsible and accountable for their criminal acts (Fagan, 1999). The decline of rehabilitative ideal of progressive thought made room for legislative reforms that redrew the boundary between juvenile and criminal justice.

Read: Moore & Padavic. 2011. Risk Assessment Tools and Racial/Ethnic Disparities in the Juvenile Justice System. Sociology Compass

Read: Harvey. 2011. Juvenile Courts and Competency to Stand Trial. Sociology Compass



File:Identity.jpgSociologists frequently note that individuals – in effort to understand the social world – construct boundaries and make distinctions (Zerubavel, 1991). That is, in efforts to make sense of the world and its reality, individuals cut up, carve out, and make meaningful distinctions. Distinguishing one from another, that is “masculine” from “feminine”, “affluent” from “deprived”, “strong” from “weak”, and “right” from “wrong” provides an avenue for meaning and reality materialize.

However, the same boundaries that construct a reality for individuals, groups, and cultures, also establish points of conflict. Consequently, the social world endures ongoing transformations as it encounters friction and opposition between sources of authority. Individuals, much like culture, “struggle over what significant symbols mean and who has the authority to project public definitions” (O’Brian, 2008). Whilst boundaries help individuals define their social environment and navigate its complex terrain, they often create areas of contested space in which contradictions and power play out.

There can be little doubt that there exists a gross inequality that limits some from actively engaging in the construction of meaning. This process is oftentimes dominated by those harboring social, cultural, economic, and political hegemony. O’Brian notes that “most persons are aware of the hegemonic position, and its legitimacy is usually taken for granted” (2008: 431). This position resides at the “center”, is considered “normal”, and is highly sought within society. Hegemonic practices, however, sustain domination and inequality as individuals carry out expected social scripts – thus, reifying current realities. This form of social organization often maintains itself through the continued use of power over those lacking both social position and authority. As a result, oppression is constructed and played out though interactions of societal groups: namely, those oppressing and those being oppressed. This relationship, often termed interactional mirrors, solidifies the hegemonic position as it is re-affirmed by both positions.

In this sense, social power and position are unavoidable features that can impress profound effects on one’s self-development. Consider O’Brian’s (2008: 441) stance:

All of us struggle to make sense of ourselves (and the world), to find ways of self-expression, and to be heard and understood. The self undergoes constant revision as it encounters friction, contradiction, and conflict among the various boundaries that give the self-meaning.

However, the ability to find self-expression is not afforded equally to all. When individuals harbor characteristics that align closely with the default or hegemonic position, then their status is considered to be normal. On the other hand, those that are distinct from the expected norm are considered to have marked, or deviant, statuses. Harboring a marked status, to be in opposition to the dominant order creates a contested boundary between how others view them and how they want to be viewed. Similarly, one that takes a “subjective” more dominant role acts upon those having an “objective” less central role. These statuses – whether governing or oppressed – influence one’s perception, interactional structures, and their self-construction.

Those occupying unmarked or hegemonic positions have a high degree of interactional freedom – referring to the argument that these positions harbor a good deal of privileged and entitlement. In addition, they are given more space to project definitions and construct identities than those of marked or marginal statuses.  As a result, subsidiary populations tend to have a greater sense of social awareness. That is, stigmatized and marginal populations cannot – as hegemonic groups do – take positions for granted; rather, they are more aware of distinguishing boundaries and contradictions with the social system.

Suggested Readings:

Dean, J.J. (2011) The Cultural Construction of Heterosexual Identities. Sociology Compass 5(8): 679-687.

Nayak, A. (2007) Critical Whiteness Studies. Sociology Compass 1(2): 737-755.



File:Bonifacio Global City.jpgWhile venturing around today’s modern city-scape, it appears new design principles have been employed. Perhaps the construction of the contemporary urban environment has been increasingly swayed by social, economic, political, and environmental factors. Scholars, also recognizing the changing face of urban environments, have noted the rise of “New Urbanism” (Bohl, 2000). Consider the following:

New Urbanism has been described as the most influential movement in architecture and planning in the United States since the Modernist Movement – Bohl

New Urbanism is the most important phenomenon to emerge in American architecture in the Post-Cold war era – Muschamp

Aside from becoming a new object of study for the academy, New Urbanism has firmly staked a position for itself within the planning community (Calthorpe, 1993). In addition to explaining the major design principles of New Urbanism and discussing its popularity, this entry will reflect on how New Urbanism attempts to curtail social, economic, and environmental issues through better design strategies.

The congress for the New Urbanism views disinvestment in central cities, the spread of placeless sprawl, increasing segregation by race and income, environmental deterioration, loss of agricultural lands and wilderness, and the erosion of society’s built heritage as one interrelated community-building challenge…we advocate ourselves to reclaiming our homes, blocks, streets, parks, neighborhoods, districts, towns, cities, regions, and environment (2001)

The excerpt above, taken from the Charter of New Urbanism, offers an initial look into the underlying principles of New Urbanism. Certainly, this movement advances planning that halts suburban sprawl and inner-city disinvestment while also advocating a renewed interest in rebuilding neighborhoods and towns. Therefore, the Charter of New Urbanism places heavy emphasis on the flowing ideas that shape the design principles and strategies: (1) Restoration of existing development both urban and rural; (2) Reconfiguration of sprawl into real neighborhoods; (3) Conservation of environment and preservation of neighborhoods; (4) Restructuring of public policy and development practices; (5) Development should be tailored to the needs of the community as well local history, climate, ecology, and building practice; and (6) Recognizing that physical solutions alone can not solve social and economical problems

Perhaps New Urbanism is another planning trend that is a product of its own time. Regardless, there is no doubt that New Urbanism has taken hold of planning policies and practices. Its attractiveness is rooted in the same principles of sustainability: mixed use, pedestrian orientated, diverse, compact, and transit friendly. Charles Bohl states that:

 “New Urbanism is viewed as a strategy consistent with pedestrian qualities, mixed uses, interconnected streets, and urban housing types that have historically defined neighborhoods and that support concepts of sustainable development…” (2000)

As outlined above – albeit briefly –  New Urbanism attempts to build a resolution of many social, political, economic, and environmental issues into the physical (re)development of space. Still, scholars have underlined a number of limitations. Perhaps the most critical of these is that environmental design does not address the why of social injustices, criminal events, or deviant acts. For instance, Bohl has offered a number of limitations regarding New Urbanism’s influence on crime:

1.)    New Urbanism does not take into account wider social conditions or external factors like racism, inequality, low income populations, or economics

2.)    It is not an economic development program

3.)    It is not a social service program that will allow for daycare, affordable health facilities, or counseling

4.)    May not be able to instill trust and cohesion in a diverse population that can for “real neighborhoods”

5.)    Although New Urbanism is sensitive to displacement caused by gentrification, it does not provide a strategy to solve any type of displacement due to inner city redevelopment

6.)    Although New Urbanism supports diverse human needs it does not accommodate for them

7.)    It places little emphasis on inner city population needs

These limitations could lead to New Urbanism’s demise. Diversity among people has routinely been found to increase distrust, crime, fear, transience, and deviance while lowering community cohesion, communication, relationships, perception of safety, and moral (efficacy theory, pockets of crime, and social disorganization). Increased outside activities coupled with little social services could lead to increased crime, social disorder, and fear of crime (as found in social disorganization theory and routine activities theory). Larger social issues like racism, inequality, and lowered economics could very well be found in micro systems. Without assistance, strategies against displacement, and support for human needs crime could flourish (efficacy theory, social disorganization, pockets of crime, deviant places).

As such, movements similar to New Urbanism are seen as ill equipped to effectively reduce crime rates or other social ills. More pointedly, environmental development does not provide a strategy to combat such issues, it can only combat opportunities. Planning – it is argued – can then only acts as a secondary measure to manage populations, direct individual activities, or prevent crime. It is difficult however to dismiss all of what New Urbanism is setting out to accomplish and therefore it should be tested and researched further. As many in the field have stated, there is no one single way to combat all reasons for crime – we can only do our best. And for now, New Urbanism may be the best alternative to what is currently in place – only time will tell.

Read: Hess, D. (2008) Localism and the Environment. Sociology Compass, 2(2): 625-638.

Read: Sze, J. & London, J. (2008) Environmental Justice at the Crossroads. Sociology Compass, 2(4): 1331-1354.






Whether flipping through channels, listening to the radio, or reading the newspaper, it is evident that crime has secured a mainstay position in today’s media. In order to achieve high ratings, television networks and news outlets must fill their allotted time slots with only those headlines sure to popular attention (see Best, 2004). Oftentimes, those stories and reports are generated by sensationalizing criminal events. However, the seemingly overrepresentation of crime and delinquency is not the focus for this essay. Rather, it appears that crime has become a generalized preoccupation that has transformed a number of U.S. institutions (see Hudson, 2003). More specifically, crime – and societies growing fear of crime – has become a mechanism through which a new mode of governance has emerged.

After the late 1960’s, there were a number of large scale shifts within the U.S. Against the backdrop of social conflict, cultural diversity, and shifts in political ideology, a growing unrest quickly emerged. Crime rates, having been relatively low, had reached a critical threshold; attracting significant media and political attention.  These turbulent conditions represented the government’s inability to control criminals and act in the best interests of its people. Simon (2007) proposes that, after the 1960s, the collective trust in the state to provide security and social welfare died with rising crime rates, the collapse of the progressive agenda, and fall of the New Deal political order.

No longer seen as effective, nor trusted by citizens, the state underwent a crisis of legitimacy. Attempts to alleviate the lack of sovereignty resulted in the state’s adaptation toward relying on new forms of governance. Recent theorizing, much like Garland’s (1997, 2001) work, attempts to understand contemporary crime control within large scale social, cultural, and political shifts. Garland (2001) argues that “penal welfarism” that characterized the state during the early to mid-1990s has been dismantled for it failed to secure the public from the risks connected with crime. In its place has risen a new crime control initiative that has ushered a bourgeoning “culture of control.”

Simon (2007), more specifically, uncovers how politicians were able to – once again – garner support in a new era of social governance. In order to build and mobilize popular support, politicians and legislators exploited people’s escalating awareness and bourgeoning fear of crime. That is, mounting insecurities around crime enabled politicians to frame citizens as (possible) victims to gather support for new – oftentimes more punitive – legislation. In essence, individuals become governed through crime under an increasingly penal system. Essentially, crime became as new mechanism of coercion and control.

Perhaps one of Simon’s (2007) more crucial insights is that “governing through crime” does not focus solely on the troubled or poor in attempts to manage, repress, or control. Rather, this new paradigm promotes the “self-governing” routines of people who are “eager consumers of public and private governmental tool against crime risk” (Simon, 2007: 16). Now, crime fear has influenced the once private space of the family, the development environment of education, and the productivity of the office. While criminal justice was once reserved those deemed “criminal”, it seems that crime control has dispersed among the population.

Instead of prison cells and mandatory minimums, individuals take only the safe streets; we allow surveillance, and security officers with legal jurisdiction; we buy fortified SUVs and homes while living in gated communities. By constructing the victim as the ideal, governmental institutions have exploited the fear of crime for the purposes of controlling those once not reached by crime control efforts.

Read: Simon, J. (2007) Governing Through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Read: Garland, D. (2001) The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Read: Green, D. (2012) Punitiveness and Poltical Culture. Sociology Compass, 6(5): 365-375


File:Classroom.JPGThere can be little doubt that schools across the nation have experience notable budget cuts since the recent economic fallout. Without protection from larger economic trails, educational systems have had to manage substantial budget cuts and reductions in available resources. Across different media platforms, new articles are peppered with headlines concerning the myriad of challenges schools are now facing. Despite financial tightening and limited avenues for support, it is clear that school performance has not escaped popular attention. With initiatives like “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top”, schools must meet higher expectations within a highly competitive atmosphere – although some schools hit harder than others by adverse economic conditions.

In efforts to “achieve” given the implementation of standardized testing, schools have had to reorient their instruction to “teach to the test.” This becomes more problematic as some programs are abandoned so that others survive in the midst of significant financial cuts and reduced fiscal budgets. Vincent (2005) from Washburn University School of Law for instance wrote:

In order for schools to meet AYP [adequate yearly progress] and avoid sanctions, students must meet proficiency levels in reading and math. By narrowly restricting proficiency to these subjects, the NCLBA [No Child Left Behind Act] elevates them above all other considerations in gauging academic performance… the Act pressures education officials to undermine their commitment to providing a comprehensive education by focusing resources on mandated tested standards while ignoring other subjects in the curriculum…Classes in art, music, foreign language, and history too often first feel the axe of budget cuts.

By defining “educational success” in terms of proficiency levels in math and reading among students, schools are influenced to teach to the test, to narrow the curriculum, and cut those programs seen as peripheral and a misuse of economic resources.

Perhaps even more problematic is the structure of funding under these initiatives. As briefly noted above, in order to receive (Title I) funding, schools must demonstrate a certain level of proficiency. However, as many have criticized, these standardized tests and measures often overlook structural and economic differences and inequalities. Consequentially, those schools suffering the most given their financial situation, structural location in society, and marginalized status may be further disadvantaged – not because their lack of effort but because their overall circumstances. More pointedly, those that could benefit the most oftentimes don’t have the means necessary to demonstrate the “educational success” required.

It appears schools across the nation have been given an impossible mandate – to perform at higher levels than ever although having less to do so. Here, the coupling of educational performance and tightening financial arrangements have led to counter-productive tendencies. On the one hand, schools are measured according to their level of academic proficiency. On the other hand, widespread economic crises have absorbed school budgets, leaving fewer means and resources available to its students and staff. When taken together, this highlights a trend provoking a pedagogical shift; a shift that does not tailor instruction toward creativity, critical thinking, and inclusion, but to test specific material, directives, and exclusion.

Read: Wildhanen, T. (2010). Capitalizing on Culture: How Cultural Capital Shapes Educational Experiences and Outcomes. Sociology Compass, 4(7): 519-531

Read: Hirschfield, P. & Celinska, K. (2011) Beyond Fear: Sociological Perspectives on the Criminalization of School Discipline. Sociology Compass, 5(1): 1-12

Read: Bartlett et al. (2002). The Marketization of Education:Public Schools for Private Ends. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 33(1): 1-25



Robert K. Merton, in 1938, began delving into how societal arrangements could create, maintain, and exacerbate social tension and individual stress. His theory of ‘strain’ – tremendously oversimplified – proposes that crime/deviance becomes more likely when a disjuncture exists between culturally derived ends (i.e. monetary success) and what the social structure makes possible. This theoretical framework, from its onset, has been the focus of numerous efforts; being tested, criticized, buttressed, and modified to increase its viability. As a result, sociology and criminology now offer a variety of strain models so as to enhance an understanding of criminogenic conditions, criminal behaviors, and social deviance (see Merton, 1938; Cohen, 1955; Cloward & Ohlin 1960; Agnew, 1992, 2002; Messner & Rosenfeld 1994). However, criminologists and sociologists alike are recognizing conditions that, once again, may result in the modification or further development of the strain tradition.

Whilst strain theory has made significant contributions to scholarship, it has yet to take into consideration the social, economic, and political conditions that construct contemporary society. Despite the influence of the strain paradigm, Hayward states that ‘theorists have been somewhat reluctant update early strain models in light of the particular cultural and economic changes associated with late modernity’ (2004: 158). He continues to show that Morrison (1995) has argued that criminology is in need of more sophisticated analyses of the emotive underpinnings associated with strain and/or anomie:

Criminology not only operates with underdeveloped models of desire, but also largely restricts itself to narrow interpretations of strain theories; wherein crime in the result of frustration by the social structure of the needs which culture indentifies or the individual. Today, even in the most contemporary of mainstream criminological theory, ideas of positionality and status are underdeveloped. Instead ideas of needs and greed predominate. (Morrison, 1995: 317 as found in Hayward, 2004: 158)

Recently, scholars have begun to redirect their intellectual gaze to appreciate and examine the conditions associated with late modernity. More specifically, research has focused on how contemporary conditions associated with advanced capitalism and intensified governance has influenced crime and crime control practices. An expanding interest within criminology, namely Cultural Criminology, has emerged that attempts to empathetically understand and appreciate the underlying emotions and immediate motivations of crime and delinquency (Ferrell, 1996, 2006; Ferrell et all. 2008, Hamm, 1993; Hayward, 2004; Lyng, 1990; Presdee, 2000; Young, 2007). This line of scholarship has at its core the study of how cultural dynamics entwine with crime and crime control within late – dare say it – postmodern society.

Here, there is an attempt to move beyond viewing crime as an instrument to gain culturally defined wealth to include those transgressions which are expressive and symbolic in nature. Hayward posits that an understanding of contemporary crime and justice issues requires an exploration into such ontological insecurities: the ‘feeling physically and psychologically at risk in an unstable and changing world’ (2004: 15). This work calls attention to a world experiencing intensified forms of control while at the same time experience constant flux in meaning (Young, 1999 and 2007; Hayward, 2004; and Featherstone, 1995).

As theorists have noted, the governmental promise to secure safety and security for all citizens has fallen short. Consequentially, this has allowed the state to mobilize popular fears and insecurities to usher in more invasive and excessive forms of control (Simon, 2007). This intensified form of governance has created over-controlled subjects existing in a highly managed society where avenues for thrill, excitement, and extreme emotional experience are absorbed by a culture necessitating risk avoidance. Ontological upheaval is the result.

Underpinning transgressive behaviors, perhaps, is an insatiable desire to escape from under the regulatory juggernaut emanating from the aforementioned late-modern preoccupation with safety and order (Hayward, 2004).  As efforts increase to include more behaviors under the umbrella of control, individuals experience ontological strains that can be alleviated by engaging in transgressive behaviors. Rather than the result of being blocked from achieving the ‘American Dream’, individuals may experience sources of strain by not fulfilling individual needs (identity, excitement, emotional stimulation) due to contemporary modes of governance.


Hayward (2004) City Limits: Crime, Consumer Culture, and the Urban Experience. London: Glasshous Press

Ferrell, Jeff, Hayward, Keith, and Young, Jock (2008) Cultural Criminology: An Invitation. London: Sage.

Williams, P.J (2007) Youth-Subcultural Studies: Sociological Traditions and Core Concepts. Sociology Compass, 1(2)

Anderson L. & Brown, M. (2010) Expanding Horizons of Risk in Criminology. Sociology Compass, 4(8)






File:Classroom.JPGOftentimes, there are social, economic, and political underpinnings when practices or policies are set in place. Whether a phenomenon is constructed in a new light as a social problem, an economic turn places demands on society, or there is an ideological shift within politics, these factors – together – frequently play a vital role in policy. That is, the rhetoric we employ – the way in which we discuss trends – helps dictate how issues are dealt with. This post will explore how cultural constructions of childhood helped create the juvenile justice system and the larger changes to the system that have occurred since its creation.

Perhaps it is best to start with the social construction of youth with contemporary society. The perception of youth today holds – perhaps – the same way it did some time ago; with the catchphrase “today’s youth are so bad” continuing forward with every generation. This sense of nostalgia, the fondness toward the past has not been divorced from how the youth today are constructed. Making evening news headlines and front pages are perceptions of the “monster child” – the ever worsening condition of the younger population. On the one hand, as a risky population, youth have become something to be protected from. On the other hand, however, the youth also need to be protected – they are often defenseless, ignorant to larger societal ills, and require protection.

While youth behaviors may not have change all that much, it is clear that public opinion, institutions, and policies think otherwise. For example, Lind and Irwin’s Beyond Bad Girls demonstrate that while female aggression has remained relatively stable, the glorification of their “relational violence” in the media and popular cultural avenues have been enough to spark a near moral panic. The authors contend that due to the construction of highly policed gendered roles, females are unable to achieve any status – whether academic or social.

The construction of the deviant female is also prevalent in Nikki Jones’s Between Good and Ghetto. Her argument is that black females must choose between black or mainstream femininity. However, given their harsh social conditions, the conventional female role is blocked – thus, forcing them to choose a role between being “good” or being “ghetto.” Given the intersection of their economic, gender, and racial marginality, females must try to preserve femininity (to fit the mainstream feminine construction) without become a victim within their own community.

Scholars attempting to understand contemporary practices have taken note of large scale shifts that have influenced the juvenile justice system since its creation. Scholars including Beck, Simon, Garland, and Giddens, for instance, have begun taking note of such trends that are affecting practices and policies aimed at youth. Simon, for instance, argues that with the collapse of the new deal and decreased support for government, crime has become a perfect mechanism to gain backing from the population for legislation and crime control practice. In essence, as the title of his book states, Simon argues that the U.S. is currently governing its people through crime.

However, in efforts to increase formal mechanisms of control, the government has demonstrated its limits as a sovereign state (Garland, 1997). That is, although implementing longer sentences, tougher sanctions, zero-tolerance policies, and surveillance technology, crime has held a tight grip on public consciousness. According to Aaron Kupchik’s Homeroom Security, some of these practices have made their way into the school setting and juvenile justice system. No longer are drug sniffing dogs, security cameras, police officers, and zero-tolerance sanction limited to the adult court. However, instead of creating active civic participants, Kupchik notes that these practices may have the opposite consequence of producing over-controlled disciplined bodies which are being prepared for position in the labor force or incarceration.

As a final note, Feld’s Bad Kids, touches on how the construction of youth have influence the development of the contemporary juvenile court. As youth, it was thought that the adult court was too harsh, and that youth should receive more protection. However, given the current state, the juvenile courts have been interpreted as being too lenient. As a result, the juvenile system has purged many of its safeguards and has adopted the penal mentality of the adult system. Returning to the opening thought – it is the construction of youth that helps pave the way for specific practices and policies. All together, the social construction of youth, as being a threatening and vulnerable population has paved the way for a more invasive, penal oriented, juvenile justice system.

Read: “Beyond Fear: Sociological Perspectives on the Criminalization of School Discipline“, in The Sociological Forum.

Read: “Homeroom Security: School Discipline in an Age of Fear“. By Aaron Kupchik, published by NYU Press (2010).