From gang member to sociologist

A sociologist tells how he journeyed from being a gang member to obtaining a PhD in sociology:

As a doctoral candidate in ethnic studies at the University of California at Berkeley, Rios spent three years shadowing 40 youths between the ages of 14 and 17, a lot of whom had arrest records and gang affiliations. He had plenty of opportunity to learn that many police officers had a poor opinion of any efforts to understand inner-city youths. The police were instead part of a system that kept the boys under constant surveillance, criminalized their even relatively benign behavior, and left them demoralized and angry, Rios argues in a new book, Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys (New York University Press).

When police officers demanded to know what he was doing, Rios knew the routine: Be deferential, even when abusively spoken to. He had grown up on those Oakland streets and he knew the costs of stepping out of line. One day, when he was 14, an officer “stomped my face against the ground with his thick, black, military-grade rubber boot,” he writes.

Rios, now an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, was no angel when that happened. He had just been pulled over in a car he had stolen. He had joined a gang at 13, lured by the promise of protection in Oakland’s drug-riddled, gang-controlled neighborhoods. Soon he was dealing drugs. He was witnessing beatings, knifings, and murders. He served a string of juvenile-detention sentences. And he would soon see his best friend, Smiley, killed by a rival gang member, a bullet to his head.

How Rios, now 33, came to escape that life, and earn a Ph.D., is one striking narrative in Punished. Another is his account of the dissertation research that took him back to the neighborhoods where he grew up. Starting in 2002, he wandered the streets with his subjects at all times of day and night. He saw the jeopardy that defined their lives. And he met their families, their probation officers, and the police officers who constantly monitored them. The boys’ encounters with the police were almost always negative.

It sounds like Rios could have some unusual insights into gangs and policing from his experiences. It also sounds like there are some interesting methodological issues here as Rios was familiar with what he was studying: on one hand, this likely allowed him to understand certain things in ways that outsiders could not but on the other hand, he was warned about “going native.”

I also like how he flips the script with this remark:

Over lunch at the beachside faculty club on the Santa Barbara campus, where a whole academic lifetime seems indisputably safer than one day in gang territory, he says: “A great research question would be: Why not more violence? Why aren’t these kids attacking everyday people? Why are they only attacking themselves?” Knowing the answers, “we might get a little closer to finding ways to implement policies that will allow communities to bring in their own controls relating to group violence.”

This goes against many media portrayals of violence which seems to focus on how violence affects law-abiding (and wealthier?) citizens. I also ask my Intro to Sociology class to think about social order in this way: instead of thinking of why people are deviant at times, why not ask why many/most people are not deviant most of the time?

Additionally, is this growing evidence (along with this) that sociologists are more interested in including more biographical information in their work?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s