Ways of the "Jackass": Toward an Explanation of Legally Permissive Violent Behavior

Ryan K. Williams, The University of Illinois - Springfield

ABSTRACT
Popular perceptions of legal adolescent thrill seeking behaviors, such as stunt taking and back yard wrestling, often interpret such activities as impulsive and serving no utilitarian purpose. Traditional models of strain theory would describe these often violent behaviours as the result of the socially-induced strain experienced as a result of the inability of lower-class youth to gain material success (Merton, 1938) or status (Cohen, 1955) through conventional means. The current paper argues that these types of legally permissive violent behaviors may more likely be adaptations by middle class adolescents themselves to middle class goal blockage who have established alternatibe status systems within legal parameters. Using Katz's (1998) discussion of the emotional seductions of criminal activity, I argue that many violent behaviors yet to be defined as criminal can be perceived as legal and attainable means for middle class juveniles to display their "charismatic potential", not only to their peers, but for themselves as well. Indirect evidence drawing from the existing literature as well as selected quotes of adolescents from existing ethnographies and video scrapbooks will be discussed. Finally, a number of novel hypotheses are offered to guide future research in this area.

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Updated 05/20/2006