An ethnographic account of violent careers

historyofviolenceAn article by Ferdinand Sutterlüty in the Sage journal Ethnography explores the concept of ‘violent careers’, in particular the precursors to a violent life, and the ‘tipping points’: events that might precipitate a vulnerable young person into a criminal lifestyle.

The author points out that although the word ‘career’ suggests a purposeful trajectory, in actuality:

… the developmental stages through which young violent criminals pass cannot be grasped using a ‘career’ concept that presumes set opportunities and structures within which they methodically and strategically move forward. Although their violent careers are characterized by phases of goal-oriented action, the young people also go through phases in which they feel they are ‘buffeted about’ by circumstances and lose control over their lives. At the same time, biographical ruptures play an important role in their life stories. If it is to be applied to the formation and progression patterns of youth violence, the career concept must take into account discontinuities and contingencies as well as the individuals’ temporary inability to control the course of their lives (pp267-268).

Sutterlüty argues that the narratives that young repeat offenders tell indicate that their violent acts “are interconnected and integrated into a recognizable developmental process as opposed to being isolated events. This type of developmental process… is not dominated by causal necessity. Rather, violent careers depend on contingent events and consequences of action, which function as direction-setters and social barriers in an individual’s life” (p.271).

Sutterlüty tells some powerful stories, and explains the lasting impact of early experiences. For instance:

Kilian, a 21-year-old skinhead, recounted how, as a child, he was beaten again and again by his mother for incidents that were beyond his control – for coming home with dirty clothes, for a broken toy, for not immediately understanding his homework, and so on. In response to the hopelessness caused by these situations, the children develop adaptive strategies: in many cases they adopt the perspective of the abuser and conclude, with their childlike logic, that they are beaten because they deserve punishment.

Early experiences can also lead to profound feelings of powerlessness:

[16 year old] Murat … describes his response to his stepfather’s violent treatment of his mother: ‘I always saw it, and I always thought that if I was older, I would hit him right off, but I couldn’t do anything because I was too small. And sometimes I hated myself for not doing anything and for him hitting my mother.’ This remark not only reveals the deep self-hatred that can result from witnessing family violence without the power to act. It also calls attention to the fact that the thoughts of children who have no power to end family violence are quickened by the fantasy of striking back (p.272)

Because Sage Journals is kindly offering open access to all journals at the moment, you can read the article for free. But hurry, their offer ends on 30 November.


Photo credit: Phil Gyford, Creative Commons License

Abstract beneath the fold:

This article discusses the concept of a violent career and demonstrates its explicative value for biographical research and the sociology of crime. Relying on a study grounded in intensive interviews with young repeat offenders, it distinguishes between trajectories of violence and disrespect suffered in the family on the one hand and violent action schemes on the other. After reconstructing the first phase of violent careers – characterized by victimization within the family and presaging a violent reacquisition of power and recognition – the article identifies biographical turning points and explains them using the concept of epiphanic experiences. These turning points bring about an identity-promoting switch in roles from victim to perpetrator. Finally, three essential aspects of violent action schemes are discussed that are characteristic of the second phase of violent careers: interpretive regimes, which can shed light on the long unanswered question of how violent relations in families are transferred to young people’s social environments; intrinsic motives for violence, which arise from exhilarating experiences of the use of physical force; and mythologies of violence that enable young people to glorify violent behavior and its effects.

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