Deviance and Social Control
October 14th, 2011
New York City is known for its subway lines and most New Yorkers have either used the subway system before or currently use it daily to commute to their destinations. This mass transit system is like New York City itself and caters to citizens and tourists of different nationalities, religions, gender, races, ages, and even different socio-economic statuses. In this environment every person enters knowing that they will partake in a shared experience with complete strangers and to put aside, at least outwardly, any biases or discriminations they may have toward other people. The rules of law in our society dictate that all citizens have the right to live their lives protected from the dangers of harm inflicted by other citizens. These laws are put in place for multiple purposes with the promotion of freedom, safety, fairness, and justice guiding their creation and implementation.
Through living constantly with these laws our behavior when interacting with one another has been shaped accordingly. Society develops social rules that each individual follows and integrates into their every day normal behavior or what we call norms. Since each individual is liable under the law equally for their behavior, the majority of people choose to follow these social norms in order to interact with people civilly and at the same time avoid the consequences of breaking these rules. Breaking these rules can lead to, depending on the offense, serious repercussions such as being sent to prison or being shot and killed by police officers or more minute consequences such as fines or being removed from the train.
It has become apparent to me through conducting this ethnography that not all people are held to similar standards when it comes to following these social norms. I have found that the age range of a person plays an important role on how strict people in general apply these rules. I have also found that responses from people affected by deviant behavior are dictated by the level of deviance being displayed in a social setting and the amount of disruption caused.
I reach the subway station and the stair case leading underground is worn with yellow painted hand rails slightly peeling from the elements and the stairs are granite with cracks and missing portions of stone. As I submerge into the depths of the station, I am bombarded by posters adorning the staircase walls advertising some new television show, or product that you must have, trying to appeal to any passerby’s preferences. The platform is crowded with middle school kids judging by their random and erratic behavior and other miscellaneous passengers either conversing, pacing, or patiently waiting for the train. The noise level is high with the middle school kids acting rowdy, yelling at each other, and playing what I guess to be some form of tag. Contributing to the noise are the uptown trains pulling in and out of the platforms and the rustle of passengers entering or exiting the staircase leading to the top floor of the busy station.
Finally I see the two lights of the train emerge from the dark tunnel, which begins to slow down only after it swishes by me at a high speed, blowing a gust of wind in my face that I can only describe as a welcome temporary relief from the mugginess of the hot day. The doors part in both directions to a distinct ding- dong sound that indicates the doors are opening. Passengers crowd the entrances leaving only a walkway in the middle for emerging passengers to exit the train. As soon as the last passenger steps off the train (or maybe even before the last person exits) passengers start rushing through the doors to commandeer any available seat they can find. I grab a seat at the far end of the train, next to where the little booth that houses the employee in charge of opening and closing the doors, so I could get a good view of the length of the train. The train is well lit with advertisements running like banners through the top portion of the length of the train with a poster directly behind me and another adjacent to that one. The train is fully occupied with a good portion of the passengers standing and holding on to any available pole to keep their balance.
Observation 1 and 2
I focused my attention on a trio of male middle school children who are laughing and narrow it down, more specifically, to the male in the middle who is initiating most of the laughter from the other two. All three students are standing directly in front of me holding on to the middle pole that lies in between the two entrances to the train. The student of focus is wearing white sneakers, dark blue jeans, a white and blue striped T shirt, a black book bag, and a blue Yankees fitted cap. The student, I assume, is of Spanish descent judging by his darker skin tone and the fact that he switches between Spanish and English. I think these students were between the ages of 11 and 13 by their height, weight, facial appearance, and their childish, mean, and confrontational behavior.
The student of focus told jokes and simultaneously threw playful punches toward his friends’ legs and arms. I could tell that other passengers are getting upset since most of these attacks caused the recipient friend to jump towards the other direction in a rapid and sudden motion that usually invaded the space of some unsuspecting passenger. Also, the tone and loudness of the students’ voices are well above the rest of the passengers’ voices and quickly reached the point of disturbing to the people in close proximity. The passengers’ apparent dissatisfaction was written all over their faces by their expressions of anger, and their avoidant and uncomfortable body language.
I could tell that the student of focus is the most aggressive since he was the only one throwing punches while the other two evaded in laughter. The student of focus would carelessly zig-zag through the coming or going traffic of passengers at each new stop never missing an opportunity to playfully attack one or both of his friends. Once the train reached the 125th street stop, the student of focus quickly hopped off the train with his two friends following close behind. Then all three, in a light sprint and loud tone, disappeared down the platform toward the staircase and out of sight. I could tell from facial expressions and floating comments that the remaining passengers had mixed feelings of relief that the middle school kids were finally gone and disbelief that these children could be so reckless and misbehaved.
Watching these younger students gave me some insight into the dynamics of deviant behavior when breaking social rules and how this behavior is for the most part tolerated because of the age of the offenders. It’s interesting how most of the other passengers would look disapprovingly but did not intervene physically or verbally to stop the deviance. During my second excursion on the subway I observed another group of students but this time older and most likely in high school. These students were also being disruptive on the train by talking and laughing loudly and carrying on physically. This time the other passengers were quick to verbalize their disapproval and the situation even got to the point where one male passenger riding with two co workers started threatening the students with profanity and threats of violence. The student of focus for the middle school kids, through his actions, created an atmosphere of fun and play (at least for the kids themselves and not so much for the other passengers) making his other two friends willing participants in the game being played. I observed that since these students were young in age that the passengers were willing to overlook their deviant behavior and bend the social norms for them.
This was not the case for the older students. The passengers conversely were not as understanding of the student’s deviant and disruptive behavior and were quick to enforce the social rules that apparently were meant to be followed on a more stringent level due to their advanced age. It appeared that passengers felt that the age of the older students should make them more responsible and able to know right from wrong. This is how I explain the almost violent response the older students received from other passengers when they were being deviant while the younger students only received disapproving looks. It appeared that the passengers felt that since the subsequent students were old enough to know better that their behavior must be deliberate. They felt that these students just didn’t care who they were disturbing which provoke hostility and ultimately invoked a violent response from other passengers.
The feeling of rebellion can be intoxicating for young children because they find rules to be a part of their everyday lives; whether it is at home with their parents or guardians; or at school from teachers and administrators; or society as a whole where you have to follow rules of a specific city or national government. Both groups of children have yet to learn and submit to the norms governing a crowded subway train. They have yet to realize that these environments only thrive in an atmosphere that is free of intimidation, malice, and fear allowing for the coexistence of large groups of people. More importantly, it was demonstrated through this observation that responsibility must be implemented through behavior and a higher level of adherence to social norms are expected as you get older because society views that you are now more obligated to become accountable for your actions.