The Saints and the Roughnecks - Chambliss

Topics: High school, Gang, Police Pages: 20 (6745 words) Published: October 7, 2013
The Saints and the Roughnecks - WILLIAM J. CHAMBLISS

Organizational processing, whether in the criminal justice or health care systems, tends to produce some taken-for-granted assumptions about all of the people processed. These assumptions are frequently held just as often by lay people as by professionals. It is believed that persons processed by these systems share a set of common characteristics. They are alike, not only in the offenses they have committed, but in other significant social respects as well. And, in turn, they are markedly dissimilar from all members of conventional society.

William J. Chambliss, in a study of two different high school gangs, finds variations in social responses to deviance that attest to the power and consequences of social reputation. Reputation is made up of one's past of alleged performance, social responses, and expectations for future performance. Although both of the gangs studied engaged in the same frequency of deviance, one gang received considerable official social control attention while the other one did not. In time, members of the two gangs lived up to the community's differential predictions about their future after graduation from high school. In this case study, the subsequent careers of both gangs turned out to be examples of a self-fulfilling prophecy-what people believe to be real will be real in its consequences.

Eight promising young men-children of good, stable, white upper-middle-class families, active in school affairs, good pre-college students-were some of the most delinquent boys at Hanibal High School. While community residents and parents knew that these boys occasionally sowed a few wild oats, they were totally unaware that sowing wild oats completely occupied the daily routine of these young men. The Saints were constantly occupied with truancy, drinking, wild driving, petty theft and vandalism. Yet not one was officially arrested for any misdeed during the two years I observed them.

This record was particularly surprising in light of my observations during the same two years of another gang of Hanibal High School students, six lower-class white boys known as the Roughnecks. The Roughnecks were constantly in trouble with police and community even though their rate of delinquency was about equal with that of the Saints. What was the cause of this disparity? The result? The following consideration of the activities, social class and community perceptions of both gangs may provide some answers.


The Saints' principal daily concern was with getting out of school as early as possible. The boys managed to get out of school with minimum danger that they would be accused of playing hockey through an elaborate procedure for obtaining "legitimate" release from class. The most common procedure was for one boy to obtain the release of another by fabricating a meeting of some committee, program or recognized club. Charles might raise his hand in his 9:00 chemistry class and ask to be excused-a euphemism for going to the bathroom. Charles would go to Ed's math class and inform the teacher that Ed was needed for a 9:30 rehearsal of the drama club play. The math teacher would recognize Ed and Charles as "good students" involved in numerous school activities and would permit Ed to leave at 9:30. Charles would return to his class, and Ed would go to Tom's English class to obtain his release. Tom would engineer Charles' escape. The strategy would continue until as many of the Saints as possible were freed. After a stealthy trip to the car (which had been parked in a strategic spot), the boys were off for a day of fun.

Over the two years I observed the Saints, this pattern was repeated nearly every day. There were variations on the theme, but in one form or another, the boys used this procedure for getting out of class and then off the school grounds. Rarely did all eight of the Saints manage to leave...
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