Deconstructing Choice, Culture, and Structure: Campus Sexual Assault, Ferguson, and Staten Island

As I’ve followed the news over recent weeks and seen it dissected in social media, I’ve become aware of the way in which we continually shift our understandings of circumstances. Some people see everything as a matter of individual choice and want to mete out “just desserts” to the offender (for example, “if you don’t want to get shot, obey the police”). Others like to make cultural arguments that focus on a deficit of values as the driving force (for example, “it’s the absence of father figures in the black community that is to blame”). Still fewer want to couch the argument in terms of the more sociological structural dynamics of power and inequality (for example, “there has been a systematic school to prison pipeline that traps urban young men”).

Two observations arise from this. First, people in options one and three don’t seem to be able to talk to each other. I have seen countless Facebook treads where someone tries to articulate option three and a friend (hopefully still a friend) takes offense that we are either excusing individual behavior or calling the speaker a racist. Second, we’re not consistent in the application of the options across situations. I’ve seen social media posts from people blaming Ferguson on the cultural dynamics of inadequate socialization (fathers again) who simultaneously think the campus sexual assault is a matter of poor choices by isolated individuals (both the man and the woman) and that notion of a broader “rape culture” is a media creation (looking at you, George Will!).

The sociological reality is that these three levels of analysis are interdependent. I’m not a fan of Talcott Parsons, but this was the insight of his first major work, The Structure of Social Action (1939). He attempted to show how voluntary choice was shaped by cultural values as well as by the structures of society (his later work focused only on the latter). Choosing to focus on one aspect of the broader system didn’t negate the impacts of the others.

There are individual level choices that distinguish between those who break the law and those who don’t. I was reminded Wes Mooreof this recently, when a Facebook friend commented on The Other Wes Moore. That book tells the story about two kids named Wes Moore who grew up in Baltimore. One becomes a Rhodes Scholar and the other is serving a life sentence in prison. But change a couple of “inflection points” and their situations reverse. If the author hadn’t moved in with his aunt, he would have stayed on the street and bad things would likely result. If the “other Wes” had been able to stay with the job corps, he might not have fallen back in with his brother.

There are also cultural factors in play. Certain tropes are held up in society as models of success, masculinity, or prestige.Die Hard For example, in Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and his colleagues argued that the “hard-boiled detective” was the prototypic character in American Rugged Individualism. Culture is much more complex than that, but it will serve as an indicator for now. If John McClane is an image of what it means to solve problems, it’s not hard to understand how this translates into militarized police strategy or “enhanced interrogation techniques” (read “torture”).

Finally, we have larger structural variables, primarily associated with issues of economics, power, and institutional control. In general, these structural inequities arise not from someone’s conspiratorial decisions but because of “natural” change over time. The patterns we see there are the result of actions taken and not taken over literally decades.

Consider for example this report the Pew Research Center FT_14.12.11_wealthGap2released yesterday on wealth inequality (wealth is a measure of total net worth — assets minus liabilities — and far more critical to inequality than simple income). The Pew folks were trying to show how racial/ethnic differences played out in post-financial crisis statistics. But what caught my attention was that the “most equitable” measure of white to black or hispanic net wealth favored whites by a factor of six. There are all kinds of historic and contemporary reasons for these differences: owning rather than renting, savings rates, retirement plans, incarceration rates, residential segregation, and so on. The fact is that the middle white household (that’s the median) is in a far better position than the middle black or hispanic household.

These three types of variables — individual, cultural, and structural — all come into play in our contemporary discussions. I’ll try to illustrate using campus sexual assault and the situations in Ferguson and Staten Island. One could make a similar argument around the release of the terrorism report, but I’ll save that for another day.

College Rape Culture: The last couple of weeks showed us something of the complexity of the issues involved in responding to issues of sexual assault. Rolling Stone published a harrowing first person account of how Jackie had been gang-raped by some fraternity members at the University of Virginia. The president of UVA (a sociologist, by the way) suspended all UVA fraternity events, because she wanted an exploration of the cultural dynamics that made such events possible. Over the last ten days, the Washington Post investigated Rolling Stone’s reporting techniques (or lack thereof) that called the original story into question and caused RS to apologize. As a result, many have decided that Jackie must have made up her story (read her roommate’s statement that disputes that claim).

But to understand and respond to campus rape culture, we have to pay far more attention to variables beyond the individual level (here’s an excellent piece that appeared in Christianity Today this week). At the cultural level, the allure of a party culture is primary. One can find lots of concerned stories about binge drinking on college campuses, but our concerns can quickly be contrasted with our common social expectations. Let’s look again at media tropes to get a glimpseAnimal House of the value set that sets the context for an incident. Show the picture to the right to just about anyone over 15 and they’ll recognize the kingpin of Delta Tau Chi. Images of toga parties, hook-ups, and outrageous behavior will quickly come to mind. That’s not to suggest that all of Greek life looks like Animal House — I knew some guys at “Farm House” at Purdue and it was one of the most straight-laced, studious group of guys you could fine — but nobody makes movies about a group of fraternity brothers living together, pursuing their studies, and forming community.

It’s not just party expectations that are involved. The status of women in the broader society is another part of the story. The differential power structures that can result in male entitlement runs throughout our thinking about rape culture. First, the woman is at a disadvantage when going to the party. Second, how we respond to her story of assault is conditioned by assumptions of personal responsibility (for her, not for them). Third, we seem overly worried about men being “wrongfully accused” — why is it so hard to believe that an overly masculine social setting, fueled by alcohol and hormones, would be seriously vulnerable to abusive behavior?

The higher the patriarchy in the culture, the harder it is to respond to sexual assault. Consider the GRACE report on assault at Bob Jones University that was released on Thursday. One of the most telling pieces of the 300+ page report is in this graph (highlight is mine):

Bob Jones report

Over half the respondents in the sample felt “blamed and disparaged” after reporting their sexual assault with another quarter reporting an indifferent response. This is institutional in character, as the recommendations section of the report makes clear.

It’s true that campus sexual assault happens because of bad actors. But that’s an incomplete story without considering our cultural expectations of campus social life and the larger issues of sexism and access to power within the institution and the broader society.

Ferguson and Staten Island: Much has been written about the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, so I’ll skim the surface a little bit. From the individual level, we can think about how Brown and Garner got into the situation they were in. They bear personal responsibility for their choices but the choices weren’t unusual — it was the response that was unusual. Other teens shoplift. Other adults traffic in black market goods. It doesn’t result in death. They aren’t seen as threatening figures that must be subdued by authorities. If we stay at the individual level we are left with unanswerable questions, why were these men different? What was in the minds of the officers who respond? We’re left to build post-hoc explanations of what they were thinking or what actions potentially meant.

The cultural level informs the individual choices. Consider the two pictures to the left. One of these is Gangstersfrom the film Menace II Society and shows a young gang of black men. The other is Denzell Washington in American Gangster (the story of a heroin kingpin). I’d argue that law enforcement would think very differently about the guys on the left than the guy on the right. It’s intriguing to think about how a Denzell figure might be more of a “menace to society” but we’ll approve of his fine clothes and family values. It doesn’t take much imagination to recognize how John McClane would respond to the young toughs — because our movies and television are full of those images.

The drug connection takes us to the societal level. The economic instability mentioned above makes the underground drug industry a rational response to lack of opportunity. This was one of the primary insights of Robert Merton’s strain theory of deviance, which arose out of Parson’s analysis.

The “other” Wes Moore starts as a drug lookout at a young age because it allowed him access to a nice stereo and good shoes when there were few other opportunities (and his brother was already connected). For all of those who question “what about black on black crime?”, we should be asking “why is the drug trade a major avenue to economic advancement, even though it is fraught with intergroup violence?” and “what can we do to develop real economic opportunities in the inner city?”


The answer to these questions is tied up in the history of segregation, denial of opportunity, school inequality, social policy, and a host of other issues at the structural level. We can talk all day about the individual motivations or cultural expectations but until we begin to address the structural concerns we will continue to be frustrated as a society.


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