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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Birds of a Feather? Peers, Delinquency and Risk


“Association with delinquent peers is a risk factor for youth violence.” This statement, taken for granted in much social science and policy discourse, frames a social problem as a result of transgressive behavior by individuals (Douglas 1966, 1992). In this paper, I interrogate “delinquent peers,” “risk factor,” and “youth violence” in order to understand how these concepts shift our gaze from the distribution of power to the choices of individuals. One of Douglas’ contributions is that not all dangers get attention. By attending to the danger of interpersonal violence, these terms reduce the complexity of lived experience for those youth who face state, symbolic, and interpersonal violence. This paper is based on interviews with thirty-eight young adults about their experiences from ages 13-24 in a low-income neighborhood of Oakland, California. In the year 2000, the population of the neighborhood was approximately one-third Asian American, one-third Latino, 20% African American and 20% white. Over half the population was foreign-born. The young adults who have succeeded academically and obtained jobs maintain friendships with peers of different ethnic backgrounds and also with those who have varying life experiences (for example those who are in a gang, those who are pursuing higher education, and so forth). For these young people, “delinquent peers” help them move through their neighborhood safely and help them feel anchored to their community even when they seem poised to leave it by attending college. Growing up in a site of global capital accumulation and disinvestment in the era of neoliberalism, they challenge us to re-examine risk.

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