“Notes on the Murders of Thirty of My Neighbors”

Writer Jim Myers wondered why 30 of his neighbors were murdered just one mile east of the United States Capitol building during the 1990s. In an investigation of the conditions that led to such a high toll, he found that there was a wide range of circumstances, including, “drive-by killings, run-by killings, sneak up killings, gunfights and battles, car chases…drug killings, vengeance killings, the killing of witnesses to other crimes, accidental killings, and killings that enforce values we can only vaguely fathom.” The killings occurred in a context in which handguns were common, and an illegal drug economy thrived.

By personalizing the victims and perpetrators in The Atlantic in March 2000, Myers provides a nuanced picture of a community where fear, youthful bravado, and distrust of broader law enforcement leads to fighting, confrontations, killings, and woundings. Notably, the characteristics he describes are not only those of the ones holding the guns or peddling the drugs. Rather there is a generalized fear in the community, the anticipation of the unknown by large numbers of people, that provides the context for the killing.

The “epidemic” of thirty killings Myers wrote about occurred in Police Service Area 109 of Washington, DC, an area only 11 blocks wide, between 1992 and 1998. Twenty-six of the thirty victims were black, and one of the whites was a police officer. Three of the killings were by police officers. Many of the victims and shooters had attended Payne Elementary School, which despite its proximity to the iconic U. S. Capitol building, was one of the most segregated schools in the country. Out of 332 students in 1999, 330 were black, and none were white. Over two-thirds of the 30 killings occurred within 1,000 feet of the school. Four of the victims had been members of the same basketball team.

Myers begins his story by drawing a contrast between the highly publicized killing spree by two teenagers at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, with what happened in his Washington, DC neighborhood. In the case of Columbine, 13 middle class students were killed in a single day. The incident received international publicity, and politicians from the President on down publicly bemoaned the cultural situation leading to the deaths. In contrast, eighteen of the thirty deaths Myers tracked were unsolved at the time he wrote his article. While several had not even received an article in the local newspaper, the murder of a white police officer received widespread publicity including a mention in one of President Clinton’s speeches bemoaning street violence.

On the micro level, Myers’ descriptions of killing in Washington, DC illustrate well the role of youth, impulsiveness, gangs, bravado, guns, and alcohol in setting the context for killing. Most of the killings were of young males by other young males, on the street. The killings often involved dares and affronts to male machismo; one assault, would lead to a dare, and another assault. The person hurt might or might not have been the cause of the initial assault, thus creating a further grievance, and a widening circle of potential enemies. For example, police “solved administratively” the 1992 death of Theodore Fulwood—they stopped their investigation without officially identifying his killers because the police believed the killers themselves had been murdered. Because Fulwood was the brother of a former police chief, the Washington Post pursued the story and found out that Rowmann Dildy and his cousin Thaddeus Latta were believed to be the gunmen, and had killed Fulwood after an “altercation…over a drug transaction.” Dildy was killed in April 1993. Latta was murdered in 1995 in the same neighborhood, and his murder is also unsolved. What is left in the neighborhood is a sense of fear, suspicion, and distrust. No one knows who has killed, and who might kill next.

So in addition to the issues of youth and impulsiveness, Myers’ story was also about a neighborhood, or a portion of a neighborhood, where people sought a sense of both safety and justice. Around the area of Payne School, the police could not deliver this sense, because they were perceived as being both untrustworthy, and ineffective. Young males in the neighborhood believed that police contact resulted in harassment, and did not view them as all-powerful allies in the settlement of grievances. Potential witnesses were afraid to speak to the police and become witnesses, both because they might have had something to hide, or simply because they feared retaliation on the streets. The unsolved death of one 54 year old woman was attributed to the fact that she herself witnessed a killing; the power and legitimacy of the law becomes tattered in such a context, and potential witnesses would not come forward. Such killings reinforced fears of retaliation, and made even the appearance of cooperation with the police more difficult.

Myers found out that a number of the “unsolved killings” had in fact been “administratively closed” because the police were convinced that the killer himself was killed, and the case therefore no longer worth pursuing. In this context, the police gave up investigations without telling the aggrieved families. Administratively solving crimes without public disclosure protected the rights of the innocent, but also raised a separate question for the family about the legitimacy of police decision-making. And herein lies a lesson about the tension between privacy rights, the need to know and “find closure,” and justice. Justice, in part, was the need for not only the family, but also the neighborhood to know and understand that blame was assigned, and justice provided. But it is also about protecting the reputations of deceased people who themselves have been victims.

For the community, in traditional terms, assigning blame is called justice; in pop psychology it is called closure. It is something that happened in Columbine where the killers who committed suicide had blame clearly and effectively assigned to them. But, somehow, in the more amorphous world of an impoverished Washington, DC neighborhood, such an assignment of blame did not occur, and the cause of justice suffered as a consequence. Families of Columbine’s victims traumatized as they were, were at least able to achieve “closure.” As Myers (and Durkheim) note, this is an important part in reconstructing society after the trauma of such a crime. But this never happened in Washington DC, where the privacy rights of the dead “killers” were respected. Was one result that, with a lack of “closure,” angry people took justice into their own hands, and killed again?

Further Reading

Myers, Jim, “Notes on the Murder of Thirty of my NeighborsThe Atlantic Monthly, March 2000. Pages 72-86.

Excerpted from When Killing is a Crime by Tony Waters.  Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2007.


Originally Posted at Ethnography.com on April 12, 2015

Anthropology without Villains: Kurt’s Vonnegut’s Master’s Degree in Anthropology for Cat’s Cradle


Kurt Vonnegut just got published in the Chicago Tribune, even though he has been quite dead for the last nine years. So it goes. The title of the article is “The Secret Ingredient in my Books is that there Never has been a Villain,” even though he wrote about things like atomic bombs, The Holocaust, and the firebombing of Dresden. But the new newspaper article is not about these depressing things, rather it is mostly about the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago where his M. A. Thesis was rejected twice. And then once Vonnegut was famous, they accepted his novel Cat’s Cradle as a substitute thesis in 1964 or so, a fact that Chicago no longer acknowledge on their web site. So graciously, not even in the Anthropology Department of Chicago is Vonnegut accorded the status of villain.

Famously, Vonnegut was a Prisoner of War in Dresden during the fire bombing of Dresden by the United States and Britain near the end of World War II. As an Allied prisoner of war, he was kept in an underground meat locker, and brought to the surface only after the city was destroyed. In his novel Slaughterhouse Five: The Children’s Crusade, Vonnegut highlighted the execution of a fellow prisoner of war for stealing a teapot in the midst of both the Holocaust and fire-bombing of Dresden, two of the world’s great crimes. In which case the execution of a poor American p.o.w. for stealing a teapot while cleaning up the wreckage the Americans inflicted on Dresden seems just strange. It is indeed a strange place not to find any villains, isn’t it?

Anyway, Vonnegut returned to America, and used the GI Bill to attend the University of Chicago where he submitted his Master’s Thesis on some now forgotten topic, and the thesis was then rejected. He eventually submitted a second thesis which was also rejected. He then wrote a novel Cat’s Cradle, and became famous. So the University of Chicago Department of Anthropology issued the degree because the novel itself constituted his Master’s thesis even if it was um, made up. It takes place on San Lorenzo, an island that is made up, and it includes stories about what the guy who invented the atom bomb was doing when Hiroshima was bombed (i.e. playing the children’s game “cat’s cradle with bits of string), and more about a fictional bit of stuff that turns dictators into ice. As indeed perhaps the prisoner of war executed for the teapot was made up.

Which brings me back to the subject of ethnography, which is never supposed to be made up, except when it is. Just ask Alice Goffman whose ethnography On the Run was run through the ethnographic wringer last year because in the process of obscuring identities she got a number of the facts wrong. The facts may have been wrong which caused the huffing and puffing in the reviews, even though her broader point about the damage that aggressive policing tactics was pretty much unassailable. Getting the facts wrong helps the critics change the subject regarding her larger point about the damage of aggressive policing. Kind of like the weird story of an American soldier getting executed in the middle of a war crime, and the biggest humanitarian crime of all, The Holocaust. What is the death of a soldier stealing a teapot in the context of a smoldering Dresden?

Ethnography is of course an art. Every ethnographer has the right and responsibility to create a narrative flow to draw the reader into broader tale that they are trying to tell. In this respect, what is the difference between an ethnographer and a novelist? Perhaps it is that ethnographers go to IRBs, and novelists don’t? Or perhaps more appropriately it is that ethnographers have systematic methods of data collection, which is why there are so many classes on the collection of qualitative data. But still in the end, there is that shared narrative thread, which is made up.

And for that reason, I think that the University of Chicago did the right thing in awarding Vonnegut the degree in anthropology for a novel. The narrative thread is all-important in any ethnography. Alice Goffman had it, and so does Kurt Vonnegut. And judging from the precedent of the University of Chicago, ethnographers can be awarded degrees for doing that as well. Or as Vonnegut might have wrote: And it can even happen when there are no villains. Imagine that in modern anthropology?

Look at all that humans can do! They’re versatile. They can ride a unicycle. They can play the harp. They can, apparently, do anything.

Anyway, I liked the University of Chicago. They didn’t like me.


Originally posted at Ethnography.com on Apr. 30, 2016

Speaking German Like You Work at McDonald’s (or are a Hollander)

German is a strange language for English speakers to learn. In part this is because in most German for Foreign Speakers classes, there is a strong emphasis on the use of correct use of articles (16 ways to say the definite article “the”, and 16 more ways to say the indefinite article “a”). There is also a big emphasis in German on getting the “modal verbs” in the right place in the sentence (second place with a bunch of exceptions), and assigning nouns to the right class (masculine, feminine und neuter). Finally there is the use of the genitive form of nouns which is far more elegant than saying the same thing using the equivalent “dative,” I’m told. As an English speaker, my response is to just roll my eyes and push forward.

So I have been pushing forward for the 25 years I have been married to a German. The result is I speak an understandable form of “street German” with my family and friends. But my German is totally bereft of the genitive form, articles are assigned by chance, and my verbs do not always land in the correct position. Fortunately, I’m not the only one who does this; most Germans are used to hearing German spoken in a fashion that is, um, less than elegant. After all, something like 12% of the German population is foreign-born, and there are significant dialectical variations around the country.

In that context, one of the students in a German class I took earlier this year, complained to our teacher about the necessity of learning so many article forms, and especially about the need to use the genitive. As foreigners speaking German, we do not really care first if we sound elegant; being understood is just fine, thank you. In a politically-incorrect moment of frustration, our teacher responded, “You need to use the genitive to speak German or McDonald’s is the only place that will ever hire you.” The assumption is language is a major marker for social class in German society, and that without the genitive you sound uncultured. The politically incorrect point she was making was that it is the foreigners with poor grammar who end up at McDonald’s. Germans are tolerant of accented German, but not German with poor grammar!

To verify this, I asked my sister-in-law if this was true. Ever the truth-teller, she said that it was, and what is more, my German sounds like I work at McDonald’s. To add insult, she added that if she judged me by my German alone, she would assume that I could not possibly work at a university as a professor (which I do—but in English). As a sociologist, I felt a momentary flush of rebelliousness—maybe I should get out and do a bit of participant observation with the Polish, Russian, Turkish, Romanian and other workers at the local McDonald’s! But then I thought about the drop in social status that would imply—as a US American professor I get the ultimately privilege of being respected (and paid) for teaching in my native tongue, even in Germany. And actually that is pretty nice.

Which brings up the nature of privilege, I guess, and why it is so nice for those of us who have it.

Having said that, though, I’m still glad that my German is improving. My accent is still strong, I suppose, but I am getting more confident about pushing into random speaking situations. The oddest one was the other day when I was asked for directions on the street. I knew the answer, but my accent came through strongly, I guess.

“Sind Sie Hollander” (Are you from Holland, using the polite for for “you”).

“Nein, ich bin Amerikaner!”

“Oh, then why aren’t we speaking English?” (said in English)

“Because you spoke to me in German?” (my reply in English)

“Um, oh yeah.”

That last question, said in English, left me at somewhat of a loss. One of the wonders of being American is that there is an assumption that we cannot speak any foreign languages. The other wonder is that many Germans do speak English, and indeed English is the high status second language here (unlike Polish, Romanian, Turkish, etc.). Being a native English speaker is indeed privileged, but at times it can be a strange kind of privilege, particularly when you are trying to inject the genitive into your sentences!


Originally Posted at Ethnography.com, June 22, 2013.

The Case of the Exploding Pinto

A by-product of the industrial age are accidents by companies seeking to create wealth for themselves. Both hiring workers, and selling products creates a question of who is responsible for the safety of working conditions and products. And more important, who is responsible when a product fails, or an accident happens? Is it the person who buys or sells the product? Is it the responsibility of the company who buys or sells labor? Or is it the responsibility of the consumer?

A particularly well-known story of product safety is that of the Ford Pinto. This was made particularly famous when in a seven-page cost-benefit analysis done by Ford Motor Company valued human lives at $200,000 and concluded that it was cheaper to be sued by the predicted 180 burn fatalities, and 180 serious burn victims, than make an $11 design modifications on a predicted 11 million cars. Indeed, the lawsuit estimated that lawsuits would cost $49.5 million which was far less than the $137 million needed to re-design and retrofit the popular low-cost car (Strobel 1980:286).

Local governments wrestled with questions of product liability in the way they administer civil and criminal law. For the Pinto, the best example of this occurred, in August 1978, when three Indiana girls died in an accident in which their Pinto was rear-ended by Robert Duggar. Duggar, who had a poor record of driving, as well as open alcohol containers in the vehicle was not charged in the accident. But then the Elkhart County District Attorney Michael Cosentino took an unusual step. There had already been wide publicity regarding the dangers created by the design of the Pinto’s gas tank. Indeed, investigative reporting by Mother Jones magazine in 1977 had revealed that there was a bolt protruding from the axle which punctured the gas tank in the event of a rear-end collision. This design flaw meant that many low impact accidents resulted in lethal explosions, even when the collision was a low speed. Cossentino, pointed out that since the Ford Motor Company was well-aware of this flaw, they could be tried for manslaughter. And under Indiana law this was possible.

The Exploding Pinto

In August 1978, Judy Ulrich drove the Pinto she had bought with her father as a high school graduation present. She had graduated from high school that year, and was on her way to a volleyball game at a church some 20 miles away. She stopped to fill the gas tank of her Pinto, but in leaving the filling station, apparently drove off with the gas cap still on top of the car. The gas cap fell off as she pulled onto the highway. Judy made a U-turn on the Highway, and slowly drove back, looking for her gas cap. Apparently after spotting it by the side of the highway, she slowed. As she slowed, the van driven by 21 year-old Robert Duggar came up behind on the slowing Pinto at 50 mph, well within the speed limit. The van struck hard at the Pinto. The gas tank was forced onto into a protruding bolt on the rear axle which punched a 2 ½ inch hole in the just-filled 11 gallon gas tank. Gas splashed into the passenger compartment, and before the vehicles had come to a stop it exploded.

The Trials of Ford Motor Company

The death of the three Ulrich girls in the Pinto mystified Cosentino and his staff. Six months earlier, one of the investigative staff had read an article about the dangers inherent to the design of the Pinto gas tank in an article published in the September-October 1977 issue of Mother Jones. The article ”Pinto Madness” detailed how the Ford Motor ignored engineers concerns about the safe design of the rear-mounted fuel tank in order to accommodate a corporate goal of producing a 2,000 pound car for less than $2,000, The article indicated further that a follow-up study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that 38 cases of rear-end collisions with Pintos resulted in 27 deaths. Of these deaths 26 died as a result of damaged gas tanks with subsequent fires. Subsequent safety tests conducted by the National Highway Safety and Transportation Administration (NHTSA) revealed that an impact of 35 mph or greater was likely to result in a burst gas tank, and the immolation of any occupants in the vehicle compartment. Subsequently in February 1978, a California jury awarded $128 million in civil damages in an accident involving a 1972 Pinto (the verdict was eventually overturned, and Ford paid only $3.5 million). On June 9, 1978, two months before the Ulriches accident Ford finally announced a recall of the 1.5 million Pintos then on the road.

The death of the Ulrich girls created a legal conundrum for the conservative Republican prosecutor. He could do nothing, and permit the case to go to civil court as it had in the past. Judging from past awards, the girls’ parents would problem win a judgment against Ford Motor Company; he could prosecute Duggar for manslaughter, on the grounds that his reckless behavior had led to the death of the girls. Or, he could try a novel approach, and make a criminal charge against the Ford Motor Company and its executives by making the argument that in ignoring the obvious faults of the Pinto, Ford had committed “reckless homicide.” In other words, without Ford’s recklessness and disregard for consumer’s lives, the accident would not have been fatal..

The Elkhart County Grand Jury gave Cosentino what he had asked for: an indictment of the Ford Motor Company for reckless homicide. The indictment sent a shiver through corporate America. This happened because while the maximum criminal penalty for Ford was a trivial $30,000, executives could in the future be held criminally liable for financial decisions leading to the deaths of consumers.

The Trial of the Ford Motor Company for Manslaughter

At the trial, the expensive legal team for the Ford Motor Company chipped away at the charges. The judge limited the question of recklessness to whether Ford had been too slow in pursuing the recall in the 41 days between the recall and the accident which killed the Ulrich girls. Ford also made the claim that if there was to be criminal liability, it was not the Ford Motor Company which made a product, but the driver of the van who collided with the Pinto, Robert Duggar.

After days of difficult deliberation, the jury returned a unanimous verdict which declared Ford Motor Company to be not guilty of the criminal charges brought by Cosentino. Members of the jury later indicated that although they thought Ford had been negligent, their decision-making did not rise to a level under which a conviction was possible under Indiana’s homicide statute.

How are Decisions Made about Product Safety?

Despite the acquittal in criminal court, a “Pinto Narrative” quickly emerged as being paradigmatic of corporate preference for profits over human life. Like high profile domestic violence cases, the case changed the nature of the running conversation about who is really responsible for death. Despite the courtroom loss, books, articles, and texts continue to hold up the case as the type of conscious decision-making which results in victimization in the pursuit of profit. Provocatively though, sociologists Lee and Erman (1999) called this assumption into question, pointing that “decision makers” working in a corporate environment do not make conscious decisions to market an “unsafe vehicle.” Rather they assert that such amoral calculations emerge not as a result of legal intent, which implies conscious decision-making, but in the context of broader institutional forces which emerge from the institutional cultures (in this case Ford), and the automobile industry in general. What this means of course is court proceedings which probe the minds of individual decision-makers may not be adequate for exploring how decisions leading to a great deal of human suffering occur.

This thesis is important for understanding not only how product safety decisions are made, but how any type of corporate decision-making resulting in death is evaluated. Simply put, correcting the decision making of individuals through the application of criminal law does not by itself result in more moral decisions. Attention has to be paid to the context—that it the ecology—of decision-making.

Further Reading

Lee, Matthew T., and M. David Ermann (1999) “Pinto ‘Madness’ as a Flawed Landmark Narrative: An Organizational and network Analysis.” Social Problems 46 (No 1).

Strobel, Lee Patrick (1980). Reckless Homicide? Ford’s Pinto Trial. South Bend, Indiana: And Books.

Dowie, Mark (1977). “Pinto Madness.” Mother Jones. September/October 1977.

 When Killing is a crime

Excerpt from When Killing is a Crime by Tony Waters, Lynne Ripener Publishers, 2007, pp. 248-250.

Originally posted at Ethnography.com on April 8, 2015


Peace Corps Edifice Complexes

Most Peace Corps volunteers are young—in their early 20s. When I went to Thailand with the Peace Corps in 1980, I was 22, and fresh out of college with a degree in Biology. And I wanted to do stuff—big stuff—stuff that could be seen, and would be talked about, like The Pyramids of Egypt. The stuff of immortality—that which would be talked about and admired forever! Peace Corps of course warned us that edifices were not what it was about—that in fact we were about building “relationships” or something of the sort. But what 22 year old believes that? Particularly the young people with impressive degrees in Engineering, Biology, and other such majors where we had learned about world-changing technologies?

To do such big stuff, I was sent to Phrae, Thailand, where I was assigned to the Malaria Zone Office which had the commendable mission of eradicating malaria. Unfortunately, when I arrived, it some became apparent after I arrived that that job was already done. A decade or two of prosperity, two or three decades of spraying DDT on rural houses, and the routine treatment of all malaria cases did that job. All that was left was a large boring malaria bureaucracy.

The malaria zone office where I worked in Phrae was a sleepy place which processed thousands of diagnostic bloodslides (99.9% negative), and sent out teams to spray DDT across three provinces in northern Thailand. There were nice teak buildings and a central place to sit, read the newspaper, nap, and drink tea—frequent habits a the office. It was there in Phrae that I found out that bureaucracies have lots of meetings, sit around a lot, and are generally pretty boring places. So I sat for days in the entomology office back near the DDT store, where I raised guppies for distribution as mosquito fish, and studied Thai because there was little else to do.

In the evening, I would hang out in the market where I made friends with the market ladies who helped me with my Thai, or spent my evenings at my own teak house, which was tucked into a corner of a small Phrae neighborhood.  The house came complete with a betel nut chewing neighbor I called “grandma,” and another neighbor who drove a pedicab and frequently got drunk at which point he would yell at his adult daughter. It was a great group of people, especially when the pedicab driver was sober. As for “grandma,” she and her family helped me with my Thai too—there is nothing like listening to a mouth full of betel nut to train careful hearing. Among other things, she regaled me with tales of the former inhabitant of my house, the Peace Corps Volunteer “John” who liked to do drugs of some sort.

All this of course created a problem for that ambitious Peace Corps volunteer who wanted to do the stuff of immortality. The biggest problem was that indeed my predecessor in Phrae did in fact do the stuff of immortality, a condition highlighted by a 100 hundred meter long suspension bridge across a local river. I heard all about Steve (or was it Kevin?) who built the “Swinging Bridge” about 10 years before I arrived in Phrae. Steve was an engineer who in a fit of independence organized villagers to solve a real problem—getting across the river, the type of project Tom Hanks makes movies about!. The bridge had two tall impressive towers, and cables to hold it together. It was great—a miniature Golden Gate Bridge, and it swayed when I rode my motorcycle across! To make it worse, the Thai people told me that Kevin/Steve spoke outstanding Thai, wrote those squiggly characters, spoke the northern Thai dialect, ate the hottest food, and drank the local whiskey. The bridge in 1980-1982 was firmly in place ten years after he left—and certainly people talked about him, especially since the bridge provided access via foot, bicycle, and motorcycle to the entire left bank of the Yom River. So every time I rode my motorcycle across the river, I would wonder, what would my own personal mark on Thailand be? How could I be more “Gaeng” than Steve/Kevin? Or would it simply be two years sitting among the DDT? Isn’t the point of Peace Corps to leave a local memory of yourself?

Well, I found a way to leave that memory, or so I thought. Toward the end of my Peace Corps service, I found a village which needed water systems. Cheap PVC pipe which you glued together (as opposed to metal pipes with complicated threads) had recently been introduced to Thailand, and was about to revolutionize water supply. I managed to ingratiate myself to Ban Nam Jom, a really remote village where they still had work elephants for hauling illegal teak from the forest, brewed their own whiskey, and generally thought my Thai was Gaeng! So I hustled up $900 or so from the Peace Corps and Canadian Embassy, and voila—set the mechanics of my edifice in motion. I would provide rural water supply for the three hamlets of Ban Nam Jom—something like 200 people. Surely they would remember me from now until eternity, just like we remember The Pyramid builders of Egypt!

I was so thrilled with this, that after returning home to California, I wrote up one of my first academic articles about installing the water system of Ban Nam Jom. The journal Water International was so thrilled with it that they actually published it—one of my very first publications.

Anyway, earlier this year I returned to Phrae, and of course wanted to re-visit the sites of my Peace Corp glory. This was made easier because last year, using contacts I made while a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1980-1982, my 23 year-old daughter began teaching English at one of the schools in Phrae. So I was able to borrow her pink scooter, and jamming a helmet on my head which was two sizes too small, and conducted my Peace Corps edifice survey.

–Steve/Kevin’s bridge is gone! I asked around about it, and it was only vaguely remembered. When I went to the site of the bridge, I saw a brand new bridge. (Well, really not brand new, it is probably 20 years old.) As for the towers of the “Golden Gate Bridge of Phrae,” only one is still there, and it is covered with vines.   The locals don’t even notice it any more. Steve/Kevin has been returned to anonymity.

–I couldn’t find the malaria office where I worked for two years next to the DDT boxes. I think a row of businesses have been built on the parcel, but I couldn’t recognize which building it was, and these buidlings now look “old.” (Presumably they have very few mosquitoes though, the result of DDT’s long half life).

–A small hotel was built on top of where my house used to be—in fact it was finished just last year. I asked the family who owns the hotel what had happened to “my” house, and was told that they bought up the buildings, and knocked them down. They also mentioned that everyone was really happy about that because the houses were used for drug dealing, whiskey brewing, and who knows what else.

–I’ve kept in touch over the years with the ladies in the market who helped me learn to speak Thai. They’ve moved their shop across the street, but still settle noodles, as indeed the have for the last 35 or 40 years. They are still there selling noodles—it is the best Pad Thai in the world—if you want a referral, let me know. They are now teaching my now 24 year old daughter Thai, too.

–We went out to find Nam Jom, and were told that it was no more—what was left of the village had been merged with a larger village. Ban Nam Jom is now in the middle of a national park, and depopulated—there were only a few houses left. The government has cracked down on illegal lumbering, so the work elephants are all gone. (Maybe if they are lucky, they will get the wild elephant population back!). No idea what happened to “my “ water system.

And so life goes on. What really remains are the relationships with the market ladies, and a few others.   I suppose the fact that people in “my” Peace Corps town of Phrae continue to do more for me and my daughter, than I did for them. I seem to remember that somewhere in our training we were told that this would be the case—that the real edifice are in the relationships built. For the rest—it is all dust! Even for the engineers like Steve/Kevin.

Originally published at Ethnography.com, August 12, 2015

On the Culture of Binge Drinking in a Residential College Town

Culture: The values, beliefs, behaviors, and expectations of behaviors or social norms of a given population of humans.

Do you know what I find amazing? I find it amazing that I never see people burning couches and cars in the streets of my neighborhood. And I find it amazing that I never find discarded red plastic cups in the gutters outside my house. And I never find my neighbors passed out in the bushes in front of my house. Never. Not once in the 7 years that I’ve lived in my neighborhood. And there is never a Beer Pong table set up in the front yard of any of my neighbors’’ houses, ever. It’s kind of disappointing, really, because from what I remember from my college days, drinking games can be fun.

My students laugh when I express my amazement at these events, or the lack of these events in my neighborhood, because more than likely, it does happen in their neighborhood. I have the privilege of teaching at California State University (CSU), Chico, which, unless you’ve been living under a rock with no internet access, was the first college in the U.S. to top Playboy Magazine’s first list of Party Schools more than 25 years ago. We unfortunately held that title for 15 years, only because Playboy didn’t bother to print another Top Party School list in that time. It’s been a dubious honor, one we were all more than happy to shed in 2002 (Dear Arizona State, thanks for taking the heat off of Chico and making us #2). But still, the reputation lives on, even with the current students, most of whom weren’t alive when we first were honored in Playboy.

I think, at the time, that we may have earned the title. During a few debaucherous years in the mid 1980s, Pioneer Days in Chico, which was the equivalent of Spring Break in Florida, produced, what some would call, the heyday of the party era in Chico. As a result of several years of increasingly publicized partying, local college students and thousands of out of towners flocked to Chico for special event weekends, and for Pioneer Days. Thousands of young people filled the streets of Chico during Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day, and Pioneer Days celebrations, and filled the Sacramento River on Memorial Day and Labor Day, floating down the river with tens of thousands of other young people.

Chico made national news with alcohol-fueled rioting in the streets in the name of a good time, cars were overturned at the infamous intersection of 5th and Ivy Streets, and MTV even offered directions on how to get to Chico for Pioneer Days. The result was catastrophic, and stained the reputation of any student who attended Chico State at the time.

But 1987 was a long time ago, especially for popular culture references to still be relevant, without some continuing activity that reproduces the culture and supports the cultural references of Chico as a party school. Today, there is not as much of a debate in our little city about whether an excessive party culture exists; most residents of both the town and the university agree: there is a problem here at Chico that revolves around drinking alcohol.

Stories float through the halls of Chico State with a fairly regular pattern about alcohol related incidents both on and off campus, and in Fall of 2012, four young adults died in Chico due to alcohol related incidents. The fatal incidents range from the slightly bizarre (falling out of a tree while intoxicated) to the expected (driving while intoxicated) to the quiet (not waking up after ingesting multiple forms of drugs and alcohol). The non-fatal incidents range from waking up in bushes, getting lost on the walk home from partying downtown, injury or assault, sexual assault, or just not remembering what happened the night before. Both on the record and off, alcohol related incidents permeate the discussions around campus and have for many years.

Sit in a classroom in the few minutes before the beginning of class, and you’ll hear students boast about the previous night’s escapades, most with fuzzy detail, a bit of bravado, and a hint of awe that they survived the night. Listen at the Union cafeteria on Thursday afternoon and you’ll hear plans of the best places to find a party for the night, how much they can spend on alcohol, and who will be hanging out with the group. Honestly, the conversations probably aren’t too dissimilar than that of most other college campuses around the U.S.; recent studies have found that about 80% of college students in the U.S. drink alcohol, and of those, about half binge drink.

But what makes Chico, and Chico State, so different from most of the rest that at one time in our history, Playboy put us at the top of the Party School list? And what makes Chico culture so different, that in a 2011 study of alcohol consumption at California State University campuses, Chico students reported the most frequent use of alcohol, and the most alcohol consumed on each drinking occasion, of the 14 CSUs in the study, and 20% of Chico students report drinking enough alcohol in one sitting on a weekly basis to be intoxicated,

My students describe the consequences of too much alcohol, and too frequent consumption in great and heartbreaking detail, but the 2011 study illustrates the consequences much more succinctly. In the report, students reported risky sexual behavior, including not using protection, having sex with someone they did not previously know, and having sex with a new partner following drinking. Additionally, 16-20% of students who attended parties at either Greek organizations, in campus residence halls, and at private residences reported passing out after drinking at least once during the previous semester. Perhaps most disturbing, students at Chico State were the least likely to report there was a system in place at the parties they attended that was designed to look after anyone who became intoxicated, and Chico State students were the least likely to report that obviously intoxicated partygoers were refused alcohol at those parties. Chico has a culture of drinking alcohol unlike any other CSU.

How did we get to this spot? This place where students drink more frequently, drink more in each sitting, have riskier behavior, don’t bother to take care of their friends and fellow students when drunk, and continue to serve them alcohol when they are obviously too drunk to care for themselves?

I don’t doubt the statistics, by the way; the statistics mirror what my students tell me in class: they drink hard and fast, and a lot, at Chico State.

This is what we talk about in my sociology classes here at Chico: why does the party school behavior continue at Chico? What makes it different than all the rest? What is our culture here at Chico that perpetuates the behavior and reinforces the reputation? Also, how does the larger culture influence drinking patterns in our youth?

There are a unique set of geographic and environmental factors that play a role in the drinking culture here at Chico. Chico State is a highly residential campus, with a high concentration of student housing in a very small area.

Lack of late-night opportunities in neighboring businesses such as movie theaters, concert venues, and alcohol-free clubs for people under 21 years old contribute to the excessive drinking culture here at Chico. The biggest movie theater is over two miles away from the closest university neighborhood, and three to four miles from the farthest neighborhoods. There are no cheap late night movies on or near campus, no dance clubs geared for the under-21 year old crowd, and only two concert venues that have limited seating (both are small former movie theaters) with shows rarely scheduled.

Approximately 80% of the 16,000 students enrolled at Chico State live within two miles of the university campus. The residential area immediately north, south, and west of the university, is comprised of apartment buildings, dozens of old Victorian homes that can house 10-20 residents each, a dozen or so fraternity and sorority houses, and University Housing, which houses over 2,000 students a year. This concentration of student residences creates a climate where the norm is college life, where college hours dominate the neighborhoods (in other words, no pesky middle-aged folks with 8-5 jobs who will complain about loud parties). It’s not uncommon for house parties to flow onto front yards, sidewalks, and meander from house to house in a neighborhood.

Most students live within walking distance of the main party area in Chico, and thus, don’t worry about driving home from bars and parties, so no one needs to abstain from drinking to be a designated driver. They can walk, or take a pedicab, or just sleep on someone’s couch, at a moment’s notice, when coming home from a night out. Walking to and from areas where parties might occur is more convenient than going to the movies, taking in a concert (few and far between in Chico), or going to any restaurant in town.

Within the College Town are 8-10 liquor stores, depending on where one draws the boundaries of College Town, and in the adjacent downtown area, there are dozens of restaurants and bars that sell alcohol. Statistically, Chico has a severe over concentration of liquor outlets, and those outlets are centered in and around College Town. More access to alcohol outlets increases consumption and binge drinking.

Big houses: Chico enjoys large lot sizes, with very large houses that can physically support large parties. Walk down 5th Street on any weekend evening during the school year in Chico and you’ll find a party, or three or four. Everyone is usually welcome as long as they aren’t looking for trouble. Large porches offer couch seating and a place to watch people walk by, and invite them in to join in the fun.

Moderate climate: During the traditional academic year, Chico enjoys fairly moderate weather. Sure, it gets hot here during the summer, and occasionally, we have rain and cold nights in the winter, but generally, Chico enjoys temperate weather during the school year, which means large parties can congregate on lawns and streets. Also, college students walk in Chico, especially in College Town because of the geography of the area around the university, but also, due to the weather. It’s almost always nice enough to walk in the downtown area and College Town because of the weather. It creates a very social environment, and influences the number of people out in the neighborhoods.

A side note here: Incoming first year students are discouraged by the university administration from bringing vehicles to Chico due to the high rate of auto thefts in the area, but more importantly, the lack of parking space at the university. What does this create? A situation where students have to walk, ride a bike, ride the city bus, take a taxi, or rely on friends to take them out of the downtown area. Pedicabs are available in Downtown, but are limited in schedule, passengers, and area of service.

From the micro-culture of College Town, to the larger university culture, the excessive drinking culture at Chico persists. Faculty often condone drinking excessively by reminiscing of their own drinking exploits in college and canceling classes the day after big party holidays. Students are the servers at the downtown restaurants where their professors have dinner, and drinks, and get drunk. It is a not-so-subtle acceptance of both underage drinking and excessive drinking.

Consider this: students at Chico reported that they drank 2-3 drinks BEFORE going to parties; this is called “preloading”. Mostly, preloading happens with shots of hard alcohol. It gets the party going before students even leave their home. Why do they do this? My students report that they do it for a number of reasons, but mostly, they do it because they are afraid they won’t be able to find alcohol after they leave their homes since they are not yet 21. But at Chico, that’s not likely, given our culture. Regardless, preloading happens still. Once students leave their homes, they have another 2 or 3 drinks while they are out often due to peer exposure, then finish off the night with a drink or two at home. That’s the average. Some people drink less; some people drink more. By the end of the night, the average person will have consumed enough to be intoxicated.

Most students underestimate how much they drink and overestimate how much their peers drink and in the CSU alcohol survey, most students thought that their peers drank significantly more than they did. That skews the “normal” behavior expectations to the higher end of alcohol consumption, and increases one’s own alcohol consumption.

The underlying problem with alcohol consumption at Chico State does not begin with Chico State. Sure, we may help it along some with our climate, our geography, our access to alcohol here, and the lack of alternate social activities in the area, but these things would not be a problem if the larger culture, the American culture, didn’t contribute to irresponsible and excessive alcohol consumption as well.

Ask yourself this question: Where and when were you first exposed to alcohol? How did you learn how much to drink? What to drink? How do you know who to trust to make you a drink?  Was it modeled in your home with your parents’ drinking habits?  Was it your friends in high school, who had limited access to alcohol but likely binged when they did get access? Was it in college? Maybe, it was here at Chico State when you were 18 years old.

How did you learn to drink alcohol?

I ask my students this same question every semester. They giggle with nervous laughter when I ask them how their parents taught them to drink. Forgive the pun, but it’s a loaded question. A few, less than 10%, tell me they have never had a drink of alcohol, and they’ll wait to drink until they are 21, and do it responsibly. Fair enough. More students tell me they started drinking with their friends in high school or earlier, but the alcohol was usually beer, often pilfered from their parents’ refrigerator, and with limited access. A few tell me their parents allowed them the occasional beer or glass of wine at the dinner table in a limited manner. But the majority, the vast majority, tell me they learned to drink when they came to Chico State at 18 years old (most have some alcohol before they enter college, but they don’t start drinking regularly until college).

It’s a rite of passage, I hear people say about drinking regularly in college. Maybe, but maybe not. Regardless of the rite of passage argument, most people who learn to drink at college, learn to drink while partying with their peers. They tend to model the behavior of their peers at this age and in this environment, especially if they’ve never had responsible drinking modeled for them by adults previously.

We know, through extensive research, that parental attitudes and behavior modeled to children play a significant role in teen and young adult drinking patterns, either positively or negatively. Parents who binge drink, are more likely to have children who binge drink, and the opposite is true as well. Parents who tell their children that they disapprove of underage drinking, will have children who delay drinking compared to children whose parents are more permissive.

Parents are suppose to set the limits for their children, and we do that with bedtimes and eating vegetables and curfews on Friday nights, and who our children can hang out with, but many parents are afraid, or don’t know how to model positive drinking behavior to their children. Maybe parents, too, reminisce about the glory days of college drinking, maybe they binge drink, or fail to monitor their own attitude about underage drinking and shrug it off as not a big deal.

Regardless, we have failed, and are failing every day, as a culture, at socializing our youth and modeling positive drinking behavior, Binge drinking is on the rise, irresponsible drinking is epidemic, and as a result, 3 college students die each day in America due to alcohol related injuries.

Your children will likely come to a place like Chico one day. We have no limits here when it comes to access to alcohol, the weather’s nice so there’s always a place for a party, our students have a skewed view of peer drinking habits, and we let other young adults model the worse drinking behavior a young adult can see. It’s a place where the odds are stacked against your children in terms of responsible drinking behavior, and if you don’t socialize your children to drink responsibly, they’ll likely learn to drink here. And what they learn here, will likely stick with them throughout their entire life.

Originally posted at Ethnography.com, January 2015