Abstract: (WITHDRAWN) Situated Agency and Lawbreaking Among Youth in Marginalized Communities (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

668P (WITHDRAWN) Situated Agency and Lawbreaking Among Youth in Marginalized Communities

Sunday, January 19, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 6 (ML 2) (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Jeffrey Sharlein, PhD, independent scholar, NJ
Background and Purpose: Agency, the process of taking purposive action in one’s life, is a central aspect of human experience, and one which is starting to attract scholarly attention in social work. Consistent with the person-in-environment framework, agency can be conceptualized as situated, that is, as intimately related to all aspects of one’s context (social, familial, physical, geographic, etc.). This is an especially useful starting point for thinking about agency when addressing social problems that involve people who both experience and perpetuate social misery, such as serious lawbreaking by young people in marginalized communities.

Accordingly, this paper seeks to understand the situated agency of members of this population in relation to serious lawbreaking. Better understanding this phenomenon can help inform interventions at multiple levels which will reduce both the social harm resulting from serious lawbreaking and the marginalization which is often antecedent to it, for the benefit of all community members.

Methods: Study participants were fourteen young people from marginalized communities with histories of lawbreaking activity, who were recruited through three justice system reentry organizations. Data were collected using ethnographic interviews, both sedentary and during neighborhood walks. Seven participants (50%) completed two interviews, and 7 completed one interview. Interviews elicited participants’ histories, actions, perceptions, and experiences. While the focus of the study is on agency in lawbreaking behavior, the interviews were wide-ranging in order to understand the life situations from which this behavior emerged. Interview transcriptions and field notes were read multiple times and inductively coded for themes, with codes grouped into patterns.

Findings: Participants reported having engaged in a range of lawbreaking behaviors, mostly serious, predominantly related to violence, weapons, and drug sales. These purposive acts, or expressions of agency, were catalyzed by four overlapping categories of situations: peer pressure and the desire to fit in, the need or desire for money, family-related stress, and interpersonal conflicts.

In all but one case of peer factors, other catalyzing situations also played a role. The need or desire for money mostly catalyzed acquisitive lawbreaking through selling drugs and robbery. Lawbreaking related to family-related stress sometimes involved direct confrontation and sometimes involved avoidance. In all cases of interpersonal conflict, agency was non-reflexive: the action was purposive yet impulsive.

Conclusions and Implications: These findings contribute insights into how young people in marginalized communities enact their agency. Through identifying and exploring categories of situations catalyzing serious lawbreaking behavior, the study lends support to a number of interventions at multiple levels for addressing this phenomenon. These interventions include developing economic opportunity, providing culturally appropriate support services, and building opportunities for positive peer pressure.

Beyond these specifics, situated agency contributes an analytic tool for conceptualizing both the various inputs that inform, in this case, marginalized young people's lawbreaking, as well as the multiple levels at which interventions can take place.