The pulp school of sociology

Wild Cowboys
November 14, 1997

It is sometimes worth reviewing poor books in order to reiterate some intellectual basics that good ones take as given. Robert Jackall offers such an opportunity, to which I feel I am entitled after having gone through more than 350 pages of repetitive chronicle replete with dates, names and nicknames, in an over-detailed narrative which could hardly be called sociology. An example: "Freddy Krueger jumped out of the gray Celebrity and raced up behind Mingolo's cab, his AK-47 blazing in one hand and his 9-millimetre pistol in the other, strewing Mingolo's brains all over the cab and pumping twenty-one bullets into his body." This "pulp" criminology makes Quentin Tarantino seem a sophisticated sociologist of deviance.

The book describes how in the early 1990s street police, detectives and prosecutors managed to draw an intricate web of connections between drug dealing, money laundering and a chain of murders whose perpetrators were gangs of Dominican youths known as Wild Cowboys.

The author's extensive fieldwork yields important information about the activities of these gangs, though his desire to single out culprits while identifying himself with the prosecutors distracts him from the appreciation of his own research material. For example, Jackall praises detective Pete Moro, "who went straight from the jungles of Vietnam to those of the South Bronx", for never showing a trace of self-dramatisation. But then he implicitly dramatises the gangs who inhabit the latter jungle by insisting on their animality.

At the same time Jackall seems to miss the importance of his findings when he fails to elaborate on, or learn from, the division of labour within the illicit drugs economy, with roles ranging from "streeters", "lookouts", "managers", "enforcers" and "transporters". A thorough study of this division of labour could be fruitful in determining the degree of organisation which is more "desirable" if the damage caused by crime is to be reduced. Economists, among others, have attempted this type of analysis and concluded that the "optimum law enforcement" should aim at the "internalisation" of such damage within criminal organisations. The task of enforcement, in other words, should be that of reducing the "externalities" of crime, namely the violence associated with competitive and chaotic market conditions. Moreover, an accurate analysis of the roles composing the drugs economy could lead to crucial suggestions with respect to law enforcement and social policies, provided one has sufficient foresight as to where in that division of labour the chances of success are more numerous and the reduction of harm more likely.

However, these are not part of the preoccupations of Jackall, who is mainly driven by the need to allocate blame for unsuccessful prosecutions. The list includes a lack of coordination among law enforcers, a bureaucratic apparatus within the judiciary, community activists who see infringements of civil rights behind every corner, the media for ignoring crime unless it is titillating, and the intellectuals who champion criminals by romanticising them. All of these, in Jackall's view, are wittingly or otherwise allies with the forces of disorder.

On the one hand, this lament is at odds with data indicating that the United States has no rival in inflicting custodial sentences on offenders, especially those from the ethnic minorities. On the other, in imputing the spread of criminal activity to the alleged lack of effective policing and prosecuting, the author confuses the causes of a social phenomenon with its management. The causes of crime cannot be found in the institutional responses to it, just as the causes of tuberculosis are not found in the type of therapy chosen to combat it. Ultimately, liberal-minded penal reformers ought to feel fortunate when calls for more punitiveness are made by such unconvincing advocates.

Vincenzo Ruggiero is professor of sociology, Middlesex University.

Wild Cowboys: Urban Marauders and the Forces of Order

Author - Robert Jackall
ISBN - 0 674 95310 X
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £16.50
Pages - 368

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