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95 DECEMBER 2006
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A less than divine intervention


In general, we Child and Youth Care types are quite happy to leave research to those professionals who aren’t quite sure what they should be doing, or how they should be doing it. But we do get the odd moments to sit around and mentally doodle so why not turn these into research opportunities? What follows is one dedicated practitioner’s attempt to turn a few idle thoughts into an empirical examination of the inner life of adolescent males hanging out in a group care facility. The focus of this study applies to the general field of “social labelling theory.” The purpose of this study has yet to be determined.

My project actually began when Brad Carlton called Rudy Marchant a “psycho” for grabbing the remote. “Wrestling’s for retards” Carlton declared, flopping down on the sofa, switching over to the hockey game and digging into a carton of oven-baked French fries.

"Hey, let’s watch the Sex Show on channel twelve,” Ronnie Burgess suggested as he scanned the listings of the TV Times. “Shut up you perve,” said Ralph Critchley, squeezing himself between Marchant’s feet and the arm of the sofa. “You don’t wanna watch it – cause you’re a faggot,” Burgess shot back, blowing a derisive kiss in Critchley’s direction.

It was a typical exchange in the “Rainbow Room,” a place where the presence of staff was grudgingly tolerated on the understanding that intervention would only occur if there was some immediate risk to life or limb. Otherwise, the shallow veneer of civilized life was temporarily suspended and the reptilian order allowed to prevail. Here was living testimony to the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, who argued that, without external constraints and moral reasoning, all television programs were destined to be nasty, brutish and short. On this occasion, Rudy Marchant, the undisputed Lord of the Fries (who actually had no interest in hockey) held onto his tenuous power while the rest maneuvered themselves into their rightful places in the pecking order.

Relieved of my obligation to grasp what we professionals like to call “the teachable moment,” I sat back and watched with amused fascination, much as Jane Goodall might watch a group of primates preparing for a punch-up. I could have taken a clip-board to list and catalogue the variety of crude gestures and antagonistic postures but I was more interested in the rudimentary language forms that seemed to add meaning to each stimulus and response. In particular, I was struck by the words they used to define each other.

On the surface they were common insults, yet I had the distinct impression that, in some way, they revealed and affirmed the underlying structure of their primitive culture. As a humanist, I was acutely aware of the obvious lack of empathy and sensitivity but, when it comes to understanding the subjective worlds of our clients, we Child and Youth Care types can still learn much from such disciplines as anthropology and zoology.

* * *

That evening I decided to insinuate my empirical project into our “talk-back” session in the “Bored Room”. The “talk- back” was a daily ritual in which a staff “facilitator” was assigned to invite or coerce the residents into exploring the more commonly accepted standards of human social interaction. This program was mandatory, but we all knew that the order imposed in the Bored Room was a tacit trade-off for the disorder permitted in the Rainbow Room “it was probably our only enduring behavior modification strategy.

Once gathered at the table (a round one to convey the Arthurian principle of equality among the peers) I asked the reluctant knights to write down one or two words to describe each person in the circle. At first nobody made a move but when I explained that spelling was not important, they set about the task with sinister dedication.

I then asked each person to read out the words one at a time, using the actual name of the recipient. As expected, the first round contained the conventional array of slurs and insults, marginally modified in deference to Bored Room etiquette: “Critchley is a faggot;” “Jenson is a pisspot;” “Dawson is a brown-noser;” “Millar is an asshole” etc., etc., etc. There were a few notable exceptions: “Hoffman is my buddy;” “Marchant is a leader;” and “Richards is smart,” were seriously intended contributions but they were dismissed with gestures of disbelief and derision by all but the recipients. It was time for my experimental intervention.

First I pointed out that by describing someone in one or two words, we ignore all their other personal qualities. Critchely cottoned onto this right away. “Yea, kinda like calling Michael Jackson a perve and not seeing him as a pop star.”

"Yes, but even though it’s positive, the term “pop star” is just another label,” I explained. “It doesn’t tell you who Michael Jackson really is.

"I know who he really is,” Jensen interjected.

“Okay, smart-ass, who is he really then?” asked Critchley.

"He really is a perve.”

“Oh yea, and you’re a dick-head.”

It wasn’t a great start but I felt some progress was being made. I then told them how we use labels to turn people into objects and how this makes it possible for us to abuse them.

“They call Britney Spears a sex object but I think she gets off on it,” said Burgess.

"I get off on it too,” said Marchant with a leer.

"Yea, and you’d like to abuse her, you psycho,” Burgess told him.

Marchant stared menacingly at his accuser. “I’d like to abuse you, you little fudge-packer.”

On reflection, I realize that everything I was trying to get across was actually taking place around the table but, doubting their capacity for self-reflection and not wanting to deal with the fallout, I opted to keep the discourse academic. I’m such a chickenshit, really.

“Okay, I now want you to split up into pairs and find a place in the room where you can talk without being overheard. Then I want you to tell the other person the word you used to describe them and what that word actually means to you. After that, I want each of you to “talk-back” to what your partner had to say – not only about what you think but how you really feel. And there’s no point in just picking someone you like because, before we finish tonight, you'll have met with every other person in the room. At the end of each meeting, I want you to make whatever changes you wish to the word or words you first wrote down before moving on to the next person. I'll give you five minutes for each pairing. When I tell you to change partners, finish the sentence and move on.”

To me the instructions were clear and simple but my befuddled subjects responded as if they were being told to circulate at a High School Prom and ask the wallflowers for a dance.

“What if we have nothing to say?” asked Burgess.

“Then just look into each others eyes,” I suggested facetiously.

“This is sicko stuff,” Marchant rasped, his eyes still fixed on Burgess.

"I’m only asking you to be honest, just for tonight,” I said. “I am being honest,” Marchant insisted. “This is pukey.”

“So you can always throw up and you can’t get more honest than that,” I assured him.

He switched his stare to me. “Not me man, we don’t have to do this.” The others nodded.

Now I don’t care how long you've been in the residential care business, there are no circumstances more hairy than those moments when your “clients” (oh I love that word) openly raise their collective finger to your singular authority. In this terrifying place, where the delicate balance of power shifts from the righteous to the rebellious, options melt down like a lump of lard on a trucker’s tailpipe. Hovering on the brink of their own annihilation, residential workers have been known to consider homicide or suicide as possible adaptive responses. Psychotic breaks are more common. I well remember the time when Clinton Jarvis, a night supervisor, chose to become catatonic in the middle of an uprising, and the evening when Maggie Norton had to be restrained and medicated after three residents refused to serve their curfews.

I knew better than to take Marchant’s resistance as a personal challenge. Authority lies in the system and we must never lose faith in the subtle mechanisms through which its power becomes manifest- “in this case, the delicate juxtaposition of the Bored Room and the Rainbow Room.

“Well you certainly do have a choice gentlemen,” I told them, “but here in Camelot, as in life itself, every decision we make carries consequences, some known, some unknown. You see, I also have choices to make, one of which is to unlock the door to the pig-pen tomorrow night when the big game is on – or not. Like you, I must consider my options very carefully.”

“That’s fucking blackmail,” Marchant growled.

"I call it quid pro quo.”

“What the hell’s that?”

“That’s Latin for “fucking blackmail.”

It took a few disgruntled moments for the balance to shift back in my favor but even the most repressive systems can tolerate a modicum of patience. Eventually, Burgess and Critchley stood up and shuffled their chairs to one corner of the room. “There they go, the brown-nose brigade,” sneered Marchant, but it was a statement clearly designed to save face before acknowledging defeat and submitting to the power of the system.

When, finally, I was alone at the table I began to scribble out my observations, pausing every five minutes to give the instruction to “move on.” On several occasions I stepped in to confront outbreaks of stupidity and when I noticed participants sneaking back to a former partner, but for the most part, they complied with the rules – overtly at least.

Although I couldn’t hear what was being said, it was interesting to note that each pairing seemed to have its own distinctive energy. Some encounters were highly charged and animated while others were more like a couple corpses stuck in the same casket. But, overall, I was pleased with how my experiment was progressing and quite excited about reviewing the outcomes.

When the hour was up, we took a short break before returning to the table for “de-briefing”. On a large white-board, I made a list of all the words presented at the beginning of the exercise and compared these to the words used following the intervention. As you probably know, this comparative method incorporates the principles of experimental design used by all famous researchers, with the exception of Sigmund Freud and the Pharmaceutical Industry. In order to move beyond the raw data and into the more phenomenological aspects of the human condition, I then invited each of my subjects to talk about their personal experience with each group member.

Now a serious researcher might argue that I should have used a tape recorder for this phase of data collection but any serious researcher would be well advised to keep such devices well away from the likes of Rudy Marchant, Brad Carlton and Ronnie Burgess. As it was, I made brief notes but stored most of the information in my head. At precisely 10 p.m. a strangely subdued group of warriors trundled off for their customary bed-time snacks. As I walked toward the staff room, I did manage to overhear one revealing comment emanating from the kitchen. “Forget it Jensen, as far as I’m concerned you’re still a dick-head.”

* * *

If you have read this far, you are probably wondering what my study can now contribute to the exciting field of adolescent peer group labeling processes. Well, obviously, the meat of this experiment is to be found within each interaction and outcome determined by the attitudinal shifts presented by each subject following intervention. It is equally obvious that I can’t possibly document all this detail within the scope of this article. Hopefully this will appear in some prestigious scientific publication, like The Journal of Adolescent Evil. Meanwhile, rather than leave you completely in the dark, I will use my remaining space to provide you with some of my most critical observations and conclusions.

In social and task groups, adolescent males use generalized and specific attributional labels to establish and maintain the structure and hierarchy within the group.

The particular labels employed reveal the inherent nature of the group (e.g. the more derogative or demeaning the label, the more the repressive the regime.)

In repressive regimes, the higher an individual’s status in the power structure, the less likely he is to modify his perception of others through personal contact. (e.g. Rudy Marchant made no adjustments to his initial labels and summed up every encounter in one word ““bullshit.”

Individuals in the middle of the status hierarchy were the most likely to discard or modify existing labels through personal contact.

Encounters between high and low status members were more likely to reinforce existing labels and perceptions.

In residential settings for adolescent males, labels with sexual connotations are used to promote a rigid and narrow perspective on masculine identity. To reinforce this ideal, labels are used to attribute stereotypical feminine characteristics to certain group members – usually in the form of homosexual attributions.

The power of the system is greater than the authority bestowed on particular individuals (e.g. when Marchant was transferred to another program, five days after the “experiment”, Carlton immediately assumed the C.E.O. position by taking on the same attitudes and behaviors). This would support a “systems theory” perspective.

The lower individuals are on the totem, the less likely they are to challenge or question the label (Critchely, for example, made no bones about deliberately acting like a “dipsy-chicklet” despite the scorn heaped upon him by the others.) By the same token they, like the high status leaders, are the least willing to relinquish the labels applied to them by others.

* * *

Well you can draw whatever conclusions you wish from all of this – or maybe you don’t need research to tell you what you already know. When I shared my findings with my supervisor, Len, he summed it all up with the observation: “So, I guess that makes these kids just like the rest of us eh? The powerful hang onto power, the peons remain stuck in their own crap and those of us in the middle are ready to change our minds about pretty well everything.” Looking for more specific feedback, I drew his attention to the subtle ways the labels used by the kids became self-fulfilling realities.

“This could be the adolescent version of the DSM IV,” I suggested.

“Of course,” he replied, “it was created in exactly the same way for exactly the same reasons.”

Len can be a little pedantic at time. Actually, he’s a bit of a pillock.

This feature: “Cedrick” (2004). A less than divine intervention. Relational Child and Youth Care Practice, 17(1), pp.17-22

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