Cultural Normalization of Violence among a Detention Population

Date of Completion

January 2010


Anthropology, Cultural|Sociology, Theory and Methods|Sociology, Criminology and Penology




Most research on the consequences of violence exposure on adolescent mental health (1) focuses on acute forms of exposure (e.g. being shot or shot at) and ignores chronic exposure and (2) treats violent behavior as a problem of delinquent individuals often ignoring the environment in which violent behaviors develop. The neighborhood effect, as outlined by W.J. Wilson, points to the cultural level and superorganic properties that affect perceptions and decisions of individuals within that neighborhood. If perceptions are developed and decisions are made in a neighborhood environment where violence is chronic, individuals' perceptions and decisions may vary from those where violence is spurious. Perceptions and decisions of adolescents who grow up surrounded by violence may share ideas and behaviors that reflect a normalization of violence. ^ This dissertation examines data on violence exposure and mental health collected from 56 boys incarcerated in a CT juvenile detention center. The data reveal that the detainees are exposed to high levels of violence in their neighborhoods. The chronic violence the boys are exposed to leads to a perception of violence that differs from 'mainstream' culture. Detainees know about the prevailing culture and can state that culture's version of how they should respond to potentially violent situations—nonviolently. To detainees, however, those norms belong to another world. They define violence as normal, and engage in behaviors that reflect survival strategies in a violence environment. By criteria enshrined in DSM-IV, detainees exhibit a high incidence of mental health disorders, particularly oppositional defiant disorder and other forms of psychopathology. These criteria assume the norms of the prevailing culture. They pathologize these alternative cultural understandings, which appear to constitute reasoned responses to the violent environments in which detainees consistently report growing up. ^