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The Code of the Suburb and Drug Dealing

High rates of violence are characteristic of many urban drug markets because the individuals therein abide by a set of informal rules known as the code of the street. This code governs interpersonal conduct that emerges from the social circumstances found in various ...

Published onDec 28, 2012
The Code of the Suburb and Drug Dealing


High rates of violence are characteristic of many urban drug markets because the individuals therein abide by a set of informal rules known as the code of the street. This code governs interpersonal conduct that emerges from the social circumstances found in various communities in America. Drug market participants who subscribe to this code view violence as a means to earn respect, status, and security. Not all drug markets are urban, how or exhibit high rates of violence, however. This is probably the reason why researchers have focused disproportionately on violent, inner-city drug markets to account for the conditions that facilitate violence in such environments. This article examines why there is a dearth of violence in drug markets in suburbs, focusing on the cultural context in which such markets operate. It first describes a study of twenty-five young suburban drug dealers before looking at the code of the suburb. It also assesses the code's impact on drug dealing, especially in relation to handling victimization, and concludes by highlighting the relevance of peace for understanding violence.


Many urban drug markets suffer from high rates of violence because the individuals therein subscribe to the code of the street – a set of informal rules governing interpersonal conduct that emerges from the social circumstances that characterize many communities in American cities: social disadvantage; a thriving street life that facilitates the flow of social information about others; and intensive law enforcement scrutiny (Anderson 1999). For drug market participants who abide by this code, violence is a means to the ends of respect, status, and security (see, e.g., Wright and Fornango 2002; Jacobs and Wright 2006).

Yet not all drug markets are urban; nor do all exhibit high rates of violence (Zimring and Hawkins 1997). Perhaps understandably, researchers have focused disproportionately on violent, inner-city drug markets, seeking to explain the conditions that facilitate violence in such contexts (see, e.g., Jacobs 2000). By contrast, they have paid far less attention to the factors that serve to inhibit underworld aggression. It is becoming clear, however, that a complete understanding of drug-market violence necessitates documenting and explaining where and why it does not occur (Zimring and Hawkins 1997; Jacques and Wright 2008a; see, e.g., Topalli, Wright, and Fornango 2002; Topalli 2005).

Suburbs in the United States are a case in point. They too have illicit drug markets – especially in and around schools – yet remain largely free of the predatory and retaliatory acts associated with their urban counterparts (Jacques and Wright 2008b). This raises the question: What accounts for the fact that suburban drug markets are comparatively peaceful? It is important to answer this question because it might enhance our understanding of drug-market violence. A theory of why violence does not occur has implications for explaining why it does. After all, the conditions that promote peace almost certainly will inhibit aggression, and vice versa. Put differently, fresh insights into drug-market violence can be obtained by studying drug-market peace (Zimring and Hawkins 1997; Jacques and Wright 2008a, 2008b).

This chapter attempts to make sense of the dearth of violence in suburban drug markets, focusing on the cultural context in which such markets operate. We suggest the following:

  • Whereas some cultures promote confrontation and violence (e.g., the code of the street), others inhibit it. One way to minimize conflict is to handle problems peacefully.

  • Non-confrontational culture emerges from a social structure akin to many suburban communities: social advantage; a lack of social information about others; weak ties; and low levels of law enforcement scrutiny. This social structure is the opposite of that which produces cultures like the code of the street.

  • Violent retaliation occurs less often among suburban drug dealers than it does among those from disadvantaged urban neighborhoods. The former group typically responds to victimization through negotiation, avoidance, and toleration.

  • The two groups differ in their use of violent and peaceful conflict management techniques because they adhere to different cultural values acquired as a result of growing up and living in different macro-social structures.

  • Researching non-confrontational conflict management and culture is important because it has the potential to provide new insights into the mechanisms underpinning violence.

After describing our study of 25 young suburban drug dealers in section I, we then describe the code of the suburb in Section II.  In section III, we explore the code’s impact on drug dealing, especially as relates to handling victimization.  In section IV, the chapter concludes by discussing the relevance of peace for understanding violence. 

A Study of Young Suburban Drug Dealers

The data for this chapter derive from a field-based study of young, middle-class drug dealers from the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, including in-depth interviews with 25 former and active sellers and observations of these individuals in action. At the time of the interviews, each participant was currently selling or had done so within the past two years. The majority of the participants were raised in one suburban town with the following demographics: about 90 percent white, 90 percent of adults have a high-school degree or higher, and a median household income of about $70,000.

Initial respondents were recruited using a straightforward purposive sampling strategy; we approached drug sellers who the first author already knew to be involved in this activity and asked for their cooperation. The first 18 such sellers were recruited in this manner; then, we turned to snowball sampling, using two prior interviewees to recruit seven more middle-class drug sellers. The first 18 respondents were not compensated for participation; the other 7 were paid $20 each, and were recruited through past participants who received $20 for each successful referral.

All of the participants were white. Each had graduated from high school; a substantial majority of them were in college at the time of the interview, and many have since earned degrees. Criminal arrests were rare, with criminal convictions being rarer still. Drugs sold by the sellers included marijuana, ecstasy, cocaine, LSD, hallucinogenic mushrooms, and other substances.

The interviews, which lasted between 30 minutes and 2 hours, were semi-structured and conducted in an informal manner. The contours of individual interviews differed, but each ultimately addressed the pre-identified focal topics. Interviews centered on stories and narratives rather than on general descriptions. 

The Code of the Suburb 

The findings from the research described above enhance our understanding of drug markets, predation, conflict, violence, and peace. In contrast to the violent street code documented among the urban drug dealers studied by ethnographers such as Elijah Anderson (1999) and Phillipe Bourgois (2003), suburban dealers subscribe to a less confrontational code of conduct. We term this culture the code of the suburb. It is a set of informal rules governing interpersonal behavior that emerges from the social circumstances that typify advantaged communities in America’s suburbs – a lack of street life and social information about neighbors, weak ties between community members, social advantage (e.g., high employment, education, family life), and freedom from pervasive and discriminatory law enforcement.

Although the code possesses nuances that we cannot fully detail here, it can be summarized in terms of four interrelated principles: (1) conflict is embarrassing, lowers one’s status, and damages identity; (2) thus, conflict should be prevented or, when it does occur, quickly halted; therefore, (3) confrontational approaches to conflict management – especially violent retaliation – are stigmatizing; and (4) non-confrontational approaches to social control – such as toleration, avoidance, and negotiation – are rewarding.

The social structure and culture of suburbia mold the identities and roles of community members: who they are in the present and should be in the future. Above all else, the code of the suburb tells people that they should be law-abiding, private, and productive, while avoiding confrontation. When people deviate from these roles and engage in crime (especially violence), and this is discovered by others, then the deviants are shamed or ostracized and subsequently become embarrassed and lose both status and identity as a “good person” (see Goffman 1956, 1963). 

Suburban-Style Conflict Management among Drug Dealers

The code of the suburb exerts a powerful influence on the conduct of the middle-class drug dealers in our sample. It shapes the motives underpinning their initiation into, continuation of, and desistance from criminality. It helps to determine their methods of selling, including who is excluded from the trade network, where and when business occurs, the frequency and cost of trades, and strategies for preventing conflict with parents, neighbors, and police, or victimization by predators such as robbers, burglars, and defrauders.  

Despite precautions, however, victimization is not always prevented. Prior studies of drug dealers (almost all of which are based on lower-class urban dealers) would predict that they almost invariably respond to conflict with violence. Our findings suggest that nothing could be further from the truth for suburban sellers for whom vigilantism is a practically non-existent response. Instead, they mostly handle their problems through peaceful means – especially toleration, avoidance, and negotiation (see Black 1998; Jacques and Wright 2008a; Cooney 2009). The value of these strategies is that they minimize conflict, embarrassment, and loss of face (Goffman 1974). Below, we explore suburban dealers’ use of these social control techniques and the cultural factors motivating them.


Negotiation is a process whereby disputants talk out a solution to their problem (Gulliver 1979). Although more confrontational than toleration or avoidance, negotiation minimizes conflict by offering the offender a chance to make things right. This conflict management strategy is peaceful because it involves people coming together to resolve a dispute rather than the victim taking unilateral action to right the wrong. Victims’ embarrassment is reduced to the extent that they successfully use their communicative skills to work things out with troublemakers.

Drug dealers and customers depend on one another for income or product, which naturally encourages them to try to resolve drug trade-related disputes through negotiation. By arriving at a joint decision about how to terminate a conflict – such as a perceived victimization – both the dealer and the customer are able to lessen embarrassment and maintain their business relationship. This is unlike avoidance, which by definition results in lost sales and purchases, or toleration, which is inherently one-sided.

Among the suburban dealers we studied, conflicts over under-weighed sales or unpaid drug debts frequently were handled via negotiation. Dealers can find themselves engaging in negotiation as either defendant or plaintiff. Phillip, for example, would manage disgruntled customers by showing them that they had not been swindled: “[T]hey’d look at the weed and … think it was slack…. If there was ever any discrepancy about weights or what not I’d be glad to show them on the scales… [I]t was a hassle, but it’s not that big of a deal.” Other times, the customer was correct – a fraud had occurred. Rather than deny wrongdoing, in some cases the dealer simply would compensate the customer. As Mark explains, “[I]f it was my fault and I knew it was my fault I would just make it up to them. Next time give them a little bit extra or a price break or whatever.” This is good business because, in Mark’s words, “you gotta treat your customers with respect so that they come back.” Other times the dealer was the victim, but still relied on negotiation to resolve the conflict. Christian recounts just such a story: “[T]here was one circumstance where [my supplier] under-weighed me like 2 grams, like instead of weighing 56 it weighed like 54.” Instead of tolerating the incident or avoiding the supplier – who he depended on for product, Christian instead decided simply to “ask… him about it. And he was like ‘fine’ and gave me 2 grams.”

Fronting drugs – that is, supplying them on credit – flows from a desire to make money in the long run at the cost of short-term risk (Jacobs 1999). When fronted drugs are not paid for within an appropriate period of time, negotiation represents a peaceful way of rebalancing the scale. William, a dealer we interviewed, recounts a dispute that could have resulted in a fight, but instead was resolved through talk:

Interviewer: Let’s just talk about your dealers real quick. Just like real simple, in terms of tell me what social class they were, their age and that’s it.

William: One guy was from a very nice family in the [local] area... His dad was fairly wealthy, his mom was a housewife. That’s where I got all the Valiums, Zanex... And then the other guy, he was probably from a lower-middle class family. Lived over there in [a town down the road]. Decent home... He had a car, his dad had three cars, his mom had a car. His brother, who was 15, had a car, so he was kind of well off.

Interviewer: And how old were the two? You may have said.

William: I did not find this out. The guy I got all the rolls [ecstasy] and the Lortabs from who was the lower middle class... He was actually six months younger than me so he was born I think [in 19]84 and the other guy he was about a year and a half to two years older than me.

Interviewer: Was he in high school or college or out?

William: Oh he was out of high school. He had gone to military school.

Interviewer: Oh, ok. Did you ever get threatened while you were dealing?

William: No... One time when I first started dealing..., I bought a 20 pack [of ecstasy] and I had sold it for a decent amount of money. And we [– my friend and I –] went out, and I figured I still had ten left to sell and that would make my money back and I could still pay him back, so we went out and blew the money, you know, and I still had these ten. Well me and my friends went back to his house, me and three friends, me and my three friends. We went back there and we took off the next day. [The supplier had] fronted it to me ’cause I wanted to get on my feet and I was like, [but I had to call him and say,] “I haven’t got the money, you’ll have to front me some more to get it.” And I thought he was going to beat the hell out of me. This is the guy I got the rolls from.

Interviewer: What did he say to you?

William: He was like, “Oh you need some more, let’s sit down and talk about this.” And I’m like, “Holy Shit!” I thought he was going to beat the fuck out of me. It would have been an even fight, if I fight him and I want to get stuff from him again so I’m gonna have to let him win! I mean I need him! So I went back to him and sat down and he was like, “All right”, ’cause he knew I ate them too, “I don’t want you to sell anything less than 20 dollars, here’s a ten pack.”

Interviewer: What do you mean, he didn’t want you to sell any pills for less than 20 dollars?

William: No rolls for less than 20. Let’s see, I had bought the 20 pack for 280 dollars... So he was like, “Here is a ten pack and I don’t want you to sell any less than 20 dollars, and I want at least 200 dollars.”

Interviewer: So did you sell them for more?

William: I had to sell them for more than 200 dollars... [He said,] “I want you to come back with more than 200 dollars. I’ll give you a price break since you’re getting back up. So I’ll give them to you for 12 dollars a piece, so I had $120 dollars worth of product and I had to come back with 200 so I’d knocked out 80 of my debt. And I came back two hours later with like 240 so I’d knocked out 120 dollars of my debt, 160 to go. I did the same thing again and made it up to 160 bucks and that’s when he bumped up my price back to 15 dollars. He had done the 12 dollars a piece to help me out. But when he was on the phone and was like, “Let’s sit down and talk about this”, I was like, “Shit, I’m gonna get my ass beat and I’ve got to let him too.” But it was nice of him to do that and both of them were real nice guys, they were kind of like me, we’re all three nice people.

The incident described above demonstrates that successful negotiation benefits disputing trade partners because it resolves conflict while permitting business – and its profits – to continue without disruption. Instead of resorting to violence, William and his supplier struck a calculated agreement whereby the debt could be repaid with the profits from future selling. Whereas toleration or avoidance would have entailed lost income for one or both of the parties, negotiation permitted William and his supplier to save face and maintain their mutually beneficial business relationship.

This incident also is noteworthy in that William foresaw the potential for violence, but was more concerned about preserving his business ties than in harming his attacker. He believed that in a fight he and the supplier were evenly matched, but nevertheless was intent on “let[ting] him win.” Clearly William did not want to get his “ass beat,” but he viewed this simply as a cost of doing business – to defeat his opponent would jeopardize his chances of maintaining a connection to a critical source of supply. As William himself put it: “I’m gonna have to let him win! I mean I need him!”

Whatever the rationality of this decision, there are cultural and identity forces at work here too. Dealers who live by the code of the street might not be so quick to lose a fight – or to admit their willingness to do so. Put differently, they may well be willing to enter a fight they cannot win, but they are not willing to lose it on purpose (Anderson 1999). As Stub, the urban drug dealer interviewed by Topalli, Wright, and Fornango (2002, p. 343) bluntly explained: “People just know ... if they fuck with me ... they got to kill me. You can’t just shoot me or whip my ass.” On the street corners, respect is sacrificed by backing down. In the suburbs, however, status is maintained in the short run and enhanced in the long run by admitting wrongdoing, accepting responsibility, making things right in the eyes of the offended, and moving forward by putting the conflict in the past. Nice people do not resort to violence and these suburban drug dealers and suppliers are – at least in their own minds – “nice people.”           


Avoidance is handling a problem by reducing contact with the wrongdoer (Hirschman 1970), a stock conflict management technique in middle-class suburbs. The conflict is resolved “simply by withdrawing from relevant dealings with the offender” (Goffman 1971, p. 348). As Baumgartner (1984, p. 84) observes: “Avoidance is a favorite tactic” of suburbanites. Instead of absorbing and ignoring the wrongdoing, the victim instead ignores the wrongdoer, distancing themselves socially or physically.

Disputes in suburban drug markets frequently lead to avoidance. Adam, for example, fronted an ounce of marijuana and two ounces of magic mushrooms worth $400 in total to his friend, but the debt was never repaid. “And”, Adam recalls, “that was kind of the end of that, [I] stopped calling him, just stopped telling him to come to [my town] to hang out. It kind of ruined our whole friendship, actually.” Another suburban dealer, Jim, was victimized twice by females who stole drugs from him when he was not around. He responded to the first victimization by “never deal[ing] with them again,… never did see them again.” He was friends with the second thief, but the relationship was severed after the theft: “I haven’t spoken to her since because I’m pretty convinced that she took it.” Still another dealer, Josh, fronted two ounces of marijuana to a customer without being reimbursed. In response, he vowed not to do business with this individual in the future: “I figured it would be better off just…not [to] sell to him again…. I just brushed him off, ‘Hey, whatever man’, and never sold to him again.”

Christian explains how the code of the suburb can promote toleration or avoidance rather than violent retaliation in the face of predation. He was the victim of a fraud, subsequently becoming suspicious – perhaps even paranoid – that others were trying to prey on him. Instead of retaliating, Christian’s embarrassment, negative attitude toward violence, and fear of serious injury led him to tolerate the instigating fraud and thereafter avoid the suspected predators:

Christian: So [this guy is] like, “I want a quarter,” and I was like, “Alright, let’s do it” [in this parking lot]. And he was like, “No, follow me to my house ’cause I don’t want to do it here.” And I was like, “No, I’m pretty sure we can do it right here.”… And I look at this, and I say to him, “Why do you have a bat and a crowbar [in your car]?” And he doesn’t really give me an answer, so I kinda knew what was up… So… I was like, “Whatever, I’m gone, give me a call later or something.” And so he calls me back like hours later looking for a half ounce [i.e., two quarters], and I should have known when he upped the weight that this is definitely not right, but we decided to meet at [a local business]… [T]his is one of the most embarrassing stories I have… But he opens the door, and I was like, “You got the money?” And he throws down a roll of bills with a 5 on the outside, and I’m like, “Alright, here’s the weed.” [He] runs off, and, sure enough, I open it up and there’s $18. . . . my loss on it was $142 or something…. So I was like he can have it ’cause it’s not worth getting shot, ’cause this is somebody I didn’t know and he had just gotten out of jail and he had a crowbar and a bat so at that point I pretty much committed to that I’m either wrong about this person or I’m right and they can have it anyways, and it was dumb but I did it anyways…. [A]t this point it’s like, “It’s not worth getting shot, flat out, I don’t give a fuck about $150, I’ll pay somebody $150 not to shoot me.”

Despite fearing that he was about to be victimized, Christian did not prepare himself to defend his property with violence. Indeed, he gave up the fight before it began. As he put it, retribution is “not worth getting shot, flat out, I don’t give a fuck about $150, I’ll pay somebody $150 not to shoot me.” Christian clearly recognizes that fighting risks serious injury, not to mention the possibility of law enforcement involvement, the potential costs of which far exceed the loss of $142.

Shortly after the episode described above, Christian became suspicious that he was being “set-up” for another scam – or perhaps even a robbery – by a different predator:

Christian: Like I can’t be sure [this person was trying to victimize me], but this kid I knew…called me up and was like, “Hey man, can I get an ounce [of marijuana]?” And I would sell an ounce every now and then but I really wasn’t too up for it because I was only making like 50 bucks profit of it compared to 100 bucks profit off selling small bags. And so he basically called me up looking for an ounce and I was like, “Dude, I dunno, I don’t have a lot and if I get rid of this ounce I have to re-up, so it doesn’t make sense, so no, I don’t want to do it.” And he told me who gave him my number, so I called that guy up and was like, “Dude, what’s the deal with [this person] calling up for an ounce?” and he was like, “Dude, don’t deal with [this person], I gave him your number but don’t deal with him, he’s been a sketch lately.”

Interviewer: What’s a sketch?

Christian: How could I define it? Somebody who doesn’t play by the rules necessarily, or does shady shit, just do stuff that’s not right—rob people or whatever. So, the kid calls me later and he’s like, “Dude, you got to let me get this ounce, I’ll buy it for 400”  – which would give the same profit as selling small bags – and at this point I’m like, “Bullshit.” And you could tell by the tone of his voice that it wasn’t right, like you can tell when somebody’s lying to you, if you really listen to them, especially if you do like 10 deals a day, you can hear the hesitation in their voice. And if somebody starts messing with prices in terms of their just getting fucked, then you shouldn’t deal with them ’cause that’s the point where you know they’ve said, “Ok, I don’t care, I’m going to make it profitable for this person—because I’m not going to pay it anyways—where it’s gonna be profitable enough for this person to do it, I’ll tell them I’ll pay them $1000 for an ounce, ’cause they’re not going to get the money anyways, all I need to do is to get them where I need them to be in order for to jack them”, and that’s what this kid was trying to do and I knew it, and obviously I can’t be sure, but I would put anything on it…. And that incident happened a few days after the first jacking [i.e., fraudulent victimization], so I felt like something had gotten around to him and like now I was somebody that people could take advantage of. So pretty much at that point I stopped dealing with anybody in that crew, I don’t remember dealing with anybody who I thought would know them or be a part of them.

Christian recognized that a previous victimization could brand him as easy prey for others and thus decided to play it safe. In theory, he could have acted on his intuition by equipping himself for a fight designed to demonstrate that he was not to be crossed. But instead he opted simply to avoid the would-be predator. The toleration and avoidance exercised by Christian in these cases reflects a rationality bounded by the cultural commitments that shape his identity. As illustrated by the following quote, Christian has strong reservations about the use of violent retaliation which, by its nature, involves the infliction of pain:

Christian: I’ve never been in a fight. Like I’ve always thought, like I remember being 8 years old and thinking, “If I get in a fight I’m kinda screwed ’cause I don’t want to hurt somebody.” Like I can’t imagine punching somebody in the face and hurting them, and I’ve always been like that. So it’s like the idea of physical violence as retribution has never been something I wanted [to do].

For this dealer and other suburban dealers like him, to resort to violence is to lose your identity as a good kid, whereas simply curtailing interaction with the wrongdoer is a reliable way to insulate yourself and save face. As Goffman (1967, p. 15) has noted: “The surest way … to prevent threats to face is to avoid contacts in which these threats are likely to occur.” 


Toleration involves absorbing and ignoring an offense (Parsons 1951). According to Baumgartner (1984, p. 84), “[D]oing nothing…is the most common strategy of conflict management” employed by American suburbanites. It is hardly surprising, then, that the dealers in our sample often responded to victimization by simply tolerating it.

For example, William had more than 100 Valiums stolen out of his pocket as he slept, but made no effort to track down the perpetrator because, as he explained, “[I]t didn’t matter to me at the time. Better to write stuff like that off.” Another dealer, Richard, had $50 cash stolen from him, doing nothing in return: “I’m not really the pursuit type, man.” Yet another seller, Jared, was cheated out of $70 by a customer; instead of seeking vengeance he, in his own words, “just gave up on it.” Robert describes an incident in which he had drug money stolen from his vehicle without retaliating:

Robert: My car got robbed while I was at work for $360, and I was gonna go re-up after work.

Interviewer: Did you get robbed by a stranger?

Robert: No, it was Victor. He went to school with me.

Interviewer: How’d you know that person?

Robert: Well, I didn’t know him that well at all, but he knew Brian’s older brothers, and shit like that, so he knew who I was. They thought I had weight [i.e., drugs], and I had money instead.

Interviewer: Would you tell me this story?

Robert: Well they jimmied it, you know, use the jimmy on the window, and then when I got out there was no money.

Robert: I started calling everybody, and Tommy was always good friends with my brother and he’s friends with Victor and he told me that he did it.

Interviewer: What’d you do when you found out who it was?

Robert: Fucking nothing. I mean what am I gonna go do – shoot him?

Interviewer: Why didn’t you do anything?

Robert: ’Cause it’s not worth getting in trouble over. The only thing I could have done is went and whupped his ass, and at that point it wasn’t worth getting in trouble because I was trying to sell and make a little money, but I’m not trying to escalate in criminal activities… I’d try to be a nice person and not be too much of a dick, so that’s another thing. And I never wanted to rob anybody. I never ever robbed anybody… I don’t want to buy a gun or shoot anybody, or fuck someone up permanently.

It is crystal clear from Robert’s description of this event that he lacks a cultural framework favoring violent dispute resolution. When asked what he did after discovering the offender’s identity, he replies, “Fucking nothing,” and then asks sarcastically, “I mean what am I gonna go do – shoot him?” Robert’s rhetorical question belies a mindset bounded by suburban middle-class culture and his overriding identity as a “good kid.” Violence is “not worth getting in trouble over.” It is an “escalat[ion] in criminal activities” without any clear monetary payoff. Whereas striking back may benefit disadvantaged urban drug dealers by elevating their status in the eyes of their peers and deterring victimization in the future (Anderson 1999), the cultural understandings of middle-class, suburban dealers cause them to believe that violence represents nothing but potential costs to legal standing which, in turn, could jeopardize their prospects as an adult. Violence does not push anyone up the suburban social ladder.

Identity is shaped within a specific cultural context. For Robert – a suburban, middle-class teenager – violence is something to be eschewed. Instead, peaceful forms of dispute resolution, such as toleration, are more in keeping with this dealer’s perception of himself and the cultural commitments of his community. Far from representing a source of status, vigilantism threatens to escalate your criminal involvement, expose your deviance, and embarrass and shame you in the process. In the suburbs, to be known for violence would undermine your personal identity as a good kid and cause you to lose face in the eyes of relevant others (Goffman 1963, 1967). 

Avoiding Serious Retaliation 

Although peaceful control is the modal response, it would be misleading to suggest that retaliation never occurs in the suburbs. It does. Even in these cases, however, the code of the suburb exerts a strong influence: whereas violence is inherently confrontational, suburban dealers seek to obtain vengeance via “sneaky” methods such as retaliatory rip-offs, unseen thefts (e.g., burglary), and vandalism (cf. Katz 1988; Jacques 2010). Indeed, the cases of violent retaliation that do occur are in many respects the exceptions that prove the rule: they are not only rare but also are strikingly mild as they do not involve weapons or bloodshed. Although conflict is not always preventable, the suburban dealers in our sample aimed to minimize and end it as efficiently as possible by talking out the problem, avoiding the wrongdoers, tolerating the grievance, or, at worst, secretly getting even.

Conflict resolution in middle-class suburban drug markets is a mirror opposite of what occurs on urban street corners. There, drug dealers abiding by the code of the street are quick to resort to serious violence to resolve disputes. The code of the suburb is far more forgiving, and so are the traders who abide by that code. This culture, in our estimation, emerges from conditions diametrically opposed to those that give rise to violent honor codes. Reputations and respect in the suburbs are less dependent on the flow of information between community members. The suburbs have less street life. Persons there have weaker ties (Baumgartner 1988). They have greater prospects of living a conventionally successful, pro-social life – what some call the “American Dream.”

The result of less information, weaker ties, and greater stakes in conformity is a culture that does not place high value on violent retribution. Culture molds identities, prescribing what it is to be a good or bad person (Topalli 2005). For young suburbanites who want to be good, the best – that is, most rational – decisions are those that limit embarrassment, shame, and risk to their future educational, employment, and family prospects. Such risks come from both formal and informal sources. A government- or community-defined identity as a criminal, especially a violent one, carries far reaching social and personal consequences in the socio-cultural context of American suburbs. Aggressive people are not respected; they are avoided – kicked out of school, not hired or fired, not dated or married. In a word: ostracized. 

The Relevance of Peaceful Conflict Management for Violence 

What does the high degree of peaceful conflict management among suburban drug dealers portend for understanding the violent vigilantism associated with their disadvantaged urban counterparts? As Baumgartner (1988, pp. v-vi) explains, “a system of social control that relies primarily on the tolerance of offenses, avoidance of troublesome people, and comparable tactics, making little use of violence or formal settlement procedures, is of great significance both theoretically and practically.” This is true because “the factors that create and sustain nonconfrontation of this sort can shed light not only on the conditions that promote tolerance and avoidance but also, by implication, on those that undermine quarreling, violence, mediation, adjudication, and a host of other sequels to disapproved acts.”

Non-confrontational conflict management is relevant to the study of drug-market violence because the presence of peace necessitates the absence of violence (Jacques and Wright 2008a). For example, it is impossible for a victim to simultaneously respond to a dispute with both violent retaliation and toleration. Thus, a theory of peaceful control has direct implications for understanding confrontational forms of control, such as violent vengeance (Black 1976, 1983; Zimring and Hawkins 1997; Jacques and Wright 2008a). To the degree circumstances are conducive to non-confrontational control they are not conducive to violent retaliation, and vice versa. If that is true then theories of why peaceful control does occur also shed light on why violent retaliation does not (see Zimring and Hawkins 1997; Jacques and Wright 2008a).

This logic and the qualitative data examined above suggest that (1) violent retaliation is inhibited and (2) non-confrontational control is facilitated when disputants abide by the code of the suburb. This is a set of informal rules that emerges from the social circumstances prevailing in American suburbia (see Baumgartner 1988). Ironically, because it promotes peace, the code of the suburb is able to shed light on the prevalence and magnitude of violence in drug markets. When the absence of law mixes with the code of the suburb, the result is an increase in negotiation, avoidance, and toleration, much more so than violent retaliation (Zimring and Hawkins 1997). More specifically, the code of the suburb thesis hypothesizes that the rate or seriousness of violent dispute resolution decreases as drug traders become more embarrassed by conflict, less approving of confrontation, and more approving of non-confrontation. Violent retaliation should decrease as any of those factors increase because each facilitates peaceful social control and, therefore, inhibits confrontational conflict management.

This same line of reasoning also can be applied to the relationship between the code of the street and non-confrontational social control. Anderson’s (1999) code of the street thesis suggests that the odds of a drug trader engaging in peaceful control decrease as that individual’s commitment to the code of the street increases. More specifically, the thesis suggests that negotiation, avoidance, and toleration decrease as drug traders become more embarrassed by disrespect, more approving of violence, and less approving of non-violence, which are attitudes that arise from the social circumstances that typify America’s inner cities – social disadvantage, street life, strong ties, and confrontation with law enforcement. Peace should decrease as all of those factors increase because they facilitate violent retaliation and, therefore, logically inhibit non-confrontational forms of conflict management.


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