One warm Saturday evening in late September, more than sixty people were drinking, talking, and listening to the latest soul music and love songs on their portable radios. The Lions were gathered around their bench and the Senior Greeks around theirs. Sally and her friends, like many others, ambled from bench to bench. It was peaceful; there were rumors of enemy gangs and the only disagreement concerned was that who would go buy the wine and beer.
At 10:30, Sally and several of her friends headed out of the park to see if they could find someone to buy more pineapple wine. As they passed a bench where several of the Primroses (a female gang from the western side of 32nd Street) were drinking, Sally tripped over a member’s foot and a violent struggle ensued. A circle immediately formed around the two young women and when some young men attempted to separate them, the combatants clawed the men… Blood flowed as the struggled, pulled each other’s hair, scratched, punched, bit, and ripped each other’s blouses.
The crowd was enjoying the scene and began to cheer them on. The women were separated for a few minutes, just enough time to wash their faces and to be encouraged by their friends. One of them grabbed a quart beer bottle and swung it at the other, but the bottle did not break. The fight continued for about another half hour until they were separated. Each side declared a victory and swore that a return engagement was necessary (Horowitz, 2001, pp. 114-115).
In this account of a fight among members of rival gangs by sociologist Ruth Horowitz, the participants are primarily of Mexican origin and think of themselves as Chicanos and Chicanas. They live in a crowded Chicago neighborhood with a long history of gang activity. In fact, every immigrant group that has settled in the area in the past century has had its gangs of teenagers and young adults. These gangs defend their neighborhood “turf” and function as social groups that give their adolescent members an identity and in some cases prestige.
But in this episode the sociologist is also interested in why the fight broke out when everything seemed so peaceful. After the fight, Horowitz tells us, “Sally was punished by her mother and had to return home by six o’clock for three weeks, but she swore revenge on the young woman who had come to Sally’s park and had ‘intentionally’ tripped her, an act that demonstrated her disdain of sally and her friend” (p. 115). Why, we might ask, did Sally immediately define the situation as an intentional trip?
To answer this question Horowitz used the concept of impression management, which was proposed by one of the best-known analysts of social interaction, Erving Goffman. This phrase refers to behaviors that attempt to “manage” the impressions given to others in order to control their perceptions of a person or event. When you trip over someone’s foot, you can blame the event on crowded conditions or inattention and simply say “Excuse me,” thereby placing blame on the situation rather than on the other person’s intentions.
But to save face for herself and her gang, Sally chose to interpret the trip as intentional. She was then required to defend her honor and that of her gang by acting aggressively. Whether or not she was tripped intentionally, the point is that she did not say “Excuse me” or wait for an apology. She needed to establish her prestige within her gang and in the park, and her impression management depended on fighting.
She was not prepared to “be cool” in this situation. “Coolness,” Horowitz notes, “is the ability to stand back from certain situations and rationally evaluate others’ actions (p. 88). But in adolescent gangs coolness is of no use when others define the situation as one in which a person’s honor is being challenged. Such situations demand an immediate response if one is not to be labeled a “punk” and lose the respect of the other gang members.