Introduction: The Problem with Environmental Cues

You probably know or have at least heard of places which have “bad reputations.” You don’t even have to go to those areas because you already know they are bad places: places where you could be robbed, mugged, or even killed. When you drive near those areas you can see the signs of that danger and you confirm this knowledge time and time again.

But do you really know this place?

In fact, have you even talked with the people who work or reside in this place? What do they have to say about it?

Could you be wrong with what you believe?

The answer to the third question is the point I am most interested in. In fact, more often than not, you are probably correct in your summation; there are indeed dangerous places in our world and we want to avoid them. However, sometimes the knowledge you use to identify those areas may be at odds with those “insiders” who actually reside there. That is, as an outsider, the way you view an environment may contrast significantly with the way that an insider views it.

Our judgments are based upon our culture. Simply put, culture is the way that we learn everything and it filters our perception significantly. In fact, the culture that we acquire in our lifetime can alter our perception so much that two people who see the same situation may define that situation quite differently. For example, Elizabeth Loftus in her research examining eyewitness testimony has shown how people can see different things in crime videos, mostly by priming the eyewitness. That is, by bringing out salient points ahead of time, the person who views an event will be more likely to key in on specific cues rather than the entire scene. As a result, the brain will fill in details that are missed, and most likely people will be prone to fill in details that are culturally relevant. Have you learned that black men are dangerous and always carry a knife? You may be more prone to identify a black man as the culprit and he had a knife when in fact the man was white and had no weapon.

Humans spend a lot of time interpreting their surroundings, perhaps at a basic level attempting to identify fight or flight when encountering situations. For generations, our culture has provided a template to use to keep us alive. It you live within the parameters of your culture, then you are more likely to live successfully, procreate, and continue your family line. Thus, the foods, rituals, mores that are embraced by one’s culture provide a world of predictability in order to ensure survival across generations.

Yet, culture also constrains people. Culture itself is composed of complex rule-like structures which influence strategic use of the environment to negotiate it as well as to attain desired resources and outcomes; that is, people use culture in strategic decision-making. Culture can constrain people limiting the shaping of strategies to meet desired resources or ends. This is due to how one’s culture impacts ones schemata – representations of knowledge and information-processing mechanisms – in simplifying cognition by biasing thought. Thus, culture is the means by which we learn and transmit knowledge from generation to generation, all of which is coded symbolically. Understanding the meaning of those codes thus provides insight to social processes (see Pierre Bourdieu. 1990 [1980]. “Structures, Habitus, Practices.” In The Logic of Practice, Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 52-65; Paul DiMaggio. 1997. “Culture and Cognition.” Annual Review of Sociology, 23, pp. 263-287; Antonio Gramsci. 1990. “Culture and Ideological Hegemony.” In Culture and Society: Contemporary Debates, ed. J. Alexander and S. Seidman. New York: Cambridge University Press. Bourdieu, 1990).

In any given setting, our environment is loaded with signs, all of which have codes. For example, there are multiple signs in the coffee shop that I am sitting in while writing this. The most obvious sign of course is the sign that pulled me in here which identifies the place as a coffee shop. There are signs which indicate how much money it will cost to purchase items. Those are the obvious signs. But then there are signs encoded to the way that space is utilized. For example, the place I chose to sit conforms to my own culturally more: I am sitting at a small table because the place is moderately busy, even though there were larger tables available where I could have spread out my books. Also, I chose this table because, where I to need to step away, my laptop would remain under surveillance. However, were I to sit near an exit, I would not wish to leave the laptop as it becomes more available to potential thieves. The places that people choose to sit also tell me a bit about what is going: in some corners are college students completing assignments and studying; the people wearing business suits and checking their blackberry phones are conducting business, etc. Ultimately, by scanning the space of the coffee shop, I can be aware of where I should sit, what purpose I have being here, and how I should behave while I am here. This is due to the way that I interpret the environment, which is based on my culture.

Imagine instead a person enters the coffee shop who has never been in one, does not speak English, and is seeking a place of employment. That person would have a great deal of difficulty interpreting the environment. He would not be able to read the signs – both the signs that describe the items for sale and the social signs – and he may become distressed. This may, thus, lead to a flight response for the lost person since he has no frame of reference to use to interpret this new environment.

Using environmental cues can be precarious when attempting to interpret the environment because of the issue of culture. For example, once while working on an assignment, I came upon several abandoned cars in a back alley on the south side of Milwaukee. I actually had a couple of “frames of reference” to use to interpret what I was seeing. First, being raised in a middle-class neighborhood, I knew that abandoned cars were dealt with quickly since they were considered to be an environmental hazard. Second, when I was stationed in the Army in Hawaii, I was responsible for a time to remove abandoned vehicles from Schofield Barracks. I made the initial interpretation that the abandoned cars that I was seeing were in fact a sign of blight and I wondered why the residents were allowing them to remain. I continued walking in the area and a few blocks later I came upon an old Chevy van which was loaded with myriad car parts. A man – Latino – was opening the back door of the van and I observed him rummaging through some of the parts. He found what he needed and closed the door. I walked up to the man and asked him if he owned the van. He told me – surprisingly – that this was a communal car parts storage area. Anyone in the neighborhood who had extra parts could leave them in the van and then look for parts for their cars. And, it turned out, the same thing was true of the abandoned cars that I found. Some residents would buy salvage vehicles, take parts off as needed, and then remove the cars once they were no longer useful for parts. I had initially believed the area was falling into social disorganization, when in fact, the area was full of social cohesion. It just looked different from what I expected based on my cultural frame of reference.

Sometimes, then, those simple things that James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling presented in 1982 as signs of disorder can in fact be wrong. This is extremely relevant given the prevalence of the broken windows thesis and its adoption by police agencies. I don’t disagree with the contention that disorder can denigrate the vitality of a neighborhood, but what I draw caution upon is the interpretation of environmental cues by social control agents because, more often than not, these agents are outsiders; they do not possess the proper cultural schemata to interpret the environmental cues correctly.

In future blogs, I intend to discuss in more detail the problem of culture and the examination of environmental cues. I contend that we need to learn more about cues and the way that they may inhibit or promote social behavior. Peter K. St. Jean, for example, provides evidence that signs of disorder don’t necessarily factor into criminals’ desire to break the law. There are other elements that they consider, such as the way the environmental space is structured and the ability to hide. Elijah Anderson in Code of the Street suggested that behaviors that outsiders may witness as hostile are actually means to maintain social order. In other words, culture can distort reality, and I think we need to pay closer attention to this.


About Scott Canevit

PHD student at UW-Milwaukee in Urban Studies. View all posts by Scott Canevit

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