Thursday, January 29, 2009

Social Science Research that Matters--First Names and Crime: Does Unpopularity Spell Trouble? or Ghetto Names Will Get You Put In Jail

I love social science research that matters. Moreover, I love social science that allows me to imagine the researchers twisting their collective mustaches, having a laugh, and finding a way to use data driven quantitative approaches to have a joke at the expense of a given group.

Thus, the genesis for David E. Kalist and Daniel Y. Lee's article "First Names and Crime: Does Unpopularity Spell Trouble?" Alternatively, the article (which appeared in the Social Science Quarterly) could actually be entitled, "Are Ghetto Names Correlated With Making Poor Life Choices and Ending Up in Jail?"

Let the firestorm begin. I am a self-professed expert on ign't culture, and have taken the ghetto name phenomenon in stride. Thus, my relative indifference to the obvious connections between structural disadvantage, social capital, and ign't naming practices. But, this piece is too juicy a bit of bait to resist. A suggestion: as you read the following excerpts substitute "ghetto" for "unpopular..."

Some choice excerpts from the article:

1. Objective. "We investigate the relationship between first name popularity and juvenile delinquency to test the hypothesis that unpopular names are positively correlated with crime. Conclusions. Unpopular names are likely not the cause of crime but correlated with factors that increase the tendency toward juvenile delinquency, such as a disadvantaged home environment and residence in a county with low socioeconomic status."

2. "However, none of the studies investigated the possibility of a correlation between names and crime. To the best of our knowledge, Figlio (2007) is the only research that studies the relationship between names and disruptive behavior. He finds that, especially for blacks, boys with names commonly given to girls are more likely to be suspended from school."

3. "For example, if people with unpopular names in the population are more likely to have criminal histories, employers, renters, and others may avoid transacting with these applicants a statistical discrimination explanation. This study also has potential implications for identifying youths who may engage in disruptive behavior or relapse into criminal behavior."

4. "We add to the literature on first names by finding, regardless of race, a positive correlation between unpopular first names and juvenile delinquency."

5. "We show that unpopular names are associated with juveniles who live in nontraditional households, such as female headed households or households without two parents. In addition, juvenile delinquents with unpopular names are more likely to reside in counties with lower socioeconomic status."

6. "Gyimah-Brempongand Price (2006), for example, use the Scrabble score of a person’s first name as a tangential explanatory variable (their key independent variables measure skin hue) in regressions trying to explain age at incarceration and length of sentence. In the majority of their specifications, a higher Scrabble score is associated with either an increased hazard of criminal activity or a longer sentence."


Some questions and thoughts:

1. Is this piss poor social science research? Or is this groundbreaking and valuable work?

2. Is it the chicken or the egg? What came first? Ghetto underclass behavior and criminality or the ghetto name? Is this correlation or causation?

3. What about poor white trash? How do the names common to Appalachia or the "Meth Belt"--the new "Bible Belt"--fit into this model?

4. What of outliers? I know a great many people with "unpopular," "unconventional," or "ghetto" names who are attorneys, doctors, professors and the like. Or are they exceptions to the rule? Should we instead focus on the meaty part of the distribution?

5. The popularity of names change over time. For example, names like Esther, Gertrude, Birtha, and Pearl were common in the 1900s but are relatively uncommon at present. How does the dynamic nature of naming practices fit into this story? And, what is a "black" name anyway? Anticipating the answer: please, don't introduce that black creative naming practice mess as a valid response.

6. We know that names influence both life choices and life chances. A study by researchers at the University of Chicago demonstrated that those with "black" names, even with superior credentials such as an MBA, suffered hiring discrimination when competing with White job applicants who were felons. More generally, names impact career choices, thus the over-representation of people with the last name "Law" in the legal profession. Being provocative, is it unethical to give a child an unpopular name? Is it even more unethical to give a Black child a "ghetto name" in a society where said child already has to contend with racism?

7. Related thought: if names influence life choices, are those young black men with "ghetto names" more likely to be athletes or hip hop artists? More importantly, are they more likely to see those careers as their destinies and a natural fit for their life trajectories?

8. Here is a complication. Can we assume a universal standard for "normal" or "popular names?" What if in a given community the "ghetto name" is the most popular and most normal name? Those children then have a type of local social capital and prestige (especially if the name is really "unique"). In this scenario those people with "normal" names, i.e. the John's, Mike's, and Robert's of the world are picked on for being different. Does this latter group then go on to commit more crime because of the damage to their self-esteem? Or do they get the hell out of their ign't community and use their "name advantage" to move up in the world?

9. Additional thought, does all this conversation about "ghetto" and "normal" names really make you think about how there may really be two nations in this country, separate, hostile, and unequal? More frightening, that there are some communities where you can have local social capital, but none of that social capital transfers outside of a five block radius?

10. How do ethnically specific or religiously specific names factor into this story? How does a history changing moment impact naming practices? On this point, one can only imagine the plague of little Obama's we will see in a few years...most of whom will never reach achieve a tenth of the great accomplishments of their namesake.

11. You have to laugh at the Scrabble Score Index. I guess our favorite car stealing ign't youth Latarian Milton is in real trouble!

12. What is your best/worst or most interesting "unusual," "unpopular," or "ghetto" name story? I have several. One would be Gordon's tale about seeing a young woman on the bus with the name "Fellatia" (the feminine version of fellatio I guess) emblazoned on the back of her track jacket. Mine would be either a young student I taught several years ago who happened to be from a lower socioeconomic background. What was her name? It was "Supreme Court"-her parents were thinking ahead. A close tie would a young boy I tutored in a reading program whose name was Yvonne. What is so interesting about the name Yvonne? It was pronounced "Why-von-ee."


Torrance Stephens - All-Mi-T said...

That is no way science nor scientific, whats next, folk who names begin with t are more likely to be rapist dang folk

Louis A. Willis said...


MilesEllison said...

JohnWilkes Booth
LEE Harvey Oswald
Charles Gateau
William Hinckley
Mark David Chapman

Ghetto names?

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Per #3, guys with three names, (John Wayne Gacy, James Earl Ray, Lee Harvey Oswald etc.) seem to find their ways onto the police blotter in disproportiante numbers, especially if one of the names is "Lee." The trend among rural folk these days seems to be awful names that start with the letter K. (Kayden, Kody etc.)

elle said...

" On this point, one can only imagine the plague of little Obama's we will see in a few years...most of whom will never reach achieve a tenth of the great accomplishments of their namesake."

Man, I can see it know:
"What happened to Obama? haven't seen him around lately".
" He got thrown in the state penn again,nother drug charge."
" And his brother Barack?"
" I think he got shot over a turf beef"
"No, I mean his other brother named Barack"
"Oh him, he's still in the state pen on a gun charge"