Crime, Law, and Social Change 23: 157-162. 1995
Thomas J. Scheff
Criminologists have proposed that patterns of behavior in youthful gangs
can be understood in terms of what they call "the code of the streets,"
as in Anderson (1994). The code is a set of understandings between gang
members which help them meet both their material and emotional needs. In
this essay I describe the codes of academe, the understandings between professors
in gang-like groups that function to fulfill their needs.
Most academics belong to one or another group called "a school of
thought" or a specialty. For example, a large group of academic psychologists
consider themselves to be behaviorists. These academics are loyal to the
strict code of behaviorism which bands them together in thought, feeling
and behavior. In addition to membership in a specialty, all academics are
also members of a super-gang or clan, the discipline. The clan of the behaviorist
gang is the discipline of psychology. Disciplines are the most powerful
units in the university, which is in most ways not a federal system, but
a confederation of sovereign disciplines. Although there are academics who
belong to no gang, all belong to a clan. Training in all cases and workplace
in most takes place in a department, which is always an outpost of a particular
Since the code of academe is generated by the conditions of modern university
life, I believe that it applies equally to all disciplines, the hard, soft,
and non-sciences. Even though the physical and biological sciences are rich
beyond the wildest dreams of the social sciences and the humanities, their
codes and practices are remarkable similar. Somehow in the similarities
of departmental existence, and in the interminable committee work that haunts
the days and dreams of every professor, the torch of gang and clanship has
been passed to most academics, whatever their persuasion.
Just as members of street gangs earn most of their livelihood from theft,
academics gain most of theirs from careers. Being a member in good standing
of a gang and a supergang is crucially important for advancement of one's
career. There is little chance of advancement in the academy without hard
work, but flaunting membership in gang and clan can certainly supplement
or even substitute for talent and intelligence. Clearly and repeatedly showing
one's loyalty to these groups can be most helpful in obtaining research
grants and acceptance of publications, twin lifebloods of the academic career.
Turning out Ph.Ds who are flagrantly loyal to one's gang and clan brings
respect, but is not mandatory.
The relationship between gang membership and career is obvious enough
for most academics. There are rare exceptions in which career advancement
is produced entirely by the originality or importance of one's publications.
Of course talent as a teacher is unrelated, or even negatively related to
advancement. But in the typical instance, one's writing is judged by a jury
of one's peers who are unable or unwilling to recognize originality and
importance, especially if it is expressed in a form that is more complex
or difficult than their own work. They are taking valuable time out of their
busy lives to serve on the jury, and are not liable to spend undue time
with difficult cases.
In the typical case, therefore, gang or clan membership gives rise to
a short circuit around the laborious method of judging each case on its
merit. For advancement and those grants, fellowships and other financially
rewarding projects which require testimonials, one develops a reliable string
of fellow gang members who will give one's self and one's project their
wholehearted endorsement. These endorsements may depend in part on the merit
of the case, but the most powerful determinant is most often a sense of
loyalty to a fellow gang member.
Gangland endorsements may sometimes be given out of a sense of self-gain;
in promoting a fellow gang member, one is also helping one's own cause,
a daisy chain. More usually, the endorser sincerely believes that the candidate
has the stellar qualities endowed in the letter of recommendation; his or
her judgment is more or less obliterated by a fierce sense of loyalty to
the code of the gang.
Many grant applications are judged by an anonymous jury of peers, who
will not recognize the identity of the candidate. But gang and clan membership
plays a role here also. The artful candidate for a grant designs the proposal
in a way that unmistakably signals loyalty to a particular gang or clan.
If you are a member of the psychoanalytic gang, your proposal cites Freud
frequently and fulsomely. This tactic is risk-free if you know that the
jury will be all fellow gang-members. But even if not the case, you can
hope that most of your peers will yield to the judgments of your fellow
gang or clan members who happen to be on the jury, as frequently happens.
The loyalty of academic gang members to each other and to the code of
the gang is easily as fierce as that of street gangs. It is fortunate that
academic gangs use words and not bullets, or the homicide rate would be
at least as high as that of street fighters.
Although the way in which gang membership in the academy functions for
material gain is straightforward, the way it brings emotional rewards is
less clearly understood. In what way does gangland reliably produce feelings
of well-being? To understand this point, it is necessary to realize that
we live in a civilization in which it is difficult to obtain secure and
rewarding relationships to others, even under the best of conditions. The
continuing climb of the divorce rate is one sensitive indication of this
In most of its aspects, the professor's job is an exceedingly lonely
one. The bulk of his or her time is spent alone, conducting research or
writing. Contact with students and colleagues takes up only a small portion
of the daily round, and is usually limited to the business at hand. Meeting
graduate students, who get more frequent and personal attention than other
students, is also mostly business. Although it sometimes occurs in isolated
pockets of friendship, there is little camaraderie in laboratories, libraries
and offices. Without the fellowship of gang and clan, most professors would
be entirely alienated in their work life.
Professorial work is isolating from fellowship in a way that may be quite
unique. The professor's basic task is to discover new and often highly specialized
knowledge. Acquiring such knowledge is not only important for careers, but
in most cases, becomes the central focus of the professor's work life, and
not infrequently, his or her whole life. One's work becomes the key element
in one's identity. Acquiring esoteric knowledge is profoundly and perhaps
unavoidably isolating, since there is seldom any one to share it with. The
more successful the search, the more burdened one is with knowledge that
disconnects one from others, virtually all others. One's publications, like
the strands of Walt Whitman's noiseless patient spider, sometimes find anchors,
but they are few and often far away.
The emotional function of the gang and clan is to remove the crushing
burden of isolation created by esoteric knowledge. Especially in the social
sciences and humanities, there is seldom a clear sense of real world problems
that can serve as a center of communal interest. In essence, academic gangs
and clans create an artificial but highly involving round of problems and
practices that provide a sense of unity among members. Members can hardly
communicate with each other about their individual, specialized interests,
but they can work together in harmony with the problems and diversions of
their gang and clan. These problems and diversions create a community; without
them, stark division and separation.
Given the emotional and material needs of professors, much of what goes
on in teaching and research becomes a ritual whose main focus is on maintaining
gang and clan identity. Given this mesmerizing focus, gang and discipline
rather than real world issues take pride of place. This idea explains most
of the more obvious scandals in the academy, and some that are not so obvious.
It completely explains the shocking distance that most professors maintain
from their students, especially undergraduates. The center of the lecturer's
interest is in problems of his or her specialty and clan, which mean nothing
One example of the intellectual dominance of the clan is provided by
the way in which mathematical models have become the central focus of modern
economics, even though they have proven to be useless in dealing with real
world problems. The absence of empirically verified economic knowledge has
been recently attested by the shockingly bad advice economists gave to Russia
and the other countries formed from what was formerly the USSR and its satellites.
Another example is the continued preoccupation of academic psychologists
with laboratory experiments using a captive audience of undergraduates as
subjects. Although it has long been clear that the kind of knowledge generated
by such studies is useless for educators and clinicians or anybody else,
there is no sign of abatement.
A final example is the current fad of postmodernism, which has swept
over the humanities like a plague. Its originators, authors like Derrida,
demonstrated that if you remove a verbal statement from its context, its
meaning becomes so ambiguous as to be undecidable. This proposition is true
and even important, so long as the clause about context is kept in mind.
It reminds us that verbal expressions in all ordinary languages are multi-valued
and therefore completely context dependent: only artificial languages like
algebra and computer programs are without ambiguity and therefore contextually
The postmodernists, however, have ignored the qualifying clause, generating
a tidal wave of research which assumes that complex verbal statements are
undecidable, which is absurd. Although there are frequent misunderstandings
in ordinary language discourse because of the ambiguity of its verbal parts,
it is also often understood, even if the form of discourse is complex, as
in aphorisms, allegories, and jokes. Capable users of language remove ambiguity
by relating verbal expressions to their context. Postmodernism is a mountain
created without even a molehill. It is a mere conceit, having no basis in
reality or scholarly value.
The premises that form the basis of behaviorism, postmodernism and other
academic gangs, and the reasons for the stark separation between the disciplines,
are usually so transparently trivial or absurd that they suggest a linkage
to emotional needs. The more absurd the premise, the clearer that membership
is a matter of sheer loyalty, rather than meeting pragmatic or material
needs. Gang and clan members are therefore assured of each other's loyalty
regardless of how the perspective promoted by the gang fares in the real
The disgrace that has befallen world communism with the dissolution of
the USSR and the Eastern Bloc has left the academic gang of Marxists unscathed.
Few of them have so much as blinked at the ignominy that has fallen on their
perspective. Security for one's attachments is not easy to come by in our
age. The divorce rate for professors is highest in their social class. In
a world where secure attachments to others are tenuous at best, the gang
and clan member's loyalty hovers on being eternal.
The isolation imposed on professors by their search for specialized knowledge
may explain why so much of gang and clan identity is negative in character.
Physicists like to say that there are only two kinds of chemists: physical
chemists and stinking chemists. Professors of the humanities pride themselves
that they are not tasteless and insensitive like scientists. The power in
the social sciences resides in the quantitative, number-crunching wing;
quantitative social scientists take consummate pains to demonstrate that
they are not soft like the humanists. Sociologists are not sure of what
their subject consists in, but they are quite certain what it is not: psychological.
They abide by "structural" (collective) approaches, and dismiss
any attempt to include psychological elements as "reductionist."
These terms have little real rationale or even meaning; they are no more
than emblems of loyalty to the clan.
If group loyalty and attachment is the main emotional satisfaction found
in gang membership, then negative identities make sense. For a gang or clan
to attempt a positive definition of their identity risks wholesale divisiveness
and disunity, because of each professor's quest for specialized knowledge.
Bashing, and much worse, ignoring other gangs and clans is a risk-free way
of maintaining unitary groups.
In this atmosphere, academic jargon plays a central role in signaling
loyalty to the gang or clan. Some terminology is based on thin air, having
no empirical foundation whatever. Psychoanalytic concepts like id and superego
have never been defined, neither by Freud nor by any of his followers. Their
usage as vague and flexible metaphors continues to confuse both writer and
reader, but has a life of its own. The system of diagnostic classification
created by the American Psychiatric Association has been shown to be arbitrary
and without scientific basis, but little complaint has been raised against
it by academic psychiatrists. These classifications are elaborate fictions
which function almost entirely as testaments to gang and clan loyalty.
The long survival of the Linnaean system of classification in botany
is a more subtle example of jargon whose function is mostly a signal of
loyalty. This system is entirely descriptive and atheoretical, based only
on the outer appearance of plants, rather than a theory uniting form and
function. (The periodic table of the elements, since it is based on atomic
theory, is a counter-example). For this reason, every major discovery of
new species rattles the entire scheme. It has been long noted that traditional
reified classifications are unduly attractive to academicians. Perhaps their
role as badges of loyalty to the gang and clan explain their durability.
Is there any way out of the morass of gangdom and clandom? The problem
is not an easy one, since gang and clan loyalties are so closely tied to
members' identities. Perhaps one direction would be to train future professors
in a broader way, paralleling contemporary reforms in medical education.
Stretching graduate training to include both interdisciplinary and a general
education could have a both an emotional and an intellectual benefit. Such
a move might allow professors to talk to each other across specialties and
disciplines, and even have a word or two for students and the general public.
Cross-talk of this kind would lessen the alienation that makes gangs and
clans all but irresistible.
Broadening graduate education might also have an intellectual benefit.
We are in an era of hyperspecialization, in which professors know more and
more about less and less. As most of the important discoveries in our time
have shown, hyperspecialization is intellectually as well as emotionally
crippling: The Double Helix (Watson 1980) should be required reading for
all graduate students, not just those in biology. Dispersing academic gangs
may be a more difficult problem than dealing with street gangs, because
it is hidden, but it can't hurt us to at least discuss it openly.
Anderson, Elijah. 1994. The Code of the Streets. Atlantic Monthly, April.
Watson, John. 1980. The Double Helix. New York: Norton.