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Winter 1999

The Character Question
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Although transgressive behavior may be an inevitable element of the human equation, some researchers have studied its cultural context. UCLA social psychologist M. Belinda Tucker, who teaches in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, believes the dissolution of community is a factor in what she describes as an increase in behavior that is considered outrageous (be it serious crime, forged parking placards or unusual hairdos).

In one of her studies, Tucker found that the rate of interracial marriage was higher among those who moved to the West Coast than those in other communities. Tucker's research seems to indicate that individuals are more willing to participate in behavior that is considered transgressive when away from their native communities. In other words, people behave with much more freedom when they know authority figures aren't peering over their shoulders.

"I remember, when I was growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania, a girl in my church became pregnant but was not married," Tucker says. "She had to go before the deacon board and apologize. That same church also refused to hire a well-regarded local minister simply because he had been divorced. These are examples of some of the public sanctions that don't exist today, an example of how communities attempt to control behaviors."

"Someone who is away at college can do things without repercussions that they couldn't do if they were living in a smaller community, where the same sort of acting out would be punished, or would bring disgrace onto the family," she says.

"Once people become more mobile and move away from highly structured societies, there is less control over behaviors." Tannen echoes Tucker's theory, adding that people are less likely to know their neighbors today than in the past. Offenders are less likely to put a face on those they are offending. That may be especially true for star athletes, according to sociologist Jerry Rabow.

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