An analysis of Carjacking Streetlife and Offender Motivation


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For several reasons, including improved vehicle security and hence increased difficulty in perpetrating more traditional forms of vehicle theft, the incidence of carjacking has increased significantly in recent years in both the United States and Europe, but the offence remains 'under-researched and poorly understood' (Jacobs, Topalli and Wright, 2003).

'Carjacking' is a non-legal term used to describe the taking of an occupied car by the use or threat of force, frequently using a weapon of some kind. Legally 'carjacking' amounts to an offence of robbery, which is simply a theft from a person by the use or threat of force.

The article describes a research study in St Louis in the United States in which a sample of 'active' carjackers were interviewed to provide a better understanding of their motivation and offence-specific decision making, and, ultimately, to place such offending in a broader 'street culture' setting.

The preliminary stage of the research was literature-based but this revealed little of direct relevance to the research project. It showed that other forms of robbery were primarily motivated by hopes of immediate financial gain, which did not appear to be the case with carjacking. Police and national data bases did provide some aggregate information of interest, specifically that carjacking offences seemed to be highly concentrated in 'space and time', namely at night in the inner city. Databases also revealed that weapons were used in a large majority of cases - up to 78% - over a third of victims were injured during attacks. However, apart from one study based on imprisoned carjackers (Fisher 1995) none of the literature, academic or official, provided any understanding of the motivation and offence-specific decision-making of carjackers. Fisher's sample was considered as possibly non-representative, being based on unsuccessful carjackers, so the researchers sought to construct a more representative, non-incarcerated, sample to provide answers to their research questions about motivation and decision-making.

The main focus of the research was informal, semi-structured interviews with a sample of 28 African-American 'active' carjackers living in St Louis, Missouri. Active carjackers were defined as having committed two or more carjacking offences in the past year and who had not given up offending. The participants were paid $50 each and were recruited by a local criminal whom the authors had previously used to gather respondents. The authors admitted that the sample was not large and that they had adopted a 'fairly liberal inclusion criteria' but defended this on the grounds that carjacking is a 'rare offence'.

Each interviewee assigned themselves a street 'moniker' to ensure anonymity and was asked to describe their most recent carjacking event. Follow up questions focused on motivation, target selection and decision-making. There was a high level of co-operation and a 'remarkable amount of agreement' between interviews. The researchers attempted to avoid distortion and embellishment by repeat interviewing.

Overall, the researchers were confident in their findings with regard to both representativeness and generalisation.

Mention has already been made of the literature-search findings relating to the concentration of carjacking offences with regard to place and time. No further information is given regarding the characteristics of the neighbourhoods in which carjacking takes place which might have been useful, and the fact that all 28 carjackers were African-Americans cannot be taken as a certain indication that carjacking is principally an offence committed in African-American neighbourhoods. A lack of interviewees from different ethnic backgrounds is not surprising given the background and contacts of the recruiter.

Perhaps the main finding of the survey itself is that carjacking occurs in the context of pressures exerted by the urban street culture that provides the background influences and shapes the lives of urban street criminals. As Jacobs et al (2003) put it: 'this decision (to carjack) is activated, mediated and shaped by participation in urban street culture'.

The urban street culture in which the sample of carjackers lived valued spontaneity, hedonism, maintenance of honour and ostentatious display of wealth, similar to the Puerto-Ricans described in Bourgois' In Search Of Respect. Reckless spending and a hedonistic lifestyle fuelled a constant need for new financial means, satisfied by the interviewees by carjacking. Carjacking effectively 'bankrolls' the street life of the carjacking interviewees, although the offence was sometimes committed even when they had sufficient funds at the time. As 'Little Ty' put it, 'you can never have enough money'. In the main, money obtained from carjacking was used to intensify the partying lifestyle, which meant that any gains were soon spent and so the cycle of steal, spend, steal continued.

The research also identified the subjective decision making factors which propelled offenders from an unmotivated state into one of direct offending action.

Interviews with offenders illustrated the extent to which carjacking is an opportunistic crime (although a minority of offenders/offences did show some degree of planning and organisation involving the use of informants). Carjacking is an especially opportunistic crime because the target is uniquely mobile. Instant decisions and quick action is necessary for successful carjacking. This can often mean there isn't time for the individual to rationally weigh up the pros and cons, and so emotional impulsiveness plays a larger role.

The researchers identified some of the 'cues' that determined carjackers decisions to attack particular vehicles. Sound systems and expensive wheels were frequently identified, although experienced carjackers developed a 'perceptual shorthand' which enabled them to make instant decisions in pressure situations.

The maintenance of honour is an important aspect of street culture and provides the background motivation for another key decision cue. An affront to respect was a major factor in the decision to attack a particular car. 'Flossing', or the showing off material possessions, is important in street culture because it is, 'widely understood as both a put down and provocation' (Jacobs et al, 2003), and carjacking provides the perfect punishment for 'deserving victims'. Snake provides the best summary: 'you floss it too much you get [carjacked].'

The research also identified the 'sensual dynamics' that underlay the act of carjacking. The offence is defined by its all-action nature, its accompanying dangers and its thrilling adrenaline surge described by carjacker 'Tall'. Many carjackers especially enjoyed the 'sport' of instilling panic and fear into victims, and in turn 'floss' in the hijacked car to reassert status and respect. The carjacked vehicle is both a means to generate the finances to party and a means of continuing the party, in other words, it becomes an end in itself.

The use of semi-structured ethnographic interviews and anonymity appears to be a sound and effective manner of conducting research of this kind. However, there are some questionable aspects about how they constructed their sample and whether it was truly as representative as they claimed.

The authors have attempted to shed light on a form of criminality that is increasingly prevalent but relatively 'under-researched and poorly understood' (Jacobs et al, 2003).

Choosing to explore the mindsets and decision making of active carjackers provides a useful insight into the motivation of offenders.

However, the decision to use a street criminal as a recruiter is both methodologically and ethically debatable, despite his previous record of reliability. Similarly paying interviewees in this particular context, where participants enjoy an 'easy come, easy go' attitude to money and display no scruples in how they obtain it, also appears to be risky in terms of truthfulness and reliability. Their attempts to ensure this through a process of re-interviewing three carjackers gave the researchers some assurance about the overall quality of the data and about the representativeness of their findings, even though a few interviewees may have lied or embellished their stories. Some checking of their accounts against police records and victims might have provided additional, more convincing, assurance.

However, given their early and understandable decision not to rely on incarcerated carjackers for their sample, Jacobs et al were faced with some difficult methodological and ethical issues in constructing their sample and deciding their research methods. Overall, it can be argued that they solved most of these problems to produce a useful and informative piece of research.

Overall, the conclusion that carjacking occurs and is shaped by urban street culture, and that participants are spurred into carjacking by their perceived needs, desires and opportunities appears to be well supported by the evidence in the article and to conform to similar research findings about street crime. In short, the conclusions ring true and make sense.


Fisher, R., 1995. Carjackers: A Study of Forcible Motor Vehicles Thieves among New Commitments. National Institute of Justice/NCJRS abstracts databse.

Jacobs, B. A., Topalli, V. and Wright, R., 2003. Carjacking, Streetlife and Offender Motivation. British Journal of Criminology, 43(4), pp. 673-688

Bourgois, P., 2002. In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio. Cambridge University Press

Write critically and sociologically on the importance of the concept of 'edgework' for our understanding of the construction of deviant identities.

Risk taking conceptualised as 'edgework' was first analysed and described by Lyng (1990). Lyng went beyond earlier work in this area, which had looked at high risk sports and occupations, by defining risk taking as a form of exploring, stretching and/or pushing the boundaries, or 'edges' of what was socially acceptable. Sociologically, this approach offers the possibility of answering the question of why would anyone risk their lives when there are no material rewards at stake (Lyng, 2005).

The clear answer for Lyng is that people are drawn to take extreme risks by the 'intensely seductive character of the experience itself' (Lyng, 2005). Skydivers see themselves as being in control of potentially chaotic events and experience in their edgework' a kind of self-realisation, a purified and magnified sense of self. In short, they do it for the fun of it (Lyng, 1990). This chimes with George Mallory's famous answer in 1923 when asked why on earth he wanted to climb Mount Everest. "Because it's there," he replied. The idea of risk taking for fun will be considered again shortly in the context of high risk criminal offending and deviancy in general.

Lyng argued that risk taking as 'edgework' could be explained in two different ways. Firstly, edgework as an escape from the institutional constraints of modern society, and the second as an adaptation to the unique pressures of modern post-industrial society, and that this 'push and pull' phenomenon was not necessarily mutually exclusive. (Lyng 2005)

The notion that risk taking is used as an escape from social and institutional constraints was explored by Katz, who developed it to include the concepts of 'self transcendence' and resistance to social norms and accepted values (Katz 1988). Katz looked at what he called the 'foreground' of offences, rather than their social context or background, and argued many criminals, across a wide range of offence categories, were motivated by the 'sensual immediacy' of the criminal act. Rather than being motivated by financial gain or the exercise of power, the traditional explanations of crime, Katz claimed that the attraction of crime was the rewards of the experience itself. He found that criminals were actually elated by using violence and by engaging in other consciously deviant behaviour. Shoplifting was perceived as thrilling and the 'buzz' was a greater reward than possession of stolen items. For Katz, structural, environmental and rational influences on crime and deviant behaviour were secondary to the importance of individual emotions such as fear, exhilaration, arrogance and excitement. Katz also looked at some forms of white-collar crime and argued that privileged offenders often engaged in offences like fraud and insider-trading as a form of edgework and thrill seeking.

The 'buzz' of high risk crime, of edgework, offered something that for most offenders was not available in their daily lives, whether they were on the lower margins of society or the 'respectable' middle classes. Criminal edgework allowed them to overcome the conventiality and mundanity of everyday life. Even minor offending such as shoplifting or minor criminal damage can be symbolically important and exhilarating, argues Katz (1988).

Other studies have focussed on the link between risk taking/edgework and other forms of deviancy. Ferrell (2005) considered the relationship between edgework and anarchism, and 'mined a rich body of ethnographic data' in support of the link. (Lyng 2005). Ferrell (1995) identified links between risk taking and urban graffiti and Hamm (2004) explored the links with criminal activity in general. Peretti-Watel and Moatti (2006) looked at deviant drug use and risk taking. They concluded that deliberate risk taking in this area may be what they termed 'innovative deviance' - a response to the difficulties of conforming to the dominant culture. This concept ties in with Katz's notion of risk taking as transcendence or resistance to social norms. Not all drug taking is 'innovative deviance'. Becker (1953) researched the different stages of cannabis use development and found that the main reasons for a 'beginner' to advance to an 'occasional user' or 'regular user' was whether the individual enjoyed the effects. Linked to this was his peers' ability to demonstrate proper techniques and produce the desired effect. Becker also found that all his 50 interviewees from different backgrounds had a positive stance on the drug. 'Until a negative case is found, it may be considered as an explanation of all cases of marihuana use for pleasure' (Becker, 1953). This shows that certain drug use is not done in order to be purposefully rebellious or deviant but for pleasure, similar to drinking alcohol. It is society's non-tolerance of drugs that forces these users into their 'deviant' subcultures. As illegal methods are needed in order to obtain it, users prefer to stay within their groups as to not cross paths with law enforcement and mainstream society.

Research in St Louis, United States, into the high risk offence of carjacking confirmed the argument that extreme deviant behaviour was frequently motivated by what Katz (1988) termed 'sensual immediacy'. As one carjacker, 'Mo', said, 'It's a lot of fun'. One offender with the street moniker of 'Tall' described the adrenaline surge he got from dragging one driver from his vehicle. Edgework, offending with high risk outcomes, was for these street offenders an end in itself and a means of both escaping from and resisting the constraints of conformist society. (Jacobs, Topalli and Wright 2003)

There have been some criticisms of the edgework concept, especially as used by Lyng in his original account in 1990. Miller (1991) first articulated the complaint that Lyng dealt exclusively with male, middleclass edge workers within the formal economy and that issues relating to race, ethnicity, gender and social class were 'glossed over'. Others have argued in the same vein, including Chan and Rigatos (2002) and Walklate (1997), both in respect of the links between crime and risk taking/edgework. These criticisms are reviewed by Laurendeau in an article in the Canadian Journal of Sociology (2006) reviewing the 2005 book edited by Lyng - Edgework: The Sociology of Risk Taking. Laurendeau argues that, although Lyng attempts to deal with these criticisms by devoting the first part of the book to edgework in group variations covering gender, age and class, he still does not really deal with the criticism effectively. Important differences are still glossed over and commonalities shared by edgeworkers seem emphasised instead.

Applying this criticism to the research into carjacking by Jacobs, Topalli and Wright (2003) it can be argued that while Lyng's original thesis can be applied to offenders living at the margins of formal society, some stretching of the argument has to be made to accommodate these outsiders.

In conclusion, edgework is hugely important sociologically and even more so in relation to the understanding of how and why deviant identities are formed.

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