Reputation vs. Reality

Sociologist William J. Chambliss made some rather convicting and compelling discoveries about the disparity between social reputation and behavior in his case study of the two Hanibal High School gangs: the Saints and the Roughnecks. Essentially Chambliss’ findings were as follows. The Saints were a gang that came from wealthier families and were involved in many extracurricular activities. The Roughnecks came from the other end of the economic spectrum. Sports were the extent of their extracurricular involvement. Both gangs showed comparable levels of delinquent behavior. However since the Saints had money and means of transportation they were able to largely remove themselves from public view. The Roughnecks on the other hand had little choice but to congregate in the center of town in plain view of the general public. Also the Saints were very good at impression management at school and in the community. They knew what to say to authority figures to make them think that they were really good upstanding young men. The Roughnecks either lacked the desire or social skill (perhaps both) necessary to manage their reputations as the Saints did.

The reputations of these two gangs seemed to be the deciding factor in how they were treated by the community. Teachers and Police Officers alike were inclined to give the Saints the benefit of the doubt while they expected failure and misconduct from the Roughnecks.

After high school the members of the two gangs for the most part lived up to the expectations of the community. All but one of the Saints graduated and went on to higher education. Many later practiced law or medicine and grew wealthy. Some of the Roughnecks graduated high school and only a few went on to higher education (mainly due to athletic scholarships). They found low paying jobs in the work world and a few even went to prison for violent crimes.

Such findings compel us to wonder how much of our life’s course is determined by our reputations and what is consequently expected of us. As social beings does something compel us to fill the roles that others say we are slated for? If the Roughnecks had been treated with the same leniency and if the community had assumed the best of them, would they have gone on to be more successful in life or were their fates predetermined to a certain degree by their economic status?


Chambliss, William. 1973. “The Saints and the Roughnecks”. Pp.180-194 in Down to earth sociology. J.M. Henslin (Ed.). New York: The Free Press/Macmillan.


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