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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 .


Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country
William Finnegan

(London: Picador, 1999)
421pp. Index. Pb.: 8.99; ISBN 0-330-37445-1



This is pop social science at its best. Indeed it provides a valuable lesson those of us social scientists churning out incomprehensible jargon-laden journal fodder for imagined audiences. This is an excellent, sympathetic inquiry into a modern social phenomenon in the United States. For the first time in two hundred years, many young Americans face the possibility of poorer economic prospects than the previous generation.

To understand this phenomenon and the personal impact it has on its subjects, William Finnegan, a writer from The New Yorker magazine, picked four case studies. But Finnegan's case studies turn out to be much more than small n variables. Instead, they are real people, families and communities. Over a sustained period, Finnegan befriended young people in four communities: New Haven, Connecticut; San Augustine County, Texas; the Yakima Valley, Washington State; and the Antelope Valley in northern Los Angeles County. Sections of each community faced multiple marginalisation and made up a check-list of social deprivation, economic decline, family disintegration, substance abuse and political alienation.

The author went far beyond in-depth interviews with the young people. He became a regular fixture in their homes, socialising with them, trying to understand their gang culture, talking with their parents (two parent families were an absolute rarity), and making contact with local educators, law enforcement officers and community activists.

Finnegan's access, perseverance and powers of observation make for a remarkable social commentary. At times he is candid that his objective of author neutrality was stretched to the limit. Given his closeness to his subjects, it is not surprising that Finnegan did cross the line on a number of occasions. Once, for example, he funded one subject, a Mexican American just released from prison, to move away from home because of the likelihood that he would become a victim of inter-racial gang violence. Yet, Finnegan resists the temptation to paint his subjects as 'loveable rogues'. He does not offer excuses, nor does he shy away from reporting the violence, drug-dealing, spousal abuse, racism and other unsavoury features of his young subject's lives.

What makes the book particularly relevant for readers of this Digest is the prevailing influence of race, territorial segregation and immigration in all of the marginalised communities under study. One white inhabitant pointed to a map on Finnegan's first day in San Augustine and said "See, all this here...is blacks".(p. 198) An explicit message throughout the book is that many members of America's growing underclass have little faith in very institutions meant to protect them from political and economic disenfranchisement or racial discrimination and violence. More worrying, few have any faith in the power of human agency, whether family or personal, to alleviate their situation.

This is an excellent work. Buy it. Read it.


Roger Mac Ginty,
INCORE - University of Ulster




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