*Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate*

That's the new book by Diego Gambetta and it is the best applied book on signaling theory to date.  Gambetta's task is well summarized by a single sentence:

Given these propensities, one wonders how criminals ever manage to do anything together.

The signaling problems faced by criminals are unusual in the following regard.  On one hand they wish to signal a certain untrustworthiness, namely that they are criminals in the first place.  This is useful for both meeting other criminals and also for intimidating potential victims.  On the other hand, the criminals wish to signal that they are potentially cooperative, for the purpose of working with other criminals.  Sending these dual signals isn't easy and Gambetta well understands the complexity of the task at hand.  As Henry points out, facial tattoos are one particular effective method of signaling that one is a criminal for life.

Here is a passage which I found striking:

…Women are significantly less violent than men in the outside world and less lethal when they are violent.  This holds in all times and places for which relevant data exist.  And yet in prison this universal fact is overturned: women become at least as violent and often more prone to violence than men are.  Although women in prison rarely commit homicide, a large study of Texas prisons by Tischler and Marquart showed that there was no difference between women and men in the incidence of violent episodes.  Table 4.2, based on comprehensive statistics for England and Wales, shows that the gender pattern is even reversed; women assault each other twice as much as men do, and they fight one and half times as much as men do, a result that disconfirms the testosterone hypothesis.

Generally, women are convicted of proportionally fewer violent offenses than men are and have shorter criminal histories, two circumstances that rule out some of the possible selection effects that could explain away the high rates of female prison violence…

Gambetta wonders whether women in prison resort to violence so frequently because they have fewer alternative credible means of signaling toughness.


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