The Social Role of Motion Pictures in an Interstitial Area

Paul G. Cressey

The motion-picture project of the Boys' Club Study[1] was first conceived by Dr. Frederic M. Thrasher, director of the Boys' Club Study and of the motion-picture project, as presenting an excellent opportunity for a unique study of the influence of motion pictures upon behavior problems. The project was undertaken primarily because it would be significant to determine the rôle of motion pictures and motion-picture theaters in a delinquency area of a single community where the interrelationships of movies to other influences and to the whole community complex could be investigated. Thus it would be possible to avoid some of the fallacies of a segmental approach to an institution which can best be understood by studying its patrons in their intimate social backgrounds.

'The fact that the community chosen for study was an urban area, parts of which were characterized by relatively high delinquency rates, offered an excellent opportunity for a specific study of the influence of motion pictures upon truancy and delinquency. More important, however, was the fact that the area available for the study was a district served by one of the boys' club units which was to be investigated most intensively.[2] The focusing of both studies in the same area made available to the motion-picture project a vast mass of pertinent data concerning juvenile motion-picture patrons and all phases of community life which otherwise would have been unavailable with-out prohibitive expenditures.

The motion-picture project at New York University,

( 239) therefore, has certain essential characteristics which distinguish it from others in the series. As has already been stated, it is, in the first place, focused upon an area about which there is already available a vast amount of data, including information regarding boy life in the district, the institutional opportunities for play and recreation, informal play life and gang activities, as well as detailed factual data about thousands of individual boys.

Secondly, it is possible, perhaps, for the first time in motion-picture research, to study the child in his natural setting. Instead of considering him apart from the social world of which he is a part, an attempt is being made to study him and his picture habits and attitudes as a part of his normal social world. He is not scrutinized in vacuo but is seen as a dynamic personality interacting with the host of influences and social forces which constitute his normal social milieu.

Thirdly, the methodological difficulties of a complex problem often arising through an emphasis upon but one or two approaches are in part obviated through a multiplicity of methods. At least twenty different methods or techniques have been used in this project. The validity of inferences from anyone or two approaches is thus tested by these other methods.

It is also significant, in the fourth place, that the New York University study is focused upon overt behavior as well as upon attitudes. Research is thus able to proceed upon the basis of objective facts; i. e., the delinquency record and similar data regarding overt behavior. The study of social attitudes, conceptions of life, and philosophies of life occupies a significant place in this research, to be sure, but the inferences which can be drawn from a study of attitudes are supplemented by data on overt behavior.

Finally, it is a basic premise of this project that the re-search sociologist in his study and use of individual cases can well afford to avail himself of the techniques and skills of other experts, especially those of the psychologist, the

( 240) psychiatrist, and the physician. Representing distinctly different training, approaches, and premises, these specialists are able to supply not only much additional insight of value in individual case studies, but also the means for discriminating in part between the atypical case due to hereditary physiological or mental factors and the one which would seem to represent more clearly sociological forces.[3] Efforts were made in this study to correlate the work of psychiatrists and physicians wherever possible; and psycho-logical tests were made available [4] for individuals upon whose case records primary emphasis was placed.

The methods used in this study represent statistical, ecological, and case-study techniques. Through the use of the Hollerith technique [5] the frequency of motion-picture attendance for a large number of boys living, in the area of special study is being related to delinquency records, membership in the boys' club and other recreational institutions, school records, use of the public library, and to social data concerning the boys' families. The preferences of fifteen hundred boys in their choice of photoplays, of favorite actors and actresses are also being related to other data concerning them. The location of each motion-picture theater in this area is being studied with reference to the residences of its patrons and the other ecological and social forces in the community. Photographic studies of theaters, of their methods of advertising photoplays, and of play activities being carried on in close proximity to motion-picture theaters are being developed to complete the picture of the social role of the movies.

The major emphasis, however, is being placed upon various techniques which represent in general the case-study approach. In the role of a participating observer, Dr. R. L. Whitley has made extensive studies of sixty or more

( 241) delinquent or truant boys.[6] In each of these case studies there was an attempt critically and carefully to relate the motion-picture theater and the photoplay experience of the boy to the rather complete picture of his life which was obtained. Another approach involves the use of the life-history technique with delinquent and nondelinquent boys. In addition to the written life history, a new technique was developed: boys were asked to dictate their life histories and their impressions about life, motion pictures, and motion-picture actors to a dictating machine.

While the case-study techniques recorded above have been utilized with profit, it was early recognized that this study would require other methods as well. A distinct effort was made to relate the research not only to attitudes and to impressionistic reports in the life histories of the individuals, but also to overt behavior and to an analysis of comparable groups of delinquents and nondelinquents.

The "controlled-interview" technique, devised and instituted by Dr. Thrasher, is one of several methods developed to meet this requirement. The time required for recall; the extent to which individual boys can recall the names of photoplays, of actors and actresses seen; the content of the boy's "story of the picture"; his account of the "best picture ever seen"; his preference as to type of pictures, of actors, and of actresses is recorded and related to his conduct record. This method for the comparative study of the effect of varying motion-picture experience is regarded as more promising than the study of groups of children manifesting different frequencies of attendance in which reliability depends upon the report of the child. The conceptions of types of life usually pictured in the movies, but infrequently experienced by city boys, are also related to the conduct record of each boy. A standardized interview schedule and interview situation have been maintained. The chief purpose of the controlled interview method is to compare and contrast the motion-

( 242) picture experience as recorded in the interviews of fifty delinquents with those of fifty delinquents.

Another productive method is one which studies not only overt conduct, but even definitely criminal behavior. This involves the cautious use of properly trained and very carefully selected investigators who are able to keep in touch with delinquent groups, with antisocial gangs, and to report upon instances in which techniques of crime or of exploitation or antisocial schemes of life seen in motion pictures have been used by members of such groups in their criminal activities.[7] Thus, conversation of individuals about their antisocial activities and descriptions of their mannerisms, their characteristic verbal expressions, and their ways of rationalizing their conduct have been assembled and related to motion-picture patterns. In this way it has been possible to discover instances in which personality patterns and schemes of life can be seen in terms of either a "good" or a "bad" influence of certain motion-picture experiences.

The attempt to conduct exhaustive socio-analysis of a sampling of the cases of boy delinquency found in the area represents another effort to get at the problem through an emphasis upon overt behavior. Through the courtesy of the officials of institutions for delinquents it was possible to make sociological examinations of approximately seventy-five boys from the area of special study and to collate with them psychological tests and, in many cases, examinations and diagnoses by psychiatrists. The social case records of each boy's family, his school and institutional record, and all other data concerning his neighbor-hood were summarized. Psychological tests were administered and one or more interviews of an hour and a half or more in length were conducted with each boy. A unique factor in these interviews has been the use of exception-ally well-qualified men stenographers [8] to "sit in" and to

( 243) make a verbatim record of each of these interviews. These records, plus the special reports of the psychologist and consulting psychiatrists, constitute the basis for the interpretations which will ultimately be obtained through this method. In each of these interviews an effort was made not only to see the total delinquency pattern of the individual, but also to perceive the exact rôle of the photoplay and the motion-picture theater in problem behavior.

As a corollary to this method it was thought advisable for comparative purposes to use the same procedure in following up outstanding cases outside the area of special study, but within the larger urban area, in which it had been reported that motion pictures were considered a prime factor in delinquency. Thus, newspaper items and the re-ports of social workers, teachers, and school officials were used as a means for locating pertinent cases in which it had been thought that the movies contributed to delinquency.

An intensive study was made of nineteen selected photoplays and of the reactions of boys and young men who had seen these pictures to the photoplay, to the actors and actresses, and to the ideas conveyed by these pictures. Two hundred and thirty-seven interviews, each lasting over an hour in length, have been conducted in this way by especially trained interviewers, well versed in the plots of the photoplays upon which they were specializing. Complete stenographic records of all these interviews have been prepared for comparison and summarization. Finally, group interviews with several boys upon a number of photoplays have been conducted and a verbatim record of all of these has been made by the stenographers.

The present task confronting the motion-picture project of the Boys' Club Study is the synthesis and interpretation of the numerous and varied data now in hand and the eventual addition of any further data necessary for filling in "blind spots" in the total picture. It is expected that this phase of the project will continue until July 1, 1933.[9]


  1. The whole of the September issue of THE JOURNAL was devoted to the methods of the Boys' Club Study of New York University. An article on "Related and Subsidiary Studies" appeared in the November issue. The Boys' Club Study of New York University was financed by a gift of $37,500 by the Bureau of Social Hygiene. The motion-picture project of the Boys' Club Study was financed separately by the Payne Fund.
  2. By the Boys' Club Study of New York University.
  3. For a further development of this point of view, see the articles by R. L. Whitley. "The Case Study as a Method of Research," Social Forces, May 1932, and "Case Studies in the Boys' Club Study," The Journal of Educational Sociology, September 1932.
  4. Pauline P. Tripp, psychologist of the New York House of Refuge, cooperated in the administration of these tests.
  5. See Irving V. Sollins, "The Hollerith Statistical Method," The Journal of Educational Sociology, September 1932.
  6. Op. cit.
  7. All data, of course, are confidential and are not to be used in such a way as to make possible identification of persons.
  8. Through the cooperation of the Emergency Work Bureau of New York City.
  9. Some of the preliminary findings from the research will be published in the April, 1933, number of THE JOURNAL under the title "Motion Pictures and Juvenile Delinquency."

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