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Adaptive strategies and underground economies in the 21st century

Randall F. Clemens

Originally posted on November 01, 2011


In 1974, Carol Stack published All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community. The groundbreaking ethnography chronicled the adaptive strategies of poor African American families. Stack provided thick descriptions of women struggling to raise their children. In doing so, she indicted poverty as pathology and inadequate public policies.

Since then, ethnographers have continued to explore adaptive strategies, including underground economies. Sandra Smith’s Lone Pursuit: Distrust and Defensive Individualism Among the Black Poor, for instance, studies the affects of joblessness among African Americans in Michigan. Sudhir Venkatesh’s Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor examines the creative methods residents in the Southside of Chicago use to make money. These books, and many others, illustrate the effects of social inequality on marginalized populations.

But, considering adaptive strategies, what is the role of technology? From my current study, initial findings indicate that teenagers from low-income households are using technology in sophisticated, entrepreneurial ways. I present two snapshots to illustrate my point.


Chuck, a seventeen-year-old senior at a traditional high school in South LA, lives with his grandmother. He has a 1.9 grade point average. He loves skateboarding and dancing. Every few weeks, he invites his “cameraman,” who is also his friend, to tape him as he jerks in the driveway. Chuck, with tattoos covering his arms and chest, moves rhythmically with the music. Afterwards, they upload the video to YouTube. Chuck, who has over 2,300 friends on Facebook, later tells me, “I have my friends advertise for me, especially the girls. It’s important to have a big network.” By the end of the week, the video has over 5,000 hits. Chuck meets his quota. In a few weeks, he will receive shirts and shoes from his sponsor.

Mario, an eighteen-year-old senior at a continuation high school in South LA, lives with his mom and dad. He has a 2.0 grade point average. He loves drawing and tagging. At night, he cleans office buildings with his father. On weekends, he travels from house to house to groom dogs. He received a credential from a local community college. I ask him if he will come out to Culver City: “Yeah, no problem. I’ll go wherever. It’s $10.” Mario also plans and promotes parties. He finds a house, gets a DJ, and then advertises on Facebook. His profile picture is the latest party he’s promoting. I ask how much he makes. “A lot,” he says.


Chuck and Mario receive free or reduced lunch and live in a low-income neighborhood. They are average to below average students. Chuck may gain acceptance to a California State University campus through the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP). Mario, who has not met all of his high school requirements, will have to attend community college or a trade school. By most standards, their academic achievement has been lackluster. And yet, both are digital entrepreneurs. They exploit the creative possibilities of technology to earn goods or money. They re-define adaptive strategies in the 21st century.