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Critical Perspectives on Gangs  

David C. Brotherton

The majority of studies on youth gangs are in the tradition of positivistic social science. When natural science is taken as the paradigm, a premium is placed on the value neutrality of the observer, the scientific rigor of the methodology, the unpolluted character of the data, and the generalizability of the findings—all with the aim of proving or disproving ideologically free testable hypotheses. In contrast, critical gang studies adopt a different lens that is best suited to the study of subaltern groups whose lifestyles, “habitats,” and characteristics are stigmatized and pathologized by the larger society. Critical gang studies are based on the premise that all social and cultural phenomena emerge from tensions between the agents and interests of those who seek to control everyday life and those who have little option but to resist this relationship of domination. In this way, critical gang studies adopt interpretive, reflexive, holistic, and probing approaches to research, rejecting the penchant for survey-based truth claims and studies whose findings uncritically reflect the race, class, and gendered positions of the investigators. Thus, practitioners of critical gang studies contend that the key to understanding the gang is found in its dialectical relationship between inclusion and exclusion viewed historically and holistically. Therefore, critical gang students create a counter body of knowledge and an alternative methodology to illuminate (over)shadowed spaces of criminalized social action where hope mixes with survival, creativity with accommodation and, resistance with social reproduction. The data on critical gang studies draw from the entire world of gang members, revealing their agency as well as their structured environments, their organizational systems, rites, rituals, performances, ideologies and cultural products. The critical approach places emphasis on the meaning systems of gangs, their changes across time, and the possibilities that lie within their specific subcultural formations. Welcome to critical gang studies!

Article

Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies  

Hugo Goeury

In the mid-1970s, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS), which came to be known as the “Birmingham School,” published two major books that contributed substantially to the field of critical criminology: Resistance Through Rituals (RTR) and Policing the Crisis (PTC). These two groundbreaking and complementary works aimed to contribute to the two main topics of criminological enquiry: deviance/crime and social reaction/punishment. In both cases, the Centre deployed a Marxist-inspired and sociologically driven approach whose main objective was to study both deviance and social reaction from a critical perspective that takes into consideration the broader social, political, economic, and cultural context in which they take place. RTR challenged the dominant discourse of the postwar era, which proclaimed the end of class antagonism and the exhaustion of “class” as a relevant social category. The Birmingham School’s research demonstrated that the many subcultures—punks, mods, teddy boys, rastas, etc. —that flourished in the United Kingdom at the time were not symptomatic, as many argued, of the rise of a “classless youth.” On the contrary, RTR made the case that subcultures are part of a century-long tradition of symbolic, working-class resistance against the hegemonic order. From this perspective, subcultures were seen as an attempt, on the part of working-class youths, to solve the many contradictions of their class experience at a time of broad, multidimensional changes. While the Birmingham School’s work on subcultures was a celebration of working-class resistance and agency, ultimately, it reached the conclusion that this form of resistance, which remained restricted to the symbolic sphere, could not offer a solution to the exploitation and oppression faced by working-class youth, which stemmed from the material, social relations of production of capitalism. While RTR focused on “deviance,” PTC shifted the analysis to the other side of the equation, that of social reaction and punishment. In this second publication, Stuart Hall and his co-authors developed an impressive “conjunctural analysis” approach that allowed them to move from the study of the so-called “mugging crisis” of the United Kingdom in the early 1970s, to the elaboration of their groundbreaking theory on crisis of hegemony and the rise of a new, “law and order society.” PTC is one of the pioneering studies that argued that the rise of “authoritarian populism” and the birth of a “law and order society” that were taking place in the United Kingdom in the 1970s were not temporary phenomena but were representative of a long-lasting change of epoch. More than 40 years after the publication of this seminal work, it leaves no doubt that the Birmingham School’s predictions have been validated, as is corroborated by an extensive literature studying the “punitive turn” that has taken over the globe over the last few decades. Overall, at a time when criminology was becoming increasingly dominated by positivism and disconnected from the sociological tradition, the Birmingham School’s most influential and long-lasting legacy resides in RTR and PTC’s invitation to critically investigate what the CCCS members called the “social and political ‘conditions of existence’” of both deviance/crime and social reaction/punishment.