Gangs, Marginalised Youth and Social Capital

January 14, 2010

In the early 1970s, a sociologist using the pseudonym James Patrick published a book that he researched by going undercover in Glasgow's tough inner-city housing schemes and participating in the everyday worlds of local "hard men". Patrick documented a thriving gang underworld defined by a traditional working-class masculine culture of threat, violence and intimidation.

Much has changed in Glasgow since Patrick conducted his study; as with other northern port cities in the UK, the city's economic and cultural life has been profoundly affected by deindustrialisation and the influx of new migrant groups. A Glasgow Gang Observed, the title of Patrick's 1973 book, continues to be commonly cited by criminologists, especially scholars currently engaged in debating the apparent rise in weapon-carrying and gang violence involving young people in the UK. I was therefore intrigued and excited by the prospect of a new and up-to-date reading of "the gang problem" in Glasgow. So does Ross Deuchar deliver?

The book is based on a study of 50 teenagers; male and female, 12 of them refugees and all of them growing up in the most deprived areas of the city. Deuchar found his sample via secondary schools and voluntary sector youth and community projects, and then interviewed them about their perception of local gangs and how gang violence affected their everyday lives.

Reflecting his academic interests in community education and youth work, Deuchar's overarching concern is with social capital and its relationship with young people's experiences of marginalisation and their involvement in gang culture. Consequently, the thrust of his study is to examine the resources young people need to maximise their chances of resisting "the gang". Those most likely to reject the gang, according to Deuchar, are young people who have been offered the opportunity to engage in "civic participation", via involvement in school, community or leisure-based initiatives, notably football programmes.

If you are looking for a book that focuses on solutions to the "gang problem" and how to re-engage marginalised, disenfranchised young people, then this book will be of value. Few studies of urban street violence in the UK, or the US for that matter, have taken this policy-focused approach. Deuchar presents a useful evaluation of a range of programmes aimed at supporting those "at risk of becoming a NEET" (a young person not in education, employment or training) and initiatives designed to divert young people away from "the lure of the gang". He should also be commended for his thoughtful and engaging examination, in chapters five and six, of processes of racism and sectarianism, the latter specific to Glasgow's cultural heritage, and his analysis of their impact on the everyday lives of the young people he interviewed.

Deuchar is skilled at interviewing young people and he presents the accounts of those in his sample with empathy and a clear commitment to defending their corner. However, relying only on the interview method and not venturing out of the school or youth work setting meant that unlike his predecessor, he did not dig deep enough with this book. I wanted to learn more about the violent street worlds that these young people inhabit. I wanted to gain a deeper, more theoretically informed understanding of how they construct "their territory" and to appreciate how the gang, and gang-related violence, is enacted or resisted within the lived environment.

This book makes a useful contribution to the lively debate that is developing in British criminology among scholars researching and writing in this area. Although Deuchar is writing for practitioners and policymakers rather than theoreticians, this book would nevertheless have packed more of a punch had the author presented a critical reading of "the gang", gang culture and young people's narratives of violence and victimisation.

Gangs, Marginalised Youth and Social Capital

By Ross Deuchar. Trentham Books. 192pp, £17.99. ISBN 9781858564449. Published 30 October 2009

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