New folk devils on urban landscape

The Asian Gang
November 9, 2001

When realising that this study is not of gangs but of the non-existence of gangs, some readers may be tempted to shut the book immediately, while others may be riveted by a well-presented story of a non-phenomenon.

The author sets off with the preliminary statement that the gang "exists more as an idea than a reality - a mode of interpretation rather than an object, more fiction than fact". The Asian gang in particular, which has gained currency in recent years, is seen as tantamount to commonsense fiction, a new folk devil appearing on the urban landscape. Such a fictional entity incorporates views of ethnicity, class, youth and gender, arranged in a way that conveys notions of threat, hatred and violence. When religious fundamentalism, in the form of Muslim militancy, is added to the picture, the Asian gang takes its final menacing shape.

Claire Alexander's attempt to unravel the process of these representations is laudable, as is her detailed scrutiny of how identities are formed, superimposed and negotiated, leading to a chain of actions and counteractions whose end-product the dominant language encapsulates in the idea of "gang". Her study, however, addresses a small group of young people involved in an Asian youth project in south London, and "the result is an explicitly partial and personal account of a set of encounters located within a particular space and time".

Among such partial accounts is the description of how mundane friction experienced at school can lead to physical confrontation between groups of youths, and how the interaction between these groups, the school staff, the police and media leads to the designation of the protagonists as members of gangs. In turn, the protagonists, whose self-perception is confined to that of "youths hanging around together", may then adopt or reject the definition given to them, though a pre-packaged identity of tough boys may fulfil their desire to defend their real or imagined territory. That identity may also help repel the "ideological construction of Asian masculinities as weak and feminised" and embrace the image of "a racialised (hyper)masculinity".

Beginning with studies conducted in the 1920s, research has distinguished between entrepreneurial and expressive gangs. The former are concerned with the pursuit of income through depredations or the delivery of illicit goods and services. The latter are engaged in establishing status through the exercise of violence and the defence of territory. Successive research has shed light on mechanisms allowing the pursuit of both income and status, as gangs may mask or, for that matter, enhance their entrepreneurial nature through violence. Status acquired through violence can translate into larger commercial opportunities.

Moreover, gangs distributing illegal drugs may combine enterprise, status and, finally, some of the typical "retreatist" character commonly attributed to substance users by criminologists. Alexander chooses to ignore these studies, and the word drug does not even appear in her index, hence this book's peripheral position relative to previous similar studies conducted by criminologists and sociologists of deviance. This may be an advantage, because at times excessive involvement with a disciplinary tradition constrains the scope of a subject of study and its understanding.

Sadly, this book combines lack of involvement with the criminological tradition with an excessive involvement of its author with the subjects she studies. Her personal account, which some may value as a detailed ethnography, will be seen by others as being too personal, and the description of minutiae as irritatingly self-indulgent. The latter type of reader may therefore be encouraged to rediscover more traditional studies and, disappointed by the periphery, move back to the central concerns of criminology.

Vincenzo Ruggiero is professor of sociology, Middlesex University.

The Asian Gang: Ethnicity, Identity, Masculinity

Author - Claire E. Alexander
ISBN - 1 85973 314 X and 319 0
Publisher - Berg
Price - £42.99 and £14.99
Pages - 262

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