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The Gang and Beyond: Review of Simon Hallsworth's book on gangs

Hallsworth, S. The Gang and Beyond: Interpreting Violent Street Worlds. Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke. 2013. £25.99. ISBN 978-1-137358080

 

The growing field of cultural criminology, a love-child of critical criminology and cultural studies, is beginning to bloom. Authors such as Jeff Ferrell, Keith Hayward, Wayne Morrison, Mike Presdee and, the now late, Jock Young (among others) have been ploughing and promising what seems fertile new ground. Cultural studies in the British tradition always sought something new, either my experimenting with new methodologies, turning to philosophy and anthropology for new theoretical avenues: criminology has always been central to that project (e.g. Stuart Hall, Paul Willis, etc.). The Birmingham School has perished, but this turn toward culture is renewed, growing since the mid-1990s and it is now being explicitly and programmatically pursued in several criminology institutions and journals. This book of Simon Hallsworth marks a significant contribution in this respect.

The Gang and Beyond: Interpreting Violent Street Worlds is a brave and innovative work, and it could only really have been written by someone of Hallsworth’s stature, a senior academic with decades of research, writing and a vast amount of life experience from which to draw upon. There is great power in the book, it is written with integrity, conviction and energy. One can feel Hallsworth pouring his heart, his life-formed wisdom – private and professional worlds undistinguished - onto the page. While I am delighted he has done so, there are places in the book where his passionate conviction may have overcome this wisdom, diminishing some sections with intemperate language. But this is certainly not irreparable damage as it is mixed with erudition and sophistication in his understanding of urban street worlds. British cultural criminology is pushing the boundaries of our discipline, and Hallsworth’s contribution marks out new methodological and theoretical terrain.

I might well be in the minority within his readership as the critical criminologists will, I’d imagine, find particularly useful his powerful critique of “gang-talking” and “gang-talkers” (his disparaging moniker for Pitts et al developed in earlier work (Hallsworth and Young 2008)). As the author says “[t]he book is, in one respect at least, a wholesale challenge to contemporary gang orthodoxy that prevails today in that confused state called the UK” (2013: 13). However I believe the most important sections in this book, certainly for those interested in the new directions being opened by cultural criminology, are the first and third sections.

The first chapter updates much of his previous output. Following a 2008 Home Office report, Hallsworth and Young highlighted that “…the gang was for the first time explicitly linked to the problem of urban violence and rising weapon use in the UK…” (2008: 176). Here he presents a critique of authors such as Pitts (2008) whose work links various street crimes to the ‘rise’ of criminal gangs. Hallsworth charts how this academic work feeds into media reporting and political rhetoric. Examining explanations for riots, different forms of violence, illegal drugs, use of weapons, etc., the chapter makes a series of compelling arguments that gang involvement is greatly overstated as an explanation for these crimes. 

While chapter 1 sits within the long tradition of critical criminology – as he clearly identifies another ‘moral panic’ chapter 2 belongs to cultural criminology. It is cutting edge, the bravest part of the book, and one of the most methodologically innovative, generatingan account that will have ‘positivist methodologists’grinding their teeth. Here Hallsworth’s own life experiences and emotions are made subject to critical analysis. This chapter is written with great a depth and humour that never detracts from its persuasiveness. There are sections of this chapter that read like a novel or a biography, this is not to detract, on the contrary, good ethnography is absorbing and convincing. I believe he succeeds in his stated aim to use auto-ethnography to travel back through time, to show that “…kinds of group-based violence today being identified as gang-related, constitute a longstanding, perennial, deeply embedded feature of street life in British society” (2013: 61). Yet he also achieves something else. From his experience of being on the inside of what would now be called gangs, he shows that intrinsic to the identity and social practices of these haphazardly formed ‘outsider’groups, is a deeply felt need for mutual recognition and support, rather than nefarious, hierarchal, secret underworlds.

Section 2 will have many clapping in the aisles; it is a powerful example of ‘demolition criminology’ (2013: 7) as he says himself. It is a sociology of gang-talking criminologists and the professionals, bureaucrats, police, media, and all the other actors embedded in this world of ‘gang talking’. First he examines the discursive practices of ‘gang-talkers’, he describes this as mostly comprising of the propagation of mythic fantasies. He then describes the UK’s ‘moral panic industry’, as some infernal monster, feeding itself on the fears of the general public. It is a well-made, often clever, convincing and compelling argument. This section is really important to the entire thesis of the book, and I agree with almost all of Hallsworth’s critiques. However authors such as Pitts (2012) have annoyed Hallsworth and there are some sections almost ruined by Hallsworth’s irritation. In one sense Hallsworth was trapped, as fellow criminologists are the subject of his critique, but because sometimes his critique and humour combine to make intemperate language it reads poorly, not matching the eloquence elsewhere in the book.

Section 3, I would argue, is the most important part of the book and here we find its most significant contribution to cultural criminology, where Hallsworth introduces the work of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, particularly his concepts of ‘arborealism’and ‘rhizomatics’(Deleuze and Guattari 1988). Here Hallsworth employs these concepts as social and cultural theories to interpret the behaviour of both ‘gang-talkers’and ‘street gangs’. I wish this had been the real analytical centre of the book, because these theories certainly have much to contribute to our understanding of both contemporary criminology and street gangs. Hallsworth argues that Western thought is implicitly foregrounded by arborealistic understandings of social formations: we tend to view them as tree-like hierarchical structures. As an alternative, he suggests gangs might be better understood as rhizomatic; not centered, but de-centered and nomadic. Only someone of Hallsworth stature could have written such a chapter, but nowhere in the book is the theory applied to data of any description. This feels like an absence, but I hope this will be a project pursued elsewhere, maybe by others.

Chapter 6 makes the argument that one must understand ‘street culture and the imperatives that define it’ (2013: 160) by looking within street gangs, and he draws from American ethnographers such as Anderson (2000) and Katz (1998) arguing for a kind of 'thick description' approach. The chapter is kind of Mertonian, as the ‘street imperatives’are the search for pleasure, respect and money, but it does seems somewhat out of place following, as it does, the (very exciting) new ground opened up by the introduction of Deleuze to cultural criminology. The last chapter gives an historical examination of continuities and discontinuities in urban violence since the post-war period. It is an interesting chapter but does not add greatly to the overall thesis pursued in the book.

In the concluding section, Hallsworth lets his indignation at ‘gang-talkers’run riot, with a satirical seven-point lesson on ‘how to attain and maintain a gang problem’. It is incisive and very funny, but as the topic is so important the humour seems somewhat out of place.  

This book is methodologically creative (e.g. the auto-ethnography), theoretically sophisticated (e.g. the use of Deleuze), and mostly uses good humour to good effect.  Any flaws are stylistic. I think it is a must read, it makes an important contribution and I am adding it to my reading list for my students. 

References

Anderson, E. (2000) Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City. Norton: New York.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1988). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Athlone Press: London. 

Hall, S., Critcher, C., et al. (1978) Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order. Macmillan: London. 

Hallsworth, S and Young, T. (2008) ‘Gang Talk and Gang Talkers: A Critique’, Crime Media and Culture 4 (2),  175-95.  

Hallsworth, S. and Silverstone, D. (2009) ‘‘That’s life innit’: A British perspective on guns, crime and social order’, Criminology and Criminal Justice 9 (3), 359–77.

Katz, J. (1998) Seductions of Crime: Moral and Sensual Attractions in Doing Evil. Basic Books: New York. 

Pitts, J. (2008) Reluctant Gangsters: Youth Gangs in Waltham Forest. Borough of Waltham Forest Council: London. 

Pitts, J. (2012) ‘Reluctant Criminologists: Criminology, Ideology and the Violent Youth Gang’, Youth and Policy, www.youthandpolicy.org.

Willis, P. (1977) Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. Saxon House: Farnborough.

Lorcan Byrne teaches sociology for University College Cork and is a Lecturer at Respond! College Dublin.

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