The Gang and Beyond: Interpreting Violent Street Worlds

The Gang and Beyond: Interpreting Violent Street Worlds

Author: Simon Hallsworth
Publisher: Houndmills, Basingstoke, UK; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 224p.
Reviewer: Jana Grekul | July 2014

Street gangs are a growing menace to dominant society. Membership has exploded, level of organization has increased, and real and potential damage to social order is significant. Indeed, many gang researchers identify gangs as the “new face of youth crime”; politicians in the UK and North America blame gangs for many contemporary social evils. As recently as 2011, UK Prime Minister David Cameron identified gangs as the alleged orchestrators of the devastating London riots. Numerous academic and government studies document the growth in membership of these groups, their tendency to prey on young children, and the development of intricate networks of hierarchical organization that make them formidable opponents for law enforcement. It is against this backdrop, what he refers to as the “gangland UK thesis”, that Simon Hallsworth offers a refreshing alternative to understanding the so-called “gang problem”. The author describes the book as “in one respect at least, a wholesale challenge to contemporary gang orthodoxy that prevails today in that confused state called the UK” (page 13). The text is not restricted to the UK in its relevance.

Hallsworth is clear from the outset that this is not a “book about gangs”. Rather, the text is a full-fledged critique of the term “gang” and its current usage. The book is divided into three parts. Part One (Gangland Claims and Gangland Realities), comprised of Chapters 1 and 2, debunks current understandings about “gangs” and the “gang problem”. For example, in Chapter 1 Hallsworth illustrates that many of the crimes for which gangs are conveniently blamed are not committed by the groups. Rather, many of these crimes are committed by individuals, acting in their own self-interest. If they are gang-involved, that involvement often is periphery to many if not all of their criminal behaviours. In Chapter 2, Hallsworth confronts another claim often made in research and commentary on gangs: that this is a new phenomenon, the likes of which have never been witnessed before. It is in this chapter that the author introduces what I would consider his second main objective for the book: the use of a methodological technique he points out is rarely, if ever, used in the discipline of criminology, namely auto-ethnography, which combines the practices of autobiography and ethnography. Using auto-ethnography, Hallsworth convincingly shows that group-based violence constitutes “a longstanding, perennial, deeply embedded feature of street life in British society” (page 61).

One of the claims Hallsworth makes about this text is that while it follows the format and pattern of an academic work, each of the chapters can also act as a stand-alone essay. I point this out because in my estimation, Part Two (On Gang Talk and Gang-Talkers), should be read by academics, politicians, and anyone interested in or concerned with the current state of “gang-related” affairs. In Chapter 3 (Deciphering Gang Talk) Hallsworth examines the structure of public and academic discourse on gangs. In so doing, he argues that typical “gang talkers” – those who claim to be experts on gangs and street life – often in fact are not. These gang talkers misrepresent the reality of street life because in effect they have a distance from the street world. It is here that Hallsworth delves into the world of semiotics and linguists in his discourse analysis and reveals the rules and patterns to gang-talk, its predictability, intuitiveness to those who use it, and capacity to influence broader (mis)understandings of the street, the street world, and gangs. Gang talk, Hallsworth shows, is best read as “a collective control fantasy that reveals the predilections, anxieties and desires of its producers more than the truth of the street it aspires to represent” (page 71). Chapter 4 (Moral Panic and Industry) is another must-read. While most moral panics do not last long, the current moral panic over gangs has the potential to endure, according to Hallsworth, and this is in large measure because of the emergence of “a gang industry” allegedly assembled to suppress gangs, but which “has a vested interest in sustaining precisely the very phenomena it claims it wants to curb” (page 89).

Part Three (Getting Real about Violence) is a creative unfolding of an insightful merger between the philosophies of Deleuze and Guattari with traditional criminological theories on working class culture, street culture, and norms surrounding violence. Chapter 5, a treatise on “Arborealism and Rhizomatics” at first glance seems wildly out of place in this book. However, Hallsworth quickly engages the reader in another highly critical analysis of taken-for-granted understandings of gangs using a conceptual framework that grows naturally out of his earlier critical analyses. Hallsworth begins with the observation that Western forms of organization tend to be tree-like or arboreal in nature, with a firmly rooted foundational structure and offshoots branching out. Think of a typical bureaucratic structure, hierarchical in nature, highly organized, with power trickling from the top down. A good deal of the current talk surrounding gangs refers to the corporatization of gangs, their increasingly structured and hierarchical organization, and as a result, the complicated threat they pose to mainstream society. Hallsworth offers a different conceptualization of gangs, one devoid of this kind of organizational structure. The informal world of gangs, he suggests, is rhizomatic, best characterized as “grass-like”. Grass-like formations do not evolve from a common point of origin, like a seed or root, but rather reproduce laterally. Horizontally inclined and non-hierarchical, this type of system continually transforms itself, adapting and evolving as its environment requires. This, he explains, is a far more accurate conceptualization of the informal world of street gangs than the bureaucratic, arboreal form currently popular in gang discourse.

Chapter 6 (Back to the Street) effectively places street gangs within the context of street culture. Here, Hallsworth emphasizes that any approach to understanding street gangs that does not take into account the wider ecology of the street is sadly deficient. He identifies three core imperatives to street culture – the search for pleasure, respect, and money – as well as means to achieve these ends – edgework, action, violence, and hyper-macho norms. For men “consigned to precarious lives in a low-wage, low-status economy” violence is perhaps the only means they have to assert and affirm their masculine identity. The tragedy is that the violence is directed not toward the system that marginalises them, but inwardly and against each other (page 160).

In Chapter 7 Hallsworth explains how this self-destructive impetus is compounded by the crisis of the welfare state and the shift to a free market neoliberal economy. Whereas in the past young men from the working class were subject to street culture codes that kept violence in check, the current state of affairs for these same men has changed the nature of the street. In the past, they would transition into adulthood, find paid manual labour and find stability in their lives. However, in the increasingly precarious economic climate, employment opportunities for this group have dried up. Too often these young men become embedded in a subterranean world defined by its brutality and violence.

Hallsworth concludes the text by offering advice, based on his analysis, first for “how to have a gang problem” and second for how to ensure you do not have such a problem.

As someone who has contributed to the body of gang literature that Hallsworth critiques, I found The Gang and Beyond: Interpreting Violent Street Worlds refreshing, enlightening, and balanced. It is refreshing to see the boundaries of criminology pushed, enlightening to see these boundaries pushed to include a philosophical contribution that offers a re-conceptualization of gangs, and balanced in its counter-effect to the moral panic surrounding gangs. Hallsworth invites us to stop for a moment, take a breath, and view the “gang problem” with fresh eyes and a new perspective – one that properly contextualizes the behaviours of displaced and marginalized young men in a world that makes the use of violence an increasingly rational and acceptable means of maintaining (self-)respect, regardless of what the consequences might be. He invites the reader to critically examine the role of the neoliberal state, gang experts, and other gang talkers in the genesis and perpetuation of the current “gangland UK thesis”.

Very successful in reaching his primary objective, which is to critically interrogate current usage of the term “gang” and replace this with a more nuanced understanding of the wider street culture, perhaps Hallsworth is less successful in convincing the reader of the value of his alternative methodological approach, that of auto-ethnography. He makes a strong case for the use of this method in Chapter 2 which sets the stage for the remainder of the text, but a return to a discussion of the value of the method at the conclusion of the text would have helped reinforce its contribution. Despite his use of auto-ethnography in the early chapters, where he does recount instances of his own experiences with “gangs”, the text in some ways minimizes the daily realities faced by people directly or indirectly involved in gang-related activities. Broader social, economic, political, historical and cultural contexts and processes heavily influence the ways in which “gangs” and their activities are constructed, but until these contexts change, lives are being lost and others irrevocably changed by criminal groups, whatever the label used, and their criminal activities, however (in)frequent. I do not think Hallsworth dismisses these points, but in focusing on the moral panic relating to “gangs”, one runs the risk of minimizing some of the realities which young people and their families face on a day-to-day basis. Addressing the economic, political, and social structural factors that contribute to the “gangland UK thesis” is a laudable, long term goal. But for families and communities directly impacted by these groups and individuals on a daily basis, the immediate answers and assistance promised by the “gang talkers” offers an inkling of hope for the near future.

Aside from a number of typos that can be distracting, the writing style is an engaging one. This may be in part because of the tone Hallsworth takes throughout the text. He is sarcastic, snarky, and highly critical of dominant political and academic discourse on the topic. Considering his frustration with the reification of “corporate gangs” as the root of most evil in contemporary society and the compelling arguments he makes against this view, the tone and style are a good fit for the effective delivery of his message. They make for an engaging and entertaining read. Quite honestly this is a text that is difficult to put down once one begins to read it.

This is a must-read for anyone remotely interested in the contemporary “gang problem”. Hallsworth’s writing style is accessible to popular and academic audiences alike. I plan on using sections of The Gang and Beyond: Interpreting Violent Street Worlds in my graduate seminar on Criminal Justice.

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