Simon Hallsworth’s The Gang and Beyond: Interpreting Violent Street Worlds is as much a study on gangs in the context of street informal organizations and of critical criminology. Come to think of it, it reads like a “how-to” and “how-not-to” study gangs.
The focus of the book is on the UK context but some of critiques and prescriptions are more broadly applicable (especially considering the apparent fondness of US “gang experts” in the UK policy-making circles). Overall, the book does not pull punches when it comes to the current state of the field of gang research and policy-making, and advocates for a different way of analyzing gangs.
In a sense, what Hallsworth advocates is a return to Durkheim’s original prescription for social research: do not accept commonsense categories as the unquestioned starting point for analysis. These categories are not neutral. They are the product of history and power relations within given field (to rope in Bourdieu). And so, to accept these categories without subjecting them to analysis is to commit an elementary mistake and therefore contribute to the reproduction of the power relations that gave rise to these categories in the first place.
For Hallsworth, this applies especially to categories such as “gangs”, “gang culture”, or “gang problem” which are then used to deploy a whole field of experts, policies, and prescriptions dedicated to dealing with the “gang problem”. The contestation of this deployment is the central theme of the book:
“Where do I situate my analysis? To begin with, it marks my response to the position staked out by John Pitts and his followers who see gangs today as the new face of youth crime and who, by and large, appear happy to blame them for everything. As will become clear, I have no time whatsoever for this position. I do not accept that gangs are the new face of youth crime; I do not accept that gangs today are large and corporate, and nor do I hold with other widely-held gang ‘truths’ as exemplified in claims to the effect that they coercively recruit members or are habitual rapists. The book is, then, in one respect at least, a wholesale challenge to contemporary gang orthodoxy that prevails today in that confused state called the UK.” (13)
And so, Hallsworth proceeds to debunk the current myths (used and taken as true, though) regarding gangs:
- The myth of the corporate gang as key drug-player: gangs exercise control over the drug trade in the UK in a very structured fashion with gang elders at the top of gangs structured as corporations all the way down to “tinies” and young gang members at the bottom.
- The myth of the new gang violence in urban context.
- The myth of the new weapons of the gang world: guns and dogs.
- The myth of rape as new gang weapon.
- The myth of gangs as forces in social destabilization (for instance, as causes and actors in the 2011 London riots, as blamed by PM Cameron).
For Hallsworth, the bottom line to all these myths is that they are variants of “kids, these days”. They assume the complete novelty of drugs and violence rather than a permanent, and long-standing feature of street life in the UK, especially in working class areas. There are many continuities between past street life features and present, such as
- violent territorialism
- drug dealing
- street-fighting kids
But then, if these continuities were acknowledged, where would the moral entrepreneurs du jour find their moral panic?
One of the main critiques that Hallsworth deploys is against what he calls gang-talk and gang-talkers. Gang-talk is the commonsense narrative (constructed and repeatedly used by gang-talkers – the “experts” on gangs – and conveniently propagated by the media and politicians), repeating most of the myths listed above: that the gang threat is new, unprecedented, growing, more dangerous than ever, because the gangs are now structured like corporations (except criminal) and recruit younger and younger members who can never leave the gang once in.
“‘Gang talk’ has come to provide the interpretive grid by and through which divergent social problems are rendered legible, even when the events in question are by no means solely or even remotely gang-related.
Gang talk, I will argue, constitutes a free-floating discourse that can operate wholly independently of gang realities as these unfold in any street context” (68-9)
As Hallsworth puts it, gang talk is a language game (a la Wittgenstein), with its own vocabulary, rules of composition, and structure. Therefore, gang-talk propagates a series of tropes about gangs, that are then accepted and repeated without examination, but that are supposed to expose the “truth” of the gangs. This is all performative logic: the more the tropes of gang talk are uncritically repeated across media, the more they are taken as accurate description of the reality of the gangs. Conversely, any alternative perspective on gangs will be met with resistance and skepticism, and ultimately silenced as not fitting the tropes of gang talk. As dominant discourse, then, gang talk becomes the only plausible narrative as it becomes embedded in commonsense.
Gang talk, however, is neither neutral nor benign. It is a discourse of power:
“By ‘gang talk’, I mean to designate a discourse about gangs that has wide currency. It is a discourse that operates to make meaningful the world of gangs both to those who produce this discourse and to others who are receptors of it. By and large, the producers of gang talk (hereafter ‘gang-talkers’) are those with a vested interest in gangs (of some sort) but who are not of the world of gangs they talk about. They may be journalists looking for a good story about them, enforcement agencies that want to suppress them, practitioners on the hunt for gang suppression money, the public who are scared of them, academics wanting to study them, or policy-makers who have been given the mission of developing anti-gang strategies.” (70)
Again, this sounds a lot like Becker’s moral entrepreneurs and it is not surprising that gang members themselves adopt the tropes of gang talk along the way, as dominant cultural discourse. Nevertheless, gang talk is a fantasized representation rather than objective description but it is treated as such.
As conspiracy discourse, gang has the following elements:
- Novelty: the kinds of gangs we have today are completely new and we have never seen anything like it before… and they are spreading.
- Proliferation: they were a few of them, now there are many (add: immigration has something to do with that), and now, there are even women and children joining in.
- Corporatization: gangs used to be disorganized, but now, they are structured like corporations and formal organizations.
- Weaponization (I’m not sure it’s a word and Hallsworth spells it the British way, with an “s” rather than a “z”… I americanized it): instead of fists and boots, now, they have guns and dogs. They are more violent and deadly.
- Penetration: they expand outside of their usual territories and colonize new ones.
- Monstruousness: gang members are different from “normal” people.
[Sorry but those are the concepts used by Hallsworth.]
Out of these generic ideas, gang-talkers can extract gang membership checklists (Hallsworth provides a full one) and they read like the old Reefer Madness and include such things “dropping out of positive activities”, whatever the heck that means. Such items of gang membership are convenient because they can depict pretty much everybody, and so, if one goes looking for gang members, then, one is guaranteed to find them.
But again, gang talk is neither neutral nor benign:
“But there is also an ideological function to gang talk that needs to be acknowledged. In the post-welfare, neoliberal state where penal-fare as opposed to welfare increasingly defines the way in which poverty is managed (Wacquant 2009); gang talk helps establish the terms in and by which the global precariat, the losers in the neoliberal, winner-takes-all society, are now defined. Together with underclass thinking more generally, it reconstructs the lives of the urban poor as feral outsiders; as a population to whom pain dispensation appears necessary and not least just. It constructs them in Neil Christie’s terms as a suitable enemy at the same time it establishes the included society as a suitable victim.” (83)
And it accomplishes this through othering those designated as gang members as part of logic of the moral panic involving the usual components of exaggeration, distortion, prediction, and symbolization.
In addition to his critique of gang talk and gang-talkers, Hallsworth provides a counterpoint to a specific trope of gang talk, namely, the idea that gangs are not structured like corporations and formal organizations. According to this trope, the gang now resembles a typical Weberian bureaucracy, with its hierarchy, impersonality, rules and regulations, top-down governance, and division of labor, etc.
Hallsworth describes this mode of thinking (the gang as bureaucracy) as arborealism and describes it as shown below (sorry, bad picture from page 117):
Hallsworth argues that gangs are informal organizations with a rhizomatic structure (see Deleuze and Guattari), as depicted below:
This structure is very much akin to a flexible network, with nodes, clusters, and links, always in a state of reconfiguration based on the demands of the situation and the structural constraints under which the gang operates. Nodes move in and out of the network and are loosely connected to it (as opposed to the “military” model of recruitment promoted by gang-talkers). A rhizomatic structure is decentered and non-hierarchical and the intersections between nodes are not as predictable as those of bureaucratic structures. And where a tree-like bureaucracy is heavily territorialized, a rhizomatic structure is deterritorialized.
Now, Hallsworth does not argue for an “either/or” typology here. Gangs may follow hybrid structures as well but it is misleading and inappropriate to use the corporate structure as model for the gang, as this would lead to a Gilbert Ryle-type of category mistake. How could gangs be bureaucratic when relationships are based on kinship and clientelism and violence is valued. Gangs are also not impersonal organizations. Quite the opposite, actually, as relationships are highly personal. Moreover, because of the larger social context and the illegal activities that gang members engage in, reality is highly unpredictable and cannot be made more certain just by wishing it or issuing a few memos and new regulations. Most of gang actions are situational and contextual, and ever-changing. And if there is a business logic at work sometimes, it is complicated personal and emotional factors that can lead to violence and deaths, and sometimes, for stupid reasons. Because gang life is inherently unstable, so is its structuring. And it is this instability that make it almost impossible for gang to structure bureaucratically and territorialize. In this sense, gangs are assemblages more than formal organizations.
And when gangs do end up territorialized, it has more to do with discriminatory practices that “lock them up” in ghettos (or estates) than with anything else. Those are usually deprived environments where the legitimate economy is poorly represented and therefore where the informal one is more likely to take roots with the corresponding informal organizations. And so then territorial borders are not as hard and fast as gang-talkers make them to be as gang members are not just tied to the gang but also to family members and relatives living in the same projects or estates.
Regarding the drug and violence aspects, Hallsworth identifies three main imperatives of street life (but not exclusive to it): the search for pleasure, the search for money, and the search for respect. On this, in a very Mertonian fashion (see: strain theory), Hallsworth argues that drugs and violence play a part in all three imperative in a deprived context. And all three imperatives are fulfilled in a context of hegemonic masculinity (see: Connell) that is not new to young working-class men. In this sense, a lot of the violence that is attributed to gangs is actually part of the larger context of street life for the working class. That is the appropriate framework and context to understand it.
These three imperatives are fulfilled young working class men in the context of their exclusion from upward mobility:
But this is also in the context of their inclusion into the larger consumer culture.
And so, they innovate, as, again, mode of adaptation to the strain, as Robert Merton conceptualized it. The persistent presence of these men on the street, hanging out, reflects their waiting for opportunities and figuring out where the action is, for pleasure, money or respect.
Finally, Hallsworth connects what is truly the novel aspect here: the rise of the precariat. This is the larger context for informal street life and informal street organizations. In the post-War period – the rise of the welfare state – violence and drugs were not unknown. However, there was greater local regulation of it. And as soon as young men left school for the factory, got jobs, got married, then, they left the informal organizations behind.
In the current neoliberal context, inaugurated by Thatcher, this trajectory no longer exists. Mass deindustrialization and precarization have destroyed the fairly linear path from basic education to factory work, from adolescence to adulthood. The normative context of regulation from within the working-class is gone. To be sure, part of this normative context was hegemonic masculinity, and that has not changed.
But again, what is truly new is the precarization of the working class and the structural violence unleashed by right-wing governance (yes, including New Labour). I do wish the concept of structural violence were used more as it provides a powerful explanation for self-destructive interpersonal violence at play now, in the context of stalled social mobility in the face of consumer culture. Paraphrasing Bauman, Hallsworth then call the members of street organizations the “flawed consumers” of late modernity.
But gang-talkers have no interest in that socio-economic context. Hence, Hallsworth ends his book with a tongue-in-cheek list of lessons on how to develop a gang problem:
- Lesson 1: Turn a problem of groups into a problem of gangs (that is, treat any group or collective behavior AS gang behavior)
- Lesson 2: work closely with journalists (they love sensationalism)
- Lesson 3: create a dedicated gang-busting unit
- Lesson 4: employ academic ‘gang experts’ to confirm your problem (bonus if they come loaded with meaningless data)
- Lesson 5: create a gang-intervention strategy (ban all sorts of thing: like hanging around)
- Lesson 6: bring on the practitioners: academics, of course, but also former gang members (everyone loves redemption stories) but do not include long-term field practitioners, focus on short-term strategies couched in buzzwords.
- Lesson 7: cash in and live well.
Now, this is a really interesting book. I could have done without the chapter on biographical ethnography. It did not add much to the overall thesis of the book. And as I was reading it, I could not help but think that the famous Gang Leader for A Day fell into all the traps that Hallsworth warns against, and constitutes a form of gang talk in itself (after all, it made its author quite famous for an academic).
I think this is a must-read for all criminal justice, criminology students and academics, as well as sociologists of deviance.