Gangs, violence and the pressures on urban boys to act tough

Jenny Parkes

Home Office statistics show that 40% of the young people brought before the courts following the August riots were on free school meals; more than a third had been recently excluded from school and two-thirds had a special educational need.  Fewer than one in five of those arrested were gang-affiliated. The vast majority – 90% – were male.

These statistics chime with our findings on young people and neighbourhood risk.  Although the London neighbourhood where our study took place was identified as a “hotspot” for gang activity, most of the young people we spoke to were highly critical of gangs and of youth crime and violence. What emerged from the discussions that my colleague Anna Conolly and I had with young people were the frequent dilemmas boys in their early teens faced in working out how to deal with the risks and dangers they encountered routinely in their neighbourhoods. 

Boys felt pressured to appear tough, streetwise and resilient. But this bravado could sometimes lead them into dangerous behaviour, as boys tried to demonstrate to each other how they live up to tough masculine ideals. One 15-year-old told us: “I’d fight back. If they stabbed me, yeah? If someone’s running towards you with a knife, yeah, they’re thinking you’re going to run away, but my mind says, to run towards them, because you don’t – they don’t know what you’ve got on you.”

This concern about reputation was most marked in the boys at risk of exclusion or excluded from mainstream schools. One 13-year-old boy in a pupil referral unit, for example, told us how a friend “got robbed, and now he just gets bullied in school”. For him, fighting back was seen as necessary to evade the threat to reputation which could evoke further violence and exclusion within his peer group. For some boys tough talk could mask fears and anxieties about risks of the neighbourhood.

So what does this mean for the government’s plans for ending gang and youth violence? The government’s response to last summer’s riots and other instances of youth crime has been to set up panels of experts on Ending Gang and Youth Violence and on Riots, Communities and Victims. Their reports stress the need for multi-faceted interventions, but pay surprisingly little attention to these pressures on boys.

Our findings show firstly how important it is to take seriously the way particular ideas about masculinity influence the way boys think and behave. They show the need to develop sensitive interventions to help young people reflect on fears, pressures and safety strategies. Second, our findings show the importance of tackling school exclusion and under-achievement – though the After the Riots proposal to fine schools for failing to teach reading properly will surely only reduce the resources to improve teaching and learning in those schools.  Rather than blaming teachers or parents, we need to learn from and build on the strategies teachers, youth workers, parents and young people already employ.

Finally, £10 million is being directed to 30 neighbourhoods deemed to be hotbeds of youth violence and gang activity.  But beyond these few neighbourhoods it is hard to see how plans for prevention can be realised with the massive cuts to Sure Start and youth services? And if we are to tackle the pressures on young people, we need to make sure they can achieve their future aspirations with the provision of educational and employment opportunities. Too narrow a focus on gangs and the most visible forms of violence and disorder detracts from important issues around masculinity, exclusion, and poverty that emerge in the aftermath of the riots.

Jenny is Principal Investigator for ESRC study: Negotiating danger, risk and safety: An exploration with young people in an urban neighbourhood.

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Posted in Childhood & early education
4 comments on “Gangs, violence and the pressures on urban boys to act tough
  1. Dear Mrs Parkes,

    I entirely agree with your research. I have worked with young offenders and those at risk, for a number of years in two London Boroughs. This has been for both local authorities and voluntary agencies and have found it increasingly ignored, that young males NEED to be able to demonstrate their masculinity, but in a positive way. I have also become increasingly angry at the fact that young people who are excluded from school are rewarded by being given only 1 hour a day of education at their PRU’s. Thus leaving them more time to dedicate to being on the streets, with other negative influences and no positive interventions.

    This has lead to myself and a colleague creating a charity, based on the unpaid work that we have done for years with these groups. The reason it has been unpaid is because in our paid jobs, we are only allowed to work with specific young people, from specific areas, for a specific amount of time. So we have chosen not to simply ignore people that either refer themselves to us, or who have not completed their journey in rehabilitation, but to continue this work (albeit on an unpaid basis). Please have a look at our website and let me know what you think . Any feedback would be greatly appreciated and, in return, feel free to come to any of our sessions should you want to meet some of the young people we work with.

    Many thanks,

    George Turner

  2. George – It is good to learn about your work for Carney’s Community. Supporting young men in demonstrating masculinity when they have a history of offending, school exclusion and poor employment prospects is immensely challenging. Your approach, using mentoring, participation, focusing on strengths and learning from each other, makes good sense and seems really commendable. I would be interested to come and visit one of your sessions.

    Many thanks,

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