Youth crime is a social construction

'There cannot be 'social problems' that are not the product of social construction – naming, labelling, defining and mapping them into place – through which we can 'make sense' of them' (Clarke, 2001). It will be argued that to understand 'crime', it must first be understood that it is a historical and social construction. This is equally true when looking at 'youth'. The concepts of 'crime' and 'youth' are neither fixed in time or place and therefore definitions of either are as such are both contested and contestable.

It will be argued that due to the problematic nature of these individual definitions, that 'youth crime' is also social construct, and as such problematic. The criminalisation of youth, by imposition of age restrictions and responsibilities, will be specifically focused on. This essay does not intend to comment on the rights or wrongs of the resulting constructions neither does it intend to comment on youth crime causation.

Crime is not a unitary concept (Henry, 2001), and as such it cannot be seen outside its broader, demographic, economic, religious or political contexts, (Briggs, Harrision, McInnes & Vincent, 1996:18) as it is constructed from within these contexts. That is to say that as a social construction what is or is not 'criminal' changes over time and across societies (Lilly, Cullen, and Ball, 2002). The Oxford English Dictionary states that crime is 'an act or omission constituting an offence (usu. a grave one) against an individual or the State and punishable by law'(Simpson and Weiner, 1993).

However the law is socially constructed, it changes across time and place. For example in 2003 it is illegal to buy alcohol at 15 in France; 17 in the UK and 20 in the USA (1). Also in the USA the drink purchase age, of 21, was only made a national law in 1984, prior to this it varied from state to state and from 18 to 21(2). Hester and Eglin (1992) argue that the law is constructed within society, and as such crime is a social construction. Becker (1963) furthers this point from an interactionist stance and as such argues that deviance, crime is created by social groups making rules, infraction of which is labelled a crime or criminal.

As such it is not the quality of an act but what is conferred on the act by society that is at issue for Erikson (1962), Becker (1963) and Kituse (1962). This interactionist stance has subsequently been reinterpreted with a Marxist slant. It has been argued for example that when we examine the social construction of categories of criminal law it becomes clear why certain social groups, such as youths, are over-represented in criminal statistics (Box, 1983; Chambliss and Seidman, 1971).

The argument is that the law rather than being a fair reflection of behaviours that cause us collectively the most suffering, is in fact an ideological construct (Box 1983). As such the criminal law is an artfully, created construct designed to criminalize only some behaviours, usually those more commonly committed by the powerless, and to exclude other behaviors, that are more usually committed by the powerful against others. (Box 1983, 7) In other words no matter how immoral or harmful, to the individual or society as a whole, the behaviour may appear to be it cannot be regarded as crime unless it comes under current legislation.

As such, those in power criminalize the 'other', a prime example of which is the criminalization and problematising of youth (4). This Marxist stance has been argued by revisionist historians as consistent through out history, both modern and pre modern (Muncie, 1999). Muncie (1999) argues that 'the notion of childhood and youth are not universal biological states, but social constructions in particular historical contexts'. These ideas of social construction can be applied to the concept of 'youth'. Like crime, youth is not a unitary category (Cohen, 1986 cited in Muncie, 1999).

Newburn (2002) states that ''youth' is an elastic concept. It means different things, at different times, and in different places. ' The concept of childhood, as we understand it today did not emerge until the late nineteenth century (Valentine, Skelton and Chambers, 1999); similarly 'adolescence' is a historically invented category (3). The emergence of the concept of adolescence, which also began in the nineteenth century, could be attributed to the ability of the middle classes to school their children for longer than previously, following the rise of industrial capitalism (3).

Another term often considered synonymous with that of 'youth' is the term 'teenager', a term that did not emerge until the 1950's and 60's, when the young started to be seen as relatively affluent and therefore prime targets for commercial retailers, as consumers (3). As such it can be argued that patterns of crime are an inevitable consequence of the extension of youth as a phase in the life cycle, a process that can be seen to have been occurring since the late eighteenth century (Furlong & Cartmel, 1997).

It can be seen that terms considered synonymous with youth are historically constructed, however the boundaries of child, youth, adulthood can been seen not only to be arbitrary but also equally constructed. According to Sibley (1995: 34) 'The limits of the category 'child' vary between cultures and have changed considerably through history within Western, capitalist societies. The boundary separating child and adult is a decidedly fuzzy one. Adolescence is an ambiguous zone within which the child/adult boundary can be variously located according to who is doing the categorizing.

To add to the problem young people negotiate the social meanings of different age boundaries themselves. Youth is a fluid stage of life where someone is continuously becoming someone else, as opposed to being an adult, where it is presumed one's identity has coalesced into a state of permanence (Sefton-Green, 1999:3) As seen the concepts of childhood, adolescence and teenage are historical constructions with their boundaries as social constructions, which will be discussed further in the points made on the criminalisation of youth.

It is important to point out that if the category of youth does not exist neither can the category of youth crime exist, and as such young people were treated as adults in the eyes of the law until the 1900's. Juvenile courts were not in formal existence until 1906 (Newburn, 2002) Despite historical amnesia since this time youth crime has been seen as an area of great concern, be it focusing on the 'dangerous classes' of the nineteenth century (Newburn, 2002) or mods and rockers in the early 1960's, football hooligans of the 1970's or yob culture in 1994 (Muncie and Mclaughlin,1996).

In was even considered a problem prior to times when crimes of the young were separated from those of adults (Shore, 2000). As such it can be argued that concern over behaviours of the young is not a resent phenomenon (Furlong and Cartmel, 1997) Pearson, (1983, 1989, 1994 cited in Newburn, 2002) indicates that much academic writing on 'youth crime' is ahistorical in character. Historical amnesia is an important concept if the construction of youth crime is to be understood. Pearson (1994) points out that everything was always better thirty years ago, however they were saying the same think thirty years ago.

The specifics may vary but the underlying principle does not. For example worries about hooliganism are most commonly associated with the 1970's onwards yet the term was actually coined in 1898 (Muncie, 1999) 'It is a truism that juvenile crime and the petty and not so petty delinquencies of youth have been a central concern in society from time immemorial' (Shore 2000). Shore argues that concerns of modern youth as out of control, is not just a modern phenomena or even one that emerged in the late eighteen and nineteenth century, it can even be seen to stem back as far 1585, and William fleets report on 'judicial nyppers' (2000).

Equally Pearson has highlighted complaints about the behaviour of the young going back to the seventeenth century (1983, 1989, 1994 cited in Newburn, 2002) However traditional historians argue that juvenile (youth) crime was 'invented' in the nineteenth century (Muncie, 1999), with a pivotal point being 1816, shortly after the Napoleonic wars when a report of the committee for investigating the alarming increases of juvenile crime in the metropolis (Shore, 2000).

Rawlings (1999:25) explains this as being because, peace meant the return of young men with no useful experience for regular peace time employment, along with the end of a useful way of ridding England of troublesome youths . It is useful to note that the boundaries of youth are frequently defined by exclusion i. e. by defining what cannot be done at certain ages (3). Such as in the cases of legislation controlling activities, for example paid employment, sexual practice, drinking, voting or fighting in a war (3).

What cannot be done at certain ages, changes over time. For example in 1997 a 15 year old could not buy fireworks, but a 16 year old could. In 2003 a person was required to be eighteen before they could purchase fireworks (Muncie, 1999). What cannot be done at certain ages, also changes across nations at the same time. Criminal responsibility in England and Wales is ten years old, yet the age for criminal responsibility in Scotland is eight (Muncie, 1999) . Young adults or old children?

Depending on the circumstances this can lead to oscillating views constructed of youth as savage and innocent; pure and tainted; ignorant and intuitive, among other binary oppositions (Sefton-Green, 1999: 2). Hendrick (1990b cited in Muncie, 1999) illustrates several competing constructions of childhood. For example the romantic child (innocence) versus the evangelical child (in need of discipline and control). These competing constructions highlight the reinvention and redefinition of youth and consequently youth offending, with the conception of the delinquent child (Muncie, 1999).

As a conclusion is can be seen that 'youth', 'crime' and 'youth crime' are historically, socially, and ideologically constructed. Although the problem of 'youth' is often seen as a modern phenomenon, it has been demonstrated that this is a fallacy that is covered up by a process of historical amnesia. The reason behind the argument in this essay, that youth crime is social constructed, is that unlike in the seventeenth century when there was one law for everyone, with some gender differences, we now live in a society where specific activities are criminalised for certain age groups.

However with this deconstionist idea often associated with postmodernism, many issues can be raised, yet it does give any way forward in solving the so called crime problem, except possibly that of radical non-intervention which is not a politically viable option. As Carlen (2000) states '"would it pass The Sun test? " continues to be the routine query of pusillanimous politicians and officials, reluctant to implement less punitive and more effective crime reduction policies. ' (Emphasis in original)


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Chambliss, W. and Seidman, R. (1971) Law, order, and power. London, Addison- Wesley Clarke, J. (2001) Social constructionism. in McLauglin, E. and Muncie, J. (eds) The sage dictionary of criminology, London, Sage. Erikson, K. (1962) Notes on the sociology of deviance. American journal of sociology, 68: p. 171