Societies make many negative assumptions about the types of young people who are forced into criminal activity, and why this might occur. Yet, as Sociology professor Randy Blazak points out, youth voices are often missing from these discussions. Professor Blazak talks about the problem of labelling at-risk youth “gang members.” He notes that not listening to these youth’s experiences can become a “self-fulling prophecy.” He explains: “People don’t get better when you focus on the bad stuff.” In sociology, we know this as labelling theory.
Howard Becker made this theory famous in his book, Outsiders, which showed how labelling people as “deviant” or “criminal” has negative consequences on their behaviour. People who are labelled negatively often feel powerless to escape the stigma that follows them, and it can lead them to become further attached to so-called “deviant” groups because they receive mutual support or a sense of purpose.
Authority figures can benefit from policing people who do not conform to society’s norms and rules – labelling people as a criminal, delinquent, “abnormal” helps institutions seek out punishments and treatments. Unfortunately, disadvantaged groups who have to live with these labels are not necessarily better off with increased scrutiny.
Consulting with communities through preventative programs has better outcomes. In this case youth who are at-risk are best consulted before they are targeted by the criminal justice system. How can we improve access to beneficial community initiatives? How can social services better meet the reality of these youths’ everyday lives?
Blazak notes that issues of issues of belonging, masculinity, learning difficulties, and structural forces can compel youth into activity that is criminalised. However, structural forces shape life opportunities, such as inequality of race, class and other socio-economics.
Making the assumption that young people join gangs because they are inherently violent or delinquent is dangerous. As one social worker says:
It’s amazing how respectful and kind (at-risk youth) can be when you treat them the same way… You really see the benefits of positive attention.
This article is a nice example of how social science extends the so-called “common sense” view of community violence, how it should be addressed, and who should be included in drawing up prevention strategies.
Community consultation that draws upon social science expertise is the best way to develop strategies to address social issues. In particular, social science has demonstrated the value of seeking the input of the ultimate stakeholders: community members who are directly affected by poverty, crime and discrimination. This includes young people who may be likely to engage in activities that might damage their future prospects or otherwise negatively impact on their local communities.