Publication by the French Forum for Urban Safety, Paris 2006
Written by Elodie Tournebize
Translated from French by Sandra Bedout and Götz Nordbruch
Gangs exist everywhere. Since meeting in groups is the preferred mode of socialization among youth from all social backgrounds, youngsters meet within various social structures (schools, sport clubs, associations) and form groups according to the criteria of age, interest and shared tastes and preferences.
In quarters dominated by social housing estates, characterised by small apartments, lack of private space, economic and educational resources and adult oversight, the street is the main place of socialisation, where the youngsters develop networks of relations and mutual solidarities related to their shared setting of life. The group is based on affinities, and the belonging to the same territory is its binding element.
However, not all youth who meet their peers in small groups develop deviating patterns of behaviour. What is it that motivates them? The members of these groups, as individuals, show difficulties of socialisation that increase the risks of delinquency. The gang thus stands for an alternative to classic modes of socialisation. While the gang allows youngsters to be acknowledged among its members, it deepens the rift between these members and the rest of society.
Due to the fact that the institutions charged with confronting and repressing these groups are only dealing with individuals, and not with the gangs as such, an assessment of the phenomenon of gangs is even more difficult. Knowledge about gangs is thus primarily based on empirical observations.
How do they constitute themselves, how do they function and how do they vanish? Are girls involved in gangs? Do they include an ethnic dimension? Are gangs dangerous for their own members? What local activities can be developed to prevent the formation of gangs?
In order to analyse these questions, the French Forum for Urban Safety has piloted a working group on the phenomena of gangs in France. The resulting study, published in 2006, is based on ethnological research in the greater urban centres of France. It is the result of a series of interviews with local actors involved in safety matters and questions of prevention; an effort was made not to concentrate on the Paris region. In addition, it takes up the reflections of the working group “Phénomènes de bandes en France” (“The Phenomenon of Gangs in France”) of the French Forum for Urban Safety.
This study summarizes the phenomenon of gangs in a primarily urban context and informs about their shared characteristics. by associating Interviews with those involved in urban and suburban regions, and working on community safety and prevention initiatives, give detailed insight into the social realities of these areas, on gang developments, counter-measures and local actions taken on the phenomena of gangs in urban areas.
Several main findings appear to be important in the development of gang structures. The failure of classical modes of socialisation push youth who are already at risk of marginalisation closer to juvenile delinquency and peer groups characterised by deviating behaviour.
Being about to break with the primary institutions of integration, the family and the school, youngsters in gangs share another common denominator: the stigma. These young people are labelled, because they are volatile, because their aspirations are in conflict with those of other generations of their environment, or because they are of foreign origin.
Segregation then follows stigmatisation which is reciprocally taken up by the youth. The gang can thus be seen as a reaction to larger societal developments and problems, rather than being the trigger for urban conflicts.
The gang, then, is a refuge: it is a space of valorisation in the eyes of peers, and a protective space against disparaging judgements from the outside.
Gangs realise values that are surprisingly close to those dominating in our society (importance of material goods, social success, competition, relations of force, respect for hierarchies) but they realise these values through norms that run counter to those of society. Values and interests are caricaturized with regard to the outside world: acquisition of material goods for example, is realised by theft, not purchase.
The territory is the gang’s bond of identity. Belonging to a shared territory generated patterns of its appropriation. Public space becomes an extension of private space.
In terms of counter measures, possible forms of interventions such as sensitising the youth to norms, developing community actions and Youth Assistance Services, offering youth a social and economic future, providing educational activities, psychological support, measures for the prevention of re-offending for those youth already in conflict with the justice system, promoting mediation activities and local committees on community safety, are described and discussed in the study.
Download the study in English (pdf Document, 450 KB)
Téléchargez le texte français “Les phénomènes de bandes en France” (pdf Document, 705 KB)
Access the website of the French Forum for Urban Safety