Antisocial behaviour: the construction of a crime Now the New Labour government has revealed its 'respect' agenda, the problem of 'antisocial behaviour' has moved to the forefront of political debate. But what is it? by Stuart Waiton
'Antisocial: opposed to the principles on which society is constituted.' (Oxford English Dictionary, 1885). 'Antisocial: contrary to the laws and customs of society; causing annoyance and disapproval in others: children's antisocial behaviour.' (Oxford English Dictionary, 1989). 'Antisocial behaviour' is used as a catch-all term to describe anything from noisy neighbours and graffiti to kids hanging out on the street. Indeed, it appears that almost any kind of unpleasant behaviour is now categorised as antisocial, with the behaviour of children and young people most often labelled as such (1). This expresses a growing perception that the 'laws and customs of society' are being undermined by rowdy youngsters. Yet the term 'antisocial behaviour' was rarely used until the 1990s. Throughout the 1980s a couple of articles a year were printed in the UK discussing antisocial behaviour, whereas in January 2004 alone there were over 1,000 such articles (2). Not even the most pessimistic social critic would suggest a parallel increase in problem behaviour. Indeed, in recent years there has been a slight fall in actual vandalism, for example, against a dramatic increase in newspaper mentions of antisocial behaviour (3). When looking at the issue of antisocial behaviour, the starting point for most commentators is to accept that the problem exists and to then work out why people are more antisocial today. The 'collapse of communities' is often seen as a key influence in the rise of antisocial behaviour, with young people growing up without positive role models and a framework within which to develop into sociable adults. This idea of the loss of a sense of community - or indeed of 'society' - rings true. We are indeed more atomised and individuated today, and there are fewer common bonds that hold people together and give them a 'social identity'. It is less clear, however, that this necessarily means people are increasingly out of control, antisocial and on the road to criminality. Alternatively you could argue that this fragmentation of communities and of social values has helped foment a 'culture of fear' (4) - a culture that elevates what were previously understood as petty problems into socially significant ones. This essay examines the construction of the social problem of antisocial behaviour, by focusing, not on the behaviour of young people, but on the role of the political elite. It may be understandable for a tenants' association or local councillor to be engaged by the issue of noisy neighbours and rowdy children - but for the prime minister to prioritise this issue as one of his main concerns for the future of the nation seems rather strange. What is it that has put 'antisocial behaviour' so high up on the political agenda? Constructing crime as a social problem
When introducing laws against antisocial behaviour, curfews, and new crime initiatives, the New Labour government invariably asserts that these are in response to the concerns of the public. While there is undoubtedly a high level of public anxiety about crime and about the various problems and irritations now described as antisocial behaviour, this anxiety is clearly shaped by the concerns of the political elite. It is also worth noting that when the government highlights particular 'social problems' as being significant for society, it puts other issues and outlooks on the back burner. The elevation of crime and, more recently, antisocial behaviour, into a political issue has helped both to reinforce the significance given to this kind of behaviour and to frame the way social problems are understood. By defining antisocial behaviour as a major social problem, the political elite has, over the past decade, helped to generate a...
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