How young criminals explain their delinquent deeds

May 13, 2015 - 05:25

Young people’s narratives about themselves may make it easier for them to engage in crime.

Whether young people are received as victims or perpetrators is important in determining how they see themselves and the world around them. It can decide whether they will continue down a criminal path or reform themselves. (Photo: Shutterstock)

A young Muslim acquires a firearm and shoots some random passers-by to revenge the Prophet. He sees it as his duty. In his narrative about himself, killing is perfectly legitimate if it serves a higher purpose.

In his perspective there are legitimate reasons to carry out a criminal act.

"Research has shown that some narratives motivate and legitimise criminal behaviour. Narratives are a way to organise our experiences and understand ourselves. They are important because they help us establish how we see ourselves and our surroundings and act," explains Ditte Andersen, postdoc in social science at the Danish National Centre for Social Research (SFI).

She has just been given a grant by the Danish Council for Independent Research to examine how narratives are used by young criminals and by professionals at the welfare institutions that surround them.

The study will look into how the professionals' narratives – that is to say their perceptions and narratives about young people – are behind the decisions they make and the measures they implement.

Narratives can be used to disclaim responsibility

Whether young people are received as victims or as perpetrators is of huge significance when it comes to how they see themselves and the world around them. It can decide whether they will continue down a criminal path or reform themselves.

This is because a narrative is not static, but changes all the time under the influence of the perceptions of others and in interplay with what we meet along the way.

"The young people exploit and are shaped by the professionals' narratives. In Norway we’ve for instance seen that an exaggerated victim narrative can have a negative effect, while giving young people something to be proud of has the opposite effect," says Sveinung Sandberg from the University of Oslo.

He is at the head of the relatively new research discipline narrative criminology which forms the theoretical basis for Andersen's project. Narrative criminology examines why personal narratives influence and initiate actions and the social consequences of these.

"A narrative in which a person has a self-understanding of being a billiard ball which is knocked around by others without him or her having the power to change it makes it more difficult for them to put their foot down and reject criminal behaviour and take responsibility for their own actions," says Andersen.

The narrative may – as was the case with the radicalised young Muslim – legitimise outbursts of violence, but conversely, it may help to promote law-abidingness and healthy development. A young person who sees him- or herself as a mould-breaker can use the narrative about themselves as someone who defies obstacles in order to break with a career in crime.

Narratives determine decisions

At the core of Andersen's analysis is what is said and done when the various social, medical and legal institutions gather round the table to produce a holistic plan for e.g. an 18-year-old man who has got into trouble with the law.

"The psychiatrist may be of the opinion that he is a victim because of life-long neglect and therefore in need of treatment, while the legal system may want to impose sanctions and send him to jail," says Andersen.

She will be recording a series of such meetings and analyse how the negotiations between the institutions' representatives are conducted. She will also examine the power structure between the various professions.

What the system has to offer is of great importance for criminals' narratives

The professionals' narratives determine what the young criminals are to be offered. Whether they get a mentor, help finding a job or somewhere to live, or whether they are sent to jail.

This can be of great importance in determining whether the young person creates a negative or positive narrative as the framework for his or her actions.

The ability to recognise which processes are at play when the system sends a young person to jail is of considerable interest.

"Narratives are formed in relation to the context in which we find ourselves. A young person going from being a petty criminal to a big-time criminal during a period behind bars is an example of how a narrative has changed in an unfortunate direction," says Andersen.

Sandberg agrees entirely that it is extremely important to understand the process so it can be turned in a positive direction.

"There's no doubt that a better understanding of the system's narratives and the effect they have, can have a preventive function. In narrative criminology it’s extremely important to find out which narratives help limit criminal behaviour and which have the opposite effect. It’s really good to have more research being done in the field," says Sandberg.

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Read the original story in Danish on Videnskab.dk

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Translated by
Hugh Matthews

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