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  • Author or Editor: Keir Irwin-Rogers x
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A Social Harm Perspective

For many children and young people, Britain is a harmful society in which to grow up. This book contextualises the violence that occurs between a small number of young people within a wider perspective on social harm.

Aimed at academics, youth workers and policymakers, the book presents a new way to make sense of this pressing social problem. The authors also propose measures to substantially improve the lives of Britain’s young people – in areas ranging from the early years, to youth services and the criminal justice system.

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This chapter introduces the second key concept of the book: mattering. We argue that the drive to matter is a deeply significant psycho-social phenomenon, characterized by a need to feel that you are significant to others, and to feel you have some effect on the world – to be recognized by others and to be a consequential force. We explore the cultural, emotional and psychological complexity of mattering, before outlining a number of global social processes which we believe may be making the quest to matter more complicated, difficult and ambiguous.

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In this chapter, we explain our approach to social harm, defined in reference to the concept of human flourishing: something is a social harm if it compromises human flourishing in a manner which could have been prevented. We suggest that a helpful notion of human flourishing draws together two related elements – need fulfilment and subjective well-being – and that it is possible to identify specific forms of harm which deny a person or people things that they need, or which undermine their well-being. We recognize that the two are often closely entwined in real-life experience. We also introduce a distinction between interpersonal and structural harms, where the latter are those generated at the level of social structures such as policies, systems and institutions. This analytical distinction, though rarely clear cut in reality, is important for the analysis in later chapters.

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This chapter presents the latest statistical data available to us on the phenomenon of violence between young people. Inherent limitations notwithstanding, this data appears to show a number of key trends, including: levels of interpersonal violence in England and Wales have been declining since the mid-1990s; the vast majority of interpersonal violence is committed by men, and the vast majority involves a single perpetrator; since 2015, adults (those aged over 25) have been responsible for a higher percentage of interpersonal violence in England and Wales than children and young people (those aged under 24); since 2015, offences involving use of knives in England and Wales have increased, as have hospital admissions for assaults involving sharp objects; in absolute terms, there are more victims and perpetrators of homicide in London aged over 20 than under 20, but under 20s as a group have a higher rate of homicide victims and perpetrators.

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The conclusion of Against Youth Violence pulls together the themes and arguments of the preceding chapters. After first recapping the central contentions of the book, the authors present a ‘near-future dystopia’ – an image of what the year 2030 could look like if the harmful tendencies outlined in previous chapters are exacerbated. The chapter then proceeds to focus on the positive changes needed to British society if we are to see less harm in young people’s lives, and less violence between young people. After setting out a broad policy orientation based on greater equality of recognition, resources, risk and (state) retribution, the authors then go on to suggest a number of measures which could improve society for young people, ranging from the early years to the criminal justice system.

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This chapter introduces the key themes of Against Youth Violence, laying out the three senses in which the authors are against youth violence: against the perpetration of violence between young people – advocating for a reduction in this violence; against the misleading connotations of the label ‘youth violence’ – advocating for more fruitful framings of the issue; and against the commodification of ‘youth violence’ – advocating for less exploitation of young people’s suffering. As well as outlining the contents and structure of Against Youth Violence, the introductory chapter articulates the need to shift away from narrow and distorting portrayals of and perspectives on violence between young people. The chapter critiques ideas of ‘youth violence’ which are stigmatizing, patronizing and counterproductive, and suggests ways of looking at the issue which are more constructive, and which are explained at greater length through the course of Against Youth Violence.

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This chapter examines some of the social harms which we believe are having the most significant effects on children and young people in today’s Britain, focusing on poverty and inequality; declining welfare support; harms within the education system; unemployment and marginal work; and housing issues. We discuss how they can affect young people’s need fulfilment and subjective well-being, and ways in which they can structurally belittle. We argue that the cumulative, grinding effects of these harms are felt as daily pressure and pain by those affected. They may not be visible and may thus be erroneously viewed as ‘background’, inert features of people’s lives, but these harms disfigure days and alter life trajectories. They do not overwhelm individual agency or remove the moral responsibility from young people for their actions, but we will have little hope of understanding or explaining those actions if we do not attend to their daily effects.

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In this chapter, we suggest that the concentration of social harm in particular communities and biographies is incendiary: it reliably produces the kinds of violent emotion which we know to predictably precipitate physical interpersonal violence. This is a socio-historical problem: it is about the way that, over time, our nation’s policies, systems and institutions have created a profound maldistribution of social goods (meaning that some communities lack the conditions for flourishing) and an equally marked maldistribution of social ‘bads’ (meaning that some communities encounter an accumulation of actively belittling and diminishing experiences). Drawing together our conceptualizations of structural harm and mattering, we endeavour to show how structural features of society – such as policies, systems and institutions – can have a corrosive effect on young people’s sense of mattering, in a manner which is likely to foster feelings of shame and humiliation which we know to increase a person’s propensity to violence.

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This chapter explores three kinds of response to ‘youth violence’ which we deem to be harmful: demonization, punitiveness and misguided attempts at ‘child-saving’. We trace the historical origins of the demonizing tendencies which appear to be most potent in the present, focused in particular on various notions of individual or group pathology. We then switch to policing and the criminal justice system, examining the harmful effects of measures such as youth imprisonment, gang injunctions, joint enterprise and over-policing, critiquing them on three main grounds: ineffectiveness, social harm and disproportionality. Our discussion of ‘child-saving’ centres on those tendencies within the public and charity sector which (1) align with demonization by concentrating on individual moral character and seeking to address isolable ‘pathologies’, thus drawing focus away from wider social conditions; and (2) industrialize and sensationalize the problem of ‘youth violence’, often in a manner which both exploits and stereotypes young people.

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