Editor's Introduction: Juvenile Delinquency, Modernity, and the State

By Ellis, Heather | Social Justice, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Editor's Introduction: Juvenile Delinquency, Modernity, and the State


Ellis, Heather, Social Justice


JUVENILE DELINQUENCY REMAINS A CENTRAL TERM FOR ACADEMICS AND PROFESSIONALS in sociology, politics, and law, and for many commentators in the media and popular press. In March 2011, a conference was held in Berlin with a view to exploring some of the reasons behind the term's long-standing popularity. (1) Most of the articles comprising this special issue were first presented there. Many people who use the term "juvenile delinquency" in their everyday life and work (sociologists, political scientists, social workers, and judges) frequently do so with little awareness of its long history and the wide variety of meanings with which it has been invested for more than two centuries. (2) Given that this term remains instrumental in the categorization and sentencing of thousands of young people around the world, the fact that its meaning has varied dramatically according to time and place and still, many would argue, evades precise definition should certainly make us think more carefully about how we use it in our own work.

Historians who have examined the relationship between juvenile delinquency and the state have traditionally tended to portray it in the form of a rather oversimplified grand narrative. Usually, juvenile delinquency has been treated as a concrete social problem, a worrying side effect of "grand processes" of modernization (above all, industrialization and urbanization) in the West. In particular, the damage these processes are believed to have caused to traditional structures of authority--that is, the family and the apprenticeship system--has been blamed for the growth of uncontrolled gangs of young people on the streets of major cities from the early nineteenth century onward. (3) Another classic feature of modernity, the tendency of the state to expand its functions and responsibilities, has generally been hailed as the most successful means of challenging (and ultimately eradicating) the problem of juvenile crime. (4) In this way, Western modernity is rescued from opprobrium, with the expanding state serving as the repository for a new civilizing force. This narrative is perhaps most visible in colonial contexts, where the expansion of Western state power in the form of imperialism (particularly in the exportation of youth justice systems) has often been hailed by those at the time and since as progressive and civilizing. (5) Thus, despite the less pleasant aspects of the modernizing process (in particular, growing levels of juvenile crime), the positive, some might say, Whiggish narrative of Western progress is not only saved, but also strengthened. It is interesting and important to note that the emergence of juvenile delinquency and the fight against it in the Soviet East has been treated very similarly. Here, again, juvenile crime is treated as a regrettable side effect of Western capitalist modernity, and the (Soviet Communist) state as the only agent capable of stamping it out. Instead of a Whiggish narrative of Western progress, here the innate superiority and triumph of Soviet communist society is proclaimed. (6)

Despite the obvious self-glorifying nature of such narratives, relatively few historians in recent decades have set out to question them. To do so was an important aim of the conference in Berlin, where versions of these articles were first presented. In their respective essays, all six contributors set themselves against what they describe as "essentialist" and "dehistoricized" accounts of the relationship between juvenile delinquency and the state, many of which explicitly valorize the state (whether Western capitalist or Soviet Communist) as the one entity capable of solving this worrying social "problem." In such an analysis, they complain, both juvenile delinquency and the state are unnecessarily reified in ways that erode and elide their constructed nature. Applying instead what may be described as a "cultural historical" or "discursive" (7) approach to the relationship between juvenile crime and the state, all the essays included here highlight the much greater variety that exists in the ways in which the term "juvenile delinquency" has been applied in different historical contexts.

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