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image European Research News Centre > Research and Society > Coping with deviant behaviour
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image image image Date published: 11/07/2001
  image Coping with deviant behaviour
RTD info 30
  Fear and insecurity, violence and despair, exclusion and injustice, anger and vulnerability are all part of everyday urban life in the early 21st century. In an attempt to bring about change, police, social workers, psychologists, teachers and doctors are joining forces and switching roles. They are also adapting to new policies aimed at managing deviant behaviour.

In Paris, guards on the underground organise the 'transfer' of the homeless at the end of the day. They take them to reception centres where they can take a shower and find a bed for the night, before returning to a métro station the next morning. In Krefeld (Germany), with the help of a 27-point list, the Ordnungshüter (law and order officer) investigates such minor infractions as failure to ensure that a dog does its business in the gutter, or overly aggressive begging methods. In Greece, police officers in the large cities have become a key element in prevention policy, helping to train others involved in the field, while in the Netherlands their role is often akin to that of social workers (with whom there is generally harmonious cooperation). In Belgium, many GPs claim they are becoming the administrators of poverty.(1)

Common problems, local strategies

When vulnerability and exclusion change, so does the pattern of crime. New problems bring new forms of behaviour, leading in turn to policies being adapted to combat them. Unsafe urban areas, rootless young people, drugs, new forms of violence such as vandalism and extortion, new trouble spots such as schools or public transport...

To what extent should society prevent or punish? And how? Who is responsible for what?

'The same social problems are encountered right across Europe. But they are acted out in a different context and it is interesting to study the specific ways in which different countries tackle them,' explains Rémi Lenoir, director of the Centre de sociologie de l'éducation et de la culture (Paris) and coordinator of the project entitled New forms of public management of deviant behaviour in Europe. Supported by the TSER programme, the project includes researchers from five countries (BE, DE, FR, GR, NL).

'The State is under-investing in the social and over-investing in the penal,' remarks Luc Van Campenhoudt, head of the Centre d'études sociologiques des Facultés universitaires Saint-Louis (Brussels), with reference to the situation in Belgium. 'They are trying to contain the effects but without combating the causes. The courts are becoming the regulator. In the past, if a pupil was a regular truant the headmaster would speak to the parents. Today, the case is submitted to the public prosecutor.' In this small country a whole armoury of new mechanisms (security contracts, victim aid, penal mediation, consultation assistants, etc.) support the police in their role as the central player in 'global, integrated prevention' which is based just as much on the courts as on the social players. Meanwhile the traditional actors complain of having lost their autonomy, of a shift from assistance to prevention, of acting as supervisors, or even - when they have to report to the public authorities - as informers, effectively helping erode the principle of professional confidentiality in the process.

New players and the drive for efficiency

This all seems to be part of a general trend towards a wider 'entrepreneurial' approach to social problems. 'Projects used to be long term, but now the talk is of short term, profitability, results by the end of the year, target audience and the like,' observes Gérard Mauger, a sociologist working with Rémi Lenoir.

In a country such as Germany - with a mosaic of Länder committed to their autonomy - this drive for efficiency is in the hands of a highly decentralised management in which non-government institutions including charitable organisations, trade unions and churches play a major role. The Caritas-Verband, for example, manages thousands of local bodies - hospitals, detox clinics, nurseries, retraining centres for juvenile delinquents, etc.

In Greece, recent sociological changes, such as immigration from Eastern countries and the creation of ghettos in some poorer towns, have led to a new approach to the problem of anti-social behaviour. 'The approach is twofold and often contradictory. When it comes to controlling crime, the state oscillates between a protectionist policy tending towards repression, and a voluntarist policy distinctive for its "economic" rationality,' explains Nikos Panayototopoulos, a professor at the University of Crete. 'Social management is also increasingly decentralised and contracted out to private experts, who often import foreign models without adapting them at all.'

In the Netherlands, of particular concern is the prevention of new forms of apparently senseless violence, carried out by young people from a range of backgrounds. Some believe the social problems are due to the socially outcast groups themselves. Others believe it is the circumstances - the creation of ghettos - which fuels the socially deviant behaviour, and that social mixing in a particular geographical area could have an impact on the causes of this delinquency.

'We are studying both the principles which underlie social policy and the form it takes in practice,' continues Rémi Lenoir. 'Our aim, on the basis of these comparisons, is certainly not to provide decision-makers with ready-made answers, but rather to identify the pertinent questions which could help in preparing a European social policy.'

Nikos Panayototopoulos believes that, 'there is every reason to create this genuine Social Europe, which would be the best possible defence against aggressive sentiments by reducing the likelihood of tensions and violence between individuals or groups.'

(1) Judging by the nature of the letters received by the highly regarded and professional Quotidien du Médecin.
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What exactly are we talking about?

Whether dealing with problems, institutions, actions or actors, how is it possible to make comparisons when you do not speak the same language? During their field work, the researchers sought to define the terms used to describe situations which are not always identical from one place to another - or for which the 'translation' could create confusion. A much favoured term in Belgium, such as médiation, has no equivalent in the Netherlands, for example. In France, proximité is used with significantly different connotations depending on whether the context is economic (with reference to jobs or recruitment), or legal (with reference to the police or justice). Traditional equivalents between the French 'baccalauréat' and German 'Abitur' refer to quite different educational systems.

The terms criminalité (FR), criminaliteit (NL) or Kriminalität (DE) are truly false friends. As to terms 'imported' from other cultures or fields, such as zero tolerance, employability or benchmarking, they do not necessarily refer to the same things in each country.

The glossary prepared by the project (which should be very valuable for many other projects too), describes each term in its national context, with a brief presentation of its social philosophy and a bibliography. A comparative context is provided by referring to related words in other languages while, at the same time, making sure that false or absent friends are identified.


Rémi Lenoir

To find our more
Nouvelles formes d'encadrement, Social science research actions nos 136-137, March 2001, Paris, édition du Seuil

What exactly are we talking about?

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