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Antisocial Behavior

Stephen Crossley, Durham University, Durham, UK

2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Issues of deviance, delinquency, disorder, and incivilities have occupied politicians and policy makers for many years.
The current widespread policy focus on antisocial behavior draws heavily on theories, which advocate early intervention for
low-level nuisance and disorder, to break perceived links with more serious subsequent criminal behavior. This widening of
the net of forms of social control associated with these issues has necessitated that social workers curb the behavior of alleged
unruly people. This control function potentially places practitioners at odds with widely held social work ethics and value
and has implications for social work practice and education.

Sociology tended to rest heavily upon the idea that deviance leads to
social control. I have come to believe that the reverse idea, i.e. social
control leads to deviance, is equally tenable and the potentially
richer premise for studying deviance in modern society.
(Lemert, 1972: p. ix)

of this policy area. However, the robust approach to ASB in

the United Kingdom is utilized to examine some points in
greater depth.

What Is ASB?
What to some are the highest reaches of the welfare state are to others
the furthest extension of social control.
(Lipsky, 1980: p. 11)

Issues such as deviance, delinquency, disorder, incivilities,
and nuisance have occupied theorists, researchers, politicians,
and policy makers for many years. In 1959, Barbara Wootton
suggested that:

No-one can embark on a discussion of antisocial behavior (ASB)

without making assumptions as to the criteria by which any specic
actions are dened as such; and those assumptions are bound to
reect, not only the norms of a particular culture, but in some degree
also, the subjective preferences of the person who makes them. What
is understood to be unacceptable behavior varies from place to place
and from time to time; and even where standards are much the same,
actual manifestations will vary.
(Wootton, 1959: p. 13)

This article explores some of these concerns in more detail,

beginning with what antisocial behavior (ASB) is understood
to involve at the current time and where its most recent origins
can be found. The focus on ASB spreads across continents and
some of the similarities and differences in approaches across
cultures are also explored. The differences between them can
be partly explained by the inuence of wider social policies
and welfare systems, which differ between countries and
which themselves are borne out of different political and
economic visions and circumstances. The withdrawal from
a wider social solidarity project to a narrower vision of
maintaining order has implications for social work practice
and these tensions are explored, making use of an extensive
literature that highlights the competing roles that social
workers are often asked to carry out. Examples are drawn from
a number of different countries and from a wide range of
sources to highlight the international and historical saliency


ASB is currently dened under UK law as acting in a manner

that causes or is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress
to one or more persons not of the same household as the
person (Anti-Social Behaviour Act, 2003: p. 26). A new ASB,
Crime, and Policing Bill introduced to the UK Parliament in
2013 includes proposals covering a wide range of areas,
including dangerous dogs, rearms offences, forced marriage,
policing reforms, extradition, and criminal justice, as well as
ASB. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that this version
of ASB has encountered some criticism for the breadth of its
coverage. Burney has called it an elastic concept (2005: p. 7)
and a hydra-headed monster (p. 16) while Ashworth has
suggested it as a vague term with a broad denition, which in
the last few years has become a rallying call for some onerous
and intrusive measures against individuals (2004: p. 263).
The history of the concept of ASB and related terms has been
covered extensively elsewhere (see, e.g., Morris, 1994; Burney,
2005; Welshman, 2006; for histories relevant to the United
Kingdom). It is, however, notable that there are some strong
similarities between the current focus on ASB and previous
historical social concerns about the behavior and/or depravity
of certain social groupings. For example, it has been suggested
that the contemporary media and political concern
surrounding ASB hold a number of similarities, in both
application and appeal, to the widespread public anxiety about
the so-called dangerous classes in Victorian times (Burney,
2005; Morris, 1994) and it has been argued that these
concerns tend to be periodic (Cohen, 2002).
The present focus on low-level nuisance and disorder owes
much to the Broken Windows thesis, which originated in the
United States (Kelling and Wilson, 1982) and the accompanying policy response of zero-tolerance policing, which was
credited with being the primary factor in a signicant reduction
of crime and nuisance behavior in New York. Kelling and
Wilson suggest that there is general agreement between social
psychologists and police ofcers that if a broken window is left
unrepaired for a period of time, other windows will get broken
as well. These authors argue that because some areas are

International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition, Volume 1

Antisocial Behavior

inhabited by determined window breakers, people are not

only fearful of a sudden, violent attack in public places, they are
also fearful of:

being bothered by disorderly people. Not violent people, nor,

necessarily, criminals, but disreputable or obstreperous or unpredictable people: panhandlers, drunks, addicts, rowdy teenagers,
prostitutes, loiterers, the mentally disturbed.
(Kelling and Wilson, 1982: p. 1)

The need to maintain order therefore becomes a policy

priority. In this scenario, low-level nuisance cannot be left
unchecked for fear of informal community controls breaking
down and the precursory warning signals of more serious crime
and disorder need nipping in the bud. Despite a number of
critics questioning this deterministic view, the concept has
traveled well. Aided by wider processes of globalization, the
neoliberal and international policy market has helped to
ensure that a number of different countries have adopted and
adapted different aspects of the zero-tolerance approach to suit
their own particular needs and systems.
Burney (2005) draws on a wide range of research to
highlight a number of different examples from Europe,
including Holland, Sweden, France, and Austria. While there
are undoubtedly similarities between some of the policies and
approaches used to tackle nuisance behavior, there are also
differences. In the original Broken Windows article, Kelling
and Wilson note that the majority of the foot patrol ofcers
are white while the people on the street were usually black.
These people were then sorted into regulars who the police
ofcers recognized and strangers, who they did not know.
The similarities with some countries on mainland Europe are
apparent as racial tensions, immigration, and the perceived
lack of integration of relatively new, predominantly Muslim
communities (especially young men) that have been main
drivers of new legislation in that continent. However, the
primary target of extended ASB legislation in the United
Kingdom has been white working class youths, stereotypically
located in areas of industrial decline, deprivation, and
unemployment (Burney, 2005: p. 162), although black and
minority ethnic groups are overrepresented in penal establishments. Another marked difference between countries is
the extent to which state agencies get involved and the way in
which they do so. It has been noted, for example, by Burney
(2005: p. 157) that Swedish welfare agencies will intervene
early to offer support to families and that their system does
not include purely negative instruments such as the Antisocial Behavior Order (ASBO) (Anti-Social Behaviour Act, 2003:
p. 62) that form part of the UK legislative arsenal. Burney also
notes that there appears to be genuine surprise and bemusement among Swedish welfare agencies regarding the politically motivated deployment and reach of ASB legislation in
England and Wales.
It has been suggested that, in the United Kingdom, New
Labour invented ASB but others have instead proposed
a rediscovery of ASB. Drawing on the claim by a former
Prime Minister, Tony Blair, Squires and Stephen argue that
when he rst used the phrase in 1988, anti-social behaviour
did not arise, perfectly formed, in the mind of this politician


then. Rather, it reemerged as a result of a complex combination of inuences (Burney, 2005: p. 20) including a focus on
social exclusion and victimization and the residualization of
social housing. Tracing the development of the concept
through the 1980s and 1990s, Squires and Stephen also
highlight the Broken Windows inuence, and suggest that,
by arguing for the need to break the links between juvenile
delinquency and persistent adult criminality and intervene
early, Labour merely succeeded in strengthening already
perceived links in the minds of the electorate. This move
placed Labour in the center of the law and order debate
initiated earlier by the Conservative government, especially
under Michael Howard as Home Secretary, about being
tough on law breakers, as it maneuvered for electoral success.
As Squires and Stephen note, the rediscovery of the term
ASB tted with the wider New Labour focus on social
exclusion, which was subsequently critiqued as a vague
concept, which houses competing discourses (Levitas, 1998).
The concept has also been useful in mobilizing communitarian government projects such as New Labours Together
and Respect Agendas, which called on active citizens to
utilize and develop their social capital and play a role in
supporting state agencies to tackle ASB and instill the old
fashioned virtue of respect in an apparently wayward younger
The links between ASB and social exclusion highlight
that criminal justice policies are not developed in isolation,
away from other social and economic policies. David Garland
has highlighted that the same premises and purposes that
transformed criminal justice are evident in the programmes of
welfare reform that have been adopted by governments (and
opposition parties) on both sides of the Atlantic (Garland,
2001: p. 196). He argues that the social democratic solidarity project of the middle decades of the last century has
given way to a more reactionary, less ambitious one of
reimposing control (2001: p. 199). This has led to poor
people and criminals being again viewed as members of
a culturally distinct and socially threatening underclass, in
which all of the pathologies of late modern life are concentrated (2001: p. 196). Mobilizing the concept of othering
(see Lister, 2004 for a discussion on this specically in relation to poverty), he argues that so long as offenders and
claimants appear as other, and the chief source of their own
misfortune, they offer occasions for the dominant classes to
impose strict controls without giving up freedoms of their
own (2001: p. 198).
This labeling of others as somehow different and, more
usually, deviant (Becker, 1963) has been extended, in the
United Kingdom at least, from a focus primarily on ASB to
include the other pathologies that Garland alluded to, with
a range of perceived familial failings identied as worthy of
state intervention. This is most acutely demonstrated in policy
programmes designed to tackle troubled families or families with multiple disadvantages, in which ASB features
Following the riots in a small number of towns in England
in 2011, something akin to a moral panic ensued and 120 000
families that had previously been identied as having
multiple disadvantages became known as troubled families,
with a large centrally organized programme operationalized


Antisocial Behavior

to turn their lives around. The UK Prime Minister, David

Cameron, stated that his mission in politics was xing the
responsibility decit, almost perfectly articulating what
Garland has called the responsibilization strategy (2001:
p. 124). In launching the Troubled Families Programme,
Cameron said:

Ofcialdom might call them families with multiple disadvantages.

Some in the press might call them neighbours from hell. Whatever
you call them, weve known for years that a relatively small number
of families are the source of a large proportion of the problems in
society. Drug addiction. Alcohol abuse. Crime. A culture of disruption and irresponsibility that cascades through generations.
(Cameron, 2011)

Critics of the Troubled Families Programme have noted that

the original gure of 120 000 families was identied from
a government report exploring families with multiple disadvantages, such as maternal mental health issues, low income,
poor quality housing, and low parental skills or qualications.
However, the current group of troubled families are identied
as those that have an adult on out-of-work benets, where
children are not attending education and where crime and/or
ASB is taking place. This highlights the view, as articulated by
Cohen, that The deprived are not very different from the
depraved (1985: p. 60).
Each troubled family is allocated a keyworker from
a local state or voluntary sector welfare agency to help them
turn their lives round, with a strong emphasis on the
importance of locally developed solutions, highlighted by
a lack of statutory guidance supporting the programme.
Drawing on the work of Cohen again, the Troubled Families
Programme therefore represents a good example of a exible
system where Crime and delinquency nets thus not only
become blurred in themselves but get tangled up with other
welfare, treatment and control nets. Cohen goes on to
suggest, perhaps unfairly, that, In Britain, social workers are
the most powerful human service professionals operating in
these waters (1985: p. 61).

Care or Control?
As I have noted above, the development of social policy does not
take place in an intellectual or political vacuum and it therefore
follows that these policies cannot be applied without consideration of broader social, economic, and political concerns. Policies need to be implemented rules need enforcers and social
workers, in a broad sense, are the professionals tasked with
implementing a range of social and welfare related policies.
Tensions can, however, occur when professionals whose primary
role is to ensure the welfare of their clients are tasked with
carrying out the function of controlling certain kinds of individuals or families and/or their behaviors.
In his classic work The Policing of Families, Jacques
Donzelot (1997) argued that social workers were gradually
taking over from teachers in civilizing members of society. He
suggested that, although social workers are scattered
throughout a multiplicity of inscription sites they focused

on what he called the less favored classes and, more

the pathology of children in its dual form: children in danger those
whose upbringing and education leaves something to be desired,
and dangerous children, or delinquent minors.
(Donzelot, 1997: p. 96)

Originally writing in 1977, Donzelot predicted the current

focus on prevention and early intervention via an extensive
state apparatus. He argued that so-called experts would look at
delinquents rst encounters with state agencies, examine their
families backgrounds and then draw up a portrait of their
future life. Following this process of examination, An infrastructure of prevention will then be erected around him (sic)
and an educative machinery will be set into motion, a timely
action capable of stopping him short of a criminal violation
(1997: p. 97).
This extension of the state apparatus and the corresponding
increased interest in low-level nuisance has led to what Squires
has called a disciplinary welfare system (1990: p. 1) where
some of the tensions between the care and control functions of
social policy working with families or working on them
have become increasingly apparent. Drawing on Foucaults
work around discipline and governmentality and Benthams
notion of a disciplinary continuum (1990: p. 49), Squires
suggests that a generalised terrain of social problems came to
be the accepted target of a regime of state interventions
(Squires, 1990: p. 47) and that these interventions are
increasingly being carried out by social workers.
This expansion and dispersal of discipline means that social
workers themselves, who are often employed or funded by the
state and therefore expected to carry out the functions of the
state, have been drawn into potential roles in the disciplinary
net (Cohen, 2002). These roles conict with the original aims
and the wider ethics and values of social work and have led to
social workers being called reluctant policemen (Burney,
2005: p. 115). Russian dolls enveloping an initial judicial
state model (Donzelot, 1997: p. 98) and agents of social
control, disguised storm troopers of the state (Cohen, 1985:
p. 130). Bourdieu argues, somewhat more sympathetically that
these minor civil servants have work shot through with the
contradictions of the state (Bourdieu, 1999: p. 184). They
become the left hand of the state whose right hand no longer
knows, or worse, no longer wants, what the left hand is doing
(Bourdieu, 1999: p. 183).
In his book The Deviant Imagination, Pearson (1975)
explores the ambiguous politics of social work in more
detail and refers to social workers as social policemen, social
tranquilizers (1975: p. 133), and professional Robin Hoods
(p. 134) who take part in moral hustling (Pearson, 1975:
p. 136). He argues that attempts to start where the client is risk
ignoring the inuence of the state in locating individuals in
certain subject positions for the sake of administrative convenience (Pearson, 1975: p. 128). The nature of a dual
commitment to society as well as the individual is explored
and this commitment and accountability to a wider society is,
according to Pearson, poorly articulated by the social work

Antisocial Behavior

Using more robust language, Pearson goes on to argue that:

Social work perpetually dithers about whether it represents the

technical business of deviance-control, or some kind of artistic
enterprise built on faith.
(Pearson, 1975: pp. 129130)
These ambiguities mirror social works ambiguous relationship to
social and political structure, and the question of whether social
work represents a personal counselling service for active, free willed
human agents or a mopping up operation for societys dregs.
(Pearson, 1975: p. 130)

These views, articulated in the 1970s are still relevant today.

If we return to the UK example of the Troubled Families Programme, similar tensions become apparent. Social workers in
the United Kingdom have been accused by Ministers and senior
civil servants of colluding with families who are allegedly
uent in social work, or of being politically correct and nave
when highlighting poverty as an issue when dealing with
behavioral problems. They have been portrayed as lacking
authoritative challenge and numerous high prole child
protection cases and reports have highlighted missed opportunities for intervention by a range of welfare agencies, usually
with a strong focus on childrens services (see, e.g., Munro,
2011). Social workers have been made aware of the potential
to use sanctions such as having children removed into care,
withdrawal of benets and eviction from homes. In a speech to
the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners in 2013,
the Secretary of State for Communities, Eric Pickles said:

And the challenging, authoritative voice of the police is crucial. Some

of the most successful family intervention projects are those where
the police are heavily involved. Because sometimes its only when
a family is truly confronted with consequences - whether thats the
threat of eviction, of having kids taken into care, or criminal
proceedings - that they start taking things seriously.
(Pickles, 2013)

In this political climate, it is understandable that social

workers often feel compelled to carry out the wishes of the state
without critically challenging or engaging with the policies they
are operationalizing. However, the tensions between the need
to care for certain groups and the need to control the behavior
of some, sometimes overlapping, groups do not just exist
between a centralized state and a localized delivery workforce.
Tensions and differences in approach can be found within and
between various local agencies tasked with participating in
multiagency approaches to tackling ASB. Managers within
these services are sometimes viewed as being overly bureaucratic and unsympathetic to the complexities of frontline social
work. However, the main tensions often arise between services
tasked with working together on ASB issues, which often
include housing providers, childrens services, neighborhood
wardens, environmental ofcers, education professionals, and
representatives from probation and criminal justice agencies.
Drawing again on UK examples, recent work has highlighted
some of the problems of the multiagency and partnership
approaches to tackling ASB. Burney (2005) has indicated the


difference that demography, geography, and history can play in

localized approaches to ASB, while Matthews and Briggs (2008)
have noted the varying levels of signicance attached to
different forms of ASB by different agencies and organizations.
In a study of the approaches used by local Crime and Disorder
Reduction Partnerships in three different areas in the United
Kingdom, they identify two primary divisions: the rst being
between the community safety teams and housing departments
and the second being between what were loosely dened as
enforcement and welfare or caring agencies. They argue that
there are pronounced differences in the attitudes toward ASB
among youth services, social services, and education departments on the one hand and the police on the other (Matthews
and Briggs, 2008: p. 93). These different attitudes often led to
frustrations with the approach of some of the partner organizations, with police often viewed as being heavy handed and
unsympathetic and welfare and social workers being perceived
as too soft and potentially obstructive to enforcement action
being taken against individuals.
Edwards and Hughes (2008: p. 67) have argued that such
differences lead to the brokering of satiscing deals between
the various agencies that recognize the various statutory,
occupational, and populist pressures to which they are subject.
In some cases these deals have not been achieved and Edwards
and Hughes note that, as a result of competing statutory duties
for different agencies, the issuing of ASBOs has been challenged
by some local authority social services departments as counter
to the welfare of those children subject to these orders and,
therefore, in contravention of section 1 of the 1989 Children
Act (Edwards and Hughes, 2008: p. 67).
Similar tensions can also be found in other countries where
social workers are caught up in the expectations of local citizens
and the policy responses identied by politicians and policy
makers. The Netherlands has been highlighted as an example
where a strategy of responsibilization (Garland, 2001) has
also been implemented with different public bodies expected
to play their part in tackling crime and nuisance. The traditional
view of Dutch society as tolerant and lenient has been contrasted with a tougher approach increasingly concerned with
perceived deviation from Dutch norms and standards and
which has argued that social workers should focus on social
cohesion and diversion of juveniles from the street so
participating with police to reduce feelings of insecurity and
promote social control (Burney, 2005: p. 146).

Implications for Practice

The potential for social workers to have split personalities has
been extensively documented and there is often a disconnection
between the values and ethics associated with social work and
the functions they are asked to carry out in everyday practice. The
International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW)
and the International Federation of Social Work (IFSW) state
that the profession promotes social change, problem solving in
human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of
people to enhance well-being. It goes on to dene the ethics of
social work as based on respect for the equality, worth, and
dignity of all people, focused on meeting human needs and
developing human potential and states that In solidarity with


Antisocial Behavior

those who are disadvantaged, the profession strives to alleviate

poverty and to liberate vulnerable and oppressed people in order
to promote social inclusion (IFSW, 2013).
The IASSW and the IFSW recognize that social workers act as
both helpers and controllers and these values, as we have seen,
are often forced to compete or collaborate with the goals and
aims of other parts of the state, especially when multiagency
approaches are lauded as the most effective way of delivering
public services. Far from helping individuals to ourish and
reach their full potential, social workers are often expected to
help curb behavior that is viewed as unacceptable by the state,
often among already disadvantaged and marginalized groups.
Drawing on examples from Australian settings, Briskman has
highlighted how these competing accountabilities can sometime lead to social workers implementing dominant and
repressive policies. She argues that A benign acceptance of
practice norms can take hold, with social workers focusing on
doing good without critically reecting on underlying ideologies that perpetuate inequalities and injustices (Briskman,
2013: p. 51). Briskman advocates a dual loyalty continuum
as an explanatory framework for negotiating the opposing roles
of control agent and care agent.
The dual loyalty continuum highlights the shifting and
dynamic nature of much of social work. The deep complexities
of social work ensure that workers are constantly engaged in
negotiating processes with clients and their families, colleagues
within departments, and partners from other agencies.
Depending on how their work with service users is progressing
and the expectation or demands of fellow professionals, social
workers will need to adopt different positions on this
continuum and the question of care or control is not one which
lends itself to an either or solution.
The concept of street-level bureaucrats (Lipsky, 1980) is
potentially useful in exploring the dilemmas faced by frontline
workers. Lipsky highlights the room that social workers often
have to maneuver and argues that most people encounter
government through their interactions with street-level
bureaucrats such as social workers, teachers, police ofcers,
nurses, health visitors, and so on as opposed to more formal
interactions with politicians and more senior bureaucrats in the
traditional sense. These encounters are more frequent for
poorer people as more afuent individuals and families can
purchase private services in respect of health, education,
housing, and other areas and there is consequently less of
a perceived need to change or control their behavior as they are
not seen as a drain on public resources. Lipsky (1980: p. 8)
highlights that the policy delivered by street-level bureaucrats
is most often immediate and personal and that decisions have
implications for how people relate to and are perceived by their
neighbors, and how they perceive and think of themselves:

Clients of street-level bureaucrats respond angrily to real or perceived

injustices, develop strategies to ingratiate themselves with works, act
grateful and elated or sullen and passive in relation to street-level
bureaucrats decisions.
(Lipsky, 1980: p. 9)

Despite an increasing interest in surveillance and control,

opportunities do still exist that allow the left hand of the state to

operate without the full knowledge or approval of the right hand,

to use Bourdieus analogy. Neoliberal discourses around freeing
up resources, local solutions, and empowerment provide space
for social workers and street-level bureaucrats to develop alternative narratives, often with the support and inclusion of service
users. Where marginalized individuals or groups struggle to have
their voices heard by those in positions of authority, social
workers can play a role in supporting them to do this and, where
necessary, advocate on their behalf. This approach has long been
recognized in relation to welfare support and advice from social
workers but advocacy also takes place across different issues such
as disability rights, legal advice and support, discriminatory
practice, and so on. As was highlighted earlier, this role has been
enacted in respect of ASB by some social service departments
challenging the issuing of ASBOs through a legal process as it was
viewed as being counter to the welfare of the children involved
(Edwards and Hughes, 2008: p. 67).
As well as having considerable scope within the rules that
they are expected to work within, Pearson (1975) has argued
that bending or breaking the rules is the only way that social
workers are often able to achieve the aims of their profession.
He suggests that industrial deviance is alive and well in the
profession. Bartley (2006) has also carried out research in the
United Kingdom that highlighted how welfare professionals
who went above and beyond what was necessary for their job
were highly valued by clients/service users and made a lasting
and positive difference to their lives. However, she notes that:

These were the exception, however, and when interviewed it was

often the case that state welfare workers felt that their approach was
despite their employing agency, rather than positively endorsed by
the agency.
(Bartley, 2006: p. 23)

The implications of these tensions extend beyond social

work practice, and also resonate in the realms of social work
education. Garrett has highlighted how, in the United
Kingdom, government documents and reviews of social work
practice have helped to focus on social work as a practical job
with little requirement for critical reection and theoretical
distractions, with learning by doing prioritized over education
time spent outside the workplace. Drawing on a wide range of
academic work, he identies the fallacy of theory-less practice
and argues that whether social work practitioners realize it or
not, they are constantly drawing on and negotiating theories
when carrying out their job (Garrett, 2013: pp. 23).
Educating social workers to adopt a critical stance in both
their reading and their practice encourages them to see dominant or ofcial discourses in different lights and may help them
to understand what it may feel like to be a recipient of some
social policies and interventions. This is certainly the case with
an issue such as how best to deal with ASB when, as Barbara
Wotton (1959: p. 13) suggested over half a century ago, the
study of this topic can often reveal as much about the rule
makers as it does about the rule breakers.

See also: Criminal Justice and Social Work Practice;

Social Work Theory.

Antisocial Behavior

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