Stop peering down the class structure! (says Jock Young)

Sliding down th spiral stairs (flickr -Reji)

We are monogamous, they are serial marital failures, we are in steady employment, they are mostly out of it, we are moderate, they drink heavily/take drugs, we plan, they are impulsive, we have clarity of purpose, they deceive themselves. All of this is manifestly exaggerated. (The Criminological Imagination, 2011, p. 157)

The difference between the ‘streetcorner men’ living in deprived urban areas (studied in the book Tally’s Corner) and the middle-class white world is exaggerated, says Jock Young. The citation is exemplary of how poor residents of deprived urban areas (the ‘other’) are commonly imagined: as a deviation from the ‘normal’.  When we talk about people living in poverty, and particularly when they engage in deviant behavior, we tend to see them as different from us. That is what the concept of ‘othering’ is about.

Evil others

It was not the notion of othering in itself that inspired my research. It was Young’s analysis of the various ways in which othering occurs, and the hidden (to me, till then) ways in which it occurs when it is performed by leftist policy makers and academics (including myself at the time).

In The Vertigo of Late Modernity (2007) Young unravels processes of othering in policy and the social exclusion literature: there’s liberal othering and conservative othering. They have in common the idea that there is a huge gap between ‘them’ and ‘us’. But conservative othering demonizes, while liberal othering diminishes. In conservative othering the deviant is alien, evil, an inversion of ‘our’ values. The character of the other is also essentialized: it is inherently evil, thus fixed, not much can be done about it, which justifies punitive criminal policies.

Lacking others

Liberal othering, on the other hand, stresses a lacking: ‘they’ (the poor, minorities) are not so much different from us, but suffer from a material or moral deficit. Their character is not essentialized; it can be changed and improved through education and work. Proper upbringing or supervision (rehabilitation) would prevent slipping into a life of deviancy. Basically, liberal othering says that if ‘they’ were living under the same conditions as ‘we’ are, they would be like us. It just as well creates a gap as it at first diminishes (they are less than us) and then distances (we have no direct social relationship with them).

I was aware of paternalistic or moralistic policies that degrade people living in poverty. But to me the concept of liberal othering is far more powerful in showing how class divisions are shaped and reproduced through social policies. The concept makes explicit the relational nature of class divisions: paternalism or moralism towards socioeconomically deprived groups always also involves looking in the mirror. It requires not just an image of what characterizes the other but also an image of what characterizes the middle-class self. In fact, it cannot do without an idea(l) of the middle-class self and its norms and desired way of life, because that is what others are expected to aspire and live up to. Those norms are what ‘they’ lack. Policies that promote social mobility, emancipation, higher education – they all suddenly seemed suspect after reading Young.


But Young speaks to criminologists as well. In The Criminological Imagination (2011) Young zooms in on processes of othering in criminological (and sociological) research. Criminologists and sociologists do it, too. There is demonizing, but also romanticizing and exoticizing, and, indeed, liberal othering. Criminological research that performs liberal othering accepts the norms of the (white) middle class as normal and rational. However, marital failures, job instability/insecurity, drinks and drugs, low self-control, and, above all, self-deception – are characteristic of mainstream culture as well. The ‘lower’ classes are not ‘less’ than us, nor are they ‘disconnected’ from or ‘outside’ of society. They are very much part of the economy and well socialized into mainstream society. Thus, as criminologists, we should stop ‘peering down the class structure’, says Jock Young, and start pulling it down.

Photo by -Reji on Flickr

One thought on “Stop peering down the class structure! (says Jock Young)

  1. Ha Gwen,

    Ook merkte eens op dat professionals met hun goede bedoelingen attent moeten zijn dat zij zich bewust moeten zijn van hun eigen normering: ” (..) is also dangerous, because such an approach labels those who do not conform almost by definition as troublemakers. For instance, participation in a residents’ association is often regarded as a measure of the success of involvement, and participation in neighbourhood activities as a gauge for society building. However, the disappointment that professionals feel when they fail to arouse residents’ interest in this type of activity can often stem from their own one-sided preoccupation with how the public domain should be.”

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