Dissertation Abstracts

Youth Behind Bars: An Ethnographic Study of Youth Confined in Secure Care Institutions in Denmark

Author: Bengtsson, Tea T, tb@soc.ku.dk
Department: Department of Sociology
University: University of Copenhagen, Denmark
Supervisor: Allan Madsen
Year of completion: 2012
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: Youth , Crime , Confinement , Ethnography
Areas of Research: Youth , Deviance and Social Control


Through an ethnographic study, this thesis examines the everyday life and meaning-making of young people locked up in secure care institutions for young offenders in Denmark. The purpose of the thesis is to make sense of their everyday life both inside and the outside the secure care setting, actively drawing on theories of youth and crime. By applying a relational approach founded in interactional sociology, the thesis explores how apparently senseless actions and situations are constructed socially by the young people when they bring together meanings in their everyday practices. Data, including both observation and interviews with the confined young people, is analysed as context-dependent and relationally constructed.

As one of society’s containers for the unwanted, secure care reveals unique insights into the lives of those young people who are otherwise sought hidden and avoided but most of all controlled. Analyses show that while boredom and waiting are defining aspects of life inside secure care, they are also familiar experiences in the young people’s lives outside secure care. The young people deal with the experience of boredom through the generation of risk-taking action in their ongoing creation of deviant subcultures. These subcultures manifest themselves inside secure care as sites of learning processes where the young people teach each other the specific styles and cultural expressions of their subcultures.

Outside secure care, these deviant subcultures are not only connected to style and cultural expressions but also to experiences of growing up in disadvantaged areas and life on the streets celebrating values of respect, loyalty and crime, all subcultural values formed by the intersections of class, ethnicity and gender. While the young people strongly identify with their deviant subcultures, they also at times recognise both their crimes and general life situations on the margins of society as problematic, which leads to contradicting and incoherent self-presentations. However, when integrating the young people’s specific social and symbolic relations in the analyses, these diverging self-presentations become meaningful as active attempts of manoeuvring in a society which from their perspective is defined by experiences of exclusion.

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