From moral panic to expert production

The uses of the racialized category of “street gang” in the reorientation of public policy on the penal treatment of young people in Montreal
By Nicolas Sallée, Benoit Décary-Secours

For the last thirty years in Quebec, the category of the “street gang” has produced the image of a new dangerous class composed of working-class young people and racialized minorities. Emerging first through the media in the late 1980s, this category was the subject of a significant body of criminological work in the second half of the 1990s, leading to the legitimization of the reorientation of Montreal’s public policies on the penal treatment of young people. Guided by a genealogical perspective, we will first describe the emergence of a media concern for street gangs. In the form of a moral panic, and against a backdrop of anti-Black racism, this concern reveals the way in which a consensus gradually emerged around the need to act upon a phenomenon whose very existence was initially disputed. We will then analyze the way in which this moral panic led to the emergence of an expert knowledge around the category of the “street gang.” In doing so, we highlight the way in which the symbolic effectiveness of the category stimulated the production of a body of criminological work that helped to extend its institutional use without, however, clarifying its constitutive vagueness. Finally, in the context of a globalized risk management logic, we show how the category has imposed itself on the daily practices of monitoring young offenders in Montreal.

  • street gang
  • juvenile justice
  • policy-making
  • risk management
  • governmentality
  • expertise
  • moral panic
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