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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 .


Crime and Immigrant Youth
Tony Waters

(London: Sage, 1999)
233pp. Index. Bibl. Hb.: 29.00; ISBN 0-7619-1684-9. Pb.: 12.99; ISBN 0-7619-1685-7.



The main value of this pithy, edgy little book, is in its contention that criminality amongst immigrant youth corresponds predominantly with a boom in the size of the youthful male cohort. But size is not everything, and the extent of immigrant youth crime will depend upon how it interacts with patterns of social cohesion, socio economic status and perceptions of law. In particular, a high population of young males combined with a misinterpretation of the law will result in a wave of youthful crime. Based upon 100 years of immigration records, mainly from California, Waters study is especially critical of criminology and its inability to differentiate between the experiences of different groups of immigrants, and for ignoring migration as a process. Further, Waters suggests, these studies were often carried out in milieus that were exclusively immigrant, and vague notions such as "intergenerational conflict", while possessing some considerable clout at a common sense level, were used as blanket terms that succeed in masking the differences between immigrant and non-immigrant groups.

Waters argument is careful and subtle, affording considerable weight to the ability of immigrant communities to generate eras of considerable social cohesion that can counteract the force of demographic evidence, and create non delinquent identities based on maintaining traditional communities, as in the case of Hmong [Laotian] communities of California's Central Valley. Alternatively East Los Angeles Mexican community should, according to demographics, have seen the crime wave that commenced in the late 1930's to have continued to the early 1960's. However it ceased in the early 1940's with the enlistment of Mexican American males into the armed services, and the post war movement of this age cohort out of at risk neighbourhoods as a result of the G.I. Bill. Waters also points out, with some irony, the role of education in socialising immigrant youth to the values of the host country, therefore creating, particularly amongst second generation immigrants, intergenerational conflict and with a large population of young males, the ideal context for crime.

Given the importance of Thrasher in the study of delinquency, and in particular youth gangs, this reviewer was surprised that more attention was not paid to this seminal work particularly in relation to the assumptions made concerning the temporary nature of gang membership. These assumption have been hugely influential during the golden era of industrialism, and warrant some re-evaluation in the light of, for instance, Hagedorn's ethnographic work that considers Thrashers work in the context of the collapse of the labour market and the emergence of a permanent underclass.

Waters conclusions are pessimistic, and he shows an admirable disregard for the liberal orthodoxy of policy driven happy endings This book is to be commended for bringing the process of migration into the focus of those with an interest in youth crime. It is not a book exclusively about California, and its relevance both theoretically and methodologically should spread to those societies experiencing post colonial migration and the drift westward of fragmented East European communities whose youth are unlikely to merge seamlessly with resentful host cultures.


Dick Hobbs
University of Durham




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