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Moral Panics and Young White Working-Class Identities The Moralising Discourse on ’Chavs’ Dr. Elias le Grand Department of Sociology, Stockholm University GEDS, Birkbeck College, University of London. Introduction. Connecting moral panic panic studies a nd cultural class analysis

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Moral Panics and Young White Working-Class Identities

The Moralising Discourse on ’Chavs’

Dr. Elias le Grand

Department of Sociology, Stockholm University

GEDS, Birkbeck College, University of London

  • Connecting moral panic panic studies and cultural class analysis
  • Addressing the lack of dialogue between these two strands of research
  • The volatile social reaction to ’chavs’ as a case: how the moralisation of chavs is tied to the dialectical formation of class identities
  • Empirical material from PhD project – analysis of public discourse and long-term ethnographic research in South London
  • Argue for the interrelationship between moralisation processes and the cultural dimensions of class
moral panic analysis and the sociology of moralisation
Moral panic analysis and the sociology of moralisation
  • Moral panics are usually conceived as a sudden, hostile and widespread social reaction over the behaviour of a person or group that are seen to threaten deeply held values – the moral order of society – and thus cast as ‘folk devils’ (cf. Cohen, 1972)
  • ‘Widening the focus’ (Critcher, 2009) of moral panic analysis by connecting it to mainstream currents in social and cultural theory
  • Moral regulation as wider framework for moral panic:
  • Moral panics conceived as strong, sudden, volatile forms of moral regulation (Critcher, 2009; Hier, 2002, 2008, 2011; Hier et al., 2011 ; Hunt, 2011 )
  • Critcher(2009) distinguishes between three aspects of moralisation processes: (i) moral order, (ii) social control, (iii) ethical self-formation (cf. Foucault’s [1991] notion of governmentality)
  • These important developments have extended the moral panic concept as well as led to a more unified sociology of moralisation
  • However, recent work have failed to engage with class theory (though see Young, 2009; Warner, 2013)
cultural class analysis
Cultural class analysis
  • Class analysis after the cultural turn:
  • A renewed interest in the cultural dimensions of class, including identity, consumption, affects/emotions, symbolic boundaries
  • Strongly influenced by Bourdieu’s multi-dimensional notion of class (1984 [1979]; 1987)
  • Classes are conceived as groupings of individuals with differential access to cultural, economic and social capital or resources

Class and identity:

  • Beyond ’class consciousness’: focusing on the implicit, mediated ways in which identities are classed
  • Classed hierarchies of moral worth/value
  • Continued expansion of middle-class occupying the normal and normative (Savage, 2003)
  • Stigmatisation of (many aspects of) working-class culture
  • Lack of research within cultural class analysis of moral panics
linking moralisation and class dialectics of identity formation
Linking moralisation and class: dialectics of identity formation
  • How are moralisation processes bound up with class relations?
  • ‘Chavs’ as a case
  • Interpret the chav phenomenon deploying cultural class analysis and Critcher’s (2009) three aspects of moralisation processes: moral order, social control and ethical self-formation
the study
The study
  • Extensive qualitative content analysis of public discourse on chavs, on websites, in newspapers and popular culture
  • Long-term ethnographic work in ’Satellite Town’ (Nov 2007 – Dec 2008) a deprived area located on the outskirts of South London.
  • I lived for five months and conducted participant observation and photo elicitation interviews at two youth clubs in the area.
  • Empirical material analysed with the assistance of Atlas.ti
the social reaction to chavs
The social reaction to chavs
  • ‘Chavs’ in the UK
  • Stigmatising stereotype typically used to label young, white, working-class youths adopting certain markers of style and dress, particularly tracksuits, trainers and jewellery.
the emergence of the chav discourse
The emergence of the chav discourse
  • Mentions of the word chav in ten* major national British newspapers, 2003-2012 (Source: LexisNexis Academic)

2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012

0 390 1339 914 831 627 477 540 586 464

* The Daily Mail, the Daily Star, the Express, the Financial Times, the

Guardian, the Independent, the Mirror, the Sun, the Telegraph and the Times.

chavs as threat to the moral order
Chavs as threat to the moral order

Two quotes from the Daily Telegraph:

“They are the sullen, pasty-faced youths in hooded tops and spanking-new "prison white" trainers who loiter listlessly on street corners; the slack-jawed girls with mottled legs, hoop earrings and heavily-gelled hair who squawk at each other in consonant-free estuary English and frighten old ladies on buses. They are the non-respectable working-classes: the dole-scroungers, petty criminals, football hooligans and teenage pram-pushers” (Lewis, 2004).


“Chav… [is] a suitably monosyllabic noun or adjective designed to illuminate that which is most appalling in the young, designer-label-obsessed under-class of early 21st century Britain. When you see a stunted teenager, apparently jobless, hanging around outside McDonald's dressed in a Burberry baseball Cap, Ben Sherman shirt, ultra-white Reebok trainers and dripping in bling (cheap, tasteless and usually gold-coloured jewellery), he will almost certainly be a chav. If he has difficulty framing the words "you gotta problem mate?" then he will definitely be a chav. Very short hair and souped-up Vauxhall Novas are chav, as is functional illiteracy, a burgeoning career in petty crime and the wearing of one's mobile telephone around the neck. Chavs are most at home in run-down, small-town shopping precincts, smoking and shouting at their mates. A teenage single mum chewing gum or drawing on a cigarette as she pushes her baby, Keanu, to McDonald's to meet the chav she believes to be his father is a chavette” (Tweedie, 2004).


Chav as ’folk devil’ – a threat to the moral and aesthetic order of British society

  • Moral-aesthetic boundaries:
  • Vulgar, ’tacky’, ’cheap’, excessive forms of consumption, e.g. jewellery, ’blingy’ Christmas lighting, fast food, tattoos.
  • Loutish and anti-social behaviour (”yob culture”, ASBOs)
  • Violent boys in gangs
  • Single teenage mothers; ‘slutty’ femininity
  • Welfare dependency – ”dole scrounging”
  • Marginalized spaces – council house estates, McDonald’s eateries (acronym: ”[C]ouncil [H]ouse [a]nd [V]iolent”)
  • Boundaries constructed through mockery (e.g. chav jokes, Vicky Pollard in Little Britain)

’Chav’ incorporates two familiar folk devils: (i) young, violent working-class males; (ii) working-class welfare cheats, which includes a gendered social type, namely the single, unwed, young working-class mother.

  • A highly classed label – characterized by lack: lack of economic and cultural capital. Categorised as part of the ’non-respectable’ fraction of the British working class
  • Chav discourse linked to marginalised whiteness, which also serves to legitimate it. The denigratory vocabulary would be unthinkable, i.e. politically incorrect, if applied on other ”marginalised” groups or categories, e.g. ”non-white” minorities, gays, disabled.
  • Denigratory discourse contested, especially by left-wing commentators (e.g. In Owen Jones’ Chavs: The Demonization of the Working-Class [2011])
origins of the term chav
Origins of the term ‘chav’
  • Many aspects of phenomenon not new.
  • Young white working-class kids congregating in groups and with low social status since at least the 1990s all over Britain
  • Local names include: Neds (Glasgow), Kevs (London, Bristol), Charvers (Newcastle), Townies, Steeks, Spides, Bazzas, Ratboys, Kappa Slappas, Skagers, Janners, Stigs, Hood Rats.
  • Chav has become an ”umbrella term”
  • Origin of the term unclear:
  • Romani – chavi
  • ’Cheltenham average’
  • Chatham
  • East End of London slang for friend, like ’mate’ or ’mush’
chavs as targets of social control
Chavs as targets of social control
  • Regulating access to public space: shopping malls, pubs, night clubs and other public establishments (e.g. internet cafés) started banning clothing items (baseball caps, hoodies, tracksuits) or brands associated with chavs (Burberry, Prada)
  • Bluewater shopping centre ’hoodie’ ban in 2005
  • DWP campagn in 2008 against ’benefit thieves’
  • Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) strongly associated with chavs
chav asbos
‘Chav ASBOs’
  • Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) were issued in 1997 and subsequently strengthened and broadened throughout the UK during 2003-2004
  • Chavs strongly associated with ASBOs

From the website of the Home Office (2009):

  • What is anti-social behaviour?
  • The term anti-social behaviour covers a wide range of selfish and unacceptable activity that can blight the quality of community life. Terms such as ‘nuisance’, ‘disorder’ and ‘harassment’ are also used to describe some of this behaviour.
  • Examples include:

• Nuisance neighbours

  • Yobbish behaviour and intimidating groups taking over public spaces
  • Vandalism, graffiti and fly-posting
  • People dealing and buying drugs on the street
  • People dumping rubbish and abandoned cars
  • Begging and anti-social drinking
  • The misuse of fireworks
  • Reckless driving of mini-motorbikes. (Home Office, 2009)
ethical self formation the governance of self and other
Ethical self-formation:The governance of self and other
  • ’Beyond moral reformation’: chavs mainly targets of social control rather than objects of ethical self-formation
  • Ethical self-formation plays a greater role on the part of the moralisers: castingchavs as a non-respectable group of white working-class people, is dialectically related to constructing other working-class and middle-class people as respectable and morally righteous.
  • ‘Class contempt serves to reciprocally enhancing and confirming the goodness, self-regard and status of one’s own class’ (Webster, 2008, p. 294).
self governance and disidentification with chavs
Self-governance and disidentification with chavs
  • Classed disidentification with the term chav
  • Young people in Satellite Town on their tastes in tattoos
  • Tattoos as ‘inscriptions of love’ in white British working-class culture (Back, 2006)
  • The case of Holly, 17 years old

Katie: I would never wear that.

Elias: Have you never had like a name or anything? No?

Katie: Only if it feels like... I’d have family. But I’d never have a boy’s name.

Elias: So you’d have your mum’s name or something?

Katie: Yeah, I’d have my mum’s name. But not in a chav way, like [inaudible] name in Hebrew.

Elias: What’s a chav way to have a...?

Katie: To have ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ on a tattoo.

Elias: But in Hebrew?

Katie: In Hebrew.

Elias: So you wouldn’t have, like, jewellery with her name or ‘Mum’ or something?

Katie: Oh no!

Elias: Okay [laughs at her reaction]. And not names and not your initials or anything?

Katie: [Shakes her head]

  • The social reaction to chavs moralisation processes with elements of a moral panic
  • Bound up with long-standing processes of moral distinction against the white British working-class, particularly as regards respectability – constructing a respectable/non-respectable binary (cf. Bott, 1964; Skeggs, 1997; Stacey, 1960; Watt, 2006)
  • Dialectics of class identity. The formation of denigratory representations, which serve to:
  • (a) construct chavs as a stigmatised social identity, positioning certain white working-class people as ’non-respectable’ and simultaneously
  • (b) cast certain middle-class and working-class people as respectable and moral.
  • Two general points: (1) Moralisation processes are situated in class relations, i.e. rooted in the unequal access to economic, cultural and social capital/resources between moralisers and moralised
  • (2) Moralisation as performative in constructing class identities – moral boundaries and forms of identifications based on class
  • Two general points:
  • (1) Moralisationprocesses are rooted in class relations
  • (2) Moralisation processes are performative in constructing class identities
  • Notions of respectability central to classed forms of moralisation: casting certain working-class people as ’non-respectable’, ’respectable’ middle-class and working-class people can identify as morally righteous (cf. Bott, 1964; Skeggs, 1997; Stacey, 1960; Watt, 2006).