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The rules of violence among young people

Fights between adolescents are subject to a host of subtle and informal rules.

This is the main conclusion of a doctoral thesis in Sociology authored by Sara Uhnoo from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. Uhnoo’s thesis shows a different picture than the one often portrayed in media, that violence among young people is generally characterised by a lack of norms.

Youth violence tends to receive a great deal of media attention. The general consensus is that it has become more severe and less predictable, and that the ages of perpetrators tend to be decreasing. The young individuals are assigned dual roles: as victims in need of protection and as villains who need to learn what respect for others really means. The implicit message is that adults must do something about the morals adopted by young people before it is too late.

In her thesis, Uhnoo turns the conventional perspective around by exploring what the adolescents themselves have to say. What is their view of violence in general and in their everyday life? Who do they fight with, and why? When is violence legitimate? What kind of violent behaviour is never acceptable? What can be insulted and who can be blamed? What is the relevance of friends and family members? When is revenge OK?

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The study is based on interviews with 41 upper secondary school students from Gothenburg, Sweden, alone or in groups. It gives the reader a thorough insight into young people’s daily ’moral work’, their reflections regarding what is considered acceptable behaviour in play and conflict. Uhnoo also discusses to what extent the established perceptions of youth violence affect adolescents’ own view of violence and fighting among young individuals and in different types of family, friend and couple relationships. The analysis addresses, for example, fighting between unacquainted young individuals, sibling fights, play fights between friends, and young men beating same-age women.

’The aspects that are attributed moral value vary with the type of violence and fighting. In fights between friends or siblings, there is a focus on the purpose of the fight and the character of the relationship, whereas in fights between unacquainted adolescents it is who delivers the first blow, why, and how it is received that matter,’ says Uhnoo. With respect to young men beating same-age women, great importance is attributed to relative strength, meaning that whether or not the woman is able to defend herself is an important factor. Punching a strong young woman may, according to the interviewees, be acceptable.

The doctoral thesis Våldets regler- Ungdomars tal om våld och bråk shows that social control is present also in the absence of adults and that the nature and development of fights are subject to a host of subtle and informal social rules. Thus, it presents a picture of adolescents and their use of violence that differs from the adult-dominated societal discourses, which are often based on the perception that youth violence is characterised by a lack of norms.

For more information, please contact:
Sara Uhnoo, telephone: +46 (0)31 786 4788, e-mail:

Helena Aaberg | idw
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