The Rules of Violence: Young People’s Moral Work around Violence and Fighting

  • Sara UhnooEmail author
Part of the Young People and Learning Processes in School and Everyday Life book series (YPLP, volume 2)


Young people regulate their own and one another’s behaviour through sets of subtle and informal rules regarding conflicts, violence, and fighting. The environment in which they most often experience different degrees of physical violence and threats thereof is that of the school. This chapter examines the way Swedish young people approach and deal with violent conflicts arising in school settings, but also outside of them. Drawing upon an interview study, it analyses young people’s oral moral work in constructing, re-constructing, and negotiating their rules for fighting and violence. That moral work is shown to be complex and characterized by ambivalence and ambiguity: the young people’s’ rules of violence remained open to negotiation and varied according to the situation and the type of the relationship between the parties involved. A typology of young people’s violence and fighting is presented, with the rules for different types of violence and fighting considered and compared while paying attention to the kinds of violence and fighting that, based on the rules in use, can be seen normalized and legitimized for different situations and social relationships. A special focus is laid on the rules of starting a fight and audience behaviour.


Violence among the young is not ‘mindless’ or ‘senseless’, but on the contrary highly socialised, operating within strict rules and moral codes (Barter et al. 2003, p. 213).

The majority of violent crime is committed by young men, with also their victims very often being adolescents (Brå 2014). To regulate their behaviour and interactions vis-à-vis one another, young people employ sets of subtle and informal rules regarding conflicts, violence, and fighting. To be able to understand the actions and behaviour of the young in our society, these underlying, often tacit, rules and meaning contents need to be examined and clarified (Jackson-Jacobs 2013; Stanko 2003). In their nature, they are socially constructed, intersubjectively shared, and individually internalized. They can be likened to instructions defining which actions are legitimate and which illegitimate in specific relationships and situations. Their social implications arise from their ability to motivate action, create behavioural expectations, and function as informal mechanisms of social control. In their broader context, they are more or less generally accepted as norms in society, and are to various degrees variable and malleable by nature. Some of them are more formal, having perhaps become institutionalized as laws, which makes them more fixed. Other rules of violence are more informal and more easily changeable. The mere existence of such rules and their endorsement by the people does not, however, mean that violence would always be resorted to and acts of violence carried out in accordance with them: our social interactions with others do not nearly always unfold according to the rules.

In this chapter, I investigate the informal moral rules of violence that in many ways resemble moral norms. Although, formally speaking, the state, in modern society, has the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical violence, there are also numerous other rules for how and when to use violence in it. Violence and the underlying norms governing its use must therefore always be studied in context, situationally and with a view to their local character (Stanko 2003). Since the moral fabric of society is constantly re-created, norms of violence keep changing. These norms can, moreover, be mutually incompatible, unclear, and ambiguous, making it necessary for them to first be interpreted before they can be applied to particular cases. Even when people may, in principle, be in agreement as to their applicability, rules thus tend to vary and become re-negotiated when actualized in specific and concrete everyday situations (Burman et al. 2003; Hanmer and Saunders 1984; Uhnoo 2011). Deliberations and negotiations about the scope and application of rules are, accordingly, an essential part of any social life.

More specifically, the focus in my investigation is on the rules of violence of young people. Young people quite often have conflicts with one another, and where they tend to most frequently experience different degrees of physical abuse and threats thereof is at school (Brå 2016). In this chapter, I look at how Swedish young people approach and deal with violent conflicts arising not only in school settings, but also outside of them. Fights and violence among the young are, namely, not restricted to certain arenas only, but erupt in various contexts, such as, besides the school, at home, at parties, and out on the streets. As a consequence, young persons must learn early on how to manage conflicts and what the relevant rules governing fights and violence are for different situations. Studying the norms of violence of specific groups helps one to develop a picture of how such rules may vary across groups and situations, contributing also to our understanding of the way they, and the norms governing their application, are negotiated. In addition, we will learn about how those researched – in this particular case, young Swedish men and women – legitimize their uses of violence and how they perceive or experience the social functions and appeal of different forms of violence.

The chapter is based on my doctoral dissertation on rules of violence, a work that examines young people’s oral moral work, or the way they construct, re-construct, and negotiate rules for various types of fighting and violence during spoken interviews about the subject (Uhnoo 2011). The term ‘moral work’ in it is defined as the collaborative effort of individuals talking about and negotiating the legitimacy or illegitimacy of various actions, events, and behaviours, thereby producing and re-producing morality (cf. Drew 1998, p. 295). In addition to this productive dimension of rule creation, moral work, however, also has a performative aspect to it, one that involves an attempt to present oneself and one’s actions in a morally acceptable light. The morality here then emerges as a result of continuous (re-)negotiations among young people in the midst of their everyday reality, at a micro level. Moral work is, typically, deeply embedded in people’s talk (Drew 1998, p. 296). There are, however, some interactive speech situations as well as discussion topics in which the moral dimension is more prominent than in others, such as when talking about violence. The latter situations thus offer themselves as particularly promising contexts for the study of how moral work is done in practice.

The empirical material used for my dissertation research consisted of 15 audio recorded and verbatim-transcribed interviews with 41 young persons aged 15–21 from Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city.1 For the interviews, no single or clear-cut definition of violence was put forth; instead, the participants were allowed to themselves develop a way to approach the phenomenon and describe what they regarded as violence and what in their view was legimate or illegitimate to do in different situations involving fighting and violence. A whole variety of everyday life settings were brought up as arenas where the interviewees had witnessed violence and fighting, with incidents read about in newspapers or to have happened to themselves, their siblings, friends, acquaintances, classmates, girlfriends or boyfriends, neighbours, parents, and other relatives narrated. The youths also spoke more hypothetically about what they thought was typical of such incidents as a youth phenomenon or specific to young people. The increasing public and research focus on ‘youth violence’ and ‘street violence’ has brought with it a relative marginalization of less spectacular, milder, and more everyday forms of conflicts among young people (cf. Jackson-Jacobs 2013). By examining young people’s associations and definitions as well as the way they discuss the subject when asked to speak about ‘violence’ in a setting combining the use of an open-ended concept, semi-structured focus group interviews, and an inductive analytical strategy, our picture of youth violence can be broadened and nuanced.

The analytical focus in this examination is on young people’s everyday and locally anchored language use – their local discourse production – when drawing upon cultural resources available to them in the form of widely shared assumptions, or ‘truths’, about reality and norms about how people are to think, feel, and act. The young people’s moral work here is viewed as micropolitical boundary work (cf. Åkerström 2002; Emerson and Messinger 1977; Jackson-Jacobs 2014), with the object of the investigation being how morality is (re-)produced ‘here and now’, in the specific social and cultural context that the interview situation entails.

The chapter begins by presenting a typology of young people’s violence and fighting. After that, the phenomenon of the normalization of sibling fights and play fights is discussed, with the two cases briefly compared. Thereafter, the rules governing fights and fighting among young people are subjected to examination and analysis, in particular as regards the way fights are started and how those standing by in the audience when a fight breaks out are to act and behave.

A Typology of Young People’s Violence and Fighting

The analysis of young people’s oral moral work described above showed it to be complex and characterized by ambivalence and ambiguity: the rules of violence they identified remained open to negotiation and varied according to the situation and the type of the relationship between the parties in each case. The complex and context-dependent nature of the concept ‘violence’ was regularly highlighted. A physical fight, for instance, could be interpreted in a number of different ways, depending on a great variety of circumstances. According to Stanko (2003, p. 11), four key factors influence the way a specific act of violence is interpreted and meaning and legitimacy are ascribed to its components: the act itself, the relationship of the participants to one another, the location of the act, and the outcome or the resultant damage. In my study on the moral work of young people, it was the second aspect that stood out as especially important in the material – the relationship between the participants. Even when interviewees invoked universal, virtually timeless notions of what the rules of violence consist of,2 they at the same time specified particular rules for fighting and violence among the young based on the kind of relationship the young persons had with one another – whether these were or were not known to each other from before, whether they were friends/buddies, siblings, couples, and so on.

The oral moral work done in the interviews is presented below in a summary form, constituting a typology of ideal-typical forms of fighting and violence among young people. In the typology, two specific characteristics of the relationship between the involved parties can be seen as decisive for which rules were seen to apply and how these were defined: the relative power relationship and the degree of social distance between those in the conflict (Table 11.1).

The second of these aspects, the degree of social distance between the parties to the conflict, was in this study influenced by how well and how in general the persons in question knew each other from before. That mattered for the way an act or action or an event was interpretered, and thus whether it were ascribed legitimacy or not (cf. Black 1993, p. 740; Stanko 2003, p. 11). In general, the lesser the social distance between the parties and the milder the violence resorted to, the less often there tends to end up being a police report filed on the incident, and vice versa (Estrada 2007, p. 31). A person receiving a punch in a close relationship, for example, is assumed to understand why that happened – that it was not meant to cause harm (Christie 2000, pp. 21–22) – and interpret the blow as something deserved or thrown in jest, or as a mistake.

Several of the fights normalized by the young people in their interviews were between persons who knew each other from before and who had friendships or sibling or couple relationships characterized by caring, empathy, or love. A close relationship was, however, not always interpreted along these lines, for which reason the typology makes a distinction between positive and negative close relationships. Physical abuse may, in this scheme, be expected to be a feature of close relationships between young people that are characterized by negativity, hostility, adversarialness, or hate. A fight in a relationship without caring and love, whether between friends, siblings, or in heterosexual couples, was, accordingly, often defined as illegitimate: then the aim was presumed to be to hurt or cause harm.

In addition to social distance, also the relative power relationship between the involved parties played a major role in the moral demarcations and assignments of victim status in conflict situations (cf. Honkatukia et al. 2006). The way the parties’ mutual power relationship was understood and construed either legitimized or de-legitimized the use, or threats of, violence in the situation at hand. Moral judgements concerning it were based on how the opposing parties in conflicts were interpreted in terms of their relative strength and power – whether one side could be construed and presented as the weaker one and thus vulnerable (see Christie 1986). Rather correspondingly, situational analyses of conflicts between persons not known to each other from before suggest them to turn violent more often when the parties in them are defined as equals (e.g., Baron et al. 2001, p. 766). In their oral moral work in the interviews, the young people identified age, physical strength, gender, sibling status, and the number of participants in the conflict as factors influencing a person’s relative power position in it. What was common to all normalized forms of violence and fighting among the young in this study (sibling fights, play fights, youth fights) was an implicit premise that they involved opponents of equal power. On the part of youth fights, this led to the further assumption that young people of equal age and equal physical and numerical strength who were not known to, or only vaguely knew, each other from before, could, in a situation of one against one or gang against gang, rightfully fight each other.3 Correspondingly, youth fights and violence were problematized by claiming them to be between parties that were non-equals in these regards, with the forms of violence earning the interviewees’ strongest condemnation being, not surprisingly, unexpected, random, and sudden outbursts of physical violence (assaults) and rape. These were presented as ideal-typically illegitimate or ‘cowardly’ forms of violence, corresponding also to what Christie (1986) has coined ‘ideal’ crime, in which there is no ambiguity about culpability and the offender and the victim do not know each other form before and are of unequal strength. Other characteristics and factors brought up to criticize violence use in this connection included potential or actual rule violations in the way it was carried out, malicious intent behind it, and risk or threat of injury.

What the typology shows in the first place is that the different forms of fighting and violence all entail their own sets of rules. In practice, it is then the definition of the situation (Ball 1972) in which the young people are fighting, and, within that situation, the relationship between the parties, that becomes decisive for which sets of rules are taken to apply. The nature of social relationships remains, however, always at least to some degree a matter of interpretation and negotiation, as the degree of social distance and the nature of the power relationships in any particular conflict are never a given.4 In consequence, concrete conflict situations always trigger a complex work of interpretation and negotiation regarding which rules are to govern actions in them: What is ‘the right thing’ to do? Where are the boundaries? What is the nature of the relationship between the people involved, really?

Normalization of Sibling and Play Fights

The rules young people have adopted for different types and kinds of violence use, fights, and fighting tell much about the forms of violence and fighting that have become normalized and legitimized for them in different situations and social relationships. By ‘normalization’ here I refer to processes whereby certain types of youth violence, fights, and fighting, along with certain behaviours, positions, and power relationships, are legitimized, rendered typical, and, at times, given the appearance of something taken for granted. To better help us understand how young people legitimize violence and reflect about the social functions and attractions of violence, the rest of this chapter will concentrate on three types of fight and fighting that tended to become normalized in the oral moral work of the interviewees in this study: sibling fights, play fights, and youth fights. The first two are discussed rather summarily, while more in-depth attention is given to the complex framework of rules governing youth fights.

The dominant construction of sibling fights normalizes them as a form of everyday family conflict, of which all siblings, regardless of gender, have experiences at some point of their lives. These conflicts are not aimed at hurting someone or causing harm, and they only seldom lead to severe physical injury. When siblings tease, wrestle, and scuffle, they are taken to express feelings of irritation, frustration, and anger or resentment in everyday conflict situations, arising from competition for scarce resources such as a computer, hot chocolate at the breakfast table, or access to the bathroom. The sibling fights that are deemed legitimate take place in good sibling relationships characterized by equality, reciprocity, and ‘sibling love’. What such a close family relationship context typically implies is that any physically aggressive action in sibling fights is not to be taken particularly seriously or condemned as illegitimate. The arena where the fights unfold is, namely, the home, a place where there are usually parents present, acting as rule enforcers and those retaining the ultimate responsibility.

In contrast to sibling fights with their specific, even if often trivial, source of ‘real’ conflict, play fights were in the interviews for this study addressed as mere stagings of violent conflicts (cf. Jackson-Jacobs 2014; Wästerfors 2014). Unlike in sibling fights, in them the fighting between friends or acquaintances is no more than pretend-fight, enactment of a play-fight scene. In both cases, however, the fighting is normalized. In the talk about sibling fights in this study, the social function of the violence was located in its role as part of the normal conflict management among children and adolescents in a family context, while the social function of play fights was rather described as having to do with entertainment and comeradeship or other association among friends or acquaintances, not uncommonly in school settings. According to the interviewees, the appeal of playfighting lay in its being ‘fun’. They constructed play fights as in the first place harmless, unproblematic play between equal parties known to each other. Such fights, according to them, occurred often before an audience that laughed along and cheered on the fighters, and they were regarded as entertaining pastime. One pre-condition for recognizing a fight as either a legitimate play fight or sibling fight, however, it had to be kept within certain limits. A play fight was described as rules-based, predictable in its course, and something relatively simple to interpret as such by both those involved in the fighting as well as the on-lookers. The rules were set by mutual consent by the parties to it, and in some cases also by the audience. The underlying assumption was that the parties to a play fight were friends/acquaintances who were equal participants in it, that they meant no harm to but respected each other, and that they made it known if the other party did something against one’s own will. The pre-existing comradeship between the fighters was taken to also imply knowledge of the other party’s tolerance level (capacity to endure physical and psychological pain), reaction patterns, and intentions, and that the parties’ tolerance level was higher than in the case of fighters not known to each other from before.

One way to normalize fighting and violence among young people was thus to point to their rule-based character. What this means is that there was also an implied assumption of a principle according to which rule transgressions could, and normally would, lead to the invocation of sanctions legitimate for the kind of rule breach in question. The implicit play signals in a play fight, for instance, could also be misinterpreted, or one of the parties could inadvertedly break the fighting rules by going too hard on the other party, either physically or verbally. Thereby, a play fight could escalate and become ovelry rough, turning into a ‘real’ fight. As a result, a more far-reaching conflict could ensue, turning the play fighters into enemies who no longer just pretended to fight, merely staging a conflict, but began to do so for real. The rules governing the conflict then also changed, becoming those applicable to youth fights more in general.

Starting a Youth Fight

For the purposes of this chapter, we may define youth fights as incidents of violence or fighting in public between young people only vaguely or not at all known to each other from before. For the young persons interviewed for this study, they were a recurrent feature of their lives. Youth fights appeared to be something they all were personally familiar with, and expected to encounter or become involved in in the future as well, at least in certain social arenas such as their school, nightlife and party settings, or city streets on one’s way back home from a night out on the town. They were, however, also depicted by the interviewees as something they could, at least partly, ‘deal with’ and manage. With knowledge of the ‘rules of the game’, such as about the likely times and places of youth fights and the appropriate reactions to them, they felt they could gain a certain control over the phenomenon. Certain seductive or appealing aspects of it were, however, also brought up, along with the feeling among several of the interviewees that the fights brought a welcome break from the humdrum of everyday life and were exciting for them to watch. Some young people, especially young men, were even assumed to purposefully seek to become involved in fights, and were said to exaggerate and joke or brag about their role in them. Also risks and intimidating aspects of youth fights were, however, discussed, such as that the fights tended to be unpredictable as to their course, with the attendant risk that they could escalate and go out of control. Indeed, at times the interviewees’ talk about youth fights assumed the form of a cautionary tale (cf. Anderson et al. 1994), or concrete descriptions of how it could go when ‘things took a bad turn’ and people were unwillingly drawn into a youth fight or by mistake violated its rules.
Table 11.1

Social relationship-based typology of young people’s fighting and violence

Social distance Power relationship

Unknown or vaguely known

Known –positive

Known –negative

Symmetric (equal)

Youth fights

Play fights

Peer violence (derailed play fights)

Sibling fights

Sibling fights

Asymmetric (unequal)

Physical assault

Sibling disciplining

Sibling violence


Partner abuse

In this section, some of the rules referred to in the interviewed youths’ moral work as governing youth fights are taken up, in order to examine how young people create and assign meaning to, or make sense of, their own and other young people’s participation in youth fights. The aspects or factors to which the interviewees assigned relevance in the course of their moral work varied between different forms of fighting and violence.5 The way youth fights start was considered as highly significant for the development of the situation (cf. Collins 2008, ch. 9). Both verbal and physical conflicts were described as ritualistic in their nature, and were said to break out frequently and easily, even over seemingly very trivial things. As one interviewed young person put it, ‘It’s often about that sort of small things…first there’s some words thrown around, and suddenly it’s a fistfight.’6

In the interviews, there was one main rule all the young people recognized as valid for youth fights: that it was wrong to start a fight. A whole range of expressions were put forth to describe all the different ways one could act provocatively or insultingly to accomplish just that.7 Those who purposely initiated a youth fight by acting in such ways could then end up being positioned as troublemakers. These were described in the interviews as people who ‘like to pick a fight’, ‘look for trouble’, or ‘just want to fight’. More legitimate than theirs was seen to be the position of those who got involved in, or more or less unwillingly ended up becoming drawn into, a youth fight because they ‘had to’, in order to respond to a perceived insult or come to a friend’s aid.

Table 11.2 gives the interviewed youths’ characterizations of how youth fights, in their view and experience, start, amounting to a description of the initial-phase situational dynamic of such fights. It presents the foreground factors of youth fights (Katz 1988), describing the circumstances, of the situation and in the interaction, that the interviewees considered as potentially leading, or having led, to a verbal conflict subsequently turning into a physical fight.
Table 11.2

Young people’s interpretations of how youth fights start

Causes of fight

Responder’s interpretations of the causes of fight, with possible countermoves

Definitions of youth fight

Verbal causes of fight

Insulting as such

Offensive interaction

 Ritualized insults

 – Prompts a response, a defensive move, and an attempt at retribution.

 Derogatory gossiping or spreading of false rumours

Non-verbal causes of fight

Fight invitation

Ritualized conflict

 Unwanted attention to one’s girlfriend/boyfriend

  – Responder can choose to accept or reject.

 Pushing, poking, shoving

Made-up excuse to fight

Unprovoked illegitimate attack

 “Looked at me funny”

 – Responder is positioned as a victim of an unprovoked attack.

 Territorial infringement/violation

The categorization illuminates the complexity of young people’s conflictual interactions. Proceeding from the basic rule that it was wrong to start a fight (but not necessarily to ‘hit back’), the interviewees’ moral work on the initiation of the fight was centred on assessing the responsibility for it. This was done by establishing not only who ‘started it’, or, who acted provocatively or insultingly first or the most, earning the position of the troublemaker, the ‘bad guy’, but also what caused the fight to start. Several verbal and non-verbal causes that could trigger a youth fight, and which the troublemaker could exploit for his purposes, were identified. Ritualized insults, one of the verbal provocation types, were a feature of face-to-face confrontations in verbal conflicts. The insults in these cases were often aimed towards a person’s or his or her companion’s looks or style of clothing, or were directed at either one’s honor; one could, for instance, be called ugly or a coward. Another typical verbal cause of fight was derogatory gossiping or spreading of false rumours. Here the most common example of the phenomenon was to call a girl, a young woman, or someone’s mother a whore. This was not, however, something said to a person face-to-face during a verbal exchange; instead, the question was of name-calling on social networks, ‘behind the back’ without the affected person’s awareness. The non-verbal provocations and insults referred to in the interviews involved unwanted attention or approaches towards one’s girlfriend/boyfriend, pushings, pokings, and shovings, looking at one ‘funny’, as well as territorial infringements or violations.

Besides the above division into types of causes of youth fights, the analysis of the interviews also revealed three distinct interpretations regarding the cause in each case. The question could here be of an insult as such, of an invitation to fight extended to one, or of a made-up excuse to fight by the fight-starter. Each interpretation adopted by the responder in a specific situation was, furthermore, linked to its own particular set of possible countermoves or approaches justified by it. The three different interpretations put forth were in their turn accompanied by three different definitions of the fight: it was seen as an instance of either offensive interaction, a ritualized conflict, or an unprovoked illegitimate attack.

In the first interpretation, the immediate cause for a young person’s participation in a youth fight was seen to be an actually perceived insult that legitimizes, and in certain cases might also demand, a counterattack. The youth fight was in this kind of cases interpreted as offensive interaction, in which one of the social functions of the fighting was to defend something of value to oneself that had been insulted or the inviolability of the sphere of one’s bodily integrity. The verbal and non-verbal actions provoking the fight could be further itemized based on the kind of valued person, thing, or quality that was at stake. In the interviews, the following were brought up as possible targets of offensive actions and words leading to a youth fight: a young person’s looks, personality traits, bodily integrity, sexual integrity, right of ‘ownership’ to a girlfriend/boyfriend, personal and sexual honour, right to freedom of movement, and right of ‘ownership’ to a territory. The question could, however, also be of a perceived insult along these lines that was aimed at one’s girlfriend/boyfriend, friend, or mother (never father), or a group to which one felt one belonged. In this view, a perceived threat against any of the people or aspects above was seen to warrant a counterreaction, such as a violent physical response (fight). Through it, one defended one’s own or a one’s girlfriend’s/boyfriend’s/relative’s sexual reputation (‘not a whore’), one’s bodily integrity and freedom of movement (‘not to be pushed/brushed up against/bumped into’ [on the dance floor, etc.]), or one’s ‘right of ownership’ to one’s girlfriend/boyfriend (‘not to be made a pass at’), or otherwise defended one’s right not to be pushed down, humiliated, smeared, or vilified. In this interpretation, fights between young people were seen as especially morally charged when the insult was directed at a person’s looks or sense of pride. That could then explain why seemingly trivial verbal or physical actions or gestures might prompt especially young men to react with great violence while nevertheless considering their response as legitimate. What this implies is an instrumental view of violence, one that presents it as a legitimate, even necessary, means for defending one’s own or one’s girlfriend’s/boyfriend’s/friends’/relatives’ reputation, status, or sense of pride.

In the second interpretation, young people participate in youth fights based on their choice to respond affirmatively to an invitation to stage everyday youth fights (cf. Wästerfors 2009). Here the causes of fight need not be actions, words, or gestures experienced as particularly insulting or provocative for the responder; in fact, they might not be so at all. Instead, they were seen to consist of an invitation to fight, of a start signal or a catalyst that indicated an individual person’s willingness or desire to fight. Accordingly, the direct causes of fight can here consist of a whole set of possible opening moves that the troublemaker can make and draw upon when wanting to trigger a youth fight (cf. Wilkinson and Carr 2008, p. 1044). This, the interviewees noted, makes it possible for something very harmless-looking and seemingly minor to become an even highly charged issue for those involved in the situation, interpreted as it may be by them as an indication of the person’s intentions (Andersson 1999, p. 34, p. 68). For all these reasons, then, the interviewees concluded, it is imperative for young people to learn how to interpret fight signals, regardless of whether they plann or want to fight or not: such signals alert those keen to fight about possibilities to do so, and act as warning signals to those wishing to stay outside. Overall, this interpretation of the causes of fight presents youth fights as ritual conflicts in which two parties are conjoined in the interaction that ensues. Given this, it will always be complicated to assess the responsibility for starting them.

The third interpretation of the causes of fight centred on the view of the troublemaker as someone using for his purposes either excuses to fight to start one or rationalizations meant to legitimize or justify, before himself or others, a fight that is already over. A person might, for instance, go to someone and claim, out of nowhere, that the latter ‘looked at me funny’ when he or she passed by. The causes of fight were in these kinds of cases assumed to be invented on the fly, in order to be able to start a fight, or afterwards, in order to be able to justify one’s actions or make them comprehensible. Either way, however, the interviewed youths considered the causes of fight as illegitimate, with the troublemakers presented as individuals attacking others ‘really for nothing’, entirely unprovoked, without reason – simply because they want to fight. In consequence, the responders could be construed as innocent victims. While those who intentionally send out fight signals as invitations for others to fight were not categorized as ‘totally’ innocent, those who are exposed to the troublemaker’s unjustified attack were.

All in all, the analysis of young people’s moral work on how youth fights start showed there to be a great variety of aspects about the way young persons look, clothe themselves, or behave that can potentially be perceived as insulting or offensive, or interpreted as invitations to fight, thus constituting possible reasons for starting a fight. Indeed, as the interviewees suggested, there appear to be many restrictions affecting young people’s lives in this regard. One might, for example, not want to, or even be able to, wear certain types of clothes, have a certain kind of look, act too boldly or confidently, wander into ‘wrong’ place, not look at another person in a ‘wrong’ way (not look directly in the eyes or, reversely, not avert one’s eyes), not even unintentionally push or bump into another person, not talk to or sit too close to someone’s girlfriend/boyfriend, not say ‘wrong’ things, not talk disparagingly or in a derogatory fashion, not spread false rumours or hang around in a wrong place. All in all, what a young person can thus do without risking getting drawn into a youth fight appears quite limited indeed.

From the troublemaker’s perspective, on the other hand, one’s ability to freely act, speak, express oneself, and move about appears to be much higher. In the interviews, there was so much that was brought up that could be defined or interpreted as an invitation to fight or as insulting – indeed, almost anything could. Troublemakers, their reflections suggested, also seem perfectly capable of finding excuses to fight, either in the moment or after the fact, when they feel like doing so. According to the interviewees, what all this meant was that there is, in turn, frequently also legitimate reason to defend onself, strike back, respond in kind, and avenge. There was, in particular, one notion put forth that affirmed the legitimacy of one’s response: that it was the other person that started it. At the same time, however, the young people confronted by troublemakers are also presumed to be able to choose not to accept the perceived invitation to fight that is extended to them, or choose not to respond with aggressive actions when insulted, refusing to participate in a ritualized fight.

To be able to understand the social functions of youth fights, it is important to keep in mind that youth fights, just as play fights, are something that are actualized not just together with, but also before other young people. What that means is that the decision about how to react to an offense, an insult, or a fight invitation is taken before one’s peers who are present in the situation, peers who may have different ideas and expectation about how one should react to a verbal or physical fight initiation (for more on this, see Uhnoo 2011, ch. 6). When those present are from one’s circle of acquaintances, the expectation may well be that one should stand up for certain values, not tolerate insults or affronts to one’s own or one’s girlfriend’s/boyfriend’s/friends’/relatives’ dignity (‘be sensitive’), not allow oneself to be intimidated by the other person’s aggressivity but instead show one’s ability to ‘man up’ and respond to the insult or accept the invitation to fight. On the other hand, there might also be opposite expectations, that one should back out of the situation and leave, not ‘go off too easily’ (‘be overly sensitive’) but, instead, respond to provocations with calm and grace, or with words only. The social consequences of responding to a perceived insult or fight invitation with physical aggression – the reactions of the immediate social environment to a decision to strike back – can thus be expected to vary. The understanding of which particular rules are relevant in a situation, moreover, also depends on how that situation is interpreted as a whole, including the relationship between the parties involved (degree of equality and social distance), the cause of fight (e.g., whether it was an insult, a fight invitation, or a made-up excuse), and the nature of the cause of fight. In this study, for instance, some types of provocations were categorized as more serious than others. Besides all such rules governing the ways to start a youth fight, however, there are also particular rules for how the friends and acquaintances present in the situation are to act. One reason for young people to participate in a youth fight may, for instance, be peer loyalty, for the sake of which they choose to get involved in an already on-going fight. The rules that render it legitimate, reasonable, and understandable to do so are what we will turn next.

Peer Loyalty in Youth Fights

In general, youth fights tend to assume a collective character. When they take place, there is often an audience present, consisting of persons who know the fighters from before. The social environment that this audience represents for the fight and the fighters can define, and react to, the fight situation in a number of different ways (Emerson and Messinger 1977; Jackson-Jacobs 2014), and the way it reacts has great significance for how the situation develops (Collins 2008, Ch. 6). Youth is the period of life when we seek freedom from parental social control and begin to spend more time in the company of our peers, giving other young people an increasingly more important role in our lives as norm-setters and informal social controllers (Giordano 2003, p. 57). The way young persons’ same-age peers around them react and behave in a conflictual situation is thus of major significance to them. What is, then, a peer standing by when a verbal or physical conflict erupts expected to do, and how is she or he expected to act or behave?

In the moral work of the young people interviewed for this study, four different approaches or roles that a peer might adopt could be distinguished: that of a neutral border guard, a loyal supporter, a passive individualist, and a rescuer in need. These roles differed from one another in their degree of active involvement in the conflict and their degree of neutrality vis-à-vis those already involved in it. Table 11.3 presents these positions in a summary format.
Table 11.3

The different roles adopted by peers in youth fights





Neutral boundary guard – rule maintenance

Passive individualist – legitimation


Loyal supporter – boosts violence

Rescuer in need – protection

Based on the descriptions presented by the interviewees, each of the four roles had different implications for the situation. They contributed to rule maintenance in it, served as violence boosters, and either provided legitimation to the proceedings or protection to one of the fighters. When the first of these was the case, peers, according to the interviewees, were expected to interfere when the fighting risked going beyond the limits set for it based on its characteristics, while passivity in this regard was interpreted as acceptance of such violations that, when evident, legitimated the course of the events along with the actions contributing to it (cf. Luckenbill 1977). The way a specific conflict was defined in terms of its social boundaries (the audience’s definition of who were the ones involved in the conflict) or ‘ownership’ (‘whose’ conflict it was, i.e., who had the responsibility for solving/responding to it) was what determined the particular rules expected to govern the actions and behaviour of peers. Where the youth conflict was defined as something collectively concerning all the young people present, peers could act as neutral boundary guards not taking a position in favour of any of the sides in it. When, however, the understanding was that the directly involved friend’s or acquaintance’s conflict situation was also one’s own personal matter, a sense of a shared ownership of the conflict and a more partisan role as a loyal supporter was more likely; as a result, one would then ordinarly take a position on it, allying onself with one of the sides and, thereby, seeing it as one’s responsibility to step in and fight alongside this party. Finally, if the individuals directly involved in the conflict were defined as the sole ‘owners’ of it, buddies could act as passive individualists, staying out of the fray as mere on-lookers who nevertheless, where needed, could also sometimes step in and assist in an acute situation as rescuers in need (cf. Philips and Cooney 2005).

These different peer roles and positions had specific characteristics and expectations attached to them. Peers who assumed the role of the neutral boundary guard actively interfered in the conflict, but not by, through their actions, openly allying themselves with one of the parties to it. Instead, they acted to prevent violence, calm down the situation, or bring an end to the fighting. This was done using either verbal or physical means; in the latter case, the fighting parties could be ‘pulled apart’ or ‘grabbed’, or one could put oneself in between the two fighters. In the fights, the social environment, or the involved parties’ friends and acquaintances present at the scene, was typically ascribed the position and the role of a boundary setter that compensated for the fighting persons’ (temporary) lack of self-control, their aggressivity, and their tunnel vision. It was given the task of rule maintenance to oversee the course of the fight, to ensure that it would not go on for too long, and to see to it that things would not get too rough or serious. In so doing, it rendered the fights into a collective concern for all those watching them.

Another peer role the interviewees presented as entailing active involvement in the situation was that of the loyal supporter. Those adopting this position, they elaborated, interfered to fight alongside and for a friend or an acquaintance. From the point of view of loyal supporters, it was in principle not acceptable for one, as a ‘buddy’ to one of the fighters, to remain a passive on-looker. The express understanding was that one, instead, had to ‘be there’ for one’s friends, ‘stand by’ them, and ‘have (their) back’. Friends who failed to do that risked being considered disloyal and regarded as cowardly traitors betraying their friends. What this suggests is that there may be perceived expectations that a young person be prepared to show readiness, courage, willingness, and ability to enter a fight, so as to take part in it alongside a friend. The consequences of peer interventions along these lines are, as a rule, violence boosting. Peer friends were, however, also said to sometimes trigger, fuel, or prolong conflicts, by spreading false rumours or urging one to answer provocations or, after the conclusion of the fight, ‘act cocky’ towards the opposing party (cf. Felson et al. 1984).

The third role or position adopted by peers, often termed as the rescuer in need, described for the interviewees a behaviour where one, initially and for as long as possible, stayed outside of the conflict as its passive on-looker only. Only when really needed, rescuers would step in to prevent their friend from losing the fight or getting (seriously) injured. The rule here specified that such interference was only allowed if and when one’s friend risked being overpowered by the opponent, or if there was a numerical disadvantage the friend faced in the fight. The general rule about having to come to one’s buddy’s aid was thus counterposed to the principle of equality, of the fair fight, one against one (see Collins 2008). According to the latter, it was immoral and cowardly to join a fight if that meant creating a numerical advantage for the side on which one fought. To get physically involved in a youth fight was regarded as legitimate only in specific circumstances. Compared to loyal supporters fighting alongside their ‘buddies’, the role of the rescuers in need was described as being more about defensive action, with the implication that it was more protective in nature.

Adopting the fourth role, that of the passive individualist, entailed remaining passive in relation to one’s friends’ conflicts for the entire duration of the fights. This could be achieved, for example, by ‘disappearing’ (leaving the scene) or by some other means securing for oneself the position of a neutral outsider. In the interviews, not getting involved in a conflict of one’s friend was legitimized by appealing to an individualist norm according to which young persons should be able to manage on their own, handle their own fights, and not need any support, help, or protection from their friends. The kind of young person this image presupposed was independent, physically able, and brave enough to embrace and manage the task of defending her- or himself alone. The notion that one could decline to get involved in one’s friend’s conflicts could, however, also be legitimized by referring to different sorts of risks, such as that the intervention might result in injuries to oneself, too, that the action might afterwards result in assault charges, or that one might against one’s will be drawn into severe and long-standing conflicts dragging on even after the actual fight was over. The view on which all this was based, that those involved in the fight were the owners of their own conflicts and that friends and acquaintances not directly involved in them should, consequently, ‘stay out of it’, meant, in effect, that the phenomenon of youth conflicts was individualized.

In the descriptions given in the interviews, friends or ‘buddies’ who are present in a youth fight are thus presented with a moral dilemma: they must first define the fight situation and then choose between a variety of situation-specific and not always compatible rules while responding to contradictory behavioural expectations. The possibility to justify and legitimize several different peer-role behaviours and positions can thus be expected to lead to uncertainty, both for the individuals involved in the fight and those staying outside of it. For those directly involved in the fighting, this uncertainty relates to how one’s social environment and specific friends or acquaintances are going to act – whether they are going to interfere, join the conflict to fight alongside oneself, do something to prevent a beating, or choose to look the other way. Given that the interviewees stated themselves not to trust in anonymous social control (intervention of unknown outsiders) enough to be able to rely on it, the actions of one’s friends and acquaintances, one’s ‘buddies’, became even more important for them: the active involvement of these peers could be necessary, sometimes even critical, in helping to contain the youth fight and prevent it from escalating and perhaps resulting in serious harm to its participants.

From the point of view of the friends or acquaintances not involved in the fight, the uncertainty relates to the imperative of having to choose one’s position and interpret a whole range of aspects that matter for how one, as a friend or an acquaintance, is expected to act, such as, for instance, the situation between the parties fighting (who has the upper hand, who is losing? who needs help or being rescued?). Here, however, just as when reacting to perceived insults or fight invitations, the uncertainty also concerns how other important persons in one’s social network are afterwards going to define, judge, and react to the chosen course of action. Given the importance of peers for young people and their subjective dependence on acceptance and recognition from other young people, it then becomes especially important for them to be able to act in a relationship-rational manner – that is, in a way that strengthens one’s meaningful social relationships (Flekkøy 2000, p. 47). Accordingly, one of the social functions of youth fights may then be to do just that, cement ties of peer loyalty, by acting in accordance with the expectations of one’s social environment. The availability of different interpretations and the possibility to choose different courses of action that characterize the position of friends and acquaintances present in fight situations thus entail the risk that one fails to act in a relationship-rational manner, leading to rejection, teasing, or status loss. Another dilemma arises: should one just mind one’s own business, take care of oneself only and not get involved, and thereby risk becoming regarded as disloyal and having to handle a possible future confrontation on one’s own, one against many? Or should one rely on others and accept the risk, instead, of having to get involved, even against one’s own will, perhaps, in their future conflicts at some later date? (Cf. Irwin 2004) In this situation, legitimating one’s position of a passive individualist as something neutral and passive enables one to resist perceived expectations to put peer loyalty in the first place.


For persons or groups to be perceived as moral, the possible uses of violence by them must appear rational and rule-governed. To make this possible, one must be able to account for one’s actions (see Orbuch 1997), in order to make them comprehensible to others and legitimize them. This is true even of those who conventionally would earn categorization as criminals, murderers, rapists, and abusers of women (cf. Andersson 2007; Boetius 2015; Presser 2004; Sykes and Matza 1957).

Young people ‘construct action according to how they define situations and how they anticipate others will do so’ (Jackson-Jacobs 2014, p. 166). Their definitions of concrete fight situations determine which rules become active in those situations and, in consequence, how they choose to act in them. To be able to understand such actions young people take, it is therefore necessary to understand the definitions they adopt of their situations (cf. Ball 1972; Emerson and Messinger 1977) at the outset of a conflict, violence, and fighting, along with the underlying reasoning, the rationality and reflexivity, to which they resort in order to make their own or other young people’s uses of violence comprehensible, justified, and thus legitimate in the eyes of others. The analysis of young people’s oral moral work in this chapter indicates a high degree of self-reflexivity on their part regarding their use of violence. In their interviews, they expended much energy to appear moral as actors in an effort to together understand and construct rules of violence, including the kind of situations and circumstances where it might be legitimate for them to use violence. As the analysis shows, these young persons engaged in complex interpretation and negotiation work to clarify the rules that governed each concrete conflict situation. Indeed, the whole purpose with the relatively detailed categorizations presented in this chapter of young people’s rules of violence has been to illustrate the openness and complexity, the multiplicity of subtle, informal, and frequently contradictory rules, that young people take into consideration when interpreting a specific conflict situation, when deciding how to act in it, and when afterwards discussing and negotiating the moral aspects of some particular incidence of violence. Through that, we can gain an insight into how the definition of the situation, or the interpretations of different aspects of the fighting interaction, determines which rules apply in it. Here it is, in particular, interpretations concerning the nature of the relationship between the parties involved that feature large, but also those of the specific value or values perceived as under threat, of the situation between the parties fighting, and of the social boundaries of the conflict play a part. The last-named can be expected to influence the way friends and acquaintances watching the fight will act. The interviewees’ detailed renditions of young people’s fighting and violence, and their moral discussions concerning these, thus emerge as a kind of micro-sociology of violence (cf. Collins 2008), and their moral work as a form of micro-politics of the same (Åkerstörm 2002; Jackson-Jacobs 2014).

Through an examination of young people’s oral moral work, however, we can also learn something about what they see as the social function of violence and fighting, what they find appealing in these, and what kind of uses of violence become normalized and seen as typical, taken for granted, acceptable, or an ordinary feature of everyday life. In this study, play fights, for instance, appeared to act as a ‘fun’ and popular pastime among young people who know each other (friends, acquaintances, ‘buddies’), very often in school settings. Sibling fights, while not appearing to exert much appeal on their participants, were taken for granted and left largely unproblematized as a feature of sibling relationships, even those characterized by strong bonds of ‘sibling love’. In comparison, the social functions of youth fights appeared not to be as clear for the interviewees, although one aspect that they raised was that young people can decide to fight to protect important personal values of theirs from insults or the inviolability of their physical body. What all this implies is an instrumental view of violence, presenting it as a legitimate means for defending one’s own reputation or pride, or those of another person close to one. A further social function of youth fights that stood out in the interviews had to do with peer loyalty: its bonds could grow stronger when a friend or acquaintance witnessing a fight acted in a relationship-rational manner. This action could be about mediating in a conflict, fighting alongside one’s friend/‘buddy’, or protecting a vulnerable person. The interviewees’ discussions about youth fights gave a picture of when, in what kind of situations, young people could feel themselves expected to fight and when they could themselves expect to receive social support for their decision to do so.

As this study demonstrates, violence, just as the underlying norms governing its use, needs to be studied in context, locally, and situationally (Stanko 2003, p. 11). Even if the rules of violence tend to vary and have a local character, they also have some features that are independent of time, place, and generation. The moral work of the young does not take place in a vacuum. When negotiating the rules of violence and their application, people draw upon readily available cultural resources, including widely shared background assumptions about reality as well as norms about how people are to think, feel, and act. This means that the rules, arguments, and rhetorical tools invoked to justify one’s use of violence keep being reproduced while being subject to re-interpretation. Accordingly, the rhetorical strategies, in the form of accounts or neutralization techniques, that the young people in this study used in their moral work to legitimize violence are recognizable from previous research on the rules of violence (e.g., Honkatukia et al. 2006; Pearson 1983; Stanko 2003) and from criminological analyses of how people justify norm transgressions of various kinds to others and to themselves (e.g., Sykes and Matza 1957).

This chapter has put forth a specific perspective on young people and violence, one that highlights the way rules of violence and fighting among the young are constructed and re-constructed in their talk. What it analysed is how such rules are spoken about and addressed, not whether the interviewees acted in accordance with them outside of the interview sessions or whether they spoke truthfully (cf. Jimerson and Oware 2006). Even when young people learn or internalize rules that tone down illegitimate aspects of violence, however, it does not necessarily mean that they embrace violent behaviour. Yet, at the same time, it is not possible, looking at things from an interactionist perspective, to downplay the fact that the invoked rules can also have social implications: ‘if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences’ (Ball 1972, p. 62). Engaged in a shared moral work, the young people in this study negotiated and established what they saw as acceptable and not acceptable for a young person to do, possibly creating expectations for young people to behave in certain specific ways. By learning how violence is legitimized, a violent course of action was also made into a plausible and defensible option available for young people to choose in certain fight situations.


  1. 1.

    The interviews consisted of a total of three individual interviews, four conjoint interviews, and eight focus group interviews. The selection of individuals for them aimed at a maximum heterogeneity of participants in terms of gender, ethnicity, social background, and experience of violence. Some of the interviewed young persons reported having been involved in fights frequently, others stated themselves to have mostly only witnessed others engage in fights and violence. Most of them had personal experiences of play fights and sibling fights. The interviews were conducted, transcribed, and analysed by this author. For a more detailed description of the methods, materials, and analytical approaches drawn upon for this study, see Uhnoo (2011).

  2. 2.

    Such as that violence in principle is wrong, that one is not to punch or strike someone weaker than oneself, that many against one is not fair, that weapons should not be used, that it is bad to kick someone in the head or someone who is already down – that, in other words, it is not right to fight someone who is at a disadvantage (see also Pearson 1983).

  3. 3.

    This resembles what Collins (2008) has termed the myth of the fair fight, about a conflict in which both the parties involved in it and their audience know and follow its rules and regard the fighters as equals and their interaction as legitimate.

  4. 4.

    In addition, a relationship can also become re-defined during the fighting process itself, depending on what transpires between the parties involved in it: the definition of what they do to each other influences how their mutual relationship is interpreted. A friend who hits too hard in a play fight, causing serious injury to his counterparty, may afterwards become regarded as something other than a friend, leading to a different set of rules to become relevant.

  5. 5.

    In sibling and play fights, it was the relationship between the fighters and the purpose behind the violence that were decisive in this regard; the nature of the actions, or what the siblings or friends/acquaintances did to each other (whether they resorted to punches, kicks, or just taunts), was ascribed less significance.

  6. 6.

    That violence breaks out easily, that there is a low threshold of violence, is a notion that, according to Collins (2008, p. 338), may be categorized as a ‘folk theory’ of violence, one that does not agree with how conflictual interactions usually unfold in reality.

  7. 7.

    Such inciteful behaviours included, for instance, smugging around (kaxa sig), being jumped-up (vara stöddig), acting cheeky (uppkäftig), playing about (leka), thinking oneself to be special (tro sig),‘flexing’ (spänna sig), acting self-importanty (tyka sig), not showing respect (inte visa respekt), bothering somebody (tracka), sniping (hacka), getting on somebody (vara på någon), being ’difficult’/pestering somebody (jobba sig), psyching out (psyka), bullying/harassing (trakassera), provoking (provocera), riling somebody up (reta upp), picking on somebody (mucka), dissing (dissa), messing with somebody (jiddra), mouthing off/arguing with somebody (käfta emot), crapping around/making fuss about (tjafsa), andbickering/bandying words about (munhuggas).


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Sociology and Work ScienceUniversity of GothenburgGothenburgSweden

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