During the past 10 years in particular there has been a marked increase in academic interest about youth gangs (cf. Hallsworth and Young, 2008; Pitts, 2008; Batchelor, 2009; Deuchar, 2009; Goldson, 2011; Densley, 2013; Hallsworth, 2013; Harding, 2014) and urban violence in the UK. While there has been a discernible increase in youth gang scholarship recently, it still represents a relatively small area of academic interest as post-war UK youth researchers, rather than looking for gangs, have mostly been concerned with studying subcultures. The early incarnations of British youth subcultural studies were concerned with deviance and ‘abnormality rather than normality’ (Blackman, 2014:498). Spanning the inter- and post-war periods, British subcultural theory was initially influenced by biology and the eugenics movement. Utilising medical concepts, deviant youth group members were described as being mentally subnormal and exhibiting pathological personality traits (see, for example, Burt, 1925).
UK studies examining youth deviance and delinquency after 1945, while retaining elements of the earlier positivist traditions, were dominated by the therapeutic approaches of psychology and psychoanalysis. Bowlby's (1944, 1953) theories concerning the ‘affectionless personality’ and ‘inadequate socialization’ caused by maternal–child separation, which he argued was ultimately responsible for juvenile delinquency, served as a model for further research into the causes of deviancy. This ‘psychoanalytical approach became the norm’ throughout the 1950s and early 1960s (cf. Mays, 1954; Morris, 1957; Trasler, 1962), with major empirical studies defining delinquent youth as ‘suffering from psychological problems within a deprived culture’ (Blackman, 2014:499). Moreover, the existence of working class youth subcultures was clear evidence as to the young deviant's ‘inability to integrate in society’ (Blackman, 2014:499). However, by the late 1960s this psychoanalytical understanding of subculture fell out of favour with British scholars, who at this point had become heavily influenced by the new deviancy theory emanating from US sociology, particularly the labelling perspective. This new interactionist approach stressed the concept of relativism with regard to wrongdoing by asserting that an action is only deviant because a dominant social group of rule makers has labelled it as such.
Howard Becker, one of the most influential exponents of this new deviancy theory, asserted that researchers should sympathise with the outsider rather than with the rule makers and law enforcers. The way in which societies and social groups arrive at decisions that determine rules and therefore rule breaking is largely decided through political conflict.