Advances in Applied Sociology
2013. Vol.3, No.7, 253-257
Published Online November 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/aasoci) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/aasoci.2013.37034
Open Access 253
Clinical Sociology and Moral Hegemony
Hans Petter Sand
University of Agder, Kristiansand, Norway
Received August 26th, 2013; revised Septem ber 26th, 2013; accepted Oct o b e r 3rd, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Hans Petter Sand. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons At-
tribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
The article presents a critique of a dominant way of analysing gang conflict in Norwegian sociology. The
research in question uses a rather crude Marxist analysis that could somehow fit any gang conflict in the
country. However, this kind of analysis was gradually put in question first by professor Ottar Brox and his
criticism of the moral hegemony by a group of Marxists gathered around the publication “Klassekampen”
(“Class Struggle”). Then the analysis was challenged by gang-researchers who reached back to the clas-
sical study of Frederic M. Thrasher, finding the latter more fruitful for analysis. Antonio Gramsci (1891-
1937) who coined the term cultural hegemony used it to describe how a social class can manipulate the
system of values in a society to establish a ruling class world-view. In my context the term moral hegem-
ony is used to show how an intellectual group came to dominate the discourse on relations between Nor-
wegians and immigrants, labelling other views as “racist”.
Keywords: Gangs; Marxist Framework; Moral Hegemony; Contested; Frederic M. Thrasher
Thrasher’s Classical Study
Thrasher (1927) pointed to that gangs in Chicago were pri-
marily a phenomenon of the children of foreign-born immi-
grants. The child of the immigrants tends to escape the control
of parents, school, church and voluntary associations. The gang
arises as a sort of substitute group. It becomes a substitute for
the belonging to and identification with other groups.
To Thrasher the gang often grows out of play groups of boys.
When play groups encounter the forces and agencies of control,
they may soon develop a “we” feeling, and the process of form-
ing a gang may begin. The ganging process is a continuous flux
and flow, and there is little permanence in most of the gangs.
Thrasher maintains that gangs grow out of needs the boys
have and which are not met by society. The boys get thrill and
zest from participating in common action; hunting, capture,
flight and escape. Conflict with other gangs gives rise to many
Thrasher puts great emphasis on gang warfare. The gang is a
conflict group. It develops through strife and thrives on warfare.
The members of a gang will fight each other. They will even
fight for a “cause”, almost with no regard for what the cause
A gang struggles for existence by fighting competing groups
to protect its territory and its members. It attempts to maintain
its status among other gangs by trying to get a reputation for
being tough in fights.
The gangs see life as a struggle and this fact explains a lot of
gang behaviour and the relation of gangs to society. It may be
tempting for an outside observer to see the struggle as a pecu-
larity, but seen from within, this is the hearing of the matter.
A Marxist Analysis
Since around 1990 there has been a substantial increase in
gang research in Norway. This has to do with the increase in
gangs of young immigrants fighting among themselves and
even more, fighting with Norwegian gangs. These phenomena
seem to be very much like the ones Thrasher described and ana-
lyzed in his classical study. However, the phenomena were ini-
tially to a large extent interpreted within a framework of racism
and anti-racism, which is a dominant discourse in Norwegian
society. This discourse was inspire d by Marxist sociology, see-
ing immigrants as suppressed by society, and the fighting of
gangs as a result of this suppression.
However, I will here show how this dominant discourse be-
came contested, and thus the analysis of Thrasher became more
dominant in gang research.
The first of the studies I will review, from the end of the
1990s until toda y, is a study by criminologist Guri Larsen (1992)
called Brodre. Aereskamp og hjemloshet blant innvandringens
ungdom (“Brothers. Fight for Honor and Homelessness among
Immigrant Youngsters”). Th e study de als wit h fighti ng bet ween
two gangs from the same immigrant minority, which ended in a
killing of one of the gang-members, and a subsequent lawsuit.
Under the title of Racism a key informant tells Larsen that in
his home country there was no racism, probably because there
were people of many races.
But in Norway he was being bullied, he said. One of his best
friend started to call him “bloody blackie”.
A gang of Norwegians used to beat foreigners in the infor-
mant’s schoolyard. They even attacked an immigrant boy who
was standing alone in the schoolyard eating his food. He was
beaten until he womited blood.
Aften this incident, the informant and two of his friends at-
tacked the gang of young Norwegians who had beaten immi-
The informant also tells that he hated the Norwegians who
bullied him and his friends. This also led him to quit school. He
H. P. SAND
could not stand the school because of all the bullying.
Then he and his friends were trained in martial art to protect
themselves. He felt very proud that he had a good command of
He explicitly talks about the racists, implying that there are a
lot of them in Norway. The racists tell lies about immigrant,
they make people believe that all immigrants are criminals and
make problems for Norwegians. The racists maintain that the
immigrants spoil the social climate in Norway. The informant
argues that the police make people become racists.
He also tells about actual and planned fightings with young
Norwegians identified as racists.
The study describes how the boys in the two gangs who
ended up in a fight that killed one on the gang members, used to
be friends, even feel like brothers, because they came from the
same country. They used to share most things, they always
stuck together, protected and helped each other. But at a time
they split up into two gangs who became bitter enemies. There
was a lot of fighting between them up to the moment when one
of the gang members was killed.
Larsen tells about the different interpretations of what went
on in the time of the fightings that led up to a murder, a trial
and conviction of some of the youngsters. She maintains that
the ways of interpretation can be separated into two main cate-
gories: Other people’s interpretations (press, court) and the un-
derstanding of the youngster s themselves.
Other people’s interpretations are connected to the fact that
the conflicts between the youngsters have become a judicial
concern. The youngsters appear first and foremost only as ac-
cused and perpetrators. Two different pictures are depicted in
the interpretations that emerge: The responsible man of vio-
lence and the victim of structural relations.
The youngsters object to the interpretations of the others,
they see the violence between them as a fight for honor.
It seems like Larsen rounds up her analysis with structural
suppression as the explanation:
“It is no news that suppressed groups direct the blows
against each other when anger and despair of discrimination
and exclusion from society become too much. Fighting and re-
lentlessness between youth is part of a well known pattern.
Blacks in the slums of great cities in the USA, Western Europe
and South Africa, groups of indigenous people and other
youngsters without strong basis in society, do the same. But
people react to suppression in different ways. Only a few end
up with use of violence” (Larsen, 1992: p. 127, my translation).
The choice of this more Marxist inspired analysis has proba-
bly to do with the author being employed at the Institute of Cri-
minology at the University of Oslo. The institute has a long his-
tory of being partisan for underprivileged groups and with a
Marxist theoretical outlook.
This is emphasized by the information on the back-cover of
“Guri Larsen (b. 1943) is educated as a criminologist, work-
ing at the Institute of Criminology at the University of Oslo.
She has for several years been working with immigration prob-
lems, and has participated actively in the public debate and
anti-racist work (my underlining, my translation)”.
Hegemony of the Moral Elite
Professor of social science, Ottar Brox (1991), maintains in
his book “Jeg er ikke rasism, men…” (“I am nor a Racist,
but….” my translation) that a so-called moral elite in Norway
got a kind of monopoly in the discourse of racism. Contrary to
solid data showing that there were few racists in the Norwegian
population, the moral elite argued that there was a lot of racism,
and they tended to interpret almost all critical remarks on im-
migration as racism. The leading newpaper articulating these
vi ews, was the Marxist-Leninist newspaper called Klassekampen
(“Class-Struggle”). Guri Larsen was one of the central contri-
butors in the debate in this newspaper. Brox writes:
“Since so many of my examples of moralist argumentation is
taken from Klassekampen, it could seem obvious to question
that I let the writings in this extreme left-wing newspaper be
representative of the whole ‘moral elite’. Many of those who
argue for open borders, or at least more immigration, and
more public generousity to those who come, do not write in this
newspaper, and they support quite other political parties”.
As I have said before, Klassekampen has not been chosen as
a main source from the idea that the newspaper in every respect
is representative of the left side.
But I have assumed that in matters of immigration the news-
paper builds on, or refers to, a syndrome of honorable values
that all of the left side, with its allies in Christian people and
bourgeois humanism, have in common. Klassekampen is thus
representative when it comes to basis of values…
However, Klassekampen is in no way “representative” in
ways of expressing these values, and I use the newspaper as
main source from an assumption that it will be on top compared
to most others when it comes to finding the strongest possible
expression of these common values. In this way it will be in the
front in the moral competition of expression in the left field,
and exercise a certain “hegemony” in the respect that it can
intimidate others in the broader community of values… (Brox,
1991: p. 74, my translation).
Towards Thrasher’s Analysis
A lot of studies on Norwegian gangs were published from
1998 and up to today. The researchers were for the most part
working at the Norsk Instititutt for by-og regionalforskning
(“Norwegian Institute of Urban and Regional Research”), do-
ing applied research for the government. The researchers de-
scribe the situation as follows:
“Norwegian research on gangs consisting of youngsters with
a minority background has until recently been relatively sparse.
But neo-nazi or racists groups, gangs and groupings have been
thoroughly studied by several Norwegian researchers, for in-
stance Bjorgo, 1997, Fangen, 2000, Carlsson and von der
Lippe, 1997 and 1999, Bjorgo & Carlsson, 1999 and Fangen,
One of the few studies that has been done in this country of
violent groups or gangs consisting of youngsters with immi-
grant background, was done by Guri Larsen, 1992 (see my des-
cription of this study earlier in this paper). She described the
conflicts between the Pakistani gangs Young Guns and Killers.
Lien and Haaland conducted in 1997/98 a pilot study of gangs
and gang behavior in Oslo. The study emphasizes the codes of
honor and strong alert towards possible offences, and the sub-
sequent spiral of revenge that takes place. Elisabeth Naess
(1999) showed how violence and fights bind the gangs together
(Bjorgo & Carlsson, (2001: p. 17, my translation).
With financial support from the Department of Justice a
group of researchers at Norsk Institutt for by-og region-for-
skning and Norsk Utenrikspolitisk Institutt (“Norwegian Insti-
tute of Foreign Policy”) launched a research project to map and
H. P. SAND
analyze the phenomenon of gangs in four larger Norwegian
towns. Central problems were: What kind of processes create
violent gangs? What processes create the special form of
“bonding” that is found in gangs? Are these forms of social
bonds special for gangs, or are such structures surrounded by
special ways of thinking, norms and values? How are gangs
transformed from one stadium to another, from group of friends,
to a violent gang, and eventually to a more organized and pro-
fit-oriented criminal gang?
It seems to me that these were more or less the same ques-
tions Thrasher posed.
The four towns that were chosen for the project were Oslo
(the capital of Norway), Drammen, Kris tiansand and Stavanger.
It turned out that the researchers came to consentrate on Kris-
tiansand and Oslo. In Kristiansand the immigrant gangs were
dominated by second generation latin American boys, while in
Oslo most gangs were of second generation Pakistanis. Outside
Drammen there existed an organized group of Nazis or neo-
nazis who displayed aggressive language against young immi-
grants. These were studied by Fangen (1995). But while the at
that time dominant Marxist analysis emphasized that Norwe-
gian gangs were neo-nazis, in fact the group outside Drammen
was the only organized group with a clear ideological view.
The researchers maintain that there may be many and invisi-
ble causes that a part of the youngsters with a minority back-
ground flock together in groups that become involved in violent
and other criminal acts. An especially important such reason is
conflict with other youngsters or youth groups. And they quote
the man they regard as the pioneer of American gang research,
Frederic M. Thrasher, who stated that “The gang is a conflict
group. It develops through strife and thrives on warfare”. They
conclude that later research has shown that this postulate is still
The researchers then go on to discuss gangs and gang vio-
lence in a way very similar to Thrasher. They write that immi-
grant youngsters can enter into gangs consisting of youngsters
from only one ethnic group, or in multi-ethnic gangs, were also
Norwegian youngsters may participate. The axis of conflict
may sometimes go between gangs of the same ethnic origin,
which has been the case with the recurring conflicts between
Pakistani gangs in Oslo. The conflicts between the gangs Young
Guns and Killers and between the A-and B-gang in Oslo are
such examples. But the lines of conflict may also go between
groups of majority youngsters and groups of minority young-
sters. Then the two groups tend to articulate the antagonisms in
the form of articulate racist and anti-racist positions and ways
of acting. The discussion ends up with a conclusion quite dif-
ferent from the afore mentioned marxist researcher. They write:
“But under this seemingly political conflict there is often hidden
dimensions of conflict that are about quite different things” (my
underlining, my translation).
The patterns that are outlined in several Norwegian towns is
that minority youngsters seek together in strong groups and
gangs to protect themselves against a perceived threat from
racist and neo-nazist groups. At the same time some majority
youngsters who have experienced being threatened or robbed
by immigrant gangs, will tend to seek together in ethnic Nor-
wegian gangs to protect each other—or already existing racist
groups offer them protection.
Some researchers (Eidheim, 1993: p. 17) argues that “racism/
neo-nazism” or “antiracism” are so morally authoritative con-
cepts—and saturated by meaning and associations—that it is
easy to loose the ability to analyze and reflect critically around
the phenomena that get these labels.
In a similar vein, Katrine Fangen almost feels like asking for
excuse for studying so-called neo-nazis:
“The report is meant to be a contribution to the understand-
ing of how the participants think and interact. Such a research
approach will for many people be provocative, because such an
understanding often will be misunderstood in the direction of
‘being sympathetic to’ or ‘defend’. My point of departure is
that a closer knowledge of the life-world of these youngsters is
essential in order to grasp the development in a reasonable
way” (Fangen, 1995: p. 8, my translation).
She also argues that the concept of gang is more suitable
than the concept of subculture when we shall look at definite si-
tuations of interaction, both between the nationalists in encoun-
ter with their adversaries, and when we shall look at the inter-
action withing the collective. And she refers explicitly to Thra-
sher. A gang is, as Frederic M. Thrasher defines it, character-
ized by that it has a spontaneous, undefined origin. A gang
arises when a number of youngsters are present at the same
arena, for example that they constantly meet each other on the
street corner or the gas station. To constitute a gang, they must
in addition meet regularly in face to face situations. The typical
gang behavior has a certain playful character. The gang often
develops a characteristic humor, a characteristic language and a
characteristic way. Its members are out for adventurous ex-
periences that break with a conventional, routine way. Different
forms of partying behavior like games, drinking, smoking and
picking up girls are typical gang behavior. The goal of the gang
members is to have fun together. In encounters with other
gangs, however, most gangs will, according to Thrasher, be
able to participate in fights and behave as “mob”. It is the spe-
cial organization, solidarity and morale that enables the gang to
behave like a ruthless mob with great destructive urge, far be-
yond what the single member can account for on his own.
Bjorgo and Carlsson discuss in their research report (1999)
the distinction between racism as expression and racism as
driving force. This shows, in my opinion, that the dominant
discourse about racism still had some grip in the Norwegian
debate and even in the research community. Hovewer, they
argue that when we are dealing with the phenomenon of “rac-
ist” violence, it can be useful to go deeper into the division be-
tween racism as an expression, and racism as a driving force or
motive. Many of those acts that express racism—for instance if
a youth gang breaks the windows of a shop run by immigrants
and paints swastikas—is run by other motives than racist ide-
ology. For example, it often is about showing yourself for the
gang, and to outdo each other in aggressivity and courage, or a
wish to get publicity and attention.
And they go on to argue that relatively few of those who ex-
ercise racism are motivated first and foremost by a racist con-
viction and ideology. For those racism is both driving force and
expression. For a considerably larger portion it is quite other
motives than ideology which is the primary driving force be-
hind their racist acts and expressions. Other who exercise ra-
cism have a combination of motives, where racism only make
up one element among others.
Racism does not only have connection with “white” young-
sters against “black” youngsters, but it can also be an affecting
factor in situations where the violence goes the other way.
When youngsters with immigrant background seek to violent
gangs, this often has to do with the experience of racism, dis-
Open Access 255
H. P. SAND
crimination and marginalization in Norwegian society. The re-
lations can here be varied and complex. Partly can seeking pro-
tection in a violent gang be a reaction to an experienced threat
about racist violence, for example from a “white” gang with a
nationalist image. Others can feel that they are excluded from
work, school etc. because of poor command of the Norwegian
language. If such experiences go together, they can give immi-
grant youngsters a feeling that they have no future within the
legal system in Norway. For some youngsters violent gangs
then appear as a more attractive alternative. A lot of these im-
migrant youngsters also use claims about racism as a legitima-
tion of their own use of violence against Norwegian youngsters.
Discussions about the concept of racism tend to focus on
what racism really is about. The researchers find it more fruit-
ful to see the concept as a relative and contextual concept. To
see the concept as relative means that there are degrees of nega-
tive attitudes to a certain category of people, and these can vary
from a passive fear of strangers, via a more aggressive hostility
towards strangers and finally to and ideologically underpinned
To contexualize the concept of racism is that these different
degrees of negative attitudes can come to expression in differ-
ent social contexts. A gang of youngsters looking for action and
excitement is a totally different context than an association of
elderly men discussing population policy and immigration.
A Central Monograph of Chicago Sociology
Frederic M. Thrasher’s The Gang. A study of 1313 Gangs in
Chicago, is often mentioned together with a number of famous
monographs from the so-called “golden era” of Chicago soci-
ology (Dobson, 1962). According to Bulmer (1984) The Polish
Peasant in Europe and America, by W. I. Thomas and Florian
Znaniecki, published in 1918 - 20, marked the beginning of the
flourishing research milieu at the University of Chicago. This
milieu was under the leadership of Robert Ezra Park. The end
of the era came when Park retired in the early 1930s. Other fa-
mous monographs often mentioned are Louis Wirth’s The
Ghetto, (1928), Harvey Zorbaugh’s The Gold Coast and the
Slum, 1929, Paul Cressey’s The Taxi-Dance Hall, 1932, Nels
Anderson’s The Hobo, 1923 and Clifford Shaw’s The Jack-
The author is under especial obligation to Robert E. Park,
editor of this series (University of Chicago Sociological Series,
my comment), who read the manuscript and the proofs and who
has made many suggestions of great value with reference to the
interpretation of the materials and the preparation of the manu-
In his introduction to the abridged edition, Short (1963:xv)
maintains that Thrasher’s work is a “modern classic”. First of
all, it stands, after several decades (and probably today, my re-
marks) as the most comprehensive study of gangs of young-
sters ever done.
In the so-called Chicago school of sociology the city was a
laboratory of study, and Thrasher was one of its pioneers. This
was an age of great enthusiasm about discovery in American
sociology, and Chicago was its center. The old “Green Bible”
(Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess: Introduction to the
Science of Sociology, Chicago University Press, 1921) urged
the students to observe and record life in every possible setting,
and to generalize its forms and processes. This was the essential
spirit of the “Chicago School”, and it is the spirit of The Gang
Thrasher proposes a definition of the gang, based upon this
“The gang is an interstitial group originally formed sponta-
neously, and then integrated through conflict. It is character-
ized by the following types of behavior: meeting face to face,
milling, movement through space as a unit, conflict and plan-
ning. The result of this collective behavior is the development of
tradition, unreflective internal structure, esprit de corps, soli-
darity, morale, group awareness, and attachment to a local ter-
ritory” (Thrasher, 1963: p. 46).
It seems like the gang meets the demand for types of activity
which particularly appeal to the boy. The quest for new experi-
ence seems to be especially important for the young boy. In the
gang he can get the desired escape from, or compensation for,
monotony. The gang activities offer movement and change,
games and gambling, stealing, vandalism, sports, imaginative
play and drifting around. This stimulates the boy to expect even
more excitement. Ordinary business and pleasure seems tame
and dull compared with experiences in the gang. This can, ac-
cording to Thrasher, explain a lot also of the behavior of gangs
of gangsters. A youngster or an adult who has become habitu-
ated to a life of crime, is defined by Thrasher as a “gangster”.
To sum up this discussion, the author states:
“The fundamental fact about the gang is that it finds in the
boys who become its members a fund of energy that is undi-
rected, undisciplined, and uncontrolled by any socially desir-
able pattern, and it gives to that energy an opportunity for ex-
pression in the freest, the most spontaneous and elemental
manner possible, and at the same time intensifies all the natural
impulses by the process of cumulative stimulation” (Thrasher,
1963: p. 83).
Thrasher puts great emphasize on gang warfare. The gang is
a conflict group. It develops through strife and thrives on war-
fare. The members of a gang will fight each other. They will
even fight for a “cause”, almost with no regard for what the
cause may be.
A gang struggles for existence by fighting competing groups
to protect its territory and its members. It attempts to maintain
its status among other gangs and in the neighbourhood by try-
ing to get a reputation for being tough in fights.
Gangs usually have areas which they regard as their own and
where it may be dangerous for other gang members to appear.
So gang warfare is usually organized on the basis of territory.
The gangs see life as a struggle and this fact explains a lot of
gang behavior and the relation of gangs to society. It may be
tempting for an outside observer to see the struggle as a peculi-
arity, but seen from within, it is the heart of the matter.
In Thrashers’s own words:
“The gang, then, to sum up, is one manifestation of the dis-
organization incident to cultural conflict among diverse nations
and races gathered together in one place and themselves in
contact with a civilization foreign and largely inimical to them”
(Thrasher, 1963: p. 154).
Furthermore, Thrasher observed that the gang in Chicago
was primarily a phenomenon of the children of foreign-born
immigrants. The child of the immigrants tends to escape paren-
tal control and become superficially Americanized. The nor-
mally directing institutions of family, school, church, and rec-
H. P. SAND
Open Access 257
Bjorgo, T., Yngve, C., & Thomas, H. (2001). Generalisert hat—Polari-
serte fellesskap. (“Generalized Hatred—Polarized Communities”),
reation break down and the gang arises as a sort of substitute
Carlsson, Y., & Thomas, H. (2004). Voldelige ungdomsgrupper—inter-
vensjon på kommunenivå (“Violent Youth Groups—Intervention on
the Local Level”), Oslo.
In this article I have reviewed the Norwegian research on
gangs from around 1990 up to the present. This represents,
more or less, all gang researches that have been done in the
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I have shown that the first research report drew on a Marxist
frame of analysis, seeing second generation immigrants as sup-
pressed by society and consequently fighting each other. What
is not taken up in this report, because it dealt with gang of
young immigrants fighting each other, is that the frame of ana-
lysis also sees young Norwegians fighting immigrant young-
sters as racists, Nazis of neo-na zis. This frame of reference also
became dominant in the public debate over gang problems, with
the weekly newspaper Klassekampen as the central proponent
of this view. People with other views easily came to be labelled
as racists by researchers and activists around Klassekampen.
The group of marxists around Klassekampen came to achieve a
moral hegemony in the debate over gangs in Norway.
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Another problem with this Marxist analysis was, in my view,
that the main concepts: suppression, racism, Nazism, neo-na-
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ter”), Kristiansand kommune (‘Kristiansand Municipality’), Kristian-
Gradually, however, this dominant perspective was contested
and refuted. In this process there was a rediscovery of Thra-
sher’s classical analysis. Thrasher’s description and analysis is
much richer and gives a better insight into the dynamics of
gangs of second generation immigrants and their fights among
themselves and with gangs of the native population.
Sand, H. P. (2006). Challenges in dealing with different interests be-
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