The Social Construction of Migrant Youth Deviance in Public Spaces

Silhouette of figures wearing baseball caps with the sunset in the background

This cartoon below by Charles Barsotti is a good illustration of the social construction of group deviance in public spaces. This cartoon points out how some social groupings can be given negative labels, such as a “cult.” The beliefs or the practices of particular socio-economic groups can are treated with suspicion by a dominant group where they do not conform to society’s norms, values, behaviour or appearance. Non-conformity can lead to the creation of stereotypes; that is, labels that simplify specific qualities of some people as typical of the group they belong to (hence the cartoon, where one wolf says to another, “We’re a pack, not a cult.”).

In most circumstances crowds that “blend in” and meet society’s standards of “acceptability” escape the stigma of social deviance. Cases where “ordinary” groups might be negatively labelled by authorities might occur during times of civil unrest, such as during political protests, or due to other political cycles, such as the lead up to an election.

Racial minority youth are often labelled as deviant simply for being in public. In the case of Aboriginal youth, even something as routine as being in a shopping centre is mired by harassment by security (Perry 2018: Powell 2018). In another example, Muslim girls have been forced to leave a school excursion at a public exhibition centre because other visitors felt “uncomfortable” (Foster 2017).

Let’s take a look at this problem of stereotyping racial minority youth in public spaces, focusing specifically today on migrant minorities. We’ll examine how labelling these youth as “deviant” keeps society from paying attention to pressing social problems, such as structural inequality and interpersonal gender violence.

Migrant youth

Studies show that when young people of non-English speaking background gather in public spaces like shopping centres in large cities such as Sydney, Australia, they are likely to encounter negative attention from security guards and police (Butcher and Thomas 2003). Retailers also make groups of young migrant-background people feel generally unwelcome. Mandy Thomas finds that young people of colour experience routine harassment by authorities when they hang out together in the working class suburbs of Sydney (Thomas 2003).

Young crowds are likely to be “read” in a negative light, as if by their mere collective presence, they pose a threat to the moral order, even when they are simply having a good time. Negative stereotyping forces young migrant-background people to change their preferred behaviour and this has negative effects on their leisure and safety. This is ironical, as it actually increases social problems, such as the alienation of young people.

Studies show that shopping centres are the one public space where young migrants generally feel safe (Collins et al. 2007). So by treating young migrants with suspicion, these youth are forced out of the spaces where they feel comfortable, generating other forms of conflict for them as they are pushed into other places. This is in spite the fact that migrant-background cohorts often outperform Anglo-Australians and Western Europeans, especially those from Southern Europe and Asia (Khoo et. al. 2002). Moreover, overseas-born youth are less likely to engage in illegal activities than local-born youth (Salas-Wright et. al. 2016).

Race and stigma

This cycle of stigma, labelling and deviance is studied in sociology under labelling theory, which is made famous by Howard S. Becker (1963) in his book Outsiders. Becker studied how drug users, artists and people on the “fringes” of society come to be labelled as social deviants. Social convention about who belongs to the “norm” are not automatically accepted: who is a member of a club versus a gang? Who is accepted as a law-abiding citizen versus a criminal? Becker writes:

Social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance, and by applying those rules to particular people and labelling them as outsiders…. Deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an “offender.” The deviant is one to whom that label has successfully been applied: deviant behaviour is behaviour that people so label.

Labelling theory highlights how patterns of deviance or crime are responses to how specific groups are perceived or mistreated. If society labels young migrant people as a “problem” (“they join gangs,” “they won’t assimilate”), then we collectively don’t have to look at their social reality. For example: their experiences of social inequality, trauma from refugee resettlement, racism at school, and discrimination in public spaces.

Of course race compounds the effects of labels, as Australian politicians, media and public debates routinely create moral panics around different ethnic and racial groups across time (cf. Zevallos 2011). Notably, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been stigmatised since colonial invasion in 1788, banned from public spaces up until the late 1960s, and over-policed to the present-day. Asian youth were especially targeted in the 1990s, hyper-vigilance of Muslim youth increased in the 2000s, and more recently from 2017 onward, various communities have been caught up in racist targeting of so-called “African gangs” (Henriques-Gomes 2018; Zevallos 2018).

Labels of deviance require lobbying by interest groups who seek to protect their elite interests. Becker’s research is useful in demonstrating how the people who enforce society’s norms and rules benefit from policing morality. Making laws and taxes to identify and punish certain groups by ‘othering‘ them reinforces the values and interests of people power. In this sense, Becker’s work shows that the social construction of deviance actually affirms the values and norms of the majority.

As long as some groups are seen to be transgressing moral values, then moral boundaries of elites continue to be relevant. As long as there is crime, then the existing justice system can be justified as being “fair.” Constructions of deviance also reaffirm social unity of dominant groups: “they” are a “threat” to the moral order, and “we” are drawn closer together against the Others.

Becker’s work emphasises that ideas about deviance are a collective enforcement of politics: “what rules are to be enforced, what behaviour regarded as deviant and which people are labelled as outsiders must… be regarded as political questions.”

The social construction of young migrant people in public spaces is a form of social control. Stigma applied to groups of youth in shopping centres, parks, on the street or even during school excursions, feeds into racist narratives that maintain the otherness of racial minorities. Sociology of deviance illustrates that painting young minorities as suspect is an ideological device to maintain racial minority’s lower position in society. Deviance justifies racism: shop assistants can refuse to service young people claiming that they looked suspicious, even when they would not behave that way to the average White person. Deviance reinforces xenophobic beliefs that Muslim people don’t belong in Australian society, simply because of the way they dress. Deviance allows the dehumanisation of refugees, with the help of media and politicians who drum up scaremongering about (non-existent) “gangs.”

By constructing some groups as a threat to the moral order, the state can then justify over-policing of racial minorities, while at the same time stripping away civil rights for everyone else, all in the name of public safety. This is inspite the fact that patterns of crime are lower today than in previous decades – with one exception: domestic and family violence (a social problem erroneously painted as a private, rather than a public, matter).

So while hyper-surveillance and the police state is strengthened by labelling migrant youth as a threat to public life, other, more pertinent social issues that do threaten safety – like gender violence in the home – become buried.

It’s up to all of us to always question how deviant labels serve as a process of social control and a justification for structural inequality.


Becker, H. S. (1963) Outsiders: Studies In The Sociology Of Deviance. New York: The Free Press.

Butcher, M. and M. Thomas (Eds) (2003) Ingenious: Emerging Youth Cultures in Urban Australia. North Melbourne: Pluto Press.

Collins, J., Reid, C., Fabiansson, C., & L. Healey (2007) Tapping the Pulse of Youth in Cosmopolitan South-Western and Western Sydney: Final Report. Canberra: Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

Foster, B. (2017) “Muslim Students “Told to Leave” Convention Centre for Making Patrons “Uncomfortable,”‘ Western Australia Today, 2 June.

Henriques-Gomes, L. (2018) ‘”It’s Not Safe For Us”: South Sudanese-Australians Weather “African Gangs” Storm,’ The Guardian, 25 July.

Khoo, S-E, McDonald, P. Giorgas and B. Birrell (2002) Second Generation Australians. Canberra: Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs.

Perry, J. (2018) ‘David Jones Apologises After Former NRL Player Accuses Security Guards in Sydney Store of Following His Children,’ ABC News, 12 February.

Powell, G. (2018) ‘Myer Accused of Racially Profiling Aboriginal Boy After Security Guards Called at Perth Store,’ ABC News, 22 March.

Salas-Wright, C. P, M. G. Vaughn, S. J. Schwartz, and D. Córdova (2016) ‘An “Immigrant Paradox” for Adolescent Externalising Behaviour? Evidence From a National Sample,” Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology 51(1): 27-37.

Thomas, M. (2003) ‘Hanging out in Westfield Parramatta,’ in M. Butcher and M. Thomas (Eds) Ingenious : Emerging Youth Cultures in Urban Australia. North Melbourne: Pluto Press.

Zevallos, Z. (2011) ‘Satire of Media Reporting,’ The Other Sociologist, 10 October.

Zevallos, Z. (2018) ‘Racist Moral Panic,’ The Other Sociologist, 25 January.


A version of this post was first published on my Tumblr on 2 December 2013 and has been substantially expanded and updated. The case study was additionally included after publication.

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