Dr Robert Hesketh’s research paper 'Grafting: "the boyz" just doing business? Deviant entrepreneurship in street gangs' has been selected by academic publisher Emerald for its 2020 Literati Awards after editors called it "one of the most exceptional pieces of work we’ve seen during 2019". We asked Robert, from the School of Justice Studies, about his work and his ability to get inside Merseyside’s gangs.
Tell us about this piece of research – what were you trying to find out?
The research was based on my PhD and looked at why some young people join street gangs and others don’t. It’s interesting and important because we are seeing young men (18-30) attempt to realise their potential not through legitimate employment but via dark entrepreneurial methods learnt from older peers and adult figures.
What do you mean by your phrase ‘deviant entrepreneurship’?
Dealing drugs on Merseyside, like elsewhere, can be extremely lucrative. Gangs are in the buying and selling business and for many young disenfranchised people, the line has become blurred between what is legitimate employment and what is criminality. The impact of austerity since 2008 has seen an increasing shortage of legitimate job opportunities with any form of real career path. The resulting masculinity crisis has seen many young men in street gangs choose alternative ‘deviant entrepreneurial’ pathways to earning money and masculine status. The term "grafting" is an illustration, once used to define a hard days work, on Merseyside in many estates like mine it now represents forms of active criminality mainly drug dealing.
Do some youngsters see gang ‘membership’ as a kind of career path?
Absolutely. With street gangs closer to the city centre - in around Anfield and Kensington - there is more influence of adult Organised Crime Groups and drugs became more of a commodity. As a result, the language they use becomes more businesslike. One young participant self-reported as being in a "firm" and talked about providing the best “merchandise” to serve someone. Another referred to a “BOGOF” (Buy One Get One Free) marketing ploy and the tactic of using free drugs as “commission” for introducing new friend numbers to the dealers "graft phones". The sad thing is, that if this entrepreneurism could be channelled into a product legitimate business career path many of my participants would be quite successful but with the lack of opportunities, these qualities are now being lost in criminality.
But do they really choose this life or is it Hobson’s choice?
It’s a life for most that is all around them. As one participant commented: "It was on my doorstep, I had no choice". We see in the study too that with young men who join gangs, their friendship network is restricted to friends from school and down their street, so their values and beliefs are bound around the dominant philosophy of their area. In contrast, the young men I interviewed who avoided gang membership developed what is an extended friendship network. That is, they simply went beyond their residential area to develop friends with more diverse values and beliefs which had an influence in their decision making.
Has lockdown had an effect on the “firms”?
There has been some effect during the first lockdown since there was an increased operating at night with high policing presence, this was particularly so with those older members with cars and bikes. But this was countered by sending out text messages to clients to order early in the day.
How did you get into researching about criminal gangs?
I have lived all my life on a former council housing estate in Knowsley, one of the most deprived areas in the UK. I often reflected why I never actually got involved as a young person playing out on the streets and this led me to think about what attracted others. Moreover, my background living on an estate and being a victim of social exclusion myself growing up allowed me to get access to the young men I interviewed since they accepted me, I was able to empathise with them.
What will you be trying to find out next?
I am working on my first book for Palgrave but looking forward I am conscious that Merseyside has been greatly neglected in terms of gang research. It is a gap which I will be trying to fill. I am working on a possible edited book idea called "violent minds" exploring how violence occurs in different settings and possibly interviewing ex-perpetrators.
If this sort of research interests you, why not find out more about the School of Justice Studies?