Violence from Within the Reform School

AuthorTarja Pösö,Leo Nyqvist,Päivi Honkatukia
Date01 October 2006
Published date01 October 2006
Subject MatterArticles
Päivi Honkatukia
National Research Institute of Legal Policy, Helsinki
Leo Nyqvist
University of Turku
Tarja Pösö
University of Tampere
This article examines young people’s talk of violence to highlight the meanings of vio-
lence. Violence is approached as a fluid concept with multiple meanings. The empirical
data consist of 15 focus group interviews of young people (38 young people between 12
and 17 years of age) in two Finnish reform schools carried out by two interviewers in
each session. The interviews looked at the young residents’views on violence in general
and on the reform schools in particular. The analysis focuses on the narrative means that
the young people employed to describe violence: violence either as an instrumental
means or as a form of expression. The collective nature of violence was emphasized. The
results suggest that it is important to identify the multiple meanings assigned to violence
for the needs of social and criminal policy and of research.
Keywords: youth violence; residential institutions; focus groups; multiple meanings
of violence
The question of what violence signifies has become more problematic in postmod-
ern culture (Schinkel, 2004, p. 23). Partly, this is because violence is seen as an ever more
elusive concept. It refers to different forms of behavior and relationships with various con-
textual meanings, even though popular notions tend to represent it stereotypically as a uni-
versal phenomenon with an evil perpetrator and an innocent victim (Stanko, 2003, p. 4;
Stanko & Lee, 2003, p. 10). Besides acts causing serious physical harm, the concept of
violence refers to various everyday infringements of bodily and even mental integrity that
can be regarded as normal or even acceptable behavior. During the past decades, the
Western world has witnessed a tendency to broaden the scope of violence. Many of its pre-
viously hidden forms, such as violence against women and children, have become sources
of public discussion, disapproval, and criminalization, even if this development has also
been contested (Stanko, 2003, p. 12). Nowadays, if not also earlier, the concept of violence
is fluid and ambivalent.
In this article, we will analyze this fluidity in young people’s talk on violence. For
this purpose, we have interviewed young residents of reform schools in Finland, a small
northern European country. Reform schools are among the most specialized institutions of
Finnish child protection, and they are actually the only child protection institutions main-
tained by the state. They provide a placement for young people between 12 and 17 years
Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice,Vol. 4 No. 4, October 2006 328-344
DOI: 10.1177/1541204006292663
© 2006 Sage Publications
of age who have difficulties in adapting themselves to the social norms expected of young
people. There are six of these institutions in Finland, and they hosted 292 young people in
2003. We interviewed young people who were living in two of these state-run institutions.
We will focus on the meanings of violence as based on our data, namely on the par-
ticular narrative means that the young people employed to describe violence: They articu-
lated violence either as an instrumental means for something or a form of expression. We
have named these narrative means as instrumental and expressive representation of violence.
We will begin by arguing why we have done this research in a particular societal and
physical context, namely in Finnish reform schools, before briefly exploring some of the
scientific discussions on instrumental and expressive violence. This will be followed by an
introduction to some methodological underpinnings in addition to our method, namely
focus group interviews in a residential setting. These sections provide the necessary basis
for the actual analysis of how the young people we interviewed used the instrumental and
expressive representation of violence while making sense of violence.
Why Youth Violence in the Finnish Residential Setting?
At first glance, Finland can be described as a rather peaceful welfare state in which
violence plays only a marginal role. A closer look reveals that the number of criminal
homicides in Finland is one of the highest in the Western world (LaFree & Drass, 2001).
A notable group of the victims are women who have been killed by their intimate partner.
Gendered violence, in particular, has long remained a hidden problem in Finland. Violence
against women had been discussed as a serious social problem only in the 1990s, a few
decades later than in Scandinavia and in Anglo-Saxon countries (Lahti, 2001; Nyqvist,
2001; Piispa, 2004).
Youth violence, in contrast, has raised public concern. However, each year there are
only a few homicides, unlawful killings, or murders by young people: Between 1996
to 2003 the number of such crimes has varied from 0 (1997) to 9 (2002; Lehti, 2002;
Marttunen & Kivivuori, 2003, pp. 146-157). The number is so small that in the World
Health Organization statistics on homicide rates among youths aged 10 to 29 years, the
rate for Finland in proportion to its population has not even been calculated (Krug,
Dahlberg, Mercy, Zwi, & Lozano, 2002, pp. 28-29). On the other hand, recent studies have
documented the polarization of the welfare and social problems of children and youths.
More and more young people are doing well at the same time that social problems, includ-
ing violence, seem to accumulate in certain sections of the population (Järventie & Sauli,
2001; Kuure, 2001).
From the viewpoint of adult society, youth is glorified as the symbolic period of
beauty and freedom, but it is also associated with plenty of worry and problems (Muncie,
2004, p. 3). Youth as a period is described by a certain semidependency:Young people are
not yet totally independent citizens, but, at the same time, they represent future generations
(Furlong & Cartmel, 1997, p. 41). The media, politicians, and authorities are therefore par-
ticularly interested in the problem behavior of young people, an interest that has labeled
all young people as a social category. The young have often been the cause of what is
called moral panic: Groups of people considered dangerous are labeled with negative
stereotypes that are often overdimensioned in comparison to the original infringement of
norms. Moral panics may justify a stricter control of the labeled group. The violent behav-
ior of young people is an often-repeated example (e.g., Muncie, 2004, pp. 5-7).
Honkatukia et al. / REFORM SCHOOL AND VIOLENCE 329

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