by Heather Hamill. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011. 200pp. Cloth. $29.95. ISBN: 9780691119632. E-Book. $29.95. ISBN: 9781400836734.
Reviewed by Jason R. Jolicoeur, Department of Criminal Justice, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Email: jason.jolicoeur [at] cincinnatistate.edu
Heather Hamill’s The Hoods: Crime and Punishment in Belfast attempts to examine the role and purpose of informal and formal social control sanctions as applied to a specific group of antisocial and criminally persistent West Belfast youth commonly referred to as “hoods.” Hamill is aptly able to achieve this objective through the creation of a text that is exceptionally well written and the development of a narrative that is both engaging and illuminating. The scope and depth of Hamill’s investigation provides for a remarkably detailed and rich evaluation of the motivations and rationalizations employed by the hoods. The excellence of Hamill’s investigation extends to her assessment of both the impetus for and consequences of the informal and formal sanctions exercised against the hoods by members of the formal criminal justice system and elements of local police paramilitary units. The clarity of Hamill’s writing and the lucid and vibrant depictions that she is able to provide make the text appealing and well suited to both introductory and sophisticated audiences. The text provides both an excellent introduction to the groups and processes being studied and an outstanding progressive theoretical analysis of related group processes and outcomes.
Hamill begins with a brief overview of the key political and cultural factors that shaped the recent development of Northern Ireland in general and West Belfast more specifically. This review, while cursory, is certainly sufficient to provide the inexperienced reader with the background necessary to appreciate the unique environment in which the events depicted by Hamill transpire. The historical analysis provided by Hamill serves to illuminate the unique set of factors that collectively gave rise to both the hoods and the informal social controls intended to control the social harm that they cause. Subsequent sections provide an overview and introduction to the group of antisocial youth for which her text is entitled. These initial depictions underscore what is arguably the greatest strength of Hamill’s text, an unparalleled ability to immerse her readers in the environment in which her investigation was undertaken. Readers are left with a substantive depth of knowledge and a sincere appreciation for both the events being studied and the individuals that are at the focus of the analysis. Hamill’s ability to provide readers with vivid and comprehensive representations of the events, environments, and groups profiled is a consistent strength that is common to each of the remaining sections of the text.
After providing an insightful depiction of the hoods, the text continues with an exhaustive examination of the punitive [*6] sanctions that have been used as a means of controlling and suppressing the group’s antisocial behavior. Hamill provides an overview of both informal and formal means of social control, but her analysis tends to disproportionately focus on the former. While formal sanctions are not covered in substantive detail, their analysis is still significant because it provides readers with the insight necessary to understand the need for the informal sanctions that are examined in greater depth. The examination of the informal methods of social control practiced by elements of local paramilitary groups is exceptional. Hamill provides a detailed exploration of the various punitive sanctions employed, many of which involve extreme violence, and the motivations commonly associated with these punishments. Additionally, she presents evidence that undermines existing assumptions regarding the adversarial nature of the relationship between the hoods and the paramilitary groups responsible for administering punitive sanctions. Hamill presents a convincing argument that the relationship between the hoods and the paramilitary groups, while certainly contentious and troubled at times, is also symbiotic and perhaps even reciprocal in at least certain respects. Perhaps most importantly, Hamill is able to underscore the widespread failures of informally practiced sanctions in spite of the frequency with which they occur and the severity with which they are practiced. One of the most enduring questions that ultimately emanates from Hamill’s text pertains to why the hoods would continue to engage in antisocial activities in spite of the ever present threat of the severe informal punishments that are meted out by local paramilitary groups.
This question lies at the very center of The Hoods. Hamill advances a thoughtful and well-reasoned theoretical analysis which encompasses the origination of the hoods as a distinct social force, their involvement in antisocial and criminal activities, and the effectiveness of the informal and formal methods of social control implemented against them. The theoretical assessment is exceptional for both its complexity and scope. Hamill is able to advance an explanation based on the signaling and the search for social status which incorporates various aspects of structural, peer, and individual models. Arguably, one of the most interesting aspects of Hamill’s theoretical explanation is that it is able to use the very violence perpetrated by paramilitary groups against the hoods as a means of explaining the hood’s disproportional propensity for involvement in antisocial and criminal behavior. This is a critically important factor as the relationship between informal paramilitary sanctions and the antisocial behavior of the hoods is one of the most central themes of the book.
Hamill concludes The Hoods: Crime and Punishment in Belfast with an exploration of the political, social, and economic factors that will likely shape the future of West Belfast. In doing so, Hamill brings her narrative full circle. Hamill began her text with an overview of how many of these very same factors shaped the historical development of West Belfast and gave rise to both the hoods and the informal paramilitary punishments used to control them. Hamill’s conclusion provides the same sort of insightful overview that was contained in her introduction, and goes further by introducing a number of [*7] intriguing questions. Perhaps the most important of these questions pertains to the future of the hoods in an era that will likely be characterized by reduced paramilitary group influence and control. Hamill addresses this final question with a depth of analysis that is truly exceptional, and with a clarity that surpasses the convoluted nature of the issues being examined. Perhaps we should expect no less in the concluding paragraphs given the extraordinary quality of the preceding sections of the text and the remarkable and groundbreaking inquiry that they depict.
© Copyright 2011 by the author, Jason R. Jolicoeur.