The project explores the ways in which the notion ‘culture’ is mobilised in youth courts. This institutional context is underpinned by "it's for your own good" ideals, entailing a constant balancing between protecting and punishing young people. Professionals also need to take into account youth's overall background. Previous research has shown that 'mundane' understandings of ‘culture' influence these assessments and at times negatively impact decision making.
Based on the insights of legal anthropologists (who study the role of culture in court but often limit themselves to culture in legal arguments), this research makes a link to (narrative) criminology to understand the role of culture in the social practice of courts. ‘Culture and crime’ as well as ‘culture and decision making’ narratives produced in formal and 'backstage' interactions in courts will be studied. The project discusses what culture means and how narratives of culture function to legitimise (possibly harmful) interventions. Theoretically, it further develops the notion 'penal harm’.
Observations in two youth courts (one in Belgium and one in the Netherlands) will be conducted. Gradually, the research shifts to a more active mode, stimulating a discussion about 'culture' (in interviews and in roundtables involving cultural experts). This way the study contributes to a transformation of static culture notions. Moreover, it analyses the power dynamics of these group negotiations of the meaning of ‘culture’.