Young people’s thirdspaces. An ethnography of hanging out in Brussels

Mattias De Backer, Jenneke Christiaens, Els Enhus

Research Crime & Society (CRiS)

FWO, 2012-2016


The production of hangouts, “home territories” or “parochial spaces” (Lofland 1973, 1998) should not only be understood in terms of play and leisure. It is a tactic for young urbanites to position themselves in an adult-dominated world. Places help creating a sense of (place-) identity (Hart 1979, Proshansky 1978), a feeling of belonging. Home territories are places of learning, creativity, experimentation, emancipation and empowerment (Karsten 2002, 2008; Cahill 2000). 

Urban space is produced by a dominant discourse that puts certain strategies of exclusion (Sibley 1995) and control into place, aimed, amongst others, at disciplining urban youth (Foucault 1989), a discourse from which they are excluded by suffrage and age-regulations. In the late-modern urban reordering (gentrification, privatization, surveillance and exclusion) youngsters that wish to use public space are marginalized. Feelings of belonging appear back-to-back with a feeling of otherness (Levinas 1972). This paradox can be conceptualised as a tactics (de Certeau 1984) of resistance against the microphysics of control and exclusion. Parochial places (Lofland 1998) are an infringement on the “neutrality” of public spaces, on their rules and regulations.

In criminology, transgression is often considered as a result of boredom or frustration (Hayward 2004a). Consumer culture has a double effect on youngsters, especially those from deprived areas in the city. The urban youngster is seduced by must-have goods from which he is simultaneously excluded (Bauman 1989). Could public space be considered a commodity that is similarly seductive-repressive, open to some and forbidden for others? At the same time, youngsters have no other choice than to invest places with layers of meaning (Casey 2004; Duff 2010), a process which, by acts of repression and exclusion can quickly turn into feelings of frustration and injustice.

In this project we try to answer the following questions: how do urban youths live and negotiate public space with other users and certain types of leisure and control infrastructures? How are these places invested with meaning and emotions? How can we understand transgressive behaviour in the spatial, social and affective context it is produced?

Relevant publications:

De Backer, M. (2013) The production of parochial space in La Haine and other urban films. Paper presented at the Cultural Criminology Conference “Resistance”. VU Amsterdam, The Netherlands. 

De Backer, M. & Melgaço, L. (2013). Public space and the other: tactics of appropriation and strategies of surveillance. Paper presented at the 13th Annual Conference of the European Society of Criminology. Budapest, Hungary. 

Evenepoel, A., Bauwens, T. & De Backer, M. (2013). Gemeentelijke administratieve sancties, jongeren en publieke ruimte: het pedagogische argument. Tijdschrift voor Jeugd en Kinderrechten. 2013(4): 371-378.

De Backer, M. (2014). WE WANT YOU! To behave: Youth, public space and infrastructures of control. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers. Tampa, Florida, US.

De Backer, M. & Christiaens, J. (2014). Jusqu’ici tout va bien: jongeren en de productie van parochiale plaatsen in La Haine. Tijdschrift over Cultuur en Criminaliteit. 2014(4) 1: 37-49.

De Backer, M. (2014). In-between: the modern urban youngster in public space. A historical and spatial perspective. Paper presented at the Postgraduate Conference, Birbeck Institute for Social Research. London, UK.

De Backer, M. (2014). Knowledge and power relations in public space: investigating the potential of participatory research in a Foucaultian framework. Paper presented at the Royal Geography Society-IBG Annual International Conference. London, UK.

De Backer, M. (2014), Thick places in public space: hanging around in Etterbeek and Anderlecht (Brussels). Paper presented at the European Group for the study of Deviance and Social Control Annual Meeting. Liverpool, UK.

Christiaens, J., De Backer, M. & Evenepoel, A. (forthcoming), Jongeren en de publieke ruimte, tussen vrijheid en controle. Reflecties bij een complex vraagstuk. Cahiers Politiestudies. 34.