Performing Culture in Youth Courts

An Active Ethnography of Narrative Negotiations


Olga Petintseva


The project explores the ways in which the notion ‘culture’ is mobilized 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 research the role of culture in courts but often limit themselves to the study of legal arguments), this research makes a link to (narrative) criminology to understand the role of culture in the social practice of judicial institutions.

‘Culture and crime’ as well as ‘culture and decision making’ narratives produced in formal and ‘backstage’ interactions in courts are scrutinized. Particularly, the project discusses what ‘culture’ means and how narratives of culture function to legitimize penal harm. Observations in two youth courts (one in Belgium and one in France) are being conducted.

Gradually, the research shifts to a more ‘active’ mode, stimulating a discussion about ‘culture’ (in interviews and in roundtables involving youth justice practitioners and cultural experts and by means of participatory video made by the young people affected by judicial interventions). This way the study aims to contribute to a transformation of static culture notions. Moreover, epistemologically, I analyze the ‘making of’ these negotiations of the meaning of ‘culture’, involving protagonists from different backgrounds and positions.


Short bio:


Olga Petintseva is a postdoctoral fellow of the Research Foundation – Flanders (affiliated to Ghent University and Free University Brussels). Olga’s expertise is located at the intersection of criminology, migration studies and socio-linguistics.


Selected publications:


Petintseva, O. (forthcoming). Confessions after “Socrates Light”: Eliciting and countering narratives of youth justice officials. In J. Fleetwood, L. Presser, S. Sandberg, & T. Ugelvik (Eds.), Emerald Handbook of narrative criminology. London: Emerald.


Petintseva, O. (2019). ‘Entextualisation’ across institutional contexts: The impact of discourse in school reports on the juvenile justice trajectories of Roma youth. Youth Justice, online ahead of print, DOI: 10.1177/1473225419830786.


Petintseva, O. (2018). Youth justice and migration: Discursive harms. London: Palgrave.