In British society appearances matter; without even thinking about it we form opinions about the people around us based on their face and hairstyle, the clothes they are wearing, their gender, and though it is something many would deny, often ethnicity also plays a part. These prejudgements can be based on many things: images and stories in the media, past experiences, and conversations with family and friends. This study focuses on perceptions of the criminality of young individuals based on their appearance; specifically ethnicity, gender, and style of clothing worn.

Police statistics show evidence of racial prejudice in the force, in 2005/06 black individuals are almost seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, Asians are about twice as likely to be stopped and searched as whites. To see examples of young people being labelled as potentially criminal because of their clothing you just have to look back at news stories over the past year. Bluewater shopping centre in Kent took the decision to ban hooded sweatshirts and baseball caps from the premises. The manager claimed that individuals wearing these items were responsible for intimidating other shoppers. Whilst this is probably true, it is unlikely that all young people wearing such garments behaved in an intimidating or illegal manner.

The aim of this study is to investigate whether stereotypes linked to ethnicity; gender and clothing style affect how the potential criminality of young individuals is perceived by other young people. The question to be piloted is “How are young people’s perceptions of the criminality of other young individuals affected by the appearance of the latter?”. I am interested to discover whether young people from certain ethnic backgrounds are perceived as being more criminal than others, whether boys are perceived as being more criminal than girls or vice versa, and whether wearing certain styles of clothing affect how the potential criminality of young individuals is perceived by their peers. Due to practical constraints of time and resources, and because this is only a pilot study, I will only be comparing two different ethnic groups, and two different styles of clothing.

My research objectives are to:

1. Construct a questionnaire that will enable me to research the perceived criminality of young individuals based on their appearance.

2. Select a valid sample from an appropriate sampling frame.

3. Carry out my questionnaires effectively as a pilot study.

4. Process my findings in conjunction with my research aims.

5. Evaluate the research process and consider any possible improvements that could be made should I convert my pilot into a larger study.

I will use an opportunity, quota sampling method. My sample will be drawn from the 6th form students at one school; it will consist of 6 males and 6 females; 8 white, 2 African/African Caribbean, and 2 of Bangladeshi, Pakistani or Indian origin. As the sample is only drawn from individuals attending one school in the suburbs of a large city, it is important that I take into account the fact that the young people may come from similar backgrounds or had similar experiences, so their opinions are not necessarily representative of young people in the United Kingdom as a whole.

A questionnaire will be used as participants may feel more able to give honest answers than in an interview situation, it also eliminates the possibility of interviewer bias. Also, it is a convenient and less time consuming method. A combination of closed and open questions will be used so that I will gather both easily comparable quantitative data, but also qualitative data to give me a fuller understanding of the issue.

I will need to operationalise the concept criminality, in this study I will focus on street crime, and a particular list of offences that are more commonly associated with young people, these are: vandalism, street robbery, car theft, physical assault, illegal drug use, drug dealing and shoplifting.

I also need to operationalise the concept of appearance. In my study this involves gender, ethnicity and clothing style. I will use images of African/African Caribbean and white males and females, dressed in two styles of clothing. The first style of clothing will include hooded sweatshirts, baseball caps, branded sportswear such as tracksuits and ostentatious gold jewellery; this will be referred to as “street wear” throughout the study. The second style of clothing will consist of formal wear, tuxedos/suits for the males and evening dresses for the females.

It is important to consider any possible ethical issues when conducting my study. I will explain to participants that they will remain anonymous and that the answers they give to the questionnaire will remain confidential. Also, the identities of the individuals in the images used as examples of appearance will not be disclosed.

Research Section

The aim of this research was to pilot a study into how young people’s perceptions of the potential criminality of other young individuals are affected by the appearance of the latter. The aspects of appearance focused on were gender, ethnicity and clothing style. Participants were shown images of individuals of both genders, from two different ethnic groups, dressed in two different clothing styles and asked to rate how likely they thought it was that the people in the pictures had committed various crimes.

The options were “very likely”, “quite likely”, “unsure”, “quite unlikely”, and “very unlikely”. To assess the results I awarded each of these categories a point score, from 5 for very likely, down to 1 for very unlikely. The graph below shows the mean scores for each crime given to images of females by participants, in comparison to those given to images of males.

As the graph shows, the participants in my study generally perceived the males as being more likely to have committed most of the crimes, shoplifting being the only exception, with the females being considered marginally more likely on average to commit this crime. Drug use is the one other crime where males and females received quite similar average scores, both slightly under 4 (quite likely).

Males were considered on average quite significantly more likely to have committed all of the other crimes listed, especially mugging, with the average female score being just under 2 (quite unlikely), and the average male scoring being between 3 (unsure) and 4 (quite likely). These results suggest that young people may perceive their peers as more or less criminal depending on their gender, with males being seen as more criminal. They also suggest that some crimes are considered more gender specific than others, for example drug dealing in comparison to drug use.

The above graph shows the average scores given for each crime by participants to images of individuals dressed in “street wear” in comparison to those dressed in formal clothing. The results seem to suggest that clothing style makes a significant difference to how potentially criminal young individuals are perceived as being by their peers. Participants rated individuals wearing hooded sweatshirts, baseball caps, branded sportswear such as tracksuits and ostentatious gold jewellery on average as more likely to commit every one of the crimes listed.

The two groups scored most similarly for the crimes of arson and drug use, suggesting that clothing style is considered less important to the young people in my sample when they are considering how likely their peers are to have committed these crimes. The style of clothing worn seems to have been more important to participants when they were deciding how likely they believed the individuals in the pictures were to have committed assault and vandalism, or to have mugged someone.

The graph below compares how likely participants rated white individuals on average to have committed various crimes in comparison to individuals of African/African Caribbean decent.

The results suggest that this factor had the least influence of the three on participants when they were assessing the potential criminality of individuals based on photographs. There doesn’t seem to be any clear difference in the perceived criminality of the two groups. White individuals were rated on average as being slightly more likely to shoplift, vandalise, mug (street robbery), and use drugs, black individuals were rating as being slightly more likely to commit assault and arson, and to sell drugs. However these differences are small.

Past studies have found different results, often with individuals of African or African Caribbean decent being perceived as more criminal in comparison to white individuals. One study, conducted at Penn State University in America, found that when readers were asked to identify criminal suspects pictured in stories about violent crimes, they were more prone to misidentify African American than White suspects. The researcher noted: “Essentially, people’s `mismemories’ of violent crime news seem to implicate all Black men rather than the specific individuals who are actually pictured.” Official UK statistics also suggest that the ethnicity of individuals affects whether they are perceived as being criminal by the police.

Participants were asked to answer two open questions: “What things about the appearance of individuals do you believe affect how likely they appear, in the opinions of others, to be involved in criminal activity” and “Why do you think these things affect people’s opinions?”

Eleven out of the twelve participants stated that they believed clothing was a factor affecting how criminal young individuals appear, with two referring specifically to “hoodies” and baseball caps as making people appear more criminal, and one referring to “chav” clothing as an indicator of criminality. Two participants suggested that the facial expression of individuals can make them look more or less criminal; this could be a confounding variable in my study as the photographs I used did not feature individuals with identical facial expressions. Two participants suggested that ethnicity affects how criminal individuals appear to be.

Five participants stated that they thought that the media is a reason for peoples preconceptions about the criminality of other based on their appearance, “TV” and “reporting of crime” were referred to specifically. Two participants said they thought people were influenced by stereotypes. Two participants gave practical reasons for prejudices based on clothing style, suggesting that certain items of clothing could be used to hide to facial features, or could indicate gang membership. Three participants were rather vague, stating that people who look a certain way may be intimidating, but not suggesting any reasons for this.

The main finding of my study is that young people do seem to form ideas about the criminality of their peers based on their appearance. Participants only chose to tick the “unsure” box when asked to rate how likely individuals in photographs were to have committed various crimes a small percentage of the time. More frequently they expressed an opinion that the individual was likely or unlikely to have committed the crimes. There appears to be evidence that schemas about gender and styles have an effect, and although the data gathered in this study does not show clear evidence of individuals being perceived as more or less criminal because of their ethnic background, two participants stated that they believed ethnicity was a factor.