Intended for healthcare professionals

Rapid response to:


Tackling knife violence

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: (Published 17 July 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a849

Rapid Response:

Implications of Young Men's Discourses of Knife Carrying in Terms of Injury Prevention

Whilst appreciating Shepherd and Brennan's [1] call for an integrated
approach to tackling knife crime, findings from our interview study
undertaken with a sample of young white British males who attended one of
five youth centres in a large British city suggest some further factors
that require attention in terms of injury prevention.

Our discourse analysis of the interview data suggests that the young
men in our sample constructed knife carrying as a legitimate response both
to potential threats, and to the lack of management of such threats by
those in positions of authority. An example of the latter appears in the
statement "We need to carry [knives] 'cos the police just prefer to stroll
down the well-lit posh neighbourhoods. They won't go on patrol where the
turf is rough and nasty you know". An example of the construction of knife
carrying as a form of harm prevention appears in the statement "gangs
usually attack in packs and you need something to balance the odds".

Given the types of claims outlined above, it is perhaps unsurprising
that our sample constructed not carrying a knife as irresponsible, as
highlighted in the following statement: "If your attackers turn you into a
veg then they will be free in 1 or 2 years' time anyway. They will play
their time away and laugh at you eating through a straw".

Another interesting feature of the data was that, in attempting to
manage an image of themselves both as aware of the issues raised above,
but also as law abiding, the young men in our sample typically spoke in
the fourth person, an example of this being "You don't have to be gangsta.
Like if you and your missus were about to get mugged by some scumbags in a
back alley or something. Then she wouldn't mind if you had something".
This use of the fourth person allowed our participants to signal their
awareness of knife carrying behaviours and to advocate for the necessity
of knife carrying, whilst not stating directly that they themselves
carried knives.

Finally in terms of our findings, it is of note, and contrary to
Shepherd and Brennan's suggestion that an aspect of knife carrying is
about machismo, that whilst our participants did talk about knife carrying
as a masculine behaviour, they at the same time appeared to resist evoking
knives as a straightforward show of masculinity, as is demonstrated by the
following statement: "It [knife carrying] is not about being macho or
seeking trouble. It's about being streetwise".

On the basis of these findings, we would suggest that creating simple
associations between knife-carrying and immaturity or deviance might
prevent the success of campaigns aimed at reducing this behaviour.
Evidence concerning avowing responsibility and recidivism [2] suggests
that overemphasising internal causes for criminal behaviours might even
incline some young men to see their behaviours as inevitable, which could
potentially increase the likelihood of antisocial behaviour.

Instead, we argue that preventing knife injuries must involve
promoting recognition of the low controllability and unpredictability of
knives. Such recognition might help to position knives as actually
increasing, rather than decreasing, personal risks for young men.

Further, and in addition to Shepherd and Brennan's suggestion that
greater police control of young people is necessary (i.e., through
security screenings), our data would suggest that what is also needed is a
more involved police presence aimed at fostering a sense of safety for
young men.

Finally, and in contrast to Shepherd and Brennan's suggestion that
the threat of being caught is perhaps more important than the actual
consequences of being caught, our data suggest that young men perceive the
consequences of being convicted for knife-related violence as relatively
minimal, which both perpetuates their sense of disenfranchisement and
depicts the consequences as largely irrelevant. This would suggest that
appropriate forms of punishment for knife-related convictions are at least
equally as important as are programmes aimed at increasing the
surveillance of knife-carrying behaviours.


[1] Shepherd J, Brennan I. Tackling knife violence. BMJ

[2] Maruna S, Mann RE. A fundamental attribution error? Rethinking
cognitive distortions. Leg & Crim Psych 2006;11:155-177.

Competing interests: No competing interests

04 May 2011
Damien W Riggs
( lecturer in social work, Flinders University
Marek Palasinski (
Lancaster University