The Asian Gang: Ethnicity, Identity, MasculinityClaire E Alexander
Berghahn Books: Oxford
1859733190 (pb); 185973314X (hb)
£14.99 (pb); £42.99 (hb)
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Issues of 'crisis' are popularly applied to youth, ethnic and masculine identities. Yet all too often these are presented as individual markers that (supposedly) provide explanation for particular social practices and predicaments. The strength of this book lies in its explicit concern to examine the interactive nature of these three aspects of identity, utilising the notion of 'The Gang' as an archetype for exploring these intersections. The work is based on a qualitative ethnography, specifically participant observation and in-depth interviews, of a particular Asian youth project and the individuals that came and went through the project during a two-year period.
The result is a work that captures the nuances and specificities of the negotiated order of identities for these young men. In particular, Alexander skilfully explores the tensions the men experience between external imaging (that they are quite aware of) and internal identification. In doing this, the author is able to position the men neither as structurally determined victims of their social positions, nor as wholly free agents whose identities are chosen at will from a range of free floating signs and signifiers. Methodologically, Alexander is therefore able to draw on what she calls the 'new' (postmodern) approach to identities, with its emphasis on difference and diversity, without loosing sight of the constraining (but not deterministic) nature of the social structures and contexts that the men are actors within. Thus, precedence is given to the performative and contradictory nature of identity for the young men and how external images are both rejected or drawn upon depending on the particular contexts that the men find themselves within.
The work is engaging and one feels almost drawn into the life of the SAYO youth project and the experiences of the young men that form the focus of the book. More than this though, Alexander's reflexivity - how, when and where she engaged with the project and the young men and the meanings present in these interactions (and non-interactions) - is also clearly and explicitly written into the work as a thread running through. The experiential accounts and narratives presented (both those of the young men and the author herself) are not taken as being incorrigible, but rather are critically explored in order to consider the changing popular presentation of young, male, Asian identities and how these are formed, reformed, revised and resisted within varied social contexts and encounters.
The structure of the book is straightforward moving from introduction (Chapter 1), through outlining the methodology and setting for the study (Chapters 2 and 3), to presenting the findings - loosely entitled 'the Gang', 'Friends', and 'Brothers' respectively (Chapters 4,5 and 6) - before concluding (Chapter 7). A minor criticism here is that the information about the method(s) used to collect the empirical data was dispersed in the text and therefore a little difficult to identify clearly. Also, some of the interesting methodological issues outlined in the first part of the last chapter would perhaps have been more helpful had they been in the methods chapter as background to help understand the methodological context of the empirical chapters.
Overall, this is an exceptionally interesting and well-written study that brings research alive in an accessible way without diminishing the critical academic content. It will undoubtedly be of interest to students of social science and cultural studies and can also act as an exemplar of how to conduct and write-up a piece of qualitative research. That Alexander herself suggests that the findings appear somewhat 'more gloomy than expected' (pg.251), perhaps highlights the point that she draws out so well in this work - that young, male, ethnic identity can be both a celebration of diversity and difference whilst remaining simultaneously problematic within wider social contexts.
Institute for Health Research, Lancaster University