David Robins

Sociologist of contemporary youth


David Nathan Robins, writer, sociologist and charity worker: born London 17 November 1944; married Anna Gruetzner (one son, one daughter); died London 6 October 2007.

A hugely talented, funny and productive man who was as comfortable discussing Italian defensive formations as he was Heidegger, David Robins was a force for good as journalist, academic and charity worker.

An immensely well-read son of Willesden, and the child of a barber, Robins was brought up in a politically aware working-class Jewish family where boxing and Stalinism were central concerns. After studying English at University College London, he plunged into the world of underground newspapers, and cut his teeth as a writer with International Times, Ink and Time Out. He wrote history dramas for the BBC, as well as articles on political theatre, where he had a particular interest in Brecht.

He was also involved in the squatters' movement in London and Amsterdam; Robins's memories of the 1960s, of Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the situationalists, and his dope-addled role in attempting to overthrow capitalism were often recounted as a series of half-remembered tales that could reduce his audience to tears of laughter.

As a youth worker in pre-New Labour Islington, Robins encountered aspects of white working-class culture that challenged the indulgencies of the libertarian left, and in the subsequent book, Knuckle Sandwich (1978), which Robins co-authored with Philip Cohen, an ethnographic sensibility was utilised to introduce "careering delinquents" – young people whose criminal involvement was chaotic and haphazard – as a counterpoint to the simplistic notion of a "career criminal". This book set an agenda for Robins' subsequent career as a sceptical sociologist of contemporary youth. Dismissive of welfarists and leftist romantics alike, he followed up one of the themes of Knuckle Sandwich with We Hate Humans (1984) a study of football hooliganism written from among the human wreckage of Thatcherism.

In the late 1980s Robins worked as a Research Fellow at Oxford University on a study of the impact of sport on youth offending, and produced a characteristically challenging report that questioned the highly popular notion of sport being a diversion from criminal activity. He also worked at the Prince's Trust administering training projects, and with Michael Young at the Institute of Community Studies, before joining the John Lyon's Charity as Grants Director in 1993.

Tarnished Vision (1992) was Robins's first post-Marxist venture. Based upon four years spent working in a training workshop for unemployed youth, and a further period working on a BBC documentary with the director Franco Rosso, Tarnished Vision attempts to confront the utter failure of governmental efforts to deal with inner-city crime and conflict. Robins abandoned the edgy Utopianism of some of his earlier work, where youth are often regarded in terms of their revolutionary potential, and in its place we are introduced to a more sober set of socialist sensibilities that successfully explores the "tangle of pathologies" that fester at the intersection of race and class.

Unlike many of his compatriots who had drunk deeply from the well of 1960s ideology, Robins remained engaged with the often inconvenient realities of working-class youth. He was also unremittingly reflexive and, as Tarnished Vision followed swiftly on from parenthood and home-ownership, so the book Cool Rules (2000) was inspired by the experience of bringing up teenagers. Written with his long-time friend Dick Pountain, Cool Rules explores what the authors regard as the dominant attitude of the age, an attitude that combines obsessive aversion to authority, ironic detachment, hedonism and narcissism. However, this attitude has been appropriated by market forces and is now central to youth-centred consumption and exploited by fashion, image and advertising.

The authors proceed, both in Cool Rules and in a number of associated articles, to explore the hedonism, narcissistic concern with appearance, and macho detachment that resides at the core of contemporary gun and knife crime. Robins and Pountain describe the way that young people use "cool" to immunise themselves against the sense of failure that is inevitable in a highly competitive and celebrity-obsessed culture. "If you can't win, then refuse to play the game by dissing it as uncool".

While working at the John Lyon's Charity, Robins continued his journalism and remained the most imaginative and engaging of men. His conversation veered across theatre, football, literature, and politics and was often further enlivened by a tendency as he got older to lurch without warning into Yiddish.

Warm, loyal, and extremely funny, he brought a journalistic style and economy to his sociological writing that often shamed the careless ramblings of academics. He also brought a non-sentimental attitude to his work that never segued into cynicism. In his final weeks, he finished an article on knife crime and spoke enthusiastically of a play that he had written on Heidegger.

Dick Hobbs

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