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Criminal Policy and Social Control 101: Incivilities from a Sociocultural Perspective


As a Criminology course, this series aims at how policies affect criminal behaviour, emphasising the importance of its prevention and how control can be achieved in a community in order to maintain a peaceful atmosphere and civic conduct in society. Antisocial behaviour as a crime is usually taken by the literature to explain youth crime and how it can be treated, focusing on its risk factors, explanatory theories, or its treatment from jurisprudence. However, this course will explore its criminal components typified in the penal code and not from the behavioural sciences as the nature of this conduct, giving a different criminological perspective to the topic. Therefore, it will commence with a literature review of the concept of antisocial behaviour, accompanied by a theoretical and practical examination of the security measures that different EU countries have implemented and designed to prevent antisocial behaviour crimes. Bearing this goal in mind, it will also examine the antisocial behaviour in some EU countries such as Spain, Finland, Germany and Hungary, aiming to cover all geographical and cultural areas of Europe to compare the measures taken to prevent it.

This 101 series is divided into the following six chapters of content:

  1. Antisocial Behaviour as a Form of Criminality

  2. Incivilities from a Sociocultural Perspective

  3. Incivilities from a Gender and Urbanisation Point of View

  4. Migration and Politics about Antisocial Behaviour

  5. Hate Crimes and Antisocial Behaviour

  6. Conclusions on the Differences and Similarities across Europe

Criminal Policy and Social Control 101: Incivilities from a Sociocultural Perspective

In the previous chapter, a conceptual approach to the term antisocial behaviour as a form of crime has been offered, as well as the measures for its prevention that are taken within the framework of the European Union. In order for the definition of antisocial behaviour to have a complete and exact meaning, it must focus on a specific context. Consequently, by using Spain, one of the European Union's member states, this article will define what is understood as an antisocial behaviour offence and its manifestation, taking into account its socio-cultural aspect. Likewise, the criminal consequences that the commission of this type of infraction entails will be detailed, as well as the preventive measures that are adopted with this type of behaviour. This essay will end by disclosing a series of final reflections on this phenomenon in Spain.

At the Spanish national level, there is the Citizen Security Law of 2015, which refers to the maintenance of peace in society, stating that it focuses on the "prevention of the commission of crimes related to (...) respect for peace and security citizenship (...) and the peaceful use of public space” (Real Decreto, 2015). Although, at first glance, it may seem that it focuses on antisocial behaviour, this law refers in practice merely to offering greater freedom of repression and sanction to the public security forces (Maroto, 2017), which led to its baptisation by public opinion as a “gag law” alluding to the inability of citizens to demonstrate or demand social action. Since this law does not refer to antisocial behaviour as an infraction, but marks a series of prohibitions towards citizens, this article will focus on the first legislation that includes this type of behaviour in its jurisprudence: Ordinance on measures to promote and guarantee the citizen coexistence in the public space of Barcelona (Barcelona City Council, 2005). This ordinance regulates antisocial behaviour as: “lessen the rights of other people through behaviour, violating their dignity or their freedom of action. All persons will particularly refrain from carrying out abusive, arbitrary or discriminatory practices or that involve physical violence or moral or psychological coercion or of any other type” (Article 6). Specifically, reference is also made to certain activities such as betting, the "inappropriate use of public space for games" —such as ball games or skateboarding—, the "visual degradation of the public space" —such as unauthorised paintings or graffiti—, "behaviors that adopt forms of begging" —which hinder traffic on public roads––, the "offer or demand of sexual services", "physiological needs" ––including defecating, urinating or spitting—, the "consumption of alcoholic beverages", "unauthorized street trade", "improper use of public space" ––including camping or showering in public fountains—, nudism on public roads, "vandalic attitudes", "noise pollution" and "other behaviours that disturb the citizen coexistence” (Barcelona City Council, 2005).

Figure 1: State of public space after a botellón in Barcelona. Photograph by Vilapress (2021)

Although this law arises as a local initiative of the Barcelona City Council, its content is extended to the rest of the national territory when in 2007 the FEMP (Spanish Federation of Municipalities and Provinces) ––a public association that represents more than 95% of local governments–– took the Barcelona Ordinance as a reference for other local governments to include it in their legislative framework (FEMP, 2007). Following this recommendation, many other major Spanish cities adopted this same ordinance, such as Seville (Sevilla City Council, 2008), Sagunto (Sagunto City Council, 2008), Granada (Granada City Council, 2009), Vigo (Vigo City Council, 2009), Guadalajara (Guadalajara City Council, 2009) and Palma de Mallorca (Palma City Council, 2011), among others.

Regarding the sanctions, this Ordinance establishes that all antisocial conduct will be considered a serious infraction, assuming an economic fine of between 750.01 and 1,500 euros. If the same conduct is directed against the elderly, minors or people with disabilities, it will be considered a very serious offence, involving a fine of between 1,500 and 3,000 euros. Apart from the sanction, the Ordinance also establishes a series of "specific interventions" for each particular behaviour in order for the offender to rectify the damage committed. Thus, for example, for the infraction of graffiti in public spaces, the offender must be in charge of "cleaning and immediate restoration to its previous state" (Article 22).

Figure 2: Two people cleaning graffiti in a public space. Photograph by Buenosaires.gob (2017)

Two Prevention Perspectives

In particular, this Ordinance establishes a series of "measures to promote citizen coexistence and civility" (Barcelona City Council, 2005). Among these is, for example, the development of information campaigns on the importance of this kind of coexistence; the development of active policies to guarantee coexistence; conflict mediation; the promotion of solidarity behaviour in the public space; the implementation of communication channels to report antisocial behaviour; to promote respect for cultural and religious diversity; and to promote the involvement of private entities and associations for antisocial behaviour prevention. Additionally, it also refers to the need to collaborate with the regional government and with the rest of the municipalities in the province to work on the prevention of antisocial behaviour.

Another prevention strategy with a view of trying to reduce cases of antisocial behaviour in public spaces in Spain is situational crime prevention, which is defined as a set of strategies aimed at intervening in public spaces to make them safer (Jasso, 2015). Situational prevention has become an internationally essential form of crime prevention, being applied in countries such as England, France, the United States and Spain, where it is even reported that there has been a change in the paradigm of security policies, in which situational policies have acquired preponderance (Antillano, 2007). This paradigm shift consists mainly of the government's incidence in actions related to the prevention of disorder and incivility in the public space, instead of reactive and punitive actions (Jasso, 2015). This change is mainly due to the fact that the situational prevention policy does not only seek to reduce crime in quantitative ––criminal incidence––, but also the perception of insecurity. Thus, actions such as concern for design, lighting and visibility, circulation and crowding, the use and occupation of spaces, or overcrowding and environmental deterioration will be relevant to improve the perception of security (Jasso, 2015). Situational crime prevention requires the incorporation of other strategies whose objective is to reduce both opportunity crimes and the perception of urban insecurity (Rau, 2007). In this way, the intervention in a public space must include strategies for the physical improvement of spaces, the conditions of order, the appropriation of the space and the strengthening of community cohesion.

Figure 3: Security camera in the public space. Photograph by Nunes (2019)

This type of prevention seeks, for example, to improve and reinforce accessibility and lighting in neighbourhoods and streets, to clean up abandoned land, etc. (Jasso, 2015). To reduce disorder, incivility and the opportunity for crime, situational prevention comprises measures that target very specific forms of crime; it involves management, design or manipulation of the immediate environment in a systematic and permanent way, and makes crime more difficult and risky for a wide range of criminals (Clarke, 1997). It is about reducing the chances of committing crimes and victimisation by improving environmental management (UNODC, 2011), that is, intervening in the physical and environmental conditions of public spaces. In the specific case of Spain, measures can be found in this sense, such as the installation of alarms or security cameras, the construction of speed bumps on roads, or the redesign of sidewalks and elements of public roads to prevent ram-raids against shop windows. (Aparici, 2014).

Antisocial Behaviour in a Sociocultural Context

Antisocial behaviour can become a highly subjective term, even if something as delimited as a particular legislative framework is taken into consideration to elaborate its definition. In fact, in order to typify a behaviour that supposes so much conception diversity, it is inevitable to take into account the cultural framework in which it develops. That is why it is necessary to analyse the Spanish jurisprudence related to antisocial behaviour in parallel with the Spanish sociocultural context in which it operates, to better understand how this antisocial behaviour develops as an offence in Spain.

Figure 4: Graphic of cultural variables in Spain (Hofstede, 2019)

In a study carried out by Hofstede (2019), up to 6 variables were studied on the cultural components of every country: "power distance", "individualism", "masculinity", "uncertainty avoidance", "long term orientation" and "indulgence". These sociocultural variables will be analysed below in relation to antisocial behaviour in the case of Spain at a general level. Firstly, Spain scores highly in “power distance”, which means that it is not only a hierarchical society ––in all its fields––, but this hierarchy is not usually questioned either. In his power control theory, Hagan (1989) stated from a criminological perspective that authoritarian and patriarchal families ––high power distance–– exercise greater control over daughters than over their sons, which would translate into a difference in risk perception according to the socialisation that is received. For this reason, greater moral freedom and authority, together with a low perception of risk, can lead to deviant behaviours (Ibáñez, 2016) such as vandalism. The “individualism” variable is one of the lowest in this country if we compare it with other countries of the European Union, which according to Otto et al. (2020) could be translated into low levels of antisocial behaviour. While other cultures can be perceived as aggressive and forceful, Spanish culture develops without many complications with other cultures, and teamwork is considered a candid task, which does not suppose an impediment. This variable explains the differences in group and interpersonal relationships. Conflict is a key variable here, as interpersonal relations are concerned with avoiding hurting the feelings of others, which should prevent and punish antisocial behaviour. More specifically, collectivist societies seem to notice conflict more easily than individualist ones, and the expression of confrontation in individualist societies is more direct and conflictual (Otto et al., 2020). Regarding the variable of "masculinity", a high score in this dimension indicates that the society will be driven by competition, and a low score ––feminine–– means that the dominant values in society are caring for others and giving importance to the quality of life. Spain scores a medium mark in this variable, so polarisation is not a well-regarded phenomenon nor is excessive competitiveness appreciated (Hofstade, 2019). Spanish children are educated in the search for harmony, refusing to take sides or stand out. There is a concern for weak or needy people that generates a natural current of sympathy. This analysis can be translated into the fact that in this sociocultural context, consensual behaviour stands out, in which the neighbour is respected, and therefore the probability of committing an infraction due to antisocial behaviour is rather low in this sense. Spain scores high in "Uncertainty Avoidance", which means there is a great concern for changing, ambiguous and indefinite situations. The Spanish like to have rules for everything in general, but at the same time, they are forced to avoid rules and laws that they “complicate” life. Therefore, the rules that typify antisocial behaviour would not be broken, since they do not "complicate" life, but rather make it more peaceful. In this sense, in Spain confrontation is also avoided (Hofstede, 2019), since it causes great stress and escalates to the personal level very quickly. Therefore, there would also be a low level in terms of antisocial behaviour that requires interaction between two or more people ––but not in the case of nudism or urinating in public spaces, for example––. In addition, Spaniards generally like to live in the moment, without great concern for the future, which is why it scores low in "long term orientation". In Spain, people tend to look for fast results without delay. But at the same time, there is a need to have clear structures and well-defined rules that prevail against more pragmatic and relaxed approaches to life, particularly in the long term. Therefore, this variable could be related to non-compliance with rules that complicate life for the potential offender, such as listening to music on public transport without headphones. Finally, Spain scores low in "indulgence", which means that the gratification of desires is controlled. Societies with this orientation have the perception that their actions are constrained by social norms and feel that self-gratification is wrong (Hofstede, 2019). This is directly related to the low incidence of antisocial behaviour since the impulsiveness of actions would be restricted and civic behaviour in public space would be reflected upon before acting, for example. It is important to add that this study is carried out from a very general perspective on Spanish culture, since most of the statistical data on behaviours offered by the cultural dimensions refer to members of the middle class in skilled jobs, omitting the most disadvantaged classes of social stratification that could be traditionally related to deviant behaviour (Ibáñez, 2016). In short, taking this sociocultural analysis into account, it could be concluded that Spain is not a country that resorts to antisocial behaviour too frequently.


Antisocial behaviour in Spain is not a crime as such but is classified as an infraction that can be serious, or very serious if it affects vulnerable groups. The Barcelona Municipal Ordinance of 2005 represents a great advancement when it comes to classifying antisocial behaviour to pursue the development of a more civic and respectful society in public spaces, whose example was followed by many of the main Spanish cities. However, this ordinance requires a review and update, since it was drafted almost 20 years ago, which represents a period in which coexistence practices have changed in Spanish society. Today, children no longer play ball in public spaces, but instead, fly drones and crowd on benches to interact virtually. This is a relevant example to point out that an updated sociocultural analysis is necessary in order to adapt the legal system to the reality of the moment. The definition and typification of antisocial behaviour must go hand in hand with the understanding of how Spanish society behaves in today's sociocultural context. It has been seen that according to Spanish culture, Spain is one of the countries with the least incidence of antisocial behaviour. However, one must not lose sight of the importance of this sociocultural analysis always being updated and that the legal system is responsible for taking this analysis into account when preparing the legislative framework, interventions, sanctions, or even prevention programs.

Figure 5: Judge's gavel and scales of justice representing jurisprudence. Photograph by Guardian (2022)

Regarding the prevention of antisocial behaviour, it is important to note that neither the Barcelona Ordinance of 2005 nor the situational prevention of crime intends to improve the characteristics of human beings. It aspires to stop crime with practical, natural and simple methods, with low social and economic costs. Despite the possible cases of success in which situational crime prevention has been chosen, criticism of this technique has been made. It refers to the fact that this type of prevention can constitute an attack on privacy (Jasso, 2015), especially in cases where video surveillance is chosen, for example. Likewise, it has been pointed out (Antillano, 2007) that public intervention for the prevention of crime through urban planning implies increasing social control through architecture, generating a kind of large-scale Panopticon, such as the one described by Jeremy Bentham (Ortiz, 2006), which would also produce an attack on individual liberties. As analysed, there is a commitment to environmental design so that the spaces are defendable by themselves (Newman, 1973); however, it not only includes surveillance by the authorities, but also by the community itself. In this sense, despite the fact that situational crime prevention reduces this in the short term, it is advisable to follow a strategy more similar to that of the Ordinance, since it interferes less aggressively with the freedoms of citizens and manages to prevent antisocial behaviour in the long term and in a more consolidated manner. This Ordinance aims to promote education and a public understanding of this problem, instead of simply avoiding it.

Antisocial behaviour has negative effects on the way people perceive public spaces, it generates a sense of risk and insecurity in people, makes them feel vulnerable, and can even inhibit their presence in these places. The effects of antisocial behaviour can break with the original function of public spaces that were created to generate cohesion among the members of the community (Jasso, 2015). To conclude, as stated at the beginning of this essay, one of the main objectives of this article was to approach the definition of antisocial behaviour in Spain, analyse its relationship with the sociocultural context and review public policy proposals aimed at improving spaces in terms of reducing antisocial behaviour. Thus, public spaces in large cities would be able to recover their main function and become places of daily coexistence for society and environments where people feel safe and respected.

Bibliographical References

Antillano, A. (2007). ¿Qué son las políticas de Seguridad? Capítulo Criminológico, 35 (2), 145-177. ISSN: 0798-9598.

Aparici, J. (2014) Políticas y estrategias de prevención del delito y de la inseguridad. Trabajo de Fin de Grado. Universitat Jame I: Facultat de Ciències Juridiques i Econòmiques.

Barcelona City Council (2005) Ordenanza de medidas para fomentar y garantizar la convivencia ciudadana en el espacio público de Barcelona. From:

Clarke, R. (1997). Situational Crime Prevention. Successful Case Studies. Nueva York: School of Criminal Justice.

FEMP (2007) Ordenanza tipo de seguridad y convivencia ciudadana. Grupo de trabajo “Comisión de Seguridad y Convivencia Ciudadana”. From:

Granada City Council (2009) Ordenanza de medidas para fomentar y garantizar la convivencia ciudadana en el espacio público de Granada. From:

Guadalajara City Council (2009) Ordenanza de medidas para fomentar y garantizar la convivencia ciudadana en el espacio público de Guadalajara. From:

Hagan, J. (1989) Theoretical integration in the study of deviance and crime. Problems and prospects. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Hofstede Insights (2019) Country Comparison Tool. From:

Ibáñez, A. (2016) ¿Propensión cultural al delito? un enfoque criminológico sobre las dimensiones culturales de hofstede. Revista de derecho penal y criminología, 3 (16), 413-440.

Jasso, L. (2015) El desorden y la incivilidad en el espacio público. Aproximaciones de política pública para su planteamiento. Revista Alter, Enfoques Críticos, 6 (12) 51-67.

Maroto, M. (2017) Punitive decriminalisation? The repression of political dissent through administrative law and nuisance ordinances in Spain. In Peršak, N. (ed.) (2017) Regulation and Social Control of Incivilities. London and New York: Routledge.

Newman, O. (1973) Defensible Space: Crime Prevention Through Urban Design. Nueva York: Colliers Books.

Ortiz, P. (2006) Espacios ‘del miedo’, ciudad y género: Experiencias y percepciones en algunos barrios de Barcelona. En: O. Gutiérrez (coord.). La ciudad y el miedo. Barcelona: Universitat de Girona.

Otto, L., Lecheler, S. & Andreas R.T. Schuck (2020) Is Context the Key? The (Non-) Differential Effects of Mediated Incivility in Three European Countries, Political Communication, 37 (1), 88-107, DOI: 10.1080/10584609.2019.1663324

Palma City Council (2011) Ordenanza reguladora del uso cívico de los espacios públicos. From:

Rau, M. (2007) Prevención situacional en América Latina y el Caribe. En: E. Alda y G. Beliz (eds.). ¿Cuál es la salida? La agenda inconclusa de la seguridad ciudadana. Washington. D. C.: Departamento de Desarrollo Sostenible del Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo.

Real Decreto 4/2015, de 30 de marzo, de protección de la seguridad ciudadana. Boletín Oficial del Estado, 77, de 31 de marzo de 2015.

Sagunto City Council (2008) Ordenanza de medidas para fomentar y garantizar la convivencia ciudadana en el espacio público de Sagunt. From:

Sevilla City Council (2008) Ordenanza Municipal de Medidas para el Fomento y Garantía de la Convivencia Ciudadana en los Espacios Públicos de Sevilla

UNODC (Oficina de las Naciones Unidas contra la Droga y el Delito) (2011). Instrumento de evaluación de las necesidades en materia de prevención de la delincuencia. Recopilación de Instrumentos de Evaluación de la Justicia Penal. Nueva York: ONU.

Vigo City Council (2009) Ordenanza reguladora de convivencia ciudadana y ocio.

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Lucas López Sosa

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