On Thursday May 7, 2020 dr. Teun van Ruitenburg defended his PhD thesis digitally. His thesis, titled Raising Moral Barriers. An empirical study on the Dutch approach of outlaw motorcycle gangs, provides insights in the question how the Dutch government’s approach to biker gangs has developed from the 1970s to the present. We recently interviewed him to inquire about the focus and results of his PhD studies.

Can you tell us a bit about what you researched and why?

My interest in the Dutch approach to outlaw motorcycle gangs was sparked when I wrote my master thesis on this topic in 2013 for my MA in Criminology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Although it was my supervisor at the Dutch National Police who suggested to write a thesis about this particular topic, I very much stayed involved in this topic after I finished my masters. I was interested to learn how, and especially why, various Dutch law enforcement agencies became so heavily involved in fighting outlaw motorcycle gangs in that period in time. I remember that I was critical about the measures taken and wanted to learn more about how this approach evolved over time. Especially after I noticed a 180-degree turn in the approach to outlaw motorcycle gangs: while clubs like the Hells Angels MC were offered a clubhouse in Amsterdam in 1974, today local governments take all necessary measures to exclude them and other clubs from society. All in all, the starting point of this research was pretty simple: I wanted to understand, explain and describe this 180-degree turn in the Dutch approach to outlaw motorcycle gangs.

Briefly summarized, what are the main research methods you employed during your PhD studies?

I used various sources of data to reconstruct the Dutch approach towards outlaw motorcycle gangs. First, the city archive of Amsterdam turned out to be a real gold mine to reconstruct the approach of the local government of Amsterdam in the 1970s. I found very interesting documents including minutes of meetings between members of the Hells Angels MC and the mayor of Amsterdam, and internal communication between civil servants about the problems caused by the Hells Angels MC. I also analyzed openly available national and local (policy) documentation about the approach from the 1980s to the present time. I also had the chance to analyze internal policy documents about the national approach as launched in 2012. Probably most important and insightful, however, were the semi-structured interviews I conducted with 76 respondents working mostly for the Dutch National Police, Regional Information and Expertise Centres, and local governments.

In a couple of sentences, can you tell us something about the main findings and conclusions of your research?

In short, this study revealed that the approach to outlaw motorcycle gangs has been influenced by a preventive turn in Dutch crime policies. This, I argue in my thesis, reflects a broader trend of shifting from a post-crime to a pre-crime society.  At the same, I noticed that this approach is not only about preventing crime. The preventive ‘barriers’ raised against outlaw motorcycle gangs also hold a strong moral meaning. Preventing clubhouses, the example I started this thesis with, is believed to frustrate the opportunity structure for crime in the same that it reflects the government’s assumptions about the ‘good’ society. In this way I argue that the approach to outlaw motorcycle gangs can also be characterized as a moral conflict over who sets the rules in society.

In what way do these findings contribute to the academic community?

First, I hope that this research generally helps researchers involved in studying (the approach to) outlaw motorcycle gangs by showing how the problem of outlaw motorcycle gangs is understood and constructed by governmental agencies. In terms of theoretical implications, this research shows that one must not overlook the moralization inherently part of the risk-focused and preventive strategies of the pre-crime society.

How do these conclusions contribute to society, or practitioners in your field of study?

I think that this research offers a new and different story to practitioners involved in fighting outlaw motorcycle gangs. During my interviews I noticed that almost everyone was (and is) fully convinced of the idea that all outlaw motorcycle gangs are simply criminal organizations. My research, among other things, makes clear that this statement is partly based on assumptions that are not necessarily supported by the present empirical knowledge about this phenomenon. This is problematic because it has created an image of the outlaw motorcycle gang that is lacking nuance and has little, if any, explanatory power of the problem at hand. Moreover, this research also helps practitioners to critically reflect on the effectiveness of the approach of outlaw motorcycle gangs.

Your very last period of the journey was marked by COVID-19. You chose to defend your thesis from home. Can you reflect on that?

I already knew in December 2019 that I would defend my thesis on 7 May 2020, but I never expected that I would eventually defend it from home. Of course, it is a pity that I did not have the opportunity to defend my thesis in the Senaatszaal with all my colleagues, family and friends sitting in the same room. However, it was (and still is) uncertain when PhD ceremonies will take place again in a normal way and above all, I felt that it was simply time for me personally to finish my PhD trajectory. Fortunately, I do not regret this decision as I think it was a very nice ceremony after all!

What is next for you in your career?

I started working for the Public Prosecution Service one year ago, where I am mostly involved in researching illicit financial flows and money laundering. Indeed, a totally different topic, but it is nice to broaden your scope a little bit after doing a PhD – although I also plan to write one or two articles about my research in the upcoming months.

Last question…. If you could pass one word of advice to people who are doing a PhD or wish to conduct a PhD, what would that be?

For the people who are doing a PhD, my advice would be to not be afraid to make your own decisions and follow your own ideas. Of course, it is important to listen to and follow-up on the suggestions of your supervisors, but it also important to write and defend your own story. My final advice would be to start writing early in your PhD trajectory. Whether you write to publish in a journal or just try to write the first paragraphs of your book, writing gave me a feeling of moving forward and helped me to sort out my thoughts.

The book can be purchased via: https://www.boomdenhaag.nl/webshop/raising-moral-barriers

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