Be afraid, be very afraid . . . of gum on the pavement and graffiti on the wall

Medieval handbooks laid down strict rules about spitting; today, staring may be an aggressive act. P

I walk down a local pavement, past a row of shops. Three boys, aged between about 12 and 14, have managed to get on to a single bike and are riding at me full tilt. I shout at them to stop. They get off. The youngest holds up his fists in my face like a boxer, but they all go on past me. Moments later, I'm doused with a stream of cold water. It runs down my neck. The oldest has taken a display bucket from the front of a florist's, emptied out the flowers and thrown the water.

More fool me? Should I have given them the pleasure of seeing me jump out of the way? Questions, questions. I walk, dripping, to the Tube station, ignoring shouts and footsteps close behind me. I resent being invaded by an inevitable surge of angry feelings.

This is antisocial behaviour a few notches higher than most of what the Prime Minister talks about and which, the Queen's Speech indicated, he intends to target. It's a long way up from dropping gum in the street or fly-posting in bus shelters. It's perhaps on a par with letting your dog shit in the park or engraving Tube train window-glass with graffiti. It's somewhere below riding motorbikes, under-age, unlicensed and uninsured, past the gates of a young children's play-space. Except for the last example, all these things are routine aspects of urban life.

But what criteria am I using to rank these delinquencies? Because it involved a kind of assault, should I upgrade my own case? Where does mischief tilt over into malice, and then tipple down into menace? All these events take place, most of the time, below the sight-line of the law. When the law does take notice, the outcome can be unexpected. A young man recently found guilty of using a drill to put his tag on many square yards of Tube glass turned out to be the stepson of a barrister, not a lout from a sink estate. Between verdict and sentence, he did a runner.

The arguments of the Harvard criminologist James Q Wilson underlie Blair's concern. On Wilson's interpretation, tolerate a broken window or similar misdemeanours and you begin to create an ambience in which people go on to ever-greater crimes. There goes the neighbourhood. This is the theory behind zero-tolerance, the programme on which Middlesbrough voters recently elected the former policeman Ray Mallon as mayor. The snag is that, except in some narrowly defined territories, such as Rudi Giuliani's Manhattan, you'll never have enough policemen to do the job. Which is not to say that more commonsensical policing mightn't help. When residents complained about the motorcyclists I've mentioned, the police turned up in a marked car, with all lights flashing, instead of on foot. By then the boys had fled, laughing.

Sociologists struggle to make sense of all this. The idea that, like soccer yobbery, it is some sort of "resistance through ritual" - an idea advocated by Stuart Hall at the Open University and his sociological colleagues - has now drifted into history. For a start there isn't much ritual involved. On top of that, it's unclear what the "resistance"- the imagery is of an urban guerrilla war - is aimed at. Some of the arguments came close to implying that the statistics of rising crime were made up by the police to justify their quest for more officers and more money. By now, all the attempts to present crime as a way for the poor to get their own back on the rich - the bandit interpretation of burglary - seem to have died a death. Neighbourhood studies, such as a celebrated inquiry in Islington, north London, by the sociologist Jock Young, showed that the chief victims were poor themselves. They wanted more police, not fewer. On the most crime-ridden estates today, the richest man, in the fanciest BMW or Merc, is a drug dealer.

Most of the lesser misdemeanours are too trivial for the attention of sociology, just as they've been too trivial for the police. They can even be romanticised into art. When Victor Pasmore, abstract painter and - from 1955 to 1977 - architectural consultant at Peterlee new town, County Durham, came to visit, the local people complained that their bright new health centre was covered in graffiti. Prefiguring Basquiat by many years, Pasmore said he preferred it like that. That was the end of Pasmore's influence on the people of Peterlee.

For many people's tastes, "community art" often comes too close for comfort to subsidised graffiti. As one London School of Economics urbanist told me: a bright, sub-Leger wall-painting is like a big sign saying: "Here live the poor."

In his classic sociologist's analysis of folk devils such as Mods, Rockers, Teddy boys and vandals, Stanley Cohen of the LSE suggested that the public reaction was mostly a "moral panic", unrelated to the facts. But these were then fairly small, isolated groups (like refugees now). Life may have moved on. In his recent social history of English seaside resorts, John Walton put part of the blame for their widespread decline on a confrontational youth culture, which helped to wreck places (such as Blackpool) based on a concept of working-class inclusivity.

Is there a continuum of antisociability, from gum-droppers right through to the Gallagher brothers? The idea would have appealed to Norbert Elias, a Jewish sociologist who fled from Nazi Germany and eventually found refuge at Leicester University. Elias's mother died in Auschwitz and she was one of those to whom he dedicated the 1978 English translation of his great work, The Civilising Process, first published in Switzerland in 1939. Elias's concern is with the slow, delicate process of taming aggression through forms of behaviour, so that differences can be reconciled without violence. It's a historical lesson not yet learnt in Northern Ireland or on a Saturday night in Camden Town.

Looking back over the centuries, Elias reaches deep into the most trivial recesses of everyday behaviour (though he died, in 1990, before gum on pavements became an issue for a British Prime Minister). He quotes, for example, from a list of boorishness in a medieval handbook:

27 : Do not spit over or on the table.

37 : Do not spit into the bowl when washing your hands.

Such rules imply constant struggle, like the traditional mining-village housewife's battle against filth; remember that Tony Blair is a County Durham MP. Not long ago, all buses bore notices saying: "Do not spit." (On the other hand, no such notices forbade smoking - which wasn't yet ritually unclean - except downstairs in double-deckers.) I notice that spitting has crept back into everyday urban behaviour. But buses now are only likely to carry notices threatening drastic action if staff are attacked. No mention of spitting, or of the safety of passengers. A line of defence, a kind of bulwark, has been thrown up. It implies no reciprocity of obligations. Nor does it stretch out into the minutiae of behaviour, from which greater things may flow.

In books such as Behaviour in Public Places, the American sociologist Erving Goffman focused constantly on the present-day detail of the way people treat one another. Here's one example: "The act of staring is a thing which one does not ordinarily do to another human being; it seems to put the object stared at in a class apart. One does not talk to a monkey in a zoo . . . one only stares." Tag-writing is staring-by-proxy: an out-of-sight bravado. The sprayer, who usually works at night, doesn't look at you scornfully in person. But his message stares out at you all the time.

As in my tale of the bike and the flower water, there's something comical about a Prime Minister going on about dropped gum and dog shit. Should he fret, personally, about such trivia? (As John Major famously did when he called for the cones hotline to be set up.) Probably not. But to many people they aren't trivia - especially on housing estates where allocation policies thrust incompatible tenants up against one another. The worst conflict sets the young, often from an unsettled background, and housed for reasons of perceived "need", up against the old, often from a generation who worked their way up a waiting-list to gain their longed-for "entitlement".

How to change all this?

Elias, like Wilson and, I suspect, Goffman, would argue that change is best started a long way down the chain of influence. Not long ago, I went into a north London Adventist church. In Britain, this is an almost wholly Caribbean institution. I stood at the back, listening to hymns and looking at the banner over the altar: "Your Future Begins Today!" Everyone was deeply courteous, but I felt out of place. This wasn't because I was white and everyone else was black. It was because I was by far the grubbiest person in sight. Cleanliness was still next to godliness.

In the United States, "faith institutions" are now seen by some urban sociologists as one of the few levers that may change ethics in the ghetto (and elsewhere). It's often forgotten that the great Victorian sociologist, Charles Booth, devoted several volumes of his Life and Labour of the People in London to patterns of religion. His near-namesake, William Booth, founded the Salvation Army in the East End at about the same time, fighting drunkenness, fecklessness and crime with the Bible in one hand and a tambourine in the other. Both Booths were on to something.