Contemporary societies are culturally diverse. This diversity can be the result of different historical and social processes and might affect the uniformity and efficiency of criminal justice systems. Colonization of indigenous populations that started in the 15th century later European colonization of Africa and migration flows following the Second World War have contributed to this diversity in different ways. The growing importance acquired by culture in the criminal law domain went hand in hand with the attention received by it both in the human rights field (especially linked to minority rights) and in the field of sociological and criminological theories.
Nowadays, crimes such as female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and other behaviors grounded in “culture or tradition” form the object of several international human rights instruments and media reports. The way in which criminal justice systems deal with such cases, and more in general with cultural factors, varies greatly. Different instruments have been proposed to allow the consideration of cultural elements within criminal proceedings among which (in common law countries) is the formalization of an autonomous “cultural defense.” However, international human rights instruments, especially those protecting the rights of vulnerable subjects such as women and children, have repeatedly discouraged states to take into account “culture, religion, and tradition” as grounds for justification (see, e.g., the Istanbul Convention).
Criminal proceedings are not the only setting to deal with culture and crime. More recently, the development of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms and restorative justice both within formal and informal (community) settings have given an additional option to take culture into account in the resolution of disputes (in terms of procedures used and normativities in play). Concerns exist with regard to the substantive and procedural rights of participants to these programs. However, these alternatives could represent a way to allow a certain degree of legal pluralism and facilitate access to justice for minority groups.
Robert J. Durán
The study of gangs has emerged alongside the use of a research methodology known as ethnography. Ethnography is based on participant observation and interviews to provide a detailed description of a wide variety of social groups and settings. The researcher is trained to immerse himself or herself into the setting and group of interest and to learn the way participants think and feel. The origins of ethnography date back to W. E. B. Du Bois and the Atlanta School along with the University of Chicago, known as the Chicago School. Gang research began in the 1920s in the city of Chicago with additional studies emerging in Boston, New York City, and Los Angeles. Ethnographic researchers learned to rely on key participants to provide access to social settings and social groups, often very different from those of the researcher. The social work orientation of reaching out to gang members through the use of gang workers allowed researchers the opportunity to obtain additional forms of access. Nevertheless, the principal investigator remained the source for interpretation of the data and results. In the 1970s and 1980s greater awareness developed regarding the role of insiders and outsiders to particular groups and settings. In response, researchers moved ethnography into one of three strands of discovery: (1) cultivating an outsider role to present a non-threatening presence; (2) working in collaboration with gang members; and (3) attempting to nurture an insider status through enhanced membership roles. Contemporary gang ethnographies have moved toward utilizing mixed methodological designs as highlighted by the Eurogang program and more critically approached strategies emerging in the United States. In addition, research in Latin America has provided a greater form of reflexivity as primarily white researchers have outlined their initial standing in the community and how they have worked to develop rapport. Ethnography continues to be of importance for the study of gangs but has increasingly become more conscious as toward how personal biographies and backgrounds shape the data collection process. In so doing, ethnography has become more focused on reducing bias and increasing ethical forms of justice.
Lauren Magee and Chris Melde
Street gangs have been the focus of attention for over a century, largely due to their reputation for involvement in illegal activities, especially violence. Indeed, gangs use this reputation for violence as a means of survival, as they seek to intimidate others in order to protect their members from attacks from rival gangs, and to limit the willingness of community members to cooperate with law enforcement officials. Research on the nature of these groups suggests they thrive in marginalized communities, where there are high rates of poverty, family instability, and limited institutional support. Much of the information on street gangs stems from data collected in the United States, but these groups have been documented across the globe in not insignificant numbers. While gangs certainly differ in their structure and organizational capacity, these groups are routinely associated with a disproportionate involvement in delinquent and criminal acts at the local level. Perhaps most concerning, gangs and gang members are known to be associated with substantially higher rates of interpersonal violence, including homicide, than non-gang-involved persons. From a developmental perspective, even brief periods of gang membership have been found to have negative consequences across the early portion of the life course, including reduced educational attainment, lower income, family instability, and a higher likelihood of arrest and incarceration. Overall, the negative effects gangs have on communities appears to outweigh any of the short-term benefits these groups provide their members.
James A. Densley
This article examines the who, what, where, when, why, and how of gang joining. The question of what youth join when they join gangs speaks to the contested nature of gang definitions and types and the consequences of gang membership, specifically heightened levels of offending and victimization. The type of gang and the obligations of membership influence the joining process. Where youth join gangs, namely, the neighborhood and social context, also impacts individual opportunities and preferences for joining. When youth join gangs is considered in a developmental sense, to include both adolescent and adult onset, in order to account for continuity and change in individual levels of immersion or “embeddedness” in gangs across the life course. Who joins gangs provides a profile of gang membership grounded in the well-documented risk factors for gang membership, but limited by problems of prediction. Why youth join gangs speaks to the push and pull factors for membership, the appeal of gangs, and the selective incentives they offer. Still, motivations for gang membership cannot fully explain selection into gangs, nor can general theories of crime that do not necessarily fit with general knowledge of gangs. How youth join gangs, for example, is more complicated than initiation rites. The mechanisms underlying the selection process can be understood through the lens of signaling theory, with implications for practice.
Christian L. Bolden
Gang organization has been an aspect of research that is often explored and debated. The concept of organization is intertwined with questions of whether gangs have leaders, whether gangs can be considered organized crime, which groups are actually street gangs, and other related questions. Though there are some crossover categories, street gangs are viewed as distinctly different than organized crime groups, prison gangs, outlaw motorcycle clubs, skinheads, stoners, and taggers.
Gang structures are widely varied, with a few being highly organized and most being loose networks of associates. The organization of a gang may change over time. There is an array of membership types that range from core members who might maintain affiliation well into adulthood to temporary members who only spend a short time in the gang. Gangs may have sub-group clique structures based on age-graded cohorts, neighborhoods, or criminal activity. Leadership roles in gangs rarely take the form of a recognizable figurehead.
These variations have led to a plethora of gang categories that include evolutionary typologies that place gangs by their stage in criminal sophistication, behavioral typologies that identify gangs by the type of criminal behavior the members engage in, and structural typologies that differentiate gangs by the characteristics of their composition. It is important to note that most of the following gang typologies are focused on gangs in the United States and may not be as relevant in other countries.
Major gang affiliations are also explored. Like other aspects of organizations, affiliations are not stable, as gang alliances are volatile. Despite the ability of affiliations to fluctuate, this categorization strategy is commonly used outside of academic research.
Sex and gender are often conflated, but there are important distinctions between the two. This is true also with terms related to gender identity, including masculinities and femininities or the performance of gender. In addition, the terms gang and gang member are contested, so it is important to establish a basis for understanding these terms in order to discuss the relationships between gender and gang involvement. Historically, gang-involved young women and men were described in terms of gender extremes, with scholarship and journalistic accounts focusing on the perceived aggressive masculinity of lower class males—and the deviant sexuality of females, who were rarely seen as legitimate full-fledged members of those groups. By the 1980s and 1990s, young women were recognized in scholarship as “real” gang members, and qualitative researchers sought to provide voice to them and examine issues of gender and gender dynamics in gangs, while quantitative researchers sought to explore similarities and differences between girls and boys in gangs, often through large scale studies using self-report surveys of adolescents. Feminist criminology and burgeoning queer criminology have pushed and blurred the boundaries of gender and gang involvement, asserting the importance of taking into account multiple, intersecting identities that differentially structure the experiences of young people, and of the troubling heteronormative, heterosexist, and cisgendered assumptions that have permeated criminology. Moving away from these assumptions means accounting, for example, not only for gender but also for the multiplicative effects of race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, ability, etc.; it means considering what the presence of young women in stereotypically hypermasculine environments signifies for gender performance, moving away from assumptions of opposite sex attraction that cast females in supportive and dependent roles with males, and accounting for the experiences of gang members who identify outside gender and sexual orientation binaries. These issues provide fruitful avenues for sensitive and productive future scholarship on gender and gang involvement.
Mark S. Fleisher
Radical culture change instigated by conflict among diverse cultural groups has had adverse social and psychological effects witnessed by the rise of youth gangs. A close look at the processes of gang formation in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City illustrates that rapid changes in core cultural systems had a chilling effect on ethnic groups’ core cultural practices, such as adolescents’ rites of passage to adulthood. In the absence of culturally prescribed, ritual activities, adolescents have not been prepared to assume their culture’s prescribed adult roles. That radical loss in a core cultural tradition has adversely affected adolescents’ behavior. Research in the early decades of the 20th century in Chicago reported that adolescent gang members experienced depression, anxiety, personality disorders, and addictions as consequents of violence clashes between Chicago’s native white population and European immigrants and black migrants. Over the decades of gang research in America and Europe, sociologists and anthropologists have come to agree on cultural elements in theories of gang formation: American and European youth gangs are derivative of cultural clashes, which engender racism and fundamental antagonistic changes in cultural systems’ economic production and social control. Effects of hostile culture change include social discord, unemployment, gang, and violence.
Social network research on adolescent gangs has shown that gangs are not closed social groups limiting gang members’ interpersonal contact to co-group members. Gang and non-group adolescents differ in attributes (sex, age, education), but structural measures of adolescent gang groups and non-groups are similar. Network research has carefully examined gang and non-gang adolescents’ personal networks. A personal network of male and female gang members includes people they know who know them. A personal network’s composition can include a few friends, close friends, and best friends, and numerous others inside a gang group as well as members of other gangs and non-gang members. Personal network relations connect gang adolescents to their families, friends, and neighborhoods, despite gang membership. Gang ethnography describing youth gang members and their families has shown that gang youth have been victims of domestic and intimate partner violence, experience periods of episodic homelessness away their natal and extended kin, as well as fictive families, and suffer adverse mental health consequences.
In the context of crime, victimization, and immigration in the United States, research shows that people are afraid of immigrants because they think immigrants are a threat to their safety and engage in many violent and property crimes. However, quantitative research has consistently shown that being foreign born is negatively associated with crime overall and is not significantly associated with committing either violent or property crime. If an undocumented immigrant is arrested for a criminal offense, it tends to be for a misdemeanor. Researchers suggest that undocumented immigrants may be less likely to engage in serious criminal offending behavior because they seek to earn money and not to draw attention to themselves. Additionally, immigrants who have access to social services are less likely to engage in crime than those who live in communities where such access is not available. In regard to victimization, immigrants are more likely to be victims of crime. Foreign-born victims of crime may not report their victimization because of fears that they will experience negative consequences if they contact the police. Recently, concern about immigration and victimization has turned to refugees who are at risk of harm from traffickers, who warehouse them, threaten them, and physically abuse them with impunity. More research is needed on the relationship among immigration, offending, and victimization. The United States and other nations that focus on border security may be misplacing their efforts during global crises that result in forced migrations. Poverty and war, among other social conditions that would “encourage” a person to leave their homeland in search of a better life, should be addressed by governments when enforcing immigration laws and policy.
Breanna Boppre, Emily J. Salisbury, and Jaclyn Parker
Scholarship in criminology has focused on individuals’ pathways to crime—how life experiences, often beginning during childhood, lead to criminality in adolescence or adulthood. General frameworks for this research include life-course, developmental, and biosocial criminology. However, because the vast majority of the general pathways research literature was developed using samples of boys and men, scholars with a feminist theoretical background argue that such research is not truly representative of girls and women’s pathways to crime. While general theories of crime have been applied broadly, gender-specific pathways to crime account for important distinctions between male and female experiences.
Thus, gender (and sex), through biological differences, social norms, and expectations, shapes individual life experiences that result in distinct pathways to crime for men and women. Consequently, understanding criminality requires a full consideration of gendered experiences. Even though similar life events may occur with both men and women, individual responses and effects can vary greatly and lead to different pathways to criminal behavior. Accordingly, this article discusses pathways to crime though a gendered lens. First, men’s pathways to crime are presented, which have been traditionally represented through general criminological research. Next, women’s specific pathways to crime are discussed, developed primarily through the gendered pathways literature. Finally, future directions in pathways research are outlined.