Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Communication. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 28 January 2021

Gangs and Intergroup Communicationfree

  • DaJung WooDaJung WooDepartment of Communication, University of California, Santa Barbara


Gang violence and its impact on society is a well-documented phenomenon. Until recently, gang research has been mostly conducted by criminologists and sociologists. Some scholars consider gangs to be special or different from other delinquent or peer groups, warranting special attention and approach to the research. Although this approach has led to substantial advancements in knowledge about gangs, scholars’ attention to emergent ideas from fields of study beyond gang research can contribute to a multifaceted understanding of gangs and group processes of gangs. Specifically, intergroup communication theories and research are well suited to analyze and predict communicative implications of gang membership on gang activities and potential gang members. Intergroup communication theories posit that it is not individuals’ characteristics that shape their communication with others but their salient social memberships, such as being a part of a gang or a certain socioeconomic group; in turn, the communication provides information about why/how they identify with different groups in society. While gangs have been rarely discussed in communication contexts—with an exception of the work by Conquergood who engaged in this topic over two decades ago—some key intergroup communication issues are alluded to in a number of existing definitions of gangs. For example, Pyrooz defines a gang as “a group that hangs out together, wears gang colors or clothes, has set clear boundaries of its territory or turf, and protects its members and turf against other rival gangs through fighting or threats” (2014, p. 355). In another example, Klein and Maxson define street gangs as “any durable, street-oriented groups whose involvement in illegal activity is part of its group identity” (2006, p. 4). These definitions indicate that gang membership is communicated by distinct markers—such as gang colors, clothing, or illegal activities—which help organize the gang’s system and making their identity distinctive from outgroups (other gangs and their surroundings). Also, gangs have clear boundaries for determining in/outgroup, and the shared group identity among ingroup members—rather than their individual identity—drives their communicative behaviors. Importantly, gangs are motivated to engage in risky behaviors to enhance their reputation and communicate dominance by fighting against other gangs or law enforcement (intergang conflicts). Examining these gang activities and processes as intergroup communication phenomena, as opposed to analyzing them in terms of individual and intragroup aspects, can complement gang research grounded in other disciplines and enhance understanding of why/how youths might decide to join gangs, obtain, and maintain gang membership.

Gangs As Intergroup Process

Remember that gangs are groups, not merely aggregations of individual gang members.

—Klein (2014, p. 701)

Gangs are, above all, group phenomenon. As collectives, gangs engage in group behaviors that individual gang members may not do alone. While individual-level information, such as self-esteem and drug use, are important for identifying risk factors and predicting the likelihood of gang involvement, understanding why and how individuals engage in gang-related behaviors requires a group-level understanding of gangs. As Klein (2014) argues, gangs are qualitatively different from other types of youth groups due to their engagement in illegal behaviors as well as images of violence being the central part of the group culture and a gang unifier. There is an ongoing debate about whether or not violence should be a defining component of gangs (see Curry, 2015); while scholars and practitioners (e.g., law enforcement and popular media) tend to agree that it often is a part of gangs’ collective identity and that gang members talk about it a lot, many also recognize that actual gang behaviors on a daily basis do not necessarily involve violence.

Regardless of how gangs are characterized in different contexts, this section explores how common features of gangs across existing definitions—including the ones introduced in the summary of this chapter (see also Curry, 2015; Esbensen, Winfree, He, & Taylor, 2001)—are indicative of key intergroup communication processes. Intergroup communication is rooted in Social Identity Theory (SIT), which posits that people define their self-concept in terms of their group memberships, in part, as they desire to obtain and/or maintain a positive social identity (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). Intergroup communication scholars then have focused on how such social cognitive processes are linguistically and/or non-linguistically marked; that is, the various ways in which people’s social identity is expressed, questioned, and reinforced through communication. Giles (2012) puts forth fundamental principles of intergroup communication to provide the grounding for research in this area, three of which will be discussed to conceptualize some of the defining features of gangs as intergroup communication phenomena: (1) groups and their identities are defined by members’ shared evaluative social identities; (2) groups institutionalize distinctive cultures that coexist with comparative others; (3) groups’ identities and boundaries are marked communicatively, and they can also dynamically change intergroup relations.

First, gangs are collections of individuals who share a common social identity (e.g., “street-oriented youth groups” who “hang out together” as shown in the definitions found in the chapter summary). Gangs often reflect their neighborhoods’ racial and ethnic compositions and thus can be homogenous—although in post-1990 there have been a greater mix of race/ethnicity, especially with an increase of White youth, females, and middle-class teens (Coughlin & Venkatesh, 2003; Howell, Moore, & Egley, 2002). Their shared experience, especially social marginalization as ethnic minorities within the mainstream society, helps gang members bond and feel a sense of belongingness (Goldman, Giles, & Hogg, 2014). As SIT posits, gang-related behaviors are partially motivated by marginalized youths’ desire to achieve a favorable and well-defined self-concept (Tajfel & Turner, 1979; Woo, Giles, Hogg, & Goldman, 2015).

Second, gangs institutionalize distinctive cultures that coexist with their surrounding communities, which are marked in various communicative ways (e.g., wearing “gang colors” and participating in illegal activities, as a constitutive part of their group culture and identity). Some physical markings of gang culture and group identity include tattoos and graffiti, and linguistic markings include the use of unique gang names and euphemistic language (e.g., referring to murder as “business”). Nonverbally, violence communicates the gang life characterized with the desire for respect. Through these various communicative displays of group identity and expressions of strong ingroup vitality (Wood & Giles, 2014), gangs accentuate their pride and cohesiveness. When gangs’ group-level identity saturates gang members’ self-identities, it can motivate them to engage in irrational group behaviors (Hughes, 2013).

Third, gang behaviors and activities set clear boundaries of their territory or turf, which differentiates them from other gangs and (re)defines their relations. The communicatively marked boundaries determine in/outgroup and serve to promote loyalty toward ingroup gang members—thus enhanced and durable group identity—as well as intergang conflict (e.g., “protects its members and turf against other rival gangs through fighting or threats”). As gangs engage in risky and illegal behaviors to communicate group dominance and enhance their reputation, acts of intergroup aggression among rival gangs are perpetuated (Vasquez, Lickel, & Hennigan, 2010). However, intergang relations are not only oppositional but dynamic, as gangs can cooperate or merge with other gangs in different situations (Bolden, 2014). For example, gangs may believe that the threat to their neighborhood is more important than affiliation, and decide to join with other gangs in the same neighborhood and fight against gangs from different regional areas. In that case, the ingroup boundary is broadened to a neighborhood level from an individual gang level; put another way, the boundary is nonverbally marked by the larger neighborhood in which the gangs live and operate, while the individual gang boundaries within the same neighborhood become blurred. Other than the shared locations, as Bolden (2014) found, gang members who associate or cooperate with members of other gangs often do so through connections with whom they share other salient social group memberships, such as family and romantic relationships. Thus, gangs have clear boundaries they mark communicatively, which motivate their intergroup behaviors, but the boundaries can also shift to mark gang members’ relations with other social groups with which they identify.

In this way, some of the fundamental intergroup processes are embedded in all or most existing definitions as key aspects of gangs and gang behaviors. The aim of this chapter is to show that an intergroup perspective provides a vital lens to explore social–psychological and communicative processes as they relate to gang membership, culture, and relations. Discussions in this chapter will focus on four topics to understand gangs and gang behaviors as intergroup phenomena and explore contemporary gang issues: (1) joining gangs and obtaining gang membership, (2) the dynamics of intergang relations, (3) communication between gang members and non-gang members, (4) the Internet and the gang.

Joining Gangs and Obtaining Gang Membership

Researchers and practitioners have long strived to understand why some individuals—especially youth—are attracted to gangs despite the obvious and known risks of gang involvement, including health and death threats. From a social identity perspective, gang membership can provide an attractive option for those who experience social marginalization to enhance their identity through gang affiliation (Goldman et al., 2014; Woo et al., 2015). The lack of a strong and clear sense of social identity, and frustration that comes with it, can be a powerful source of motivation for people to pursue gang membership and attain a positive status and distinct self-concept (Tajfel & Turner, 1979).

Individuals may feel marginalized from being an ethnic or racial minority, having low socioeconomic status, or poor relations in family and schools (Krohn, Schmidt, Lizotte, & Baldwin, 2011). Indeed, the common perceptions or images of gang members are that they are helpless individuals who are trying to find somewhere to belong (Lafontaine, Acoose, & Schissel, 2009). Not being able to become effectively integrated into one’s community or accepted by peers can contribute to individuals’ low self-esteem and uncertainty in self-concept. Marginalized youth are likely to use various social identity enhancement strategies, such as joining highly entitative groups and engaging in social competition aimed at besting a rival (Hogg, 2014).

Motivated to establish a valued and distinct social identity, people who are marginalized and live in neighborhoods where gang activities are prevalent might turn to gangs for identity-related benefits (Alleyne & Wood, 2010). Gangs’ clear boundaries and family-like culture provide a sense of belongingness and salient social identity to categorize oneself as a member of a group. Through the process of social categorization (Hogg, 2014), gang members can clearly define and evaluate themselves and others in group prototypical terms. As a result, ingroup (those in the same gang) and outgroups (non-gang members or other gangs) become distinctive and the intergroup differences become heightened over time. Social categorization can also depersonalize self-conception in that gang members conform to norms and behaviors of their gang more than personal identity and values—even if it requires violent and risky activities toward outgroups—to achieve full membership and acceptance by ingroup members. That, in turn, reinforces the collective gang identity and enhances group cohesion.

Gang membership can be especially appealing to youth with high-social dominance orientation. Social Dominance Orientation (SDO) refers to “an individual’s general preference for inequality and group dominance” (Densley, Cai, & Hilal, 2014), and those with high SDO perceives aggression toward outgroups as a necessary survival mechanism. As noted earlier, a key defining aspect across various types of gangs—certainly not all—is violence, thus satisfying the needs of individuals with high SDO while also providing identity-related benefits. It is possible that people with high SDO tend to join high entitative groups like gangs, but it is also plausible that gang involvement fosters SDO. Densley and colleagues’ research (2014) found that how long one has been involved in gangs and their rank are strong predictors of high SDO.

Marginalized individuals, whether with high or low SDO, are likely to make active attempts to join gangs and satisfy the norms of the group, so they can be accepted by other gang members and achieve full membership (Jetten, Branscombe, Spears, & McKimmie, 2003). Status, reputation, and respect are the most important values of the gang culture, which gangs strive to achieve and enhance through their activities. In the case of male gang members, gaining higher status and respect is also a way to project their image of masculinity (Stretesky & Pogrebin, 2007). Overall, throughout the literature, the desire for respect is considered the major influence on youth’s decision to join gangs and participation in risky behaviors (King, Walpole, & Lamon, 2007; Sánchez-Jankowski, 2003). Due to the social power associated with gang membership, especially as perceived by at-risk youth in communities with frequent gang activities, it is common for young people to aspire to become gang members to gain a high level of respect (Alleyne & Wood, 2010). Indeed, being able to fulfill self-enhancement goals through achieving a distinctive and heightened social identity is a key motivation underlying intergroup communication behaviors.

Respect within gangs is promoted through participating in violent group activities—as violent reputation is seen as necessary to command respect—and gaining coercive power and authority as gang members move up the rank. When members do not comply with gang role expectations and norms, it can be perceived as a sign of disrespect and the gang member can fail to construct a favorable status and/or be marginalized within the gangs. When gang members perceive a sense of disrespect from outgroups (e.g., other gangs), the consequences can be much more intense. The feelings of disrespect and threats to gang status are often the case of violent acts by gang members (Hughes & Short, 2005), and it can lead to shooting and homicide of outgroup members. One gang member in Stretesky and Pogrebin’s study (2007) stated, “I was just so mad and angry for someone to disrespect me like that and shoot. We got a rule on the street . . . and they broke the rules. To me, that was telling me that they didn’t have no respect for me or my kids. So, that’s how I lost it and shot them” (p. 105). Further, as each individual gang member’s status and reputation is believed to reflect on their gang as a whole, gangs can react aggressively when an individual member’s identity is challenged.

As Cohen (1990) stated, “That membership in gangs confers identity . . . could be the single most common proposition encountered in the literature on gangs” (p. 12). As shown in this section, from a social identity perspective, violent gang behaviors or culture per se are not what attracts youth to gangs, but it is that gang membership affords them a clear identity, higher status, and belongingness in a specific social group that is available to them. When individuals join and identify strongly with their gang, they are likely to have a greater sense of improved status and be motivated to engage in risky behaviors that satisfy the group norms and protect/enhance the gang’s reputation (Giles & Johnson, 1981; Wood, 2014). Gang members may perceive that the heightened sense of positive identity, belongingness, and recognition that the gang membership offers outweighs the risks of being associated with gangs.

It is important to note, however, that identification is a dynamic process and not an absolute or static one. Gang members may invoke whether or not their membership is relevant in a given circumstance, and the gang can be a primary or secondary social group with which they identify at different times (Garot, 2007). For instance, in Garot’s study (2007), when a member of a gang had to move to a rival gang’s neighborhood for a family-related reason, he was asked, “Where are you from?” by a member of the rival gang on the street; he then denied his gang membership by saying, “I don’t bang.” Social identity theory would predict that, if/when gang members joined gangs for identity-related benefits—such as heightened status, a sense of belongingness and protection—their gang membership is likely to be invoked and seem worth marking communicatively when such benefits can be realized. When gang members’ identification and communicative behaviors as members of a gang do not grant such benefits, but can rather harm their status, gang members can be strategic in communicating their gang membership and provide “a sensual response to a moment’s vicissitudes” (Garot, 2007, p. 50)—such as disidentifying. Therefore, gang identity can be understood as a context-sensitive, communicative, and strategic performance rather than a fixed characteristic of gangs and their members.

The Dynamics of Intergang Relations

As discussed thus far, salient and positive social identity is a basis for gangs’ ingroup solidarity, cohesion, and cooperative behaviors. However, across group boundaries (i.e., between groups), it can elicit destructive behaviors and deadly consequences. While some gang violence does occur within gangs—especially gangs with low levels of organization and control over gang members’ behaviors—statistics and the dominant perspectives on gang violence show that it primarily occurs between rival gangs (Decker & Curry, 2002). Rivalry is a meaningful relation in gang culture, as gang member’s communicative behaviors and activities are often motivated by their commitment to protect their turf from rival gangs and the desire to achieve social dominance in their relations with other gangs (Tita et al., 2003).

Gang rivalry can be conceptualized as intergroup conflicts that are deeply rooted in problems of identity/existence and cannot be resolved easily through some negotiation over tangible resources (Coleman, 2003). Gang violence and attacks can be triggered by seemingly trivial matters, such as a disrespectful stare (Gould, 2003), if they are believed to pose threats to gangs’ social dominance and challenge their status as “the hardest.” Especially in gang culture characterized with honor and reputation, the symbolic meaning of gangs’ communicative behaviors can be more important than gaining something that is physically or monetarily significant. That is, violent actions toward someone who displayed signs of disrespect in some ways may not necessarily lead to physical consequences (e.g., expansion of turf) but are symbolically significant because it shows the consequence of challenging the gang’s status and helps to maintain the power imbalance. Papachristos (2009) makes this distinction by differentiating expressive homicides (e.g., when it began as an argument and to protect a gang’s social standing) and instrumental homicides (e.g., when it began as disputes over property or money), and shows that gangs engage in many more expressive incidents than instrumental ones.

Gang rivalry is also a manifestation of a gang’s engagement in social comparison. Many social groups continually make intergroup comparisons to communicate appropriate messages. The comparison is made based on group prototypical dimensions—reputation and dominance in the case of gangs—which is motivated to make ingroup evaluatively superior to relevant outgroups (Woo et al., 2015). Gangs in the same area often share arbitrary criteria or systems to determine the meanings of higher reputation or dominance, whether that is the number of criminal activities or members, and aspire to enhance and reinforce their status based on those norms. Gang activities, or publicly “doing gang” in the intergang environment, then are social and communicative performance in the face of ambiguous boundaries to establish legitimacy and reputations for violence (Lauger, 2012).

Dominance exists in social systems in which the existing relations are asymmetric and one party is clearly in a higher position than the others (e.g., manager and employee). Gould (2003) explains that violence between gangs occurs when it is unclear or undecided which gang occupies the dominant position (i.e., symmetric relations like peer to peer). As gangs strive to prove their dominant position and get recognition from outgroups, a higher level of intergang conflicts can be expected in areas without a developed hierarchical gang system/network, such as emerging gang cities. This type of intergang interactions, which often involve violent threats, contributes to (re)developing and (re)defining norms, hierarchical relations, and legitimacy of gangs in the same area. Importantly, as much as the fights and violence used in intergang interactions themselves are powerful in communicating hierarchical boundaries, how gangs share information and narratives about them can also impact intergang relations. As Lauger (2012) argues, even when gangs lose fights, they can alter the stories or spread gossip about the intergang confrontations through back channels to make themselves look good.

Murders that occur as a result of fights between rival gangs can create institutionalized patterns of intergroup interactions within a gang’s network (Papachristos, 2009). Once a gang responds to threats with killing, homicides can spread through their local network (i.e., social contagion) as other gangs evaluate the actions of killing and strengthen the “murder network” with similar acts of violence to (re)establish their status. Gang norms of retaliation and violent mechanisms of social control can further promote such patterns of gang activities. Important to our discussion is not the occurrences of killing per se, but that engaging in violent and extreme gang activities, like murders, is a communicative means by which gang members express mistrust and antagonism toward their outgroups while showing commitment and loyalty toward their ingroup. Outgroups’ threats are believed to be the main source of group solidarity and cohesion for gangs (Klein, 1971), and through this powerful mechanism, informal “cliques” can become formalized street gangs over time (Decker, 1996).

Understanding intergang conflicts and the violent consequences supports Lauger’s (2012) observation of an ironic fact that, even though youth join gangs for a sense of security based on family-like inclusion and protection, they gain enemies (outgroups) and potential for threats to their safety when they join and identify with the gang (ingroup). Gang members, by conforming to the forceful and distinctive behavioral norms of their ingroup, may enjoy greater emotional and/or cognitive protection as their insecure identity becomes clear and the level of self-esteem is enhanced after attaining gang membership (Melde, Taylor, & Ebsensen, 2009). Further, representing and acting on behalf of one’s ingroup—even if it means doing something dangerous or illegal—can also help gang members feel satisfied and a sense of self-enhancement (Becker, Tausch, & Wagner, 2011). We can then expect that, as gangs earn higher social status in their environment through winning fights and meeting other locally established norms, it would not only reinforce gangs’ collective identity but also enhance individual gang members’ ingroup identification (Tropp & Wright, 2001); that is, their membership in gangs become more and more salient in how they define their self-concept.

As noted earlier, not all intergang relations involve visible competitions and violent fights. Non-conflict and cooperative relationships between gangs have been observed, more commonly than one might expect (Bolden, 2014). One of such examples is hybrid gangs, which are defined as groups with gang members who participate in more than one gang; gangs that cooperate with other gangs in criminal activities; or gangs that result from mergers of smaller gangs, among other characteristics (Starbuck, Howell, & Lindquist, 2001). However, given the general assumption about high-social dominance orientation of those who participate in highly entitative groups like gangs—as opposed to other social groups that offer similar identity-related benefits—it is possible that longitudinal observations of hybrid gangs might reveal some form of social comparison and resulting intergang conflicts with other groups, even if it does not necessarily constitute gang rivalry.

Communication Between Gang Members and Non-Gang Members

Rival gangs are not the only saliently categorized outgroup with whom gangs have contacts and engage in intergroup communication. Among gangs’ outgroups that are not directly affiliated with gangs, youth gang members’ school teachers and police officers are such examples. Their interactions are marked and influenced by the social distance that exists between the groups, such as race/ethnicity, education level, and socioeconomic status. Also, both police officers’ and educators’ encounters with gang members can be visibly salient identity-marking intergroup settings due to, for example, their authority (and a variety of forces that come with the authority), clothing, or language use.

School-related risk factors (e.g., low commitment to academic success, poor academic performance) have been closely linked to youth gang involvement. Naturally, school teachers and their communication with at-risk youth and gang members have received attention in gang research. While the ways in which youth are socialized to behave in streets to be gang members might inevitably interfere with academic learning at schools, the role of teachers in the prevention and intervention of students’ involvement in gang activity is argued to be crucial (Vigil, 1999). Unfortunately, as Vigil (1999) points out, educators are often not well-enough informed about gangs and their culture to encourage and nurture behaviors related to academic success.

Indeed, research has shown evidence that teachers’ communication can exacerbate at-risk youth’s academic failure and related problems. For example, Katz (1999) conducted interviews with Latino immigrant youth in which it was revealed that students perceived their teachers’ discrimination to be the primary cause of disengagement from school. In a study conducted by Ralphs, Medina, and Aldridge (2009), youth in inner-city areas affected by gangs reported that their teachers would often communicate low expectations they have for the students, such as, “You would end up a drug dealer.” At-risk youth can be sensitive to teachers’ communication of their limited future possibilities (Carew & Lightfoot, 1979), and they may internalize such images for their future and aspire to achieve higher status in domains in which they believe that they can be successful, such as gangs.

Educators’ communication is likely an outcome of social categorization. Through social categorization, people classify others, which enables them to define their own and others’ places in the social environment and act accordingly (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). In interviews Katz (1999) conducted, teachers expressed that they are only trying to do their best at their job by meeting the expectations of the school administration. The expectation or mandate often requires teachers to invest more in students who display potential for achieving high standardized test scores. Accordingly, teachers may use cognitive tools to evaluate students and put in different categories—based on factors such as academic performance, commitment, and attitudes toward classroom activities—and maintain the system. Such categorization can perpetuate teachers’ bias toward at-risk youth or youth gang members. However, teachers’ differential treatment or communication is not necessarily because of their negative feelings or attitude toward the low-performing student groups, but due to potential preference or favoritism toward the student groups that can satisfy educators’ goals and, therefore, enhance their status (Tajfel & Turner, 1979).

Notwithstanding the potential bias, teachers, as a significant social group in students’ lives, have strong potential to impact academic behaviors of and counter street socialization experienced by marginalized youth (Vigil, 1999). That does not mean that educators need to feel sorry for at-risk youth or share inflated expectations about class performance. They can try to understand marginalized students’ deep identity-related needs and youth gang culture. For example, an interviewee who works with Latin gang members in Katz’s study (1999) explained that teachers need to recognize how central the concept of respect is in youth gang members’ world. He said, “. . . you might be the greatest teacher in the world, but if you don’t gain their trust and respect, you cannot teach them” (p. 815). Educators can make active efforts to communicate fairness and trustworthiness to marginalized youth by creating an opportunity to show that they are to keep their words, for example, rather than using their authority to show toughness and forcibly demand respect. However, some at-risk youths may categorize teachers as their outgroups or enemies regardless of teachers’ efforts due to peer and/or media influence, making it difficult to facilitate intergroup communication. Thus, educators are not to be blamed for students’ involvement in gangs as there are elements that they are unable to control in the intergroup relationships.

Much like with teachers, police officers’ communication can influence and be influenced by social categorization and resulting intergroup bias. Police officers, as public service professionals, are generally expected to show respectful behaviors and held to high standards. Giles and colleagues (2006) found that people’s perception of accommodativeness of police officers’ communication is a strong predictor of the evaluations of local law enforcement. That also means that, when the expectation is not met and disrespect is perceived, the legitimacy of police officers’ authority can be threatened and civilians’ perceptions of justice is lowered (Mastrofski, Reisig, & McCluskey, 2002).

This is a more salient issue in racial and ethnic minority and economically disadvantaged communities, where gang activity is likely to be observed, due to social distance between the residents and police officers. For example, police officers can feel closer to the middle class than the poor due to their similar economic status (Perrott & Taylor, 1994). Education is another factor, among many others, with university-educated officers feeling more socially distant from those without the same level of education than from those with higher education (Choi & Giles, 2012). Similarly, school teachers may well perceive different levels of social distance from students with diverse socioeconomic backgrounds based on their own status.

Perceived social distance can impact how police officers communicate with and are evaluated by residents of marginalized communities. One possibly related evidence is that police tends to stop people of color—especially Black and Hispanic drivers—more frequently than White drivers on the streets (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2016). Also, the same report shows that 68% of Black drivers, compared to 84% of White drivers, reported that there was a legitimate reason for being stopped in 2011. These experiences and observations can intensify intergroup bias and conflict. In Fine and colleagues’ study (2003), urban youth shared their feelings of betrayal and mistrust by the police, and reported that “more police make it less safe” and “anything can happen with police around” (p. 142). This clearly shows the police’s categorization as an outgroup who does not have legitimacy, cannot be trusted, and is rejected by the residents. This may be especially true in marginalized areas where gang activities regularly occur and policy brutality is frequently observed. With the high number of police shootings of innocent suspects exposed in media in recent years, however, the intergroup tension may well be perceived by any civilians from diverse backgrounds.

A group that has direct and frequent intergroup contact with police and other statutory agencies, but is often overlooked, is parents of gang-affiliated youth. Researchers and practitioners recognize family as a key risk domain, and not surprisingly, parents are often blamed for their children’s gang involvement. However, as Aldridge, Shute, Ralphs, and Medina’s (2011) study shows, parents of youth gang members believe the external factors (street socialization) to be much more powerful than what they can do to influence their children’s behavior. And they make efforts to present themselves as not responsible for gang problems in the face of people in the neighborhood, which is difficult to do when their interaction with the police is frequently seen by others. A mother with a son who is a gang member in the neighborhood reported, “Going to police stations every five minutes or sat in frigging court from morning til night or police running up and down my fucking house . . . feel degraded, people looking at me like I am a piece of shit” (p. 374). That is, the parents’ face-saving and identity management is made challenging due to the visibly salient intergroup contacts with the public officials. Being seen is not the only challenge, but interacting with the local and state authorities is also frustrating to the parents of gang members primarily due to the social distance they perceive. Another mother of a gang member interviewed in Aldridge et al.’s study (2011) said, “All these people (criminal justice officials) are snobs. They’ve been to private schools . . . they have no idea of our life, they have no real idea about being poor . . . ” (p. 376). In this way, gang members’ parents experience tensions as they try to disassociate with gangs when blamed for gang problems, but still are part of a salient ingroup for gang members (family) who shares the same social identity issues and life experiences (i.e., in the same social category as gang members). Consequently, it difficult for them to avoid the stereotype and blames as one of the major causes of youth gang involvement.

One way that can improve intergroup relation between the police and community members—instead of blaming other groups for the cause or consequence of gang problems—is through “community policing.” According to the U.S. Department of Justice (2012), community policing is an organizational strategy designed to enhance trust and develop solutions to community problems through community partnerships. Although it can be quite difficult to properly implement this practice, this strategy recognizes the residents and community-based organizations as valuable resources for identifying and addressing community concerns. As the contact hypothesis developed by Allport (1954) posits, the model of community policing is expected to lower intergroup conflicts and enhance intergroup attitudes through engaging in cooperative tasks and sharing common goals between the police and community members. Especially in neighborhoods with a prevalence of gang problems, close cooperation among educators, public agencies, and parents of youth involved in gang activities can be important in developing strategies for uniting the community and collectively working toward gang prevention and intervention.

The Internet and the Gang

The use of the Internet has become an integral part of daily activities of individuals, groups, and organizations in the modern society, and gangs are no exception. Especially with the prevalent use of social networking sites by gang members and its serious consequences, there is a saying that “gang members carry guns and twitter accounts” (Patton, Eschmann, & Butler, 2013, p. A54). Given the importance of territory to gangs, they can be also said to occupy both the streets and the online space. Despite the increasingly visible and dynamic gang members’ online activity, research on the Internet and gang has been focused on macro issues such as how it is used as a medium for the diffusion of gang culture. This section will include a micro-level discussion on how gang members use the Internet and whether/how the affordances of the Internet, such as anonymity, might impact their intergroup interactions online.

Internet access is more easily acquired than ever, and with the public institutions across the country embedding comprehensive technology learning in the academic curriculum, the digital divide has been overall diminished (King et al., 2007) in the last decade. This, in addition to affordability of computers and other digital devices nowadays, might explain that gang members from low socioeconomic backgrounds have the same opportunity and similar patterns of Internet use compared to non-gang youth (Patton et al., 2013). However, gangs can have members with varying levels of computer skills, and social learning occurs when those with more knowledge teach other gang members (Sela-Shayovitz, 2012). Guiding others in this way can provide the more skilled gang members positive feelings from recognition and pride that they contributed to the advancement of their ingroup, because gangs’ high level of computer skills can mean more opportunities to engage in gang activities (e.g., cybercrime) and gain notoriety. Also, the Internet provides gangs with new ways to develop and strengthen ingroup solidarity, as gang members can now “hang out” playing online games and watching movies, rather than only spending time in the streets and engaging in delinquent activities outside.

While the Internet use can enhance ingroup cohesiveness, it also provides a new venue in which intergroup conflicts are intensified and previously unknown opportunities emerge for violent gang behaviors. “Internet banging” or “cyber banging” is a term used to describe gangs’ Internet behaviors including exchanging insults with rival gangs on social media and sharing audiovisual materials to promote their reputation. Important to note is that the identities gangs communicate online are not separate or distinct from their offline identities or behaviors. In fact, their presence in the streets and online are integrated to create fluidity between the two worlds (Maratea & Kavanaugh, 2012), which means their intergroup relations are likely to be carried over to online space.

Therefore, despite the anonymity that the Internet offers, gangs often reveal and publicly communicate their identity—through showing of gang signs, photos of gang members, or locations—to reflect their offline presence, engage in social comparison, and brag their dominance in the online space. Consequently, Internet banging leads to the similar (or even more serious) gang problems as in the streets, such as retaliation and homicides, perpetuating and intensifying the existing intergroup conflicts (Corley, 2015). Due to high visibility of online activities, such as making public comments on others’ social media pages, new rivalry can also be formed when gang members observe disrespectful use of language or responses to their online activity from groups that did not have relations previously, whether intentional or not. Of course, the visibility makes gang members aware of the fact that their online activities may be monitored by the police (Pyrooz, Decker, & Moule, 2015), so what researchers and the law enforcement see can potentially be skewed.

One of the biggest impacts of the Internet on gang activity may be that they are no longer limited by strict territorial boundaries (Patton et al., 2013). Gangs now can share information and coordinate actions with other gang members in different regions to plan large-scale crimes using the Internet. At the same time, as explained above, gangs also have higher possibilities to virtually “bump into” members of other gangs online—sometimes unknowingly and unintended—and thus more potential for intergang conflicts and facing violent outcomes outside of their physical territory. For instance, in October 2016, members of a Jamaican criminal gang, who usually operates in the U.S. East Coast (e.g., distribution of drugs), came all the way to Los Angeles, California, to settle a dispute with rival gangs and ended up killing four people (Winton, 2016). This extreme case earned the gang and the murderer a place on the FBI’s top 10 most wanted list. How this gang used the Internet is not discussed in the reports, but the fact that they planned an event that happened in their opposite side of the country, it can only be assumed that it was an Internet- and/or technology-assisted activity.

Committing such large-scale gang crimes is likely to enhance the gang’s reputation and self-image beyond their community. However, not all gangs use Internet for the desire to get recognition and enhance their status. A gang member interviewed in Sela-Shayovitz’s study (2012) stated, “We don’t need the internet or Facebook so that people know who we are. Whoever knows us, knows, and believe me, people know who we are and know not to mess with us” (p. 11). This comment demonstrates that some gangs may resist the increasingly prevalent use of the Internet among gangs and believe that true social respect is gained in interactions in the “real” world. Further, these gangs are likely to perceive their groups to have positively evaluated social identity in comparison to other gangs, thus have a high level of confidence and no perceived need to engage in Internet banging to heighten their status.

As this topic has received increasing scholarly attention, a few suggestions can be made from an intergroup communication perspective to help guide future research. First, one of the key intergroup processes is marking group identities communicatively, and the Internet affords many more ways for gangs to communicate their identity (e.g., through visual, auditory, and interactive media) than what gang members can utilize offline. Given that the Internet is flooded with individuals’ marking of their ingroup identifications (e.g., “liking” Facebook pages, listing affiliation in the profile, being “friends” with other ingroup members), future research can examine how gangs strategically try to differentiate themselves from other gangs (or other social groups) and make their identity distinctive (or not). It would also be interesting to unpack the ways in which individual gang members manage their multiple identities in the online space; for instance, if gang membership is the most salient aspect of one’s self-identity, how does he or she try to communicate it on the Internet—and what are the consequences of (not) doing so? Further, the Internet affords gangs various ways of intergroup comparisons beyond the number of gang members or illegal activities; for example, how many times their video has been viewed online. Scholars can examine newly emerging online gang norms and how they facilitate or complicate intergroup communication processes. Lastly, it would be worth investigating how new members are recruited by gangs on the Internet similarly or differently compared to offline. Due to the easiness of accessing the Internet and gang-related information, individuals with risk factors, including a lack of clear or positive self-concept due to low socioeconomic status and/or family background, may turn to gangs for enhancing their identity more easily—even if they do not reside in neighborhoods where gang activities are prevalent or have had immediate contacts with gang members before. Future studies can examine the communication between non-gang members (or soon-to-be gang members) and current gang members online to uncover the recruitment process via online and identify/predict risk factors for Internet users.


Gang identity is such a salient social identity and marked by distinctive boundaries that much of gang members’ communication involves a high level of intergroup-ness. While numerous scholars have agreed on how central identity-related issues are to understanding gang involvement and behaviors, there has been limited systematic research from scholars of intergroup communication. As this chapter demonstrated, intergroup communication theories and constructs have much to offer in thinking through some of the chronic and emerging gang problems. Interdisciplinary efforts from diverse fields, as well as continued collaborations among practitioners, scholars, and community members will be crucial to gain a comprehensive knowledge of gangs at both macro- and micro-levels and design effective strategies for gang prevention and intervention.

Further Reading

  • Harding, S. (2014). The street casino: Survival in violent street gangs. Bristol, U.K.: Polity Press.
  • McGloin, J. M. (2007). Organizational structure of street gangs in Newark, New Jersey: A network analysis methodology. Journal of Gang Research, 15(1), 1–34.
  • Moule, R., Decker, S. H., & Pyrooz, D. (2016). Technology and conflict: Group processes and collective violence in the Internet era. Crime Law and Social Change. Advance online publication.
  • Storred, M. L., & Densley, J. A. (2016): “Going viral” and “going country”: The expressive and instrumental activities of street gangs on social media. Journal of Youth Studies, 20(6), 677–696. Advance online publication.
  • Vigil, D. (1988). Group process and street identity: Adolescent Chicano gang members. Ethos, 14(4), 421–445.
  • Vigil, D. (1991). Barrio gangs: Street life and identity in Southern California. Austin: University of Texas Press.