Ethnography and the Study of Gangs
- Robert J. DuránRobert J. DuránDepartment of Sociology, The University of Tennessee Knoxville
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.