Christian L. Bolden and Reneé Lamphere
Social networks in gangs refers to both a theoretical and methodological framework. Research within this perspective challenges the idea of gangs as organized hierarchies, suggesting instead that gangs are semi-structured or loosely knit networks and that actions are more accurately related to network subgroupings than to gangs as a whole. The situated location of individuals within a network creates social capital and the fluidity for members to move beyond the boundaries of the group, cooperating and positively interacting with members of rival gangs. Before the millennium, the use of social network analysis as a method to study gangs was rare, but it has since increased in popularity, becoming a regular part of the gang research canon. Gang networks can be studied at the group level and the individual level and can be used for intervention strategies. The concept of gangs as social networks is sometimes confused with social networking sites or social media, which encompasses its own rich and evolving array of gang research. Gang members use social networking sites for instrumental, expressive, and consumer purposes. While the use of network media allows for gang cultural dissemination, it simultaneously allows law enforcement to track gang activity.
James Diego Vigil
Poverty is the central reason for the rise of street gangs throughout the contemporary world; poor people live in older, rundown areas and labor in the lowest paid jobs. The framework of “multiple marginality” is used to reflect these developments and their persistence over time, especially relying on qualitative time frames and insights. As a holistic or multidimensional overview, multiple marginality provides the basis for how and why macro (historical) forces are related to and shape meso (family, school) developments, which lead to micro (personal) outcomes.
The multiple marginality framework helps us to dissect and analyze the ways place/status undermine and exacerbate social, cultural, and psychological problems. There are striking similarities among place/status factors found in various ethnic groups, which contribute to the promotion of favored public policies and to concerted actions. With such policies and programs, we can assist and shape the future of families who, until now, have lost out. We can restructure and improve schools, which have obviously fallen short. Finally, we can develop partnerships to integrate peoples and communities into new criminal justice strategies that will help encourage youth to respect society and its laws, because respect is tendered to them in kind.
Haley Bullard and Shannon Reid
Much of the ongoing concern about the presence of gangs and gang members in the community has to do with the association between street gangs and violence. Decades of research on street gangs demonstrates the complexity of the violent perpetration and victimization of gang members. Although the violence attributed to gang members reached its peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s, gang members continue to be disproportionately involved in violence, both as perpetrators and victims. Understanding gang violence requires careful consideration of the overlapping and intersecting relationships between violence and gang identity, victimization, perpetration, gender, and space. Violence plays an important role in the creation and maintenance of gang identity. Research on violence participation by gang members has demonstrated that gang violence can have both symbolic and instrumental purposes, and that this violence helps the gang build a collective identity and makes violence more normative. Despite some continued misconceptions about the role of female gang members and their presence in gangs, women make up a substantial portion of gang members, and any discussion of the relationship between gangs and violence must also consider the impact of gender on violence participation and victimization. Both male and female gang members are impacted by violence, but levels of participation and types of risk can vary by gender. The complex and gendered aspects of gang violence can make the prevention, intervention, and suppression of gang violence difficult tasks for law enforcement and policymakers. There are a range of perspectives on how best to reduce gang violence. Some researchers advocate early prevention programs to keep youth from joining gangs; others focus on ways to pull youth out of gangs at critical moments, such as when they enter emergency services. Other programs and policies are aimed at reducing gang violence that is ongoing in the community. These programs, such as Operation Ceasefire and Project Safe Neighborhoods, have utilized a focused deterrence framework to curb gang violence. All of these programs are aimed at reducing the amount of violence gang members participate in an attempt to minimize the risk of future violent victimization. Research on gang violence continues to grow and includes new avenues of research. The utilization of innovative methodologies, such as social network analysis, and new areas of research, such as examining the impact of social media on gang violence, continue to advance our knowledge of gang violence and its causes, correlates, and impact.
Timothy R. Lauger
Street gangs are, by definition, social groups that contain patterns of interactions between gang members, associates, and other gangs in their social environment. The structure and content of these interaction patterns, or group processes, are essential for both understanding gang life and explaining collective and individual behavior. For example, variations in organizational sophistication, internal cohesion, and individual-level social integration influence the day-to-day experiences of gang members and can affect criminal behavior. Social ties between gang members are also mediums for street socialization and the development and/or transmission of gang culture. As prospective gang members age and become exposed to street life, they gravitate to peers and collectively learn about how to negotiate their social environment. They connect to other gang members and model the gang’s ideals to become accepted by the group. Routine interactions in the gang communicate the nuances of gang culture and explain the group’s expectations for violent behavior. These lessons are reinforced when conflicts with other groups arise and contentious interactions escalate into serious threats or actual violence. Cultural meanings developed in the gang can alter how a member perceives social situations, various social roles (e.g., gender roles), and his or her sense of self. Interactions within the gang develop the gang’s collective identity, which becomes an ideal standard for members to pursue. Gang members perform this idealized notion of “gang member” in public settings, often acting as if they are capable of extreme violence. For some members these performances may be fleeting and largely disconnected from the ideals to which they truly aspire, while others may fully embrace the ideals of the gang. Such variation is contingent on social processes within the gang and how socially integrated an individual is to other members. Researching social processes within gangs provides a wealth of information about how life in the gang influences gang member behavior.
Molly Buchanan, Elise T. Simonsen, and Marvin D. Krohn
With distinct advances since the 1980s, developmental, life-course criminology has expanded to become one of the most prominent subdivisions in the field of criminology, as the knowledge gained from this perspective has propelled the field forward. Although studies of gangs and gang membership predate the emergence of developmental, life-course criminology, the proliferation of research in both of these areas shares many parallels. Furthermore, increased applications of developmental, life-course perspectives to gang-related research, as well as scholars’ continued efforts to generate life-course-rooted theories specific to gang delinquency, can and have benefited the study of gangs.
Some of the life-course models and theories commonly applied in studies of gangs include Sampson and Laub’s age-graded theory of informal social control, Hawkins and colleagues’ social developmental model, Thornberry and Krohn’s interactional theory, and Howell and Egley’s developmental model of gang membership. The foundation of each of these theories is the life-course perspective, the thrust of which demonstrates the utility of following individuals, or gang members, throughout their lives. Viewing gang-related issues through a developmental, life-course lens further permits studying gang membership from multiple time points and angles and has allowed for theoretically rooted analyses of the precursors to gang joining, experiences while being gang involved, and factors related to gang exiting.
For example, studies have found that, in general, the “timing” of most gang joining aligns well with the average onset of criminal careers, both typically occurring during early to mid-adolescence. Studies informed by the developmental, life-course perspective have also explored the periods during which individuals are actively engaged in their gang activities and identities, along with members’ abrupt or gradual gang-exiting processes (i.e., desistence). Overall, research guided by these models and theories has established myriad consequences of gang membership in the short-term and over the life course. The findings have been integral in informing new and continuing gang-related prevention and intervention efforts, as well as in highlighting relevant topical arenas in need of continued scholarly attention.
When it comes to helping gang-involved youth, interventionists are faced with a significant primary challenge: Must youth leave their gangs before receiving treatment? Or can treatment successfully be delivered while a youth remains gang-affiliated? Despite a broad evidence base showing the effectiveness of interventions for aggressive, antisocial, and/or justice-involved youth, there is very little research illuminating the effectiveness of individualized interventions for gang-involved youth in particular. This is a significant gap in the literature given that gang-involved youth typically exhibit significantly higher levels of violence and victimization than do other youth. However, existing best-practice intervention models might hold promise for effectively serving gang-involved youth. These models indicate that interventions for youth offenders should be grounded in behavioral theory while focusing on caregiver skills and family dynamics and leveraging broader social-ecological supports. Recent evaluations of two evidence-based interventions (Functional Family Therapy and Multisystemic Therapy) with respect to how they work for gang-involved youth indicate that it is indeed possible to implement effective treatment for this population. The probability of successfully treating gang-involved youth also might be augmented through the integration of new discoveries emanating from the life-course study of gang members. Specifically, it might be possible to leverage the motivating value of typical life events during the transition to adulthood to encourage youth to leave the gang lifestyle and all its attendant risks. One key task for interventionists, then, is to ensure that gang-involved youth can be engaged and maintained long enough in treatment to benefit from those motivations during that critical natural developmental transition.
Arlen Egley, Jr.
Street gang activity has garnered academic and public attention for many decades. Compared with other youth groups, street gangs contribute disproportionately to crime and violence, though the vast majority of crime and violence in the United States is unrelated to gang activity. A distinctive aspect in the study of gangs is the multiple dimensions in which gangs are situated. Depending on the research interest, gang activity may be construed as an independent variable (as a cause) or a dependent variable (as an effect). Moreover, gang activity simultaneously represents multiple levels of analysis: the individual level (gang member), the group level (gang), and the macro level (neighborhoods and broader geographical places in which gangs form and transform). These multiple dimensions present a wide variety of research streams in which to study gangs. Where and why gang activity emerges, when and why individuals join and leave gangs, the wide-ranging diversity in gang structure and organization are but a few of the many areas gang scholars have focused on in order to describe and explain gangs and gang members. Some research areas, such as the association between gang membership and criminal offending and the risk factors for gang joining, have been researched quite extensively. Other areas, such as the nature and extent of gang migration outside larger cities and desistance processes from the gang, have not received or have only recently begun to receive intensive and consistent scholarly attention. Definitional matters are also paramount and inextricably linked to understanding gang activity. How should we define “street gangs,” how should “gang membership” be defined and determined, when and how should a crime be designated as “gang related”? These definitional issues have sparked considerable and sometimes heated debates, and consensus remains elusive. It is important to be mindful of these various dimensions, streams, and issues as we continue our efforts to describe and document street gangs and enhance our understanding of gang processes. Successful strategies for the response to and reduction of street gang activity are contingent on them.
Race and ethnicity represent a pivotal issue in almost any conversation regarding gang members. These two concepts have been invariably linked in both research and the larger social world. Images of this connection invade our social milieu and appear frequently in movies, television, news, and music. However, academic research also contributes to this perception. Much of the early work, as well as a significant portion of the qualitative work on gangs, perpetuates the continued examination of racial and ethnic homogeneous gangs, with a focus on African American and Hispanic groups. This work ignores increasing problems among other racial and ethnic groups, such as Asians and Native Americans, within the literature. More recently, however, the intricacies of this relationship are becoming clearer, including the growing involvement of White individuals and the fact that gangs are increasingly multiracial. Furthermore, with the development of the Eurogang project in the late 1990s, research regarding these groups in Europe, as well as in other countries across the world, has become more plentiful, further expanding our knowledge regarding gangs and the role of race and ethnicity, as well as immigration and migration.
As the relationship between race and ethnicity and gang membership takes on more meaning, numerous explanations have been developed to account for this connection. Much of the research, both past and present, centers on the association between race and ethnicity and the impacts of social disorganization, discrimination, immigration, and cumulative disadvantage. Community and environmental factors play a crucial role in explaining why gangs thrive in communities often occupied by racial and ethnic minorities. Relatedly, external threats, specifically violence from other groups, can provide the impetus for gang development in neighborhoods marked by disorder; thus, other explanations center on violence and the role that gangs play in mitigating this threat while serving as a protective factor for the youth in the community. The risk factor approach, gaining more prominence in gang literature, investigates individual risk for gang membership, as well as the cumulative effects of risk factors. These various frameworks assist in beginning to understand the underlying factors contributing to gang membership.
With regard to policy recommendations, investigating “race and ethnicity specific” risk factors as well how these risk factors might impact programming remain key. In order to fully comprehend the development of gangs, a number of gang researchers have called for the need to understand the different historical experiences of racial and ethnic groups within the United States. For example, the histories of Hispanic and African American groups impact their experiences and thus may result in different pathways to gang membership. And yet, in many respects, these groups are still treated as single entities, ignoring their distinct histories. In fact, there remains a paucity of information regarding cross-group comparisons that examine actual differences between racial and ethnic groups. Without a closer examination of the relationship between race, ethnicity, and gang membership, effective gang policies and practices will remain out of reach.
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.
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.