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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Street gangs are prevalent throughout the United States. Recently, law enforcement agencies estimated there are approximately 30,000 gangs and 850,000 gang members across the United States. Gang members commit assaults, street-level drug trafficking, robberies, and threats and intimidation. However, they most commonly commit low-level property crime and marijuana use. Rival gang members or law-abiding citizens are often the targets of these crimes. Other than crime, the influence of gangs can disrupt the socializing power of schools, families, and communities. These institutions help socialize young people to learn and follow the appropriate rules of a law-abiding society. The presence of gangs and gang-related activity induces fear in the local community and great concern among citizens, impacting the quality of life of neighborhoods and cities. To confront these concerns, law enforcement is often considered the first line of defense. Despite the tenuous relationship between law enforcement and gangs, police officers have special knowledge and access to gang members and at-risk youth, which puts law enforcement in a unique position to reduce juvenile gang violence through prevention, intervention, and suppression efforts.
There are several ways in which law enforcement responds to gang violence. In its efforts to prevent gang violence, law enforcement plays a crucial role in regulating gang activity and in preventing those at risk of joining gangs. Primary prevention is broad in scope as the programs and strategies focus on the entire community. Primary prevention programs, such as the Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT) program, target a wide population and attempt to teach youths the skills to resist peer pressure to join a gang. Secondary prevention programs narrow their focus by identifying and reaching out to youths at risk for joining gangs. Secondary prevention programs, such as Los Angeles’s GRYD Secondary Prevention Program, offer psychological and substance abuse counseling, tutoring, and employment training, among other services. Law enforcement can also reduce gang violence through intervention by implementing strategies that provide alternatives to gang membership and strategies that prevent gang activity. Gang alternative programs, such as the Gang Employment Program (GEP), aim to get individuals to leave their gangs, but also provide opportunities to prevent the individual from rejoining the gang. Gang activity prevention strategies, such as the Dallas Anti-Gang Initiative’s enforcement of curfew and truancy laws, focus on specific activities, places, or behaviors associated with gang activity. These strategies typically include special laws, mediation, and situational crime prevention strategies. As a last resort, law enforcement responds to gang violence through suppression strategies. Suppression strategies are deterrence-based strategies. Although the effectiveness of these aforementioned programs varies, law enforcement is better utilized in a prevention capacity rather than an enforcement one. Moreover, law enforcement should not tackle gang violence alone, but in partnership with other community organizations and stakeholders such as Boston’s Operation Ceasefire or Chicago’s Project Safe Neighborhoods. These partnerships with community organizations and visible commitment to combating gang violence through prevention and suppression efforts can build trust and increase police legitimacy in at-risk communities.
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.
Finn-Aage Esbensen and L. Thomas Winfree
The socio-demographic characteristics of gang-involved youth are a focal concern of contemporary gang researchers; policy analysts; politicians; and, in many cases, the general public. A broad overview of gang member characteristics is a critical and natural precursor for any policy response to gangs, a task that has historically included widely used socio-demographic characteristics (e.g., race or ethnicity, age, urban or rural residence, gender, and sex) and various forms of illegal and illicit behavior. Similar lists of individual and collective characteristics such as these have shaped public policy responses to youth gangs in the United States, Western Europe, and indeed around the globe. Furthermore, given the attention paid to “illegal” migration trends at the end of the 21st century’s second decade, policymakers, law enforcement officials, and others often tie immigrant status to gang membership, including immigrants’ alleged involvement in violent forms of delinquency. The following image of street gang members emerges: (a) gangs include girls as well as boys; (b) the sex composition of the gang affects the level of delinquency of gang members; (c) gang members reflect the racial or ethnic composition of the community in which they exist; (d) gang members are not disproportionately members of immigrant groups; (e) youth age in and out of gangs during early- to mid-adolescence; and (f) while in the gang, youth commit significantly more crime than their non-gang peers.