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.
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.
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.