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Article

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.

Article

Dana Peterson

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.

Article

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.

Article

Vanessa R. Panfil

Recent gang research has explored various dimensions of diversity including sexuality and has provided important insights regarding sexual identity and sexual behavior within the context of youth street gang involvement. Insights include the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning (LGBTQ) gang members such as their prevalence rates, reasons for joining, gang activities, homophobia within youth street gangs, and how gang structure and composition affect their ability to be open about their sexuality within the gang context. These insights were preceded by scholars’ descriptions of the “homosexual activities” of gang members, particularly in mid-20th-century works, but early-21st-century works include empirical research and documentaries that explore the lived experiences of self-identified LGBTQ gang members. Another major area of study explores the ways that young women are subjected to various forms of sexual violence within gangs, partially because female gang members are often viewed as sex objects. Girls may be “sexed in” to a gang, targeted for sexual violence to exact retribution, raped as a tool of control, or coerced into commercial sexual exploitation. Sexual behavior and sexual identity are often linked with gendered processes and expectations for gang members, which similarly factor into our understanding of the youth street gang experience. Other topics of interest in this field include determining the relationships between childhood sexual abuse and later gang involvement; how to better research sexual autonomy and sexual agency (choice) that may become available to young people within their gangs; as well as addressing extensions of sexuality, such as by examining the relationship between pregnancy or parenthood and leaving the gang, focusing on shifts in available time, priorities, and identity.

Article

David C. Brotherton

The majority of studies on youth gangs are in the tradition of positivistic social science. When natural science is taken as the paradigm, a premium is placed on the value neutrality of the observer, the scientific rigor of the methodology, the unpolluted character of the data, and the generalizability of the findings—all with the aim of proving or disproving ideologically free testable hypotheses. In contrast, critical gang studies adopt a different lens that is best suited to the study of subaltern groups whose lifestyles, “habitats,” and characteristics are stigmatized and pathologized by the larger society. Critical gang studies are based on the premise that all social and cultural phenomena emerge from tensions between the agents and interests of those who seek to control everyday life and those who have little option but to resist this relationship of domination. In this way, critical gang studies adopt interpretive, reflexive, holistic, and probing approaches to research, rejecting the penchant for survey-based truth claims and studies whose findings uncritically reflect the race, class, and gendered positions of the investigators. Thus, practitioners of critical gang studies contend that the key to understanding the gang is found in its dialectical relationship between inclusion and exclusion viewed historically and holistically. Therefore, critical gang students create a counter body of knowledge and an alternative methodology to illuminate (over)shadowed spaces of criminalized social action where hope mixes with survival, creativity with accommodation and, resistance with social reproduction. The data on critical gang studies draw from the entire world of gang members, revealing their agency as well as their structured environments, their organizational systems, rites, rituals, performances, ideologies and cultural products. The critical approach places emphasis on the meaning systems of gangs, their changes across time, and the possibilities that lie within their specific subcultural formations. Welcome to critical gang studies!