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.