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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.


The study of gangs has emerged alongside the use of a research methodology known as ethnography. Ethnography is based on participant observation and interviews to provide a detailed description of a wide variety of social groups and settings. The researcher is trained to immerse himself or herself into the setting and group of interest and to learn the way participants think and feel. The origins of ethnography date back to W. E. B. Du Bois and the Atlanta School along with the University of Chicago, known as the Chicago School. Gang research began in the 1920s in the city of Chicago with additional studies emerging in Boston, New York City, and Los Angeles. Ethnographic researchers learned to rely on key participants to provide access to social settings and social groups, often very different from those of the researcher. The social work orientation of reaching out to gang members through the use of gang workers allowed researchers the opportunity to obtain additional forms of access. Nevertheless, the principal investigator remained the source for interpretation of the data and results. In the 1970s and 1980s greater awareness developed regarding the role of insiders and outsiders to particular groups and settings. In response, researchers moved ethnography into one of three strands of discovery: (1) cultivating an outsider role to present a non-threatening presence; (2) working in collaboration with gang members; and (3) attempting to nurture an insider status through enhanced membership roles. Contemporary gang ethnographies have moved toward utilizing mixed methodological designs as highlighted by the Eurogang program and more critically approached strategies emerging in the United States. In addition, research in Latin America has provided a greater form of reflexivity as primarily white researchers have outlined their initial standing in the community and how they have worked to develop rapport. Ethnography continues to be of importance for the study of gangs but has increasingly become more conscious as toward how personal biographies and backgrounds shape the data collection process. In so doing, ethnography has become more focused on reducing bias and increasing ethical forms of justice.


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.