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Article

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.

Article

Gangs have been subjects of extensive empirical research since the 1920s. Scholarly interest in gangs was largely due to gang members’ increased likelihood of engaging in delinquent behavior. Gang members have been involved in criminal activities ranging from drug dealing to theft, property offenses, gun violence, and homicide. In the 1980s, there was nationwide concern about gangs as violent gang-related crimes increased and drew media attention. As a result, important legislation was implemented that made gang membership illegal. These policies were designed to curb gang involvement and de-escalate gang violence. The legislation included civil gang injunctions, the development of gang databases, and the formation and strengthening of gang task force units. Indeed, the policies resulted in an increase of gang unit officers focused on mitigating gang involvement and gang crime. Officer strategies focused on stopping, detaining, and arresting individuals who often fit certain stereotypes. Specifically, officers routinely based gang-related encounters on suspects’ race, age, clothing, gender, and geographic location, focusing mostly on young men of color in economically depressed neighborhoods. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a number of problems and concerns related to aggressive and biased police behavior surfaced, resulting in questionable outcomes of gang suppression. Research suggests that directed patrols and removing leadership might not be effective. Instead, alternate policies should include policing in conjunction with support from community-based nonprofit organizations and research that accounts for gang members’ experiences of law enforcement strategies.

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

David C. Pyrooz and Richard K. Moule, Jr.

It was once presumed that costs of Internet adoption were too great for gang members to absorb. They lacked the financial resources to access the Internet or the technological know-how to use it. That is no longer the case, which leads to two questions: What are gang members doing online? What are the responses to gangs online? The growing research on this topic indicates that gang members are online and using the Internet at a rate comparable to their peers. This occurs in the United States and abroad. Gangs do not exploit the Internet to its criminal potential, even though the law enforcement community suggests otherwise. This is most likely due to the low technological capacities of gang members. However, gang members do engage in higher rates of crime and deviance online than their non-gang peers. Gang members also use the Internet to posture, provoke, and project group power, particularly on leading social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, which in turn allows activities occurring online to have ramifications for crime and violence offline. It is debatable whether online space is as important to gangs as physical space, but the Internet is undoubtedly a valuable medium to gangs. The potential for conflict and the posting of gang images has attracted the attention of law enforcement as well as researchers to document this activity. Platforms are being developed to anticipate the spilling of online gang conflicts offline. Since the Internet is a value-neutral medium that engages youth and young adults, it is anticipated that social media and the Internet will continue to appeal to gangs and gang members for the foreseeable future.

Article

Finn-Aage Esbensen and Cheryl L. Maxson

The Eurogang Program of Research is a loosely knit network of researchers and policymakers with an interest in better understanding troublesome youth groups. While the group is guided by a steering committee, that is the extent of the organizational structure. Members of the network volunteer to host the website, maintain the listserv, organize workshops, and engage in research that adopts the Eurogang definition, instruments, and methodologies. The Eurogang Program has as its primary goal the fostering of multisite, multi-method, comparative research on street gangs. Over the past two decades, this group of more than 200 scholars has convened 17 international workshops in Europe and the United States. The Eurogang Program does not have a steady funding source; however, over the years various network members have written proposals for funding to government agencies, sought support from non-profit organizations and foundations, and requested funding from their universities. Through a series of workshops from 1998 through 2004, the Eurogang group developed common definitional approaches, an integrated research design, and model research instruments. From 2005 through 2017, the group has continued to host substantively-focused workshops that examine research informed by the Eurogang framework. Since its inception, this Eurogang group has spawned several retrospective cross-national studies, articles in professional journals, five edited volumes of scholarship, and a manual that provides a history of the group and its guiding principles as well as information on the development and use of the five Eurogang research instruments (i.e., city-level descriptors, expert survey, youth survey, ethnography guidelines, and prevention/intervention program inventory). The Eurogang Program Manual and instruments are available on the Eurogang website. While much has been accomplished, much remains to be learned.

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

After nearly a hundred years of debate and analysis, the gang concept remains hotly contested within the social sciences. Once thought to be an exclusively American phenomenon, the study of gangs has become increasingly global over the last decade. Countries from every world region have observed the emergence of gangs and gang-like groups. In some places, gangs resemble their American counterparts, while in others they engage not only in petty crime and drug trafficking but in targeted assassinations, corruption of public officials, and racketeering as well. These activities make them less like the delinquent youth groups they were once conceived as and more akin to organized crime. In less stable and violent contexts, gangs have even been incorporated into ethnic militias, rebel groups, and paramilitaries or have taken on a more vigilante ethos by combating violence and providing some semblance of order. The remarkable proliferation of the gang form and the incredible variation in the phenomenon across the globe requires a reassessment of the gang concept. In the limited literature that focuses on the study of gangs cross-nationally, several conceptualizations have been proposed. Some scholars have attempted to separate smaller street gangs from a variety of other related phenomena: prison gangs, drug gangs, and organized crime. They have done so by crafting a more restrictive concept. However, while separating street gangs from other criminal groups may make sense in the American or European context, it applies less well to other parts of the globe where such organizational forms have become thoroughly integrated, thus blurring these traditional conceptual boundaries. At the same time, some scholars have advocated for a conceptual framework that captures the transformative nature of gangs and encompasses any and all types of gangs and gang-like groups. Such an evolutionary framework fails, however, to distinguish between gangs and a huge variety of criminal and political nonstate armed groups that share little in terms of their origins, motivations, or activities. It can be argued that the best conceptualization is a minimal one that incorporates gangs and many gang-like groups but avoids conceptual stretching to include virtually all nonstate armed groups. Ultimately, contemporary scholars of gangs within any national context must be increasingly attentive to the global dimensions of the gang organizational form and the various overlapping and multifaceted relationships they maintain with a variety of other nonstate armed groups.

Article

Roberto R. Aspholm

Street gangs first emerged on a broad scale in U.S. cities in the late 19th century in step with industrialization, urbanization, and mass waves of European immigration. Up until the 1960s, the vast majority of gang members in the United States were second- and third-generation European immigrants. Like their Black and Latino successors, these groups routinely engaged in collective violence, which helped push nationwide levels of homicide to a historic peak toward the end of Prohibition. At the same time, White ethnic gangs were integrated into the urban political machines and organized crime syndicates of that era. Moreover, these groups existed within a burgeoning urban industrial economy in which an abundance of low-skilled manufacturing jobs provided readily available opportunities for gang members to transition out of gang life in late adolescence or early adulthood. New Deal policies institutionalizing protections for unions and workers and expanding homeownership opportunities via federal mortgage underwriting, in turn, greatly enhanced economic security for widening sectors of the working class, especially White workers. In short, political patronage, lucrative illegal rackets, a vibrant labor movement, and New Deal labor and housing policies variously punched a ticket to upward mobility for countless White gang members during this period, and, by the mid-1960s, White street gangs had largely disappeared from the urban landscape. During and after World War II, meanwhile, millions of Southern Blacks as well as Mexicans and Puerto Ricans migrated to America’s urban industrial centers. Conversely, millions of Whites left these cities in the postwar decades, an exodus facilitated by federal highway construction and housing policies that promoted racially exclusive suburbanization. Industry largely followed this outmigration in search of cheaper land, more pliable labor, lower taxes, and greater profits, leaving many central cities economically devastated and without an industrial base for their increasingly Black and Latino working class. At the same time, the urban political machines and organized crime groups that had once provided mobility for White ethnic gangs were in dramatic decline as municipal governance was bureaucratized and criminal rackets were supplanted by the development and expansion of legalized gambling and revolving credit markets. It is within this context that contemporary Black and Latino street gangs emerged and have persisted since the 1960s. Unlike their White predecessors, today’s gang members have been largely excluded from the conventional economy at the same time that society has abandoned the welfare state in favor of incarceration as its major strategy for managing inequality. Prison, the illicit drug trade, and persistent economic dislocation are among the fundamental realities shaping life for contemporary gang members. Street gangs, violence, and crime, both historical and contemporary, must be understood against this broader backdrop of societal transformation.

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!

Article

Poverty is the central reason for the rise of street gangs throughout the contemporary world; poor people live in older, rundown areas and labor in the lowest paid jobs. The framework of “multiple marginality” is used to reflect these developments and their persistence over time, especially relying on qualitative time frames and insights. As a holistic or multidimensional overview, multiple marginality provides the basis for how and why macro (historical) forces are related to and shape meso (family, school) developments, which lead to micro (personal) outcomes. The multiple marginality framework helps us to dissect and analyze the ways place/status undermine and exacerbate social, cultural, and psychological problems. There are striking similarities among place/status factors found in various ethnic groups, which contribute to the promotion of favored public policies and to concerted actions. With such policies and programs, we can assist and shape the future of families who, until now, have lost out. We can restructure and improve schools, which have obviously fallen short. Finally, we can develop partnerships to integrate peoples and communities into new criminal justice strategies that will help encourage youth to respect society and its laws, because respect is tendered to them in kind.

Article

Jason Gravel and George E. Tita

Though often not mentioned by name, the importance of social networks in explaining criminal behavior, delinquency, and patterns has long been recognized in the study of crime. Theories that explain criminal behavior at the individual level being learned through the impacts of peer influences presume that the transmission of ideas and influences flow among social ties (networks) that link individuals. Cultural theories of crime work in the same way. At the community level, delinquency and criminal behavior are born among members of a community or group that adhere to a particular cultural set of norms or beliefs. The concentration of crime in particular geographic areas results when there are insufficient ties among local residents to affect informal social control in the area. Impacted neighborhoods are often described as socially isolated, lacking social ties to institutions of power that provide the investment and services needed in a healthy community. The history of the formation and activities of street gangs is a clear example of how understanding the ties among individuals, and between groups of these individuals, matter in our understanding these phenomena. Comprehending social ties among gangs and gang members and employment of social network analysis (SNA) have become mainstays of local law enforcement efforts to address the issue of gang violence. Much of the early criminological work that implicated social networks but did not explicitly acknowledge a network by name, or did not employ SNA on formal network data, did so because collecting such data is difficult at best and sometimes impossible. Though criminology has been a “late adopter” of SNA, the field is making great strides in this area. The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health) research program has provided a rich set of network data to explore issues of peer influence. Researchers are using carefully collected social network data at the individual and organizational level to better understand the ability of communities to self-regulate delinquency and crime in an area. Arrest data and field identification stops are being used to generate large networks in an effort to understand how one’s position in a larger social structure might be related to an actor’s involvement in future offending or victimization. As the field of criminology continues to adopt a network perspective in the study of crime, it is important to understand the development of social networks within the field. Critically examining the strengths and weaknesses of network data, especially in terms of the process by which data are generated, can lead to better applications of network analysis in the future.