A gang is a group of individuals that have a common identity and works towards a common goal. The current usage of the term implies a criminal group. Its early usage was to refer to a faction of workmen. In the United Kingdom the term is still used to refer to workmen, but it has undergone semantic change. The term is one that carries a negative meaning; nevertheless, within a group that identifies itself with antagonism to social norms, associates of the gang might decide to use the term as a declaration of identity or rebelliousness. There are a lot of reports of criminal actions committed by gangs throughout the world.
There are parts of the world and societies where gang activities are so prevalent causing major problems to different countries. There are cases of documented gangs and gang members in criminology literature. Some of these gangs are well known, not only by the law enforcers, but also by the members of the society. Gang formation is a concept that has been in place since the 13th century. During this time, it is said that children from poor families and the orphans in the United Kingdom obtained their means of survival through becoming members of gangs that were managed by adult crime perpetrators (Allen, 2005).
These gangs were basically involved in pick pocketing. Gangs identify themselves by the use of distinct signs, symbols and names. They are known to cause harm, threaten, harass and intimidate other members of the society. Gang violence is a term that is used to refer to criminal activities that are perpetrated by gangs. Throughout history, such activities have been known to be perpetrated by gang members. There is a time in history when all the major cities around the world were haunted by gangs. During this time gang violence became prevalent all over the world.
Contemporary gangs have introduced fresh kinds of violence. These acts are in most cases used as rite of passage for those wishing to become part of the group (Allen, 2005). There have been a lot of theories developed to explain the causes of gangs and gang violence. Some of the theories are similar while other others are different in explaining gang formation and crime in the society. These theories are very important in understanding why some people are more prone to crime then others and why some people are more likely to join gangs than others.
Two of the most common theories on crime include the strain theory and the sub-cultural theory (Akers, 2000). The main similarity between the two theories is that they both describe gang formation from a social point of view. They are however different in a number of ways, one of them being the fact that their focus is on different elements of the society (Allen, 2005). This paper compares and contrasts strain and sub-cultural theories in explaining gangs and gang violence. The paper first discusses the meaning and background information of the two theories. The Strain theory
The strain theory holds that the social structures that are within a society may be contributing factors to some individuals becoming members of a gang and being involved in crime. Strain refers to the elements in the society or in a person that leads to committing of crime. There are two kinds of strain: structural or individual. Structural is the processes within the culture that filter down and control individual’s perceptions of their needs. For example, a state of inadequacy in social structures and regulations can lead to transformation in the way a person perceives his or her needs.
Individual perceptions to the means and opportunities can also be transformed (Akers, 2000). This is what causes people perpetrate crime either as individuals or in a gang. From the individual viewpoint, it refers to the pressures and afflictions that a person suffers as he or she searches for ways and means to cater for his or her requirements. This means that the objectives of the society becomes very important to a person such that their achievement becomes more important that the ways of achieving them (Cohen, 1965). People live in a society that is full of requirements and expectations.
Where individuals cannot access their needs through the conventional legitimate ways, they tend to use the unconventional ways. Where individuals are in a society where they cannot access their needs normally with the use of the conventional legitimate needs, they tend to become disappointed. This feeling of despair that is associated with the incapability to acquire the requirements is the one that is being referred to as strain. It is this feeling that causes people who are unable to acquire their needs to be involved in crime (Akers, 2000).
In many instances, young people will be able to access the unconventional or illegitimate means through becoming members of gangs. This reveals the fact that gangs are as a result of strains that act upon individuals in striving to achieve expectation. In a gang, young people tend to get what they were unable to get in living within the social norms. They find company, finances and most of all the means to acquire what they desire. The theory explains how social elements like poverty, homelessness, and lack of proper parental care can lead to formation of delinquent activities and groups (Cohen, 1965).
Sub-cultural theory The sub-cultural theory as used in criminology originated from the efforts of the Chicago School on gangs. This theory was then advanced via the symbolic interactionism school. The theory was advanced into a series of premises that put forward the argument that some factions or sub-cultures in the community have some principles and approaches that are favourable for crime and aggression. This supports the argument that crime is dominant in some cultures or societies than others.
This theory focuses on crime committed by young people, mostly in gangs. It is argued that when crime is not controlled from this level, it moves on to adolescent and finally to adulthood (Akers, 2000). Gangs that are formed at the early age in life, tend to graduate to maturity, and continue recruiting the youths. The theory states that if the patterns of crime can be comprehended and controlled from the level of juvenile delinquency, it would be possible to prevent the move to teenage offender and also to adult criminals.
It is believed that where the sub-culture is favourable for crime, it begins from an early age, graduating to adolescent and ultimately to adulthood (Miller, 1959). Culture stands for the traditions, ways of life and principles that act as the guide to personality. It is also from these aspects that personality is judged by people. Passage of culture is essentially through social rather than biological ways. This is where the values and principles within a society are transmitted from one generation to the following. A sub-culture is a culture that exists within the larger culture.
This culture consist of distinct elements of values, norms and customs that are different from the larger culture but does not essentially stand for a culture considered non-standard by many people. A sub-culture is distinguished from the larger culture for opposition that acts against the larger culture. This offers the explanation why in some parts of a society, especially the poorest regions, there are some kinds of behaviour that have developed into a standard and tend to be passed from one generation to the next.
Successful crime perpetrators tend to be role models to the others, revealing likelihood success through criminal activities and its normality. This is where the older members of gangs tend to influence youths into their activities. The cultural arrangement is directed by many principles, traditions, and standards that force people to establish gangs that have unique characters. The sub-cultures that are developed tend to be more diverse than the main stream culture (Miller, 1959). Similarities between the two theories in explaining gangs The two theories take a social perspective in explaining gang formation and gang violence.
They both offer the claim that gangs are as a result of the kind of society within which people live. Despite the fact that the two theories describe different ways that the society contributes to gangs, the two argue that society is the main causative element to gang formation and gang violence. In strain theory, people become members of gangs and commit gang violence as a result of residing in a society where their needs are not able to be met. It is as a result of the social class where a person exists that determines the kind of behaviour that he or she exhibits.
In the United Kingdom, individuals are always in pursuit of wealth property, power, education, and other things that ensure a comfortable life (Akers, 2000). It is due to their living conditions that the lower class is not in a position to meet these needs adequately. They are not in a position to acquire these needs in conventional legal means. This according to the strain theory is what leads people to join gangs where there opportunities to acquire their needs. Sub-cultural theory explains that it is in a society that is predisposed to crime that people are influenced to join gangs.
In a sub-culture where crime is condoned and pardoned, there tends to be many gangs. The young people tend to be influenced by the older members of gangs. In fact, the older members act as role models to the youths. It is therefore evident from the two theories that the society plays the central role in gang formation and consequently to the gang violence. The two theories introduce blocked-goals as the producing factors of deviant characteristics, like gang formation (Shaw, 1930). The strain theory in explaining violence is described similarly to functionalist theory under sub-cultural theories.
Functionalist holds that gangs are motivated by financial requirements. This is the same case with the strain theory that holds that financial requirements lead people to commit crime. The functionalist theory states that adolescents are motivated by material gain to be involved in gangs. From this point of view, the sub-cultural theory becomes similar to the strain theory in explaining crime. Here the motivating factor to crime under the two theories is the acquisition of material gain in a society where this is not possible through conventional legitimate needs.
Where youths are faced with situations where they are not in a position to fulfil their requirements due to the elements in the society that leads to inadequacy, they tend to join others who share their predicaments. These groups, the gangs, operate in unison, sharing the same identity and motivated by a common goal, which is achievement of their needs. This leads to the fact that the end results of the two theories are similar (Shaw, 1930). The end results of gangs and gang violence as explained by the two theories are similar.
The strain theory presents the claim that individuals are influenced by the need to obtain their requirements in an inadequate social environment. This is what leads them to use of illegitimate means. The end result of the act is acquisition of finances or property through illegitimate means. As per the sub-cultural theory, the basic values of a group are what cause a person to be involved in crime. Given situations where the children in the working class cannot to achieve academically as a result of social or cultural factors, they tend to feel that it is impossible to obtain anything through conventional means (Akers, 2000).
Such children gather themselves in groups or gangs of people that share their predicaments. They involve themselves in crime and gang violence means to acquire wealth and property. The end result of the action is acquisition of finances or property through illegitimate means. This reveals the fact that the result of gangs as explained by the two theories is acquisition of finances and property. The two theories reveal means to the same end (Akers, 2000). The society has put a lot of pressure on people to attain high achievement and success.
Competition and the need for success is one value that is glorified in the society. This means that as per the two theories there are forces and pressures that lead to gang formation and involvement. These are the forces and pressures that lead people to strive to achieve and become powerful, without caring about the means for doing so. The legitimate means may be difficult to acquire, making the illegitimate means more preferable. According to the sub-cultural theory, the forces are the structural constraints. The individuals who join gangs are people who feel completely powerless.
They are pushed by the society and end up defying the rules and regulations. The forces as per the sub-cultural theory push people to act as per the society’s expectations (Akers, 2000). According to the strain theory, the forces that act on individuals are the strains. Individuals tend to be involved in gang activities where they are not in a position to cope with the strains. There are series of events and circumstances that hamper individuals from attaining their expectations. This could be major or minor state of affairs and circumstances that upsurge and discourage with time.
Dissatisfaction causes displeasure, abhorrence and annoyance. All these are attitudes connected with strain in gang formation. It is a normal human nature to develop feeling of desperation and frustration where they are not in a position to get what they want (Shaw, 1930). Differences between the two theories in explaining gangs Despite the fact that the two theories agree on the fact that the social environment is responsible for causing gang formation, the ways in which the society is responsible tend to differ. The strain theory emphasises on strain and stressing forces of gang formation.
The sub-cultural theory on the other hand emphasises on factions as the causing factors of gang formation. The strain theory states that individuals will be forced to join gangs where they are not in a position to gather financial success through legitimate ways. The sub-cultural theory claims that people are pushed into gangs where they belong to sub-cultures that excuse, justify or approve of gangs. Societies that excuses and tolerates acts of violence and stealing, tend to produce more gangs than others (Miller, 1959).
The two theories differ in their explanation of the primary cause of gang formation. While the strain theory presents the argument that gang formation is motivated by financial success, the sub-cultural theory argues that gangs are not motivated by money success as the strain theory suggests, but by the pressure of all the dominant values in the society. The adolescent tend to develop what Merton refers to “social status frustration,” where they are not able to achieve academically. This is what convinces them that they are not capable of gaining anything through conventional means.
In this case, their motivating factor is not primarily financial success. They end up in gangs through this conviction, although the ultimate goal is financial success. The difference in the two theories comes up in the motivating factors to gang formation and involvement. As per the strain theory the key motivation is money success, while for the sub-cultural theory the key motivation factor is the failure to succeed through legitimate means in a society that is prone to crime (Shaw, 1930). There is a difference in the nature of the environment as explained by the two theories.
However, this does not nullify the fact that the social environment is what basically explains crime and gangs. In the sub-cultural theory, the social environment is one where there is prevalence of crime that is passed from one generation to the following. This means that the theory explains a society where crime is almost a norm. This kind of social environment is not revealed in the strain theory. According to the sub-cultural theory, in most cases, the society has already established illegitimate opportunity structure.
The younger members of gangs learn criminal actions from the older members. This is what it basically referred to as learning the ‘tricks of the trade’ (Akers, 2000). The sub-culture makes it clear to the youths that crime is a norm. As per the strain theory, the social environment is one where are goals that need to be achieved. Individuals in this kind of environment are aware of the objectives and how it is crucial to achieve them. There are however some individuals in this environment who lacks the means to attain the social expectations.
For the serious need to realize these expectations and the importance of achieving them, some people result to gang involvement. From this perspective, gangs are formed by the society through creation of expectations without availing the means to achieve them (Shaw, 1930). The social environments in which gangs are formed are different for the two theories. While sub-cultural revealed the argument that gangs can be formed in a negative social environment that is already prone to crime, the strain theory presents the crime that gangs can either be formed in a positive or negative social environment.
The argument according to the strain theory is that individual’s real expectations or the expected failure to attain positive values set up by the society, real or elimination of positive incentive, and real or expected presentation of negatively valued incentive all cause strain. In a positive social environment, individuals turn to gangs where they are not in a position to live up to the standards set up by the society. Where individuals are not treated in the way they expect, they loose trust with the ability of others to help them meet their expectations.
Frustration and dissatisfaction establish negative interactions. This is so because of the desire to keep off hostile rejections. This is what leads to people finding those of their kind; people who are in a position to help them create a sense of belonging and acceptance. This kind of environment is achieved through membership to gangs. Gangs are basically constituted by people who feel that the society is not supportive. The sub-cultural theory operates from the conflicting side. This kind of society is one that does not expect anything positive from its people.
The reason for this is that the society is already predisposed to crime. This reveals that unlike the strain theory, this theory operates solely from a negative environment (Miller, 1959). There is another contradiction under the two theories, where in the sub-cultural theory gangs are a way of living up to the social expectations of roughness and smartness, while under the other theory gangs are established due to the inability to live up to social expectations. It is expected under the sub-cultural theory for individuals in the lower class to be involved in gang violence.
This is indirectly by the need from the society to be tough and street-wise. This is what motivates then to join groups, begin getting involved in criminal activities, and find fun in defying the regulations of the land. From the strain theory perspective, failure to live up to the expectations of the society is what forces individuals into gangs and gang violence. Every society has set up expectations that its members are supposed to live up to. Where people lack the means to achieve these expectations they tend to become members of groups that help them in attaining them.
Failure to reach the expectations may also make some to defy against the law as a way of revealing or dealing with their frustration (Shaw, 1930). Strengths and weaknesses of the theories The two theories are good resources in explaining gangs, but this can be best illustrated through the sub-cultural theory. Thrasher (1927) defines gang through the process that they undertake in formation of groups. “The gang is an interstitial group originally formed spontaneously, and then integrated through conflict.
It is characterized by the following types of behavior: meeting face to face, milling, movement through space as a unit, conflict, and planning. The result of this collective behavior is the development of tradition, unreflective internal structure, esprit de corps, solidarity, morale, group awareness, and attachment to a local territory” (Thrasher, 1927, p. 46). The theory explains the fact that gangs originate from a very early age, through formation of play groups. The groups begin getting involved in simple mischief. They culminate into gangs when they begin to excite themselves with disproval and misbehavior.
This is where they begin developing a clear-cut group-consciousness. The social environment encourages gang crimes because of the fact that it is already predisposed to crime. Thrasher gives a description of the way the society can be favorable to delinquent behavior. He claims that gang sub-cultures came up from cracks or interstices of neglect in the teenage years. The argument of Thrasher is supported by Shaw (1930), through the claim that gang acts are passed by older boys to the younger ones. Such gangs are found in areas with high rate of single-parent homes, joblessness and low education.
These are the areas of ghettos, and slums. The theories explain the reasons why gangs tend to be more in the lower class than in the middle class. The theory that is preferable here is the sub-cultural theory. This is apparent in the arguments of Miller (1959), who supports the arguments of Cohen. Miller supports the fact that delinquency is a sub-culture, but one that is found within the lower class. There is a clear-cut division between the lower and the middle class. The two classes stand for different traditions and principles. The middle class tend focus on accomplishment and social goals.
The other class focuses on the need of their children to stay out is trouble. This class expects their children to be rough and street-wise. This becomes the motivation behind establishing and joining gang groups. Considering the fact that their lives tend to be boring for lack of exciting social activities, they tend to embrace crime as an exciting social activity. This is what makes them start to engage in unlawful activities. They get a sense of freedom by going against the social system that is established by the society. For the lower class, there is another practice that plays a major responsibility in their social life.
This institution is same-sex peer groups. To them, this institution is more significant than any other in the society. This is because of the social belonging that it renders. It is from these groups that they are in a position to gain status, one thing they cannot access in the conventional society. They develop a unique identity and work towards a particular goal (Miller, 1959). Despite the fact that the two theories are significant in explaining the reasons behind the formation of gangs, they do not reveal the origins of the motivating factors and forces, which would be helpful in defining possible solutions.
This is a weakness revealed by the two theories. This reveals the fact that the explanation of the two theories is incomplete. Up to the point where the strain theory is explained by Akers (2000), there are only kinds of the strains that are discussed and nothing is discussed about their sources. The frictions of situations are only revealed as hindering the attainment or expectations. There is no discussion about where they come from. Even in the sub-cultural theory, there is no much discussion on the structural constraints that are shown to be the forces behind delinquency. The theories fail in finding out the solutions to the problem.
The theories can only be used in describing the source of the problem and not the effects and solution to the problem (Akers, 2000). Conclusion This paper compares and contrasts strain and sub-cultural theories explain gangs and gang violence. These two are very crucial in criminology for offering an insight as to the causes of crime in the society. The two have some common as well as different aspects in explaining gang formation and gang-related crimes. The two explain the causes of crime from social perspective and reveal similar end results, which is crime for attainment of wealth and property.
The theories reveal strong forces that lead people to committing crime. The two forces are structural constraints for the sub-cultural theory and strains for the strain theory. These are some of the similarities but there are a number of differences between the two. The focus of the two is on varying elements of the social environment. The two also give varying accounts of the reasons why the society leads to crime. The theories are a crucial way of explaining gangs are formed in the society. This is achieved by describing their causes. There is need for further studies to come up with solutions to this problem. (Word count=4,065)
References: Shaw, C. (1930). The Jackroller: A Delinquent Boy’s Own Story. Reprint edition: 1966. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Miller, W. (1959). “Implications of Urban Lower-Class Culture for Social Work. ” The Social Service Review. Vol. 33, 219-236. Cohen, A. (1965). “The Sociology of the Deviant Act: Anomie Theory and Beyond,” American Sociological Review 30: 5-14. Akers, R. (2000). Criminological Theories: Introduction, Evaluation, and Application. Los Angeles: Roxbury. Allen, M. (2005). Textbook on Criminal Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Thrasher, F. M. (1927). The Gang. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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