The purpose of this research is to identify the sociological aspects and means in which individuals may use in order to affiliate themselves within a gang and their practices. The following research uses statistics and information given by police departments and the Department of Justice. I have searched for reasoning behind an individual’s decision to join a gang from a sociological perspective. It begins by defining a gang and what leads young individuals to a lifestyle and choice of joining these gangs. Sociological approaches are made in order to accompany these people’s decisions and to make sense of their judgment. Taking this information and research into consideration may direct future research on the aspects and decisions of social citizens in which influence them to join and be a part of a street gang.
What is a Gang?
In both, everyday life and the sociological world, the term “gang” is defined in many different ways; however, every altered definition is fairly similar or related to one another. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2011), a gang is defined as “a group of persons working to unlawful or antisocial ends; especially: a band of antisocial adolescents.” The U.S. Department of Justice’s survey analysts Egley and Major (2004), though, define a gang as a group of three or more individuals who involve themselves in criminal activity and identify one another with a shared and mutual name, sign, or symbol. On a governmental point of view, several states have passed their own gang-related legislation; this is including each state’s different definition of a street gang.
The presence of these street gangs brings several anti-gang activities into play for every community, for example, curfews and home raids. According to Robert Walker (2011), writer for Gangs Or Us, gang members are those who conform to one or more of the visible gang traits. These traits include a shared group name, common symbols, tattoos, or graffiti, style of dress, geographic location or association in a group form on a consistent basis. It is easy to see that gangs and their members highly appreciate their symbols and strongly practice symbolic interactionism. Members of the National Alliance of Gang Investigators Associations (NAIGIA) believe that there is no untouched region by gangs in the United States. They also consider gangs to have a high effect on society at many levels; this increases citizens fear for safety, violence, and eventually increased cost to the economy ( NAIGIA 2005).
There are up-to-date, contemporary explanations for the behaviors humans choose to act upon in which could be clarified as either a result of the individual’s choice or their overall response to environmental, or any other, forces. According to Michael K. Carlie (2002), there are those who believe in free will and those who could be categorized as determinists.
Individuals who believe in free will are certain that people choose to behave the way they do; they are hedonistic, meaning they choose how to behave in order to establish pleasure over pain, and these individuals believe people are rational and may choose from a variety of choices in which how to behave. On the other hand, determinists believe the complete opposite. They feel as if human behavior is determined by forces outside of the individual’s control. Determinists believe that biological make-up, psychological states, and socio-cultural situations determine how the person will behave (Carlie 2002).
Along with these two approaches comes differential association. This assumes that criminal behavior and its techniques are a part of the learning process. The individual’s perception of law and crime determines how that person will behave in society (Walsh & Hemmens, 2008). This theory unmistakably explains the outcome of gang violence due to an individual’s exposure of existing gangs and their actions within their society.
Components of Cultural Deviance
Another theory that many like to refer to would be social disorganization. This philosophy concentrates more on the circumstances in the inner city that affect crimes. They include, but are not limited to, the destruction of homes and neighborhoods, lack of social control, and the presence of gangs or groups who violate the law (Siegel 2010). Other than this theory, there is such thing as the strain theory. This suggests that crime is brought upon communities and individuals by the overwhelming strain that people are feeling when they aspire to reach their personal ambitions but have no way to grasp them. According to Featherstone and Deflem (2003), strain theorists believe that money and power are spread throughout economic classes unequally. They feel as if this frustration and strain built by individuals who are not able to achieve their goals is what influences a person’s choice to commit a crime.
Believing this, strain theorists feel that the youth are certain that the only way to obtain what they desire is to join gangs, because they see other gang members in the community prosper with money. However, it is due to a life of crime and unfortunately, the youth feel as if joining the gang will benefit them in the same way. A combination of the social disorganization and strain theories brings a new concept, which is considered as the cultural deviance theory.
These theorists believe that criminal behavior is the result of social isolation in urban environments as well as the strain they gain from their neighborhoods or environments, too (Siegel 2010). A follower of this cultural deviance theory would consider the combination of being raised in a deteriorated neighborhood and the strain of knowing no other option out for reasoning towards an individual’s choice in joining gangs as true (Siegel 2010). The theorists believe that it would take both negative factors to push a person far enough to a point where they feel the need to take part in a gang’s violent behavior.
American Youth Wanting to Join Gangs
First and foremost, each individual case varies; however, many similar reasons are tied into a young adult’s decision and need to join a street gang. The so-called common denominator of why youth memberships of gangs increase is the alienation and profound identity loss in which they are looking to regain through the presence of an accommodating peer group (Barnhart 2008). A Pittsburgh Youth Study indicated that 20 percent of the African American youth enter a gang by the time they have reached the age of 15. It also illustrates that gang entry begins as early as the age of 9 (Lahey, Gordon, Loeber, Stouthamer-Loeber & Farrington 1999).
The reasons for such rapid rates of entry may include the individual’s feeling of gaining security, protection, and a sense of belonging. Many may agree, when stated, that these could be seen as the main apparatuses of a young person’s decision to join. It is known that the lack of family, community, or youth support systems is respectable reasoning behind their decisions as well. According to the OJJDP Bulletin (2003), the fact that the youth who are living in a lower class are raised in decrepit, run-down neighborhoods is a key aspect in which why these people choose to participate in the violence and danger associated with gang involvement.
Other factors that play a role in a young individual’s decision to join a gang include the need for a surrogate, or substitute, family. These young people join gangs to receive love, attention, and approval in which they feel are lacking at their actual homes. Also, according to the Edmonton Police Service (2011), American youth turns to gang affiliation because of low self-worth and low self-esteem that they gain due to unemployment or academic failure. It is also noted that many street gang members wish to carry on a family tradition of gang involvement established by family members, such as parents, siblings and cousins, in which they portray as role models (Edmonton Police Service 2011).
Unfortunately, misconstrued members of society believe that many positive opportunities come out of being coincided with street gangs. These thrill seeking individuals, which share a similar characteristic of defiant behavior, wish to financially gain profits from illegal, life-threatening activities (Gang Awareness Guide, no year, pg. 3). Tracy E. Barnhart (2008) mentions that these misunderstood participants of social order join because they are tired of being picked on and are seeking power and respect among peers.
Symbolic Interactionism Within Gangs
According to Dictionary.com (2011), symbolic interactionism is the “theory that human interaction and communication is facilitated by words, gestures, and other symbols that have acquired conventionalized meanings” (1). This is something that gang members all over the nation practice on a daily basis. One component of a gang’s symbolic interactionism would be hand signs. According to the San Antonio Police Department’s Youth Crime Service Unit (2011), the use of hand signs is one of the most popular forms of communication for street gangs across the United States. They also continue to state that each gang uses an identifying sign which shows what major gang they are in affiliation to.
This method of language is not only an identifying factor but also a process in which a gang member may show disrespect to rival gangs (6). Along with speech, similar phrases, and hand signs being indicators of gang association, it is also noted that graffiti, colors worn, and tattoos are indicators of gang affiliation, too (Gang Awareness Guide, page 3). Such symbolism is an individual’s self-definition more complete due to visually communicating within his or her gang members and rival gangs. Symbolic interactionism among gangs is somewhat easy to identify and has become a part of the average gang member’s life.
Methods of Research
The above research was based from secondary data analysis and reviews from government published documents. By stating that secondary data analysis was done, this illustrates that primary sources were used, gathered, and translated by myself. In order to sustain as much credibility as possible, I have used official government and police department issues, such as bulletins and informational guides published by them. Along with these documents, the works of gang-related articles were used as well.
The criteria for using these two methods of secondary data analysis and documents should be plain to see. They were the two methods of gathering information that I saw would be most necessary, or essential. Along with choosing the topic of gang affiliation and aspects of gangs, I have instantly decided that these two methods must be used due to the fact that case studies and other methods would include me, the author, putting myself in dangerous circumstances among passionate, violent individuals and geographical areas in which they reside. However, every credible article and document has been cited accordingly throughout my works, research, and literature review.
This research has somewhat opened my eyes to the world of sociology among other things. The information established from several different sources all have the same idea and impression on gang affiliation. Their main focuses were similar due to the fact that almost all of them took sociological approaches to answering the question of why individuals join street gangs. For example, both the Edmonton Police Service and Tracy Barnhart agree that these individuals are struggling with their identities, have grown up in gang-related environments, and wish to join a street gang in order to establish a monetary gain. Also, a couple of the sources were police bulletins, and they all showed common signs of a gangster and what signs to look for to identify them. This information was used in order for me to understand the symbolic interactionism that most members share.
For instance, the 2005 Threat Assessment and the Gang Awareness Guide both explain that gangs utilize symbolic interactionism to an extreme; they both commonly state that graffiti and tattoos are a major factor in gang symbolism. Unfortunately, I had some sources that contradicted one another when it came to the social theories for explaining a child’s mentality towards gang membership. For example, NCJRS believed in the social disorganization theory. This explained that the community played the major role in an individual’s action of joining a gang. On the other hand, author Mike Carlie believed that there were two different theories that answered this phenomenon.
His theories were free will versus determinism. Unlike NCJRS, he believed that people may either choose to behave the way they do or biological and psychological make-up of an individual decides for them. Although there were slight differences, none of the sources disagreed with the idea of individuals joining gangs for acceptance, power, raised social rank, ect. By discovering similarities within most of these sources, I have decided that each source has a likeness and resemblance with the others. Several of them share the idea that cultural deviance has been highly effective in the growing matter of gang memberships. They also agree that these misunderstood and misguided individuals are influenced by the idea of having to gain social power throughout society. My findings have given me much insight and knowledge of influential and sociological aspects of street gangs.
To conclude this research that was constructed, I would like to state that every resource shared the common idea that our young adults join gangs for acceptance among other things. I agree with what I have taken in from these sources. My understanding from all of them was that if these struggling, gang infested communities worked together to make their children feel accepted within positive groups and programs then the percentage of gang memberships would decline. There is a large scale of those individuals looking for acceptance and a way to raise their social status.
I believe this should be accomplished by other means, such as afterschool programs and community sports, rather than partaking in a life of crime and violence. Nonetheless, every source was valuable to my research and they showed that, although there is a problem with gang activities, the communities do not have to struggle with the rapid increase. Most of the sources stated that if these young adults received more attention and love, not only from their primary group but the entire community as well, then their mentality and reasoning for joining street gangs would deteriorate; these individuals would have an equal opportunity to strive towards their personal goals of money and raised statuses.
There were both strong and weak points, or findings, that came along with the research of sociological aspects of gangs. A very durable and strong factor that I feel aided my examination and exploration of the subject was the fact that authorized police bulletins and statements were used. However, along with these great sources I found myself feeling somewhat limited due to the fact that I could not personally speak with a gang member to see how their thought process worked on the subject of joining a gang from a sociological view. I also found myself having a slight issue with finding credible, primary articles to go along with the bulletins and guides in which I have discovered and put to use.
Recommendations for Future Research
In order to further research, or make the above research better, I believe that other sources and methods of obtaining these sources should be used. I would have liked to construct a case study or have been able to find a completed case study that was already accomplished from a reliable source. I seem to find an interest in this subject matter and may consider researching this topic more in depth for the future. Along with finding a credible case study, I have also thought about using visual sources, such as the History Channel’s Gangland, in order to find a better understanding on the subject. Although it was not done in this particular research, I believe I may use my own advice in the recommendations for my future research.
Barnhart, T. E. (2008, April 7). “Why do youth join prison gangs?”. PoliceOne. Retrieved November 22, 2011, from http://www.policeone.com/corrections/articles/1681985-Why-do-youth-join-prison-gangs/ Bureau of Justice Assistance. (2005). 2005 National Gang Threat Assessment. National Alliance of Gang Investigators Associations. Retrieved November 22, 2011, from http://www.bja.gov/what/2005_threat_assesment.pdf Carlie, M. Chapter 21: End Note. Into The Abyss: A Personal Journey into the World of Street Gangs. Missouri State University, 2002. Updated: 5 July 2011. Retrieved November 22, 2011, from http://people.missouristate.edu/michaelcarlie/SOLUTIONS/THEORIES/theories.htm Dictionary.com. (2011). Definition of: Symbolic Interactionism. Retrieved November 22, 2011, from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/symbolic+interactionism Edmonton Police Service. (2011). Traits of Gang Members. Gangs. Retrieved November 21, 2011, from http://www.edmontonpolice.ca/CommunityPolicing/OrganizedCrime/Gangs/TraitsofGangMembers.aspx Egley, Jr, A., & Major, A. K. OJJP Fact Sheet. Highlights of the 2002 National Youth Gang Survey. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention: J. Robert Flores, Administrator, 2004. Retrieved November 22, 2011, from www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/fs200401.pdf Featherstone, Richard, and Mathieu Deflem. 2003. “Anomie and Strain: Context and Consequences of Merton’s Two Theories.” Sociological Inquiry 73(4):471-489, 2003. Retrieved November 22, 2011, from
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