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«Tara Young, Wendy Fitzgibbon and Daniel Silverstone London Metropolitan University CONTENTS ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 1. INTRODUCTION 1.1 ...»

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One of the reasons for encouraging younger siblings to join the group was to provide security and protection for the new member. Decker and Van Winkle’s work also shows that, for some gang members, having a gang-involved relative or legacy of familial gang involvement was seen as bringing protective benefits for both gang and non-gang-involved relatives. Aldridge et al’s ethnographic account of ‘gang’ membership in England tends to support this (Aldridge et al, 2009). This research found that some respondents with extensive and extended gang membership in their families believed that this enhanced their familial reputation, which in turn helped shield them from crime and violence. With these ‘perks’ female relatives perceived themselves as being relatively ‘untouchable’ by other groups because of the respect accorded to their gang-affiliated family members (Aldridge et al, 2009:376). Certainly ‘perks’, with regard to status in the neighbourhood and in material form, may, on these findings, encourage gang membership.

Whilst Aldridge et al’s study illustrates some of the protective aspects of gang involvement, other research suggests that the benefits might be outweighed by the dangers that exist.

According to Thornberry, the protective benefits of the gang are severely limited and, although gang membership may afford a certain amount of safety (also generating ‘perks’ for families of gang members), gang members are significantly more likely to be victimised than non-gang-involved individuals (Thornberry, 1993) and their families are more likely to experience threats and violent victimisation (Fagan, 1999).

3.3.3 Family knowledge of gang membership and endorsement

It is not always the case that families know about or endorse gang membership. Decker and Van Winkle expected to find intra-familial gang membership amongst their cohort in St Louis but found little evidence of it (Decker and Van Winkle, 1996:232). Within their cohort they found that knowledge of gang membership, and support for it, was patchy amongst the gang members and family members studied. Some gang members said their families knew about their gang status whilst others said it was suspected. Often the gang-involved individuals declared that did not know for certain whether their family members were aware of their involvement as they had taken care to hide it (Decker and Van Winkle, 1996:239) and some gang members with younger brothers actively attempted to dissuade their younger siblings from becoming members (Decker and Van Winkle, 1996).

Research in the UK has also noted that parents and families are often genuinely unaware of their children’s involvement in gang groups. Aldridge et al’s ethnographic research on gangs in ‘research city’, for example, showed how gang-affiliated young people adopt a different personality when with their parents from that which they adopt with their peer groups. Indeed, parents in their study knew little of what their children were doing when outside the home (Aldridge et al, 2009).

While family members who are gang-affiliated may actively encourage and promote gang membership, research also suggests that on many occasions young people’s involvement in gangs might be tacitly, but reluctantly, accepted by them. In some instances it might be more harmful not to be involved in gangs. Carlie (2002), citing research by Brown (1998), found that 35% of interviewees with gang-involved relatives felt that they had no chance of social or economic survival outside the gang. Some family members claimed that under ideal circumstances they would not wish younger family members to join gangs but argued that the life chances of their children were limited if they remained outside (Carlie, 2002). As Jankowski (1991) notes, being attached to a gang engaged in the illegal drugs economy can improve an individual’s chances of making some money and alleviate some of the structural problems caused by persistent poverty experienced in run-down neighbourhoods.

Parents who live in poor areas and who experience financial hardship may value the independence and the financial assets their young people generate from gang membership.

Gang involvement can lead to independence from the family and provide an ‘opportunity’ for a young individual to stand on his own two feet (Anderson, 1999:132). Anderson’s study of ‘decent’ and ‘street’ families showed that, whilst parents disapproved of their children’s gang affiliation and illegal appropriation, they on occasion accepted donations of money and goods from their sons without asking too many questions about where these came from. The economic fragility of some families in Anderson’s study meant that parents and carers were often in a double bind about their relative’s gang involvement (Anderson, 1999:133) and as a result tacitly accepted this membership by ‘turning a blind eye’ to gang activities.

3.4 Looking beyond the family: social and individual factors In an attempt to understand juvenile delinquency in urban areas, social theorists, like Thrasher, looked to social conditions as a possible explanation. Thrasher’s seminal gang study concluded that gang membership could not be understood as simply the product of a ‘broken’ and or ‘chaotic’ family; wider ecological factors also needed to be taken into account (Thrasher, 1927). Using a ‘social ecological’ framework Thrasher argued that stable, organised environments with settled, homogenous populations promoted lawabiding behaviour whilst disorganised environments, unstable and culturally diverse populations encouraged delinquency and crime.





Since Thrasher a number of scholars have continued this line of thought and there exists a certain consistency amongst scholars in acknowledging that particular social conditions affect the healthy development of families and individuals. Shaw and McKay (1942) argued that the social ecology within deprived inner urban areas militated against the orderly transmission of family values stressing law-abiding behaviour. Put simply, the disruption and cultural disequilibrium created by unstable social conditions created a space in which delinquent values could emerge and be disseminated.

Contemporary studies of gang formation and membership continue this emphasis on the social factors that encourage gang membership today (Hagedorn, 1998; Moore, 1991, Decker and Van Winkle, 1996, Miller, 2001; Vigil, 2003). For Hagedorn (1998) social structural conditions (such as demographic change, deindustrialisation and lack of legitimate employment opportunities, poverty and racism) appeared far more influential in gang formation than family structure. This perspective is largely replicated in British studies of urban street gangs (Hallsworth and Young, 2004; Smith and Bradshaw, 2005; Pitts, 2007; Aldridge and Medina, 2008). Smith and Bradshaw also found that gang membership was consistently higher for young people living in deprived neighbourhoods (Smith and Bradshaw, 2005:11–12).

For Vigil, gang membership is an amalgamation of familial, social and individual factors. He argues that an individual’s exposure to the ‘multiple marginalities’ (eg living in close proximity to gangs (see also Miller, 2001), family sub-cultural conflict, social control, habitual exposure to violence and victimisation) that exist in some communities (particularly in Latin American, but including African American minority ethnic groups more generally) has a significant impact on young people which must be taken into account when considering gang membership (Vigil, 1988, 2003). According to Vigil, when social conditions are harsh and social institutions like the family (and the school) fail, the children are ‘up for grabs’ (Vigil, 1988, 2003). Here Vigil is referring to young people’s movement towards the street and the socialisation in gang culture that occurs there.12 ‘Choloization’ is the cultural process that occurs as a result of the pressures and influence of the gang, describing a commitment by young people to what Hallsworth and Young (2004, 2006) and Hallsworth and Silverstone (2009) term ‘road life’ (Vigil, 1988, 2003). Consequently, young people immersed ‘on road’ internalise the subcultural mores and values of the gang, adopting a ‘locura’ mindset (Vigil, 1988, 2003).13 Jankowski (1991), however, is a little sceptical of the social determinist arguments that have been put forward to explain gang membership. Whilst he does not entirely dismiss familial or social influences, he asserts that these should not take precedence over individual characteristics. After ten years of ethnographic research with gang members, his research revealed that gang members were as likely to come from two-parent households as not, and many gang members experienced supportive relationships with their family members (Jankowski, 1991:39). Gang members were not, as commonly predicted, searching for a substitute father or male role model to emulate or with whom to identify (Jankowski, 1991:39), nor were they trying to find a surrogate family to replace their ‘dysfunctional’ biological one; the gang members in his research were ‘deviant’, ‘individualistic’ characters competing for scarce resources (Jankowski, 1991:22).

Jankowski argues that deviant young people living in poor neighbourhoods are constantly on the look-out for ways to get what they want. Being affiliated to a gang increases the likelihood of successfully getting money, respect and power, and is much more profitable than going it alone. Indeed, at the beginning, the young initiate believes that the links and See also Anderson’s (1999) differentiation between ‘decent’ and ‘street’ families.

According to Vigil, the characteristics of a ‘locura’ mindset include unpredictable, hedonistic behaviour, displays of toughness and daring, and a lack of empathy (Vigil, 1988, 2003).

contacts established through the group will enhance their status within the community and significantly improve their quality of life (Jankowski, 1991:30). Thus, in resource-poor areas, gang membership is the end result of a cost-benefit exercise, rationally calculated by prospective members (Jankowski, 1991:40).

We must be careful here to avoid falsely characterising young people as inherently deviant, as Jankowski appears to do. As gang research clearly illustrates, the majority, even those from ‘high-risk’ neighbourhoods, do not join gangs (Klein and Maxson, 2006; Sharp et al, 2006). Similarly, as Matza notes, delinquent youth (including gang members) are not habitually deviant. He claims that, like non-gang members, they routinely live in a nondeviant world and only occasionally engage in deviant or law-breaking practice (Matza, 1964). According to Matza young delinquents ‘drift in and out’ of delinquent behaviour using specific reasons to ‘neutralise’ their offending behaviour (Matza, 1964).

3.4.1 School environment, education and gang membership

The effects of schooling on youthful behaviour and gang membership have not commanded as much attention as family, peer group and social factors (Klein and Maxson, 2006). Those studies that do consider education as a variable commonly associate delinquency, including gang membership, with poor educational achievement (Esbensen and Huizinga, 1993), low educational expectations (Bjerregaard and Smith, 1993),14 truancy (Smith and Bradshaw, 2005), exclusion (Pitts, 2007) and ‘drop-out’ (Vigil, 1988, 2003; Thornberry, 2001). Vigil’s research with Chicago gangs notes the high level of drop-out amongst gang members and Pitts’s study of gang membership in Waltham Forest found that over two-thirds of gang members had been excluded from school (Pitts, cited in Centre for Social Justice, 2009:78).

It is possible that the disproportionate levels of school exclusion and truancy, and the lower than average educational achievements found amongst gang members is related to how young people experience the school environment.



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