Into The Abyss:
A Personal Journey into the World of Street Gangs

by Mike Carlie, Ph.D.        
© 2002
Michael K. Carlie
Continually updated.

~ Table of Contents ~
Home | Foreword | Preface | Orientation

What I Learned | Conclusions
End Note |
| Appendix
Site Map / Contents
| New Research

Up-To-Date Gang-Related News

A Perspective on Gangs


I developed a perspective on the nature of society and gangs as a result of what I learned over the past three years in the field. The elements of that perspective may not be unique, but they do inform this book and should be identified for that reason.

The Social Institutional Perspective

My academic training is as a sociologist and social psychologist. When sociologists look at a city or town they see more than the individuals who live there. In addition to the built environment or physical infrastructure (i.e., parks, streets, buildings), they see the social institutions people have created - social institutions which give meaning to the residents' lives and which help them achieve personal and collective goals.

A social institution consists of a group of people organized to achieve a unique goal. Families are organized to procreate (create new human beings), to provide intimate nurturing, and help socialize the society's children. Faith institutions identify and nurture positive social values and help us answer such questions as "Why am I here?," "What is the purpose of life?, and "Is there such a thing as 'good' and 'evil'?"

Commerce is a social institution designed to provide a means of earning income while schools have developed to educate youth so that they can communicate with and participate in the larger society and find a means of employment. Other social institutions - like the military, health care, the media, government, and the criminal justice system - each address a different set of problems and have unique goals to accomplish.

A social institutional perspective is one which views communities as a collection of these social institutions and views the residents of the community as their members. Where social institutions are present and healthy, sociologists speak of social organization. Where they are non-existent or weak, we speak of social disorganization. Gang members are most commonly found living in socially disorganized neighborhoods. (Bowker and Klein, 1983; Curry and Spergel, 1992; J. W. Moore, 1978, 1991; Short, 1990)

In neighborhoods with vital and robust social institutions, informal controls exist which reduce the likelihood of gang formation. Family members, school personnel, and faith community leaders provide these informal controls over the youth in their charge.

Loosely speaking, [informal social control] refers to the capacity of a community or neighborhood to police itself. Informal social control occurs, for example, when residents of a neighborhood are willing to confront juveniles engaging in vandalism, report truancy to school authorities or play an active role in supervising teenage social activity. (Weatherburn, 2001)  Areas with reduced levels of informal social control have been found to have higher rates of crime and violence. (Sampson et al., 1997)

In neighborhoods characterized by social disorganization, the social institutions which should be providing informal control over their youth are not doing so. The justice system, in most cases, is then required to impose its formal social control through arrests, formal processing, and court mandated treatment and punishment.

When I told my colleagues I was going to ride with police gang units and study gangs some of them asked "Why bother? It's all about their families, isn't it?" I had made a promise to myself that I would remain open minded about such things, but common sense would seem to have supported their conclusion. My experience in the field turned all of that upside down.

What I've come to believe is that, from a social institutional perspective, for a family to be healthy it must be supported by other social institutions in the community ... and those social institutions must themselves be strong.

I liken this to a three-legged stool. One leg is education (our schools), the second leg is commerce (the world of work), and the third leg is the faith community (values). They each support and contribute to the strength of the platform - the seat - which is the family. If any one of the legs is weak or missing, the stool will fall.

To be more accurate, the stool would have to have more than three legs. It would have one for each social institution in the community (health care, media, government, etc.). But the analogy is, I hope, clear. For families to be healthy they need the support of other social institutions in the community. If a father or mother can not find a meaningful job, if the children do not get an education that makes them employable, and if the values of the family are undeveloped or socially inappropriate, what hope does that family or child have for success?

Having healthy social institutions in the community, however, is not enough. The family itself must be healthy. In the Solutions section of Into the Abyss we will explore various qualities of a healthy family.

While most single-parent families produce children who do not become gang members, there is a body of research which suggests a disproportionate number of gang members come from single-parent families, or they don't have parents, or their parents are less-than-desirable role models (i.e., participating in child abuse, violence, involved in substance abuse or gangs).

Insofar as the proposed link between gangs and fatherless families is valid, one would expect that communities with gangs would have more female-headed households than other communities and that an increase in the number of female-headed households would lead to an increase in the number of gangs. Available data support both assumptions. (Miller, 2001, page)

A social institutional perspective leads one to view communities as a collection of social institutions and the solutions to social problems in the community as dependent upon the health of those social institutions. That is the background against which this book was written. It will attribute much of what is causing gang formation to the social structure of the neighborhoods in which they are found and, in similar fashion, will identify solutions as being related to those social institutions.   

The Spigot and the Spill

The word spigot isn't being used much anymore. It's an old fashioned word that refers to a device that turns things on and off. I like to use it in the phrase "the spigot and the spill" because it sounds better than "the faucet and the spill." It must be the songwriter in me that makes me do that.

I use the phrase as a metaphor when I am asked to talk about gangs. There is a great deal of attention being focused today on gangs, gang members, and their associates. Using the metaphor, we are focused on the spill - on those who are already involved in the gang life.  

When I use the word spigot in the metaphor I am refer to turning off the problems which are causing the spill - things like child abuse, absent or dysfunctional parents, substance abuse, and school failure (which may be the result of the other influences).   

This perspective suggests we should be focused more on reducing the problems which cause gangs to form and lead people to join them at an early age rather than on simply identifying who the gang members are and arresting them (that's focusing on the spill). Into the Abyss is concerned with both identifying the causes of gang formation and gang joining in identify ways in which to remove the causes.

Gangs are an international, national, and 
local phenomenon, but the best approach 
to reducing their influence is at the local level.


While the local nature of gangs may be obvious (i.e., seeing groups of youths displaying colors, throwing hand signs, wearing tattoos, referring to one another with gang monikers), the national connection may not be as apparent to some. The connection between local gang activity and the national gang scene is clear to criminal justice practitioners, gang researchers, and others familiar with gangs and is revealed in a variety of ways.


Of great concern is the movement of documented gang members from one community to another. The migration of gang members from their home community to the target community occurs for a variety of reasons including:

bullet the furtherance of the gang member's or gang's criminal enterprise,

bulletescaping detection by law enforcement in their home community,

bullet establishing a new gang in the target community,

bulletavoiding anticipated punishment from their own gang at home, or

bulletattempting to leave the gang culture all together.

Knowing that gangs are fluid - moving not only from one community to another, but moving within communities - is one of the perspectives that formed a backdrop against which this book was written and will be discussed later in greater detail.

The relationship between violence in the media and violence in society

By "media" I refer to mass media - the most powerful and visual being movies, television, music, and the Internet. Youth around the world are exposed to the mass media and its messages.

I've been teaching a course on crime and the media since 1987. According to the literature, there is no conclusive proof that violence in the media causes violence in society. Rather, there are two distinctly different positions taken by those who conduct research on this relationship. One position suggests violence in the media has a cathartic effect on its audience while the other position suggests it has a stimulating effect.

The cathartic effect is a purging of violent feelings. By watching violence in the media, in other words, observers vent their own feelings of rage or anger. The stimulating effect is just the opposite. It suggests that observing violence in the media leads viewers to act out and behave violently. Although not thoroughly researched, the "copy cat" phenomenon (seeing a crime committed and copying it) may be one example of the stimulating effect.

What impact does gang-related content found in movies, television, music, and the Internet have on its audience of young people? Does it stimulate them to emulate gang behavior or act as a release valve for their frustrations and anger?

Movies and Television

In the 1970's the wearing of colors by gangs in the Los Angeles area was commonplace, but it was not commonplace elsewhere in the United States. That is, not until the movie Colors was shown in movie theaters across the country. Within days, police departments began reporting they were seeing youths wearing colors in association with the gangs to which they belonged.

Since that time more gang-themed movies have been produced. What impact do these movies have on their young audiences? If Colors had such a significant impact, is it possible that the newer movies are having a similar impact?

Steve Nawojczyk is a respected gang researcher and community activist. I asked him to shed a little light for me on the subject of movies, kids, and gangs.

I once spoke to a group of inner-city kids, they were a pretty hard-core bunch who had seen a lot of things in their short lives. In my lecture, I ask a series of questions, one of which is 'Do movies move kids to violence?'   

As usual, the group sort of chattered among themselves before a girl of about 15 stood up and said, "No, unless your screws aren't in tight."   She paused for a minute and then continued,"'...and you know what? I know a lot of kids whose screws aren't in tight."  

She closed with the most profound part of her pronouncement, 
"And you know what else? There is no one there to help 'em keep their screws in tight." I think that says it all.
(Email, 6 June, 2001, with permission.)

More conclusive evidence of a causal relationship between the content of mass media and the occurrence of gangs or violence is needed, but it may be nearly impossible to find. In order to prove gang-themed movies and violence in movies cause some viewers to form or join gangs or participate in violence we would need a control group of people who have never seen gang-themed or violent media presentations. I don't think we're going to find them.

According to researchers associated with the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 

The influence of the media on the behavior of youth has long been a contentious issue. In recent years, increasing consensus has developed in support of the position that media images do have a significant influence, particularly on more susceptible youth. 

In the case of youth gangs, this contention would not be difficult to sustain. The lifestyle and subculture of gangs are sufficiently colorful and dramatic to provide a basis for well-developed media images. For example, the Bloods/Crips feud ... caught the attention of media reporters in the early 1990's and was widely publicized. Gang images have served for many decades as a marketable media product—in movies, novels, news features, and television drama. (Miller, 2001, p.45)


Today's music includes such categories as gangsta rap and hip hop. The lyrics of some of these songs tell a story of inner-city life filled with violence and guns. Guns are portrayed as a means of reaching and maintaining manhood and suggest an overall devaluing of human life and society's social institutions (common targets are the family, religion, schools, and the criminal justice system). The music is available to children of many nations as broadcast on MTV, the Internet, on the radio, and in stores.

In the 1950's, the musical drama West Side Story portrayed gang life as seen through the eyes of adult middle-class writers and presented themes of honor, romantic love, and mild rebellion consistent with the values and perspectives of these writers. In the 1990's, the substance of gang life was communicated to national audiences through a new medium known as gangsta rap. For the first time, this lifestyle was portrayed by youthful insiders, not adult outsiders. 

The character and values of gang life described by the rappers differed radically from the images of West Side Story. Language was rough and insistently obscene; women were prostitutes ("bitches," "ho's," and "sluts") to be used, beaten, and thrown away; and extreme violence and cruelty, the gang lifestyle, and craziness or insanity were glorified. Among the rappers' targets of hatred, scorn, and murder threats were police, especially black police (referred to as "house slaves" and "field hands"); other races and ethnic groups; society as a whole; and members of rival gangs.

The target audience for gangsta rap was adolescents at all social levels, with middle-class suburban youth constituting a substantial proportion of the market for rap recordings. The medium had its most direct appeal, however, for children and youth in ghetto and barrio communities, for whom it identified and clarified a set of values, sentiments, and attitudes about life conditions that were familiar to them. 

The obscene and bitterly iconoclastic gangsta rappers assumed heroic stature for thousands of potential gang members, replacing the drug dealer as a role model for many. Gangsta rap strengthened the desire of these youth to become part of a gang subculture that was portrayed by the rappers as a glamorous and rewarding lifestyle. (Miller, 2001, p.46)

The Internet

At one and the same time, the Internet is friend and foe to those concerned about the well being of children. As a friend, it provides information and entertainment that is valuable and healthy. As a foe, it connects youths to sites that invite participation in deviance. Some of the sites expose youth to ideas and images that are not healthy. And they are accessible from anywhere in the world, as long as there is a connection to the Internet.

While the international and national gang connections are real, the fact is that the only real hope for reducing the attractiveness of gangs to our youth is to address the phenomenon at the local level. This may require a two-pronged approach. On the one hand there is a need to address the national influences as identified above (e.g., remain alert and responsive to immigrating gang members and limit exposure to inappropriate media messages). On the other, we need to focus on the basic human needs of our local youth and be vigilant in serving those needs. In the Solutions section of this book we will address those needs.

Drugs and Gangs

The social policy our nation has adopted towards drugs currently listed as illegal may have created more problems than it has solved. Much like the prohibition of alcohol in the early 1900's, our policies on drugs have created an environment conducive to the formation and growth of gangs.

The most common explanation for the increase in youth gang problems, and one particularly favored by law enforcement personnel, centers on the growth of the drug trade. Historically, youth gangs have engaged in a variety of illegal income-producing activities, including extortion, robbery, and larceny. In the 1980's, according to this argument, the increasing availability and widening market for illegal drugs, particularly crack cocaine, provided new sources of income.

The relative ease with which large sums of money could be obtained by drug trafficking provided a solid financial underpinning for gangs, increased the solidarity of existing gangs, and offered strong incentives for the development of new ones. 

As gangs fought one another over control of the drug trade in local areas, the level of inter-gang violence rose and, in the process, increased gang cohesion and incentives to form alliances with other gangs. These developments, along with market requirements, resulted in widespread networks of drug-dealing gangs. The clear model here is that of organized crime during Prohibition, with rival mobs fighting over markets and forming alliances and rivalries with other mobs.

This argument appears to have considerable power in accounting for the growth of gangs, and there is little doubt that the drug trade was one important factor in that growth. (Miller, 2001, quote)

Making certain drugs illegal has spawned an illicit and dangerous industry similar to the crime organizations which evolved to manufacture, distribute, and sell alcohol when it was prohibited in the United States. As a result of their current illegality, and the continued demand for them, their price has escalated and the danger associated with their manufacture/cultivation, processing, distribution, sale, and use has also escalated.

The distribution of illicit drugs and the nature of the organizations which deal in them are national concerns which play themselves out on the local scene - in our communities. This observation also forms a portion of the perspective being brought to the writing of this book.

Gangs are not the problem.

If we want to reduce the amount of crime being committed we must first understand that criminal behavior is not the problem. Rather, criminal behavior is a symptom of the problems which are causing people to violate the law.

When we speak of something as a problem we often refer to its cure as a solution. If the problem is misdiagnosed, the solution will likely fail. I believe we have misdiagnosed the problem when it comes to gangs. Gangs are not the problem. The problem is whatever it is that is causing gangs to form. If we can identify those causes I believe we can effectively reduce gang activity and youth violence. I will address the causes - the real problems - when we look at why gangs form later in the book.

When gangs are identified as the problem, most communities resort to arresting gang members and assume gang activity will then be reduced. Communities across the country have learned this approach doesn't work. In fact, it may backfire.

Arresting gang members is like anointing them. It showers them with respect from other gang members, almost as much as does serving time in prison. And while in prison, there is much gang members learn and there will be other gang members with whom they will associate. Upon being released into the community (and over 95% of all incarcerated men and women are eventually released), they may become more of a danger to the community than they were before they were arrested (i.e., they are angrier, nearly unemployable as ex-convicts, new gang alliances may have been fostered in prison, they have increased status on the street as ex-cons).

The point I am trying to make is that using suppression against gang members (i.e., arrest, conviction, incarceration) as the only tool for reducing gang activity and youth violence will probably fail.

Field Note:  While talking about the gang situation, the leader of the regional Federal gang task force told me "The criminal justice system has to do more than just put people in prison. There is a need for a multi-faceted approach including prevention, intervention as well as apprehension [arrest]."

When the suppression of gang members is used in conjunction with efforts to reduce violence, child and substance abuse in the home, school failure, and all the other things we know about which cause youths to join a gang, we might be able to reduce gang activity.


Additional Resources: You can view a partial listing of gang-themed commercial motion pictures. You can also learn more about the history of alcohol prohibition.

© 2002 Michael K. Carlie
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the author and copyright holder - Michael K. Carlie.