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

by Mike Carlie, Ph.D.        
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

Chapter 21:
End Note

All relatively modern explanations for human behavior suggest that people behave the way they do either as a result of their own choice or in response to various forces which determine their behavior for them. Those who accept the former theory (choice) believe in free will. Those who accept the latter explanation (various forces determine how humans behave) believe in determinism. Those who believe both are called soft-determinists. I would like to briefly explore each of these in light of the gang situation.

Free Will vs. Determinism

Free Will

According to those who believe in free will:

bulletpeople choose to behave the way they do. There are no forces within or outside themselves which compel them to act one way or another.

bulletpeople are hedonistic - they prefer pleasure over pain. People behave the way they do because they believe the way they have chosen to behave will bring them more pleasure than pain. 

bulletpeople are rational. They choose from a variety of ways to behave so as to maximize pleasure and reduce pain. The process of choosing how to behave is a rational one.

Why Gangs Form 
According to Free Will Theorists

Those who believe in free would accept the notion that people form gangs because they want to and others join them for the same reason. They would reject the notion that there are forces which act upon people and force them to form or join a gang. People join gangs because they believe they will gain more pleasure then pain by joining the gang and by participating in its activities. 

The process through which the individual passes along the way to becoming a gang member would be viewed as a rational one. If individuals think gang membership will benefit their situation in life, they will join a gang. If an individual joins a gang as a result of coercion (i.e., being forced to join by rivals), then joining was a rational decision in order to avoid the pain of not joining. No matter what, the individual has free will ... people choose their course in life and are personally responsible for their decisions.

How to Reduce Gang Formation 
According to Free Will Theorists

Were someone who believes in free will to entertain ways in which to solve the gang situation they would likely choose to do two things: increase the number of choices individuals have to make and/or increase the degree of punishment they suffer as a consequence of their inappropriate behavior.

Some individuals who become involved in gang activity do so because they are unaware of other ways to fulfill the same needs that joining a gang may fulfill or they are denied access to them. Through the offering of other opportunities (i.e., summer employment, job training, remedial education), potential gang members may choose socially appropriate ways to earn income, gain respect and power, and therefore decide against joining a gang. 

If, as free will thinkers' believe, most people are rational, then the rational thing for them to do is to choose to reach the socially legitimated goal (financial success) using legitimate means rather than illegitimate ones - providing the residents and social institutions in the community allow them to do so. Where the individual encounters barriers (i.e., discrimination), it is the community which needs to be changed.

A person who believes in free will may also suggest increasing the punishment meted out for being in a gang. That would be another rational thing to do. Increasing the pain associated with being in a gang should discourage hedonistic people from being involved in them. In order to get gang members to cease and desist in their gang behavior one should increase the pain associated with gang affiliation. What needs to be changed is the individual's calculation of pleasure and pain.

As the concept of free will developed, the notion that everyone had free will and was rational was abandoned in favor of the notion that most people have free will and most were rational. The people who did not have free will and/or were irrational included the mentally deficient, the very young ("too young to know better") and other misfits. For them, no pain would be sufficient to alter their behavior as they lacked the free will or rationality to respond to it meaningfully. For them, treatment, instead of punishment and the pain it causes, would be the wiser course of action.


I find the free will explanation for gang formation and gang joining useful for people who do, in fact, have free will. If everyone has an equal opportunity to get a good education and enter the job market on an even playing field, then the free will explanation makes sense. If, however, someone (or a class of people) is denied access to a good education or a good job, then the free will explanation is only a justification for punishing the unfortunate.


Determinists believe most human behavior is determined by forces outside the control of the individual - in other words, people do not have free will. They believe the forces that determine the way people behave are:


biological (one's biological make-up determines how he or she behaves),


psychological (one's psychological make-up or personality determines how one will behave), and/or


socio-cultural (one's social situation or culture determines how he or she will behave).

Why Gangs Form
According to Determinists

According to determinists, gangs form and people join them as a result of biological, psychological, and/or socio-cultural pressures. There is little in the research which speaks to biological determinism as regards gangs. It would be a stretch, for example, to suggest that one somatotype or body type (i.e., Sheldon's [1944] typology of the muscular or mesomorphic body type, overweight or endomorphic type, or slender and frail ectomorphic type) is more likely to get involved in a gang than another or that neurological or biological deficiencies which may result in poor academic performance also cause certain people to form a gang or join one.

There is, however, much that could be said about psychological and socio-cultural reasons for gang formation and gang joining. Among the psychological explanations are the influence of pathological offenders, forming or joining a gang in response to fear, or for increasing one's level of self-esteem

Socio-cultural explanations abound and include the need to: identify a rite of passage from childhood to adolescence and from adolescence to young adulthood when socially acceptable rites of passage are unavailable; address feelings of economic deprivation; for close personal ties, unconditional love, and discipline; feel as though one has control of an otherwise uncontrollable social environment; and to be active, even if the activity is criminal. Maslow, too, has much to offer in terms of the individual's need to satisfy certain personal and social needs before progressing satisfactorily to self-actualization. And in terms of learning, a favorite social explanation for behavior, the influence of migrating gang members , mass media, and positive role models can not be overlooked.

How to Reduce Gang Formation
According to Determinists

From a determinist's perspective, the only way to effectively reduce the tendency for gangs to form and for people to join them would be to:

bulletidentify and modify the biological, physiological, or neurological traits responsible for gang formation and gang joining or isolate/eliminate individuals who possess them

bulletprovide therapy to individuals with psychological disturbances which create a tendency to form or join a gang, to prevent others from developing similar disturbances, or isolate/eliminate people who are disturbed; and/or

bulletidentify and modify the social and cultural forces which cause some individuals to form or join a gang.

While the option of isolating or eliminating people who exhibit certain biological or psychological abnormalities may sound drastic, that is one approach to the gang phenomenon and is referred to as suppression. Our willingness (and perhaps need) to arrest and either incarcerate or execute certain gang members is part and parcel of our nation's social policy regarding gangs.

As for psychological and socio-cultural explanations for human behavior, they reflect the majority opinion as to why gangs form and why certain youths join them and are the backbone of solutions described in Into the Abyss.


I support the determinist's position that there are forces over which individuals may not have control. I need only consider the power of socio-cultural forces such as gender, social class, age, and discrimination as they impact people and their lives to understand why some youths may form or join a gang to accomplish their goal - whatever it may be.

Soft Determinism

Soft determinists accept that people are at the mercy of biological, psychological, and social or cultural forces but that, in the end, each is responsible for determining how he or she responds to the situations life presents. For soft determinists, punishment for wrong doing followed by treatment makes sense. And prevention makes the most sense of all.

I entertained the notion of including a section on sociological or criminological theories of gang formation, but there are precious few and they are all contested. Instead, there are a multiplicity of theories about why some people violate the law. Jankowski (1991) makes note of this fact. 

The sociological literature on gangs offers a number of theories, but a close look at each of these indicates that they are really theories about delinquency and not theories about gangs per se. They are therefore sociological theories of crime rather than sociological theories of the gang. This has included what each has focused on, and it has produced similar and limited explanations concerning the behavior of gangs and why they persist. (Jankowski, 1991, p. 21)

A good theory has as its key features the ability to predict future events and explain phenomenon both broadly in scope and with great precision. There are no such theories of either why gangs form or why certain youths join them. Into the Abyss, in fact, is unique in its focus on why gangs form, but the explanations it offers do not rise to the level of "theory." I don't know if any explanation of human behavior ever will.

Free Will, Determinism, and Solutions

The next section of Into the Abyss focuses on ways to reduce gang activity and youth violence - solutions, if you will. Free will and deterministic explanations for human behavior provide a frame of reference for understanding the reasoning for implementing one solution or another. Prevention (i.e., education programs), for example, is based upon the notion of free will. Once educated about the dangers of being in a gang, it is assumed the people being educated will use their rational abilities and determine that joining a gang will bring more pain than pleasure, hence, they will not join. Suppression works on the same principle in hopes that increasing the pain associated with being in a gang (i.e., arrest, being stigmatized as a gang member/offender, incarceration and loss of freedom) will result in leaving the gang.

Solutions which speak to changes other than in gang members (i.e., efforts to reduce racial and ethnic discrimination, improve schools, increase job opportunities) are built upon the deterministic notion that forces in a society or culture influence how its members behave. Offering psychological counseling, too, is based upon the determinist notion that one's behavior is determined by his or her psychological make-up. A soft determinist may suggest that these forces (social or psychological) impact the choices the individual has to make. 

The point is that for a solution to make sense, it should be built either upon a free will or deterministic interpretation of why gangs form or a combination of both. 


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.