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


Topic 13:
Following in the Footsteps of Others

Why Gangs Form

What Gangs Provide Why Youths Join
Following in the footsteps of others. Any of the aforementioned. Tradition and acceptance

Explanation in Brief: 
Gangs form as a result of emulation of existing gang members by their children, siblings, or peers/friends. Some people join a gang because their parents, siblings, or peers are members and they wish to follow in their footsteps. It is a tradition. It is expected of them.

Some of the children and young adults I interviewed joined a gang because one or more of their parents or siblings were gang members or because they had a friend who was a member of the gang. In some communities, particularly those populated by lower-class African-Americans and Hispanics/Latinos, there is a strong tradition of gang joining. Efforts to dissuade youth from joining gangs in this environment are complicated by that tradition.

The method of being initiated into a gang referred to as being "blessed in" is testimony to the fact that gang joining is sometimes associated with parental, sibling, or peer gang membership. 

I remember one interview in particular. A parole officer and I were in the living room of one of her adult gang member parolees. The gang member was joined by his wife as he held his 3-month-old baby. His four-year-old son, dressed in blue,  was also in the living room. To my amazement, as I was talking with his father and mother, the four-year-old threw a gang sign and mean-mugged the parole officer (gave her a dirty look). As we left the home the parole officer asked "Guess what that little one is gonnabe?"

Edwin H. Sutherland was a respected criminologist who developed the notion that criminal behavior is learned and that it is learned through the process of "differential association." He believed that people learned (and adopted) the values and behaviors of other people - especially people with whom they established relationships early in life, had frequent contact and maintained contact over a long period of time. He also suggested that if the other people were held in high regard, that also impacted whether the individual adopted his or her values and behaviors.

In our example above, children are likely to adopt the values and behaviors of their parents if the children hold their parents in high regard, have frequent contact with them early in life (while the children's value systems and behaviors are being established) and maintain that relationship over a long period of time. Should the parents have deviant values and behaviors, the child is likely to mimic those values and behaviors.

If the parents are missing (absent through work, neglect or abandonment, etc.), the child will attach to other people and will, according to Sutherland, adopt the values and behaviors of those to whom the child looks up, interacts with earliest in life, most frequently and over a long period of time. Looked at through Sutherland's eyes, some individuals adopt gang-like values and behaviors through the process of "differentially associating" more with others who exhibit similar values and behaviors than with people who exhibit non-deviant, non-gang values and behaviors.

Sutherland's notion also helps us understand the potential, and perhaps real, impact of the media on the formation of a child's value system and resulting behaviors as discussed in the prior Topic (Mass Media Portrayals of Gangs and Gang Members). Sutherlands developed his notion of differential association prior to the pervasiveness of televisions. Since that time, of course, we have found that many children spend hours every day watching television unmonitored by adults. Do you think that some of the values and behaviors exhibited on television today might have some influence on the development of a child's value system?

Similar in impact is Travis Hirschi's notion of "Social Control Theory." Hirschi believed that people refrain from violating the law because they have a stake in conformity. That is, they believe that, if they follow the society's rules, they will be rewarded with success.

According to Hirschi, when a member of society's bond to that society is weak or broken they may become criminal. He believes that attachment and commitment to and involvement and belief in the values and goals of a society are what keep its members from offending.

Attachment refers to sensitivity to and interest in others.

Commitment involves time, energy, and effort expended in conventional lines of action.

Involvement in conventional activities leaves little time for illegal behavior.

Belief refers to the sharing of common moral beliefs, adhering to such values as sharing, sensitivity to the rights of others, respect for the legal code of the society.

But what of children born into situations in which the bond to the larger society is already weak? Perhaps the parents are law violators. Perhaps being born into poverty presents some real challenges in terms of bonding with the larger society. A lower-class person can suffer rejection and discrimination at the hands of the middle- and upper-classes. A bond to middle-class values might be difficult to establish or justify.

What is the response of those children? Is it possible that some of them might join a gang because, lacking a bond to the larger society, they believe they will find a bond to the gang? Will they develop attachment, involvement, commitment, and belief in the gang culture? I think it's interesting to turn Hirschi's notion around as a way of explaining a gang member's relationship to his or her gang (having a bond to the gang instead of to the larger society).

Not only do some people join a gang by following in the footsteps of others, some form or join a gang simply because they can. No one even tried to stop them.


Additional Resources: You can further explore Edwin H. Sutherland's notion of Differential Association and the larger notion of social control and its implications for the creation of deviance and the formation of gangs.

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.