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
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
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
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
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
and commitment to and
involvement and belief in the values and goals of
society are what keep its members from offending.
to sensitivity to and interest in others.
involves time, energy, and effort expended in conventional lines of
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
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.