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 8:
The Lack of Acceptable 
Rites of Passage
into Adulthood

"Have a baby. Be a man!  
Step up to the plate.

(Ice T, from "Ice T: Behind the Music," as quoted on VH1-TV, 2001)

The term rite of passage describes any ritual which 
marks a change in an individual's social position or status. 

Why Gangs Form

What Gangs Provide Why Youths Join
Gangs form due to the lack of acceptable rites of passage into adulthood. A rite of passage into adulthood. To accomplish the passage from childhood to adulthood.

Explanation in Brief: 
Gangs form in response to a lack of acceptable rites of passage from childhood to adulthood and offer alternative rites of passage to adulthood for their members.

Bloch and Niederhoffer (1958) assert that when societies do not make adequate preparation, formal or otherwise, for the induction of its adolescents into adult status, the youths will make their own culture for this transition, and they assert that the gang is this social form. (Yablonsky, 1997, p. 172)

When does a child become an adult? When does a girl become a woman or a boy become a man? Herbert Bloch and Arthur Niederhoffer (Bloch and Niederhoffer, 1958) wrote about the need for youth to have a culturally legitimated and recognized way of transitioning from being a child to being an adult  - a rite of passage, a ritual, a ceremony, an event or series of events. There are several such rites of passage in every society. Among them are graduations, getting a job, being promoted at work, culturally significant birthdays (like turning 16, 21, 30 or 65 years of age in American society), weddings, menopause, retirement, and death.

According to Papachristos (1998), "Successful rites-of-passage programs for adolescents may provide ... an avenue for change. [They] provide an alternative rite of passage into adulthood." (Papachristos, 1998)  As Pinnock suggests, "Where ritual is absent, it is created." (Pinnock, no date, site)

Papachristos (1998) also believes that, for youths who do not have access to legitimate rites of passage (i.e., graduation from school, getting a legitimate job, being confirmed in their faith, receiving a job promotion), gangs fulfill the key elements of a rite of passage.

bulletThey provide a group of elders, sometimes called O.G.s or veteranos, for the new members to emulate, admire, and model.

bulletThere is a period of separation from the family of origin of the new member during which an initiation or other ceremony may take place.

bulletA sacred place is established and may take the form of a territory, a corner, or a meeting place.

bulletThere is a symbolic death of the new member as he or she leaves the old life as a non-gang member and takes on a new identity as a member of the gang - complete with a new name (moniker), a new group of associates, and, perhaps, a new way to dress, move, talk, and live.

bulletThere are trials and tribulations including, in some instances, feats which must be performed or trials which must be endured as a means of proving oneself worthy of entry into the gang.

bulletA revelation takes place in the new member concerning his or her new place in the world and purpose for living. 

bulletAfter being accepted into the gang, a resurrection takes place as a new person with a new status in life.

bulletAfter all of the above, the new member becomes a part of a new way of life, a new community, a new family - the gang. He or she is reincorporated back into the community with a new status. (Papachristos, 1998) 

Using cross cultural studies, Block and Niederhoffer found delinquency rates were lower in societies with clearly identifiable and culturally legitimated rites of passage from adolescence to adulthood than they were in societies without such rites. (Bloch and Niederhoffer, 1958)   Among these rites in American society are graduation from high school, securing a full time job, getting married, and becoming a parent.

The rites of passage referred to above, like graduating from high school or getting a job, are not equally accessible to everyone in American society. For those who drop out of school, for example, an important rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood is missing. Without an adequate education, securing fulltime, legitimate employment may become more difficult. While marriage and parenthood are available to practically everyone, taking on the responsibility of parenthood is further complicated for school drop outs due to underemployment and a lack of other necessary resources for fulfilling the role of parent successfully.

For some of these youths the gang becomes an alternative way to transition from adolescence to adulthood. A gang confers power on its members to exercise over others and gives members the perception that they are now "grown up" and can move up to their new status. Passing the initiation ceremony is only the beginning of the process. By successfully completing tasks within the gang the new member become established and moves from lower status in the gang to a higher status. Each movement up in status is another step in the rite of passage into adulthood.

In the "painful and dangerous journey (from childhood to adulthood) can be found echoes of African initiation ceremonies, Jewish bar mitzvahs, ancient hunting rituals, Boer kommando lore, images of Hollywood, Christian holy communions, Khoi trance dances, Arthurian legends and many other rituals through which, for millennia, young people have attempted to prove themselves worthy of adulthood. But if to this wild search for self identity and social respect you add guns and drugs - and take away the guidance of adults (particularly fathers) who could lead youths into calmer, more acceptable waters - a disaster is inevitable.

On the hard, stony ground of the ghettoes, rituals take on a life-or-death quality and the 'crossing' to adulthood becomes fraught with danger. In this atmosphere police attention, arrest, lashes or prison become the dangers of the hunt, a rite of passage through the police vans and prison cells of the 'enemy' and into the admiring arms of the gang. Excesses are inevitable." (Pinnock, no date, site)

It is conceivable that some gangs formed as a means of providing their members with rites of passage to adulthood. Having dropped out of or failing at school, like-minded youths may begin to associate with each other. They meet at local establishments or parks while truant. They meet in detention if they were apprehended by the police for their delinquent acts. The beginnings of a gang, therefore, may be attributable to the gang's ability to provide an alternative to school and the status schools confer upon their students as they "grow up" (graduating middle school, becoming a freshman, sophomore, junior, senior, and graduate).

Having few legitimate ways to be recognized as an adult, some youths may smoke, skip school, participate in sexual intercourse, and drink alcohol to show they are grownups because these are behaviors which adults exhibit. Adults smoke, they don't go to school, they have sexual relations and consume alcohol. The problem is, in most communities this kind of behavior on the part of a minor is defined as delinquent or criminal.

Among the rites of passage into adulthood available to gang males are getting a female pregnant, standing up for one's "homies" (fellow gang members), standing up for the gang when threatened by someone else, passing the initiation requirement, and being sentenced to prison and serving time. The same holds true for gang females except that getting pregnant may be used as a means of proving one's womanhood or adulthood.

The lack of availability of socially acceptable rites of passage from childhood to adulthood alone is insufficient as an explanation for the formation of gangs. A lack of legitimate alternative activities may also result in their formation.


Additional Resources: Explore some rites of passage found in The Americas, Asia, and Africa, Africa (Site 1, 2), and China. Or you can visit the site of the Rites of Passage Institute

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.