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 7:
Low Self-Esteem

Field Note: I asked a gang member why he got involved in a gang. "Everyone I knew was involved," he replied. "The neighborhood I lived in was full of gangs. If you weren't a gang member you had no prestige. You'd be looked down on."

Why Gangs Form

What Gangs Provide Why Youths Join
Gangs form due to
a lack of self-esteem.
Opportunities to build positive self-esteem. To acquire high self-esteem.
Explanation in Brief: 
Gangs form in order to provide youths with low self-esteem an opportunity to build self-esteem through the reputation of the gang, positive association with one another in the gang, gang-related accomplishments, and by gaining power over others as a result of their gang affiliation.

The development of low self-esteem in a child may be the result of detrimental experiences at school, encounters in an abusive home, or as a result of negative experiences with peers. That's why I felt a separate section on self-esteem was needed. 

While some gang members present themselves with some bravado, think highly of themselves and proud of what they have become, some youth who join gangs suffer from a negative self image. Opportunities to feel good about themselves in their family or at school were few and far between. Yablonsky tells us "The gangsters' personality problems of low self-esteem and sense of alienation drive them to act super tough to compensate for their sense of inferiority." (Yablonsky, 1997, p. 18)  Perhaps that's where some of that bravado comes from.

According to Yablonsky,

...the following sequence of events depicts the early socialization process in the background of the typical sociopathic gangster: 1) as a child he is emotionally, sexually, or physically abused or neglected by his primary socializing agent, his parents. 2) Because he is treated in negative ways and with limited respect, the child feels humiliated, demeaned, and unworthy.  

3) As a consequence of this pattern of socialization he develops a low self-concept and feels self and other rage and hatred. He tends to accept on some deeper emotional level a message he is repeatedly given, which he interprets as "If these powerful people in my life, my parents, think that I am stupid, inadequate, and unworthy of love and respect, I must be an inferior person."  

4) Mixed in with this creation of feelings of low self-esteem is a rage against the parents who abused or neglected him, and this rage is often displaced to others in a society that also treats them with a level of disrespect. (Yablonsky, 1997, pp. 120-121)

Children who have acquired a negative self-concept and low self-esteem in their formative years then go to school and have the potential of eliciting similar negative responses from teachers and peers. It is, in many cases, a self-fulfilling prophecy. It were as though the child were saying "Everyone at home relates to me as a bad person. So, I must be a bad person." When the child starts going to school he acts like a bad person and school officials and peers begin to deal with him or her as a bad person. "See," the child says, "I told you I must be a bad person. They even treat me that way at school!"

Middle- and upper-class youths have several sources for achieving a sense of self worth and esteem. Among them are excelling at school, succeeding in extracurricular athletics, going to camp and excelling in a leisure-time activity or craft, and earning a legitimate part-time income. Some of these avenues are unavailable to lower-class children and even less so to children from the underclass.

Field Note: A west coast gang unit officer said "We get calls from all over the country. They call us and say 'We have this Crip or this Blood, do you guys know him?' Sure, we know him! Then they say 'But we don't have gangs' and I have to tell them 'Oh, yes you do!' And he may be a loser here in L.A., but he's a real star in the other town. He has the guts to pull out a gun, hold it to someone's head and say 'I'm gonna kill you, you little fuck!' That would be taken as a joke here. But there? It's taken seriously and he's seen as very tough and a real gangbanger. And he's going to be looked up to by the kids in that town who admire people like that. And they'll probably form a group - a gang - around him."

Youths who are effectively abandoned by parents and school may seek one another out or meet as a result of their misbehavior. As Maslow noted, we all have a basic need for acceptance and belonging. These children have the same need - perhaps more so due to their other basic needs going unmet. As they socialize, will a group develop? If they socialize with one another over time and support one another in violating the law, a gang has been formed.

As in non-gang society, gangs offer many ways in which their members may earn respect. Succeeding in the commission of a crime earns respect. Respect may be earned by ripping people off, disrespecting authority, dominating another person, exploiting others, serving time in prison, and being a known associate of a gang member with greater status than one's own. The point here is that a gang provides these opportunities -  opportunities which the gang member perceived of as unavailable outside the gang.

Despite similarities to boys in their behavioral activities and in reasons for joining gangs, girls reported greater social isolation from family and friends. Girls also reported lower levels of self-esteem. (Esbensen et al., 1999)

A lack of self-esteem alone, however, is insufficient as an explanation for the formation of gangs. The absence of a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood may also add to their development.


Additional Resources: Visit the site of the National Association for Self-Esteem to view lots of interesting and related literature.

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.