Gangs are a type of
They provide all of the resources needed for survival.
Payne, p. 73)
The reason for
the existence of a subculture must be that, through the solving of
particular problems by the collective, the individual more efficiently
survives. That is, the subculture allows the individual to derive
psychological benefits of recognition and respect. Consequently, the
member of the subculture gains in self-esteem and in social status.
et al., 1990, pp. 246-247)
While reading about why gangs form it is important to remember two
things. First, as defined in this book, a gang is a group of two or more individuals who have an
on-going relationship with each other and support one another individually or collectively in
the recurring commission of delinquent and/or criminal behavior.
Second, as we learned in The
Structure of Gangs, gangs vary widely in their make up. They may
consist of as few as two people who exhibit little organization in the gang
and commit minor delinquent acts or crimes to highly organized crime gangs
(organized crime, crime networks, etc.)
involving scores of members involved in sophisticated international crime.
Even minor violations of law are still violations of the law. Truancy
(unexcused or inexcusable absences from school as a minor) is an example.
That's why I believe two boys who have an on-going relationship and who support
one another in continually being truant have the potential for becoming a gang.
Gangs are a conscious product of young people
organizing their lives on the streets. They usually begin as unsupervised
male or female peer groups within defined urban spaces. Some, but not all,
evolve into formal organizations with social, economic, or political
functions, and have older members. Gangs also organize within certain
institutions, such as prisons and the military, with variable ties to
outside street gangs or organizations. (Kenneth
B. Clark Center, no date, page)
Two friends playing hooky may not fit the image most people have of a gang, but
they have the potential of forming one. Left alone, the behavior of the two boys may turn to
other violations of law (i.e., loitering, disturbing the peace, being a
public nuisance, theft, experimenting with drugs) and, were it to do so,
more people would see them as a gang.
We define group delinquency as law-violating behavior
committed by juveniles in relatively small peer groups that tend to be
ephemeral, i.e., loosely organized with shifting leadership. (Curry
and Spergel, 1997, p. 314-315)
Perhaps Curry and Spergel (1997)
would not define two associating truants as a gang, but I think we should be
concerned about them. It's all a matter of degree, and the
sooner we recognize what it is that is potentially developing, the more
likely we are to "nip the problem in the bud," to use an old
expression. If the two boys are willing to violate the law and be
truant, and they
know what they're doing is illegal, they have an incorrect mind set. They
need attention and supervision. They need help. Without it, things could get
Why do gangs form?
gang ... becomes a mechanism for surviving deprivation and trauma ..."
DeCesare, 1999, removed from the Internet by November, 2004)
[G]angs come into
existence and flourish because the needs of the young people in a
neighborhood or culture or family are not being met. The gang, in essence,
fills the void.
1992, p. 83)
Why do gangs form? That may be the single most important question to ask concerning the
gang phenomenon. The answer to it reveals why some youths join gangs
and, correspondingly, the needs gangs fulfill for youths which are going unmet.
The situation in the United States is repeated in other cultures, as I
witnessed when studying the gang situation in Canada, England, and the
Netherlands. Nearly everyone I interviewed identified the causes of gang
formation within a relatively narrow range of possibilities.
They believed unmet needs drove many youths to join gangs, as did greed and
The causes of the
waves of street gang and wanna-be group activity in Vancouver were elusive,
but the main reasons for involvement with ... gangs and [wanna-be] groups
were: economic and ethnic marginality; material gain; the attraction of
supportive peer groups; and flight from abusive family circumstances. (Gordon,
American psychologist Abraham Maslow (Maslow,
1970) categorized human
needs into higher and lower levels. He referred to this as the "hierarchy of
needs." His is a widely accepted model for understanding the
biological, psychological, and social needs of human beings. Lower level needs, he believed, must be
at least adequately satisfied or met before an individual may successfully pursue the higher level
The lower level needs are:
shelter, sex, and other bodily needs) and
| safety related |
(security and protection
from physical and emotional harm).
The higher level needs are:
(affection, belonging, acceptance, and friendship),
(self-respect, autonomy, achievement, status recognition), and
(the drive to fulfill one's potential and self-fulfillment).
According to Maslow, as each lower need is satisfied, the
next level becomes dominant with self-actualization being the ultimate goal.
Where a need is absent, movement to
the next level is impeded. From this point of view, lacking a sense of security
(a lower level need) at home or in school, a youth may join with similarly situated youths
who provide the needed security. Absent a sense of belonging (a
higher level need) at home or at school, a youth may
join with similarly situated youths for
mutual support, acceptance, and friendship. The same situation
may develop in order to satisfy the other higher level needs.
Note: I asked the principal of
an alternative middle school why some youths get involved in gangs.
"Where we're going wrong is that the family is not meeting
their needs," she replied, "so they go to the gang where they can get them.
Things like being
accepted and getting support - good times or bad. Families should be
a place where a child can get unconditional love, set goals and parameters of
behavior, be protected. I don't think the kids in gangs are getting those
things from their families. These kids have not experienced success
- and neither have their parents.
"We [the community] don't support our families. At the
same time, the families need to be self supported - they should not depend on welfare programs and the government.
We've given them the wheat
instead of showing them how to grow it. Do you know what I mean? Lots of families have been allowed to be weak, that's what I mean.
And there don't seem to be any family traditions for these kids. Like
'In our family we do this, or we celebrate
that, or we believe this is right or that is wrong.' That seems to
"We need to teach them process, not just give them food, housing and jobs. Instead
of using a bus to pick up kids and bring them to school, we should use a cattle
prod to poke the kids' parents to get them to bring their kids to school. Actually, I think the problem has gone on too long.
should forget about the parents and just focus on the kids. It's too late
for the parents."
I remember what a
probation officer told me a couple of months ago about this same thing. She said "We've lost a generation or two.
It's too late for
them. All we have left is just working with the kids and hoping we
can have a positive impact on them."
One might ask, How
do such similarly situated children meet each other? Children who are abused at home or who are tormented at school may,
because of their behavior, be singled out by school officials for special treatment.
Placing these children in special classes, tracks, or programs puts them together.
If the behavior these at-risk youths exhibit leads to
police custody, they are likely to meet in detention centers. Upon release
these youths are sometimes shunned and, intentionally or not, placed in a situation
where their only friends may be others who have misbehaved. The beginnings of a gang are not difficult to see in
these scenarios. A lack of security or sense of belonging at home, however, is not the only reason why gangs
"The gang is an important social institution for low-income male
youths and young adults from newcomer and residual populations because it
often serves social, cultural, and economic functions no longer adequately
performed by family, school, and the local market."
et al., 1991, preface)
Why gangs form and why some youths join them are two different questions,
but their answers are inextricably intertwined. If you read the professional
literature on gangs you will find the topic "Why youths join gangs"
discussed far more often than "Why do gangs form?" I prefer to write
about why gangs form because I believe removing those factors will
more effectively reduce
gang activity in the long run. It puts our focus on the forces which pull or push some
youths into a gang rather than on the youths themselves.
This perspective on why gangs form requires a paradigm shift for those who focus more on the gang
members than on the reasons why the gang they joined was created in the
first place. Using the analogy
of the spigot and the
spill, I would rather turn off the spigot than spend an eternity trying to
clean up a never ending spill.
are an adaptive social mechanism for satisfying the needs of some youth
which are not, or can not be, met through
traditional and socially acceptable avenues. Gangs form to satisfy
needs which are going unmet in the families, schools, and neighborhoods in
which they live or which are perceived of as unavailable to the youths who
encapsulates the multi-causal perspective on gangs when he suggests
that four community conditions often precede the transition from typical
adolescent groupings to established youth gangs. First, conventional
socializing agents, such as families and schools, are largely
ineffective and alienating. Under these conditions, conventional adult
supervision is largely absent. Second, the adolescents must have a great
deal of free time that is not consumed by other healthy social
development roles. Third, for the gang to become established, members must
have limited access to appealing conventional career lines; that is,
good adult jobs. Finally, the young people must have a place to
congregate – such a well-defined neighborhood.
"Gangs are nothing more than a
perversion of what contemporary society is all about - money, power, sex,
consumption, status, leisure, amusement. People who have the
resources have those things. How they get the
resources determines whether we see their behavior as legal or illegal.
behavior may be different between gang members and members of a traditional
businessmen's organization, but the
objective is often the same: strengthening the organization,
generating income, securing new members, honoring outstanding and/or long-time
members, and so on." (Rosenfield,
Some researchers have written about the pushes and pulls of
being the among the first) That is, there are factors which push youths into gangs
factors which pull them in. The pushes are listed in the chart
below under "Why Gangs Form." The pulls are listed under
"What Gangs Offer." For example, economic deprivation
may push a youth into a gang because the gang offers an opportunity
for economic gain which the youth could not or would not pursue
legitimately. That's what is attractive about the gang and thus
pulls the youth into it.
Street gangs are
an amalgam of racism, of urban underclass poverty, of minority and youth
culture, of fatalism in the face of rampant deprivation, of political
insensitivity, and the gross ignorance of inner-city (and inner-town)
America on the part of most of us who don't have to survive there.
1995, p. 234)
There is no one all-encompassing reason for the formation of
gangs, although there may be some reasons which are more significant than others
in their initial impact. The reasons why I believe gangs form, what they offer their members, and
why some youths join them, are presented in the chart below.
They seem obvious to me now after three years in the field and after reading
the findings of many experts on gangs. At least three themes form the backdrop against which the causes of gang
formation should be understood.