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

Part 8:
Why Gangs Form

Shortcut to the Outline of Why Gangs Form

Gangs are a type of support system.
They provide all of the resources needed for survival.
From 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. (Martin, 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 worse.

Why do gangs form? 

"The gang ... becomes a mechanism for surviving deprivation and trauma ..."
(Donna 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. (Gardner, 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 fear.

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, 2000)

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 needs.

The lower level needs are:

(hunger, thirst, shelter, sex, and other bodily needs) and
bullet safety related  
(security and protection from physical and emotional harm).

The higher level needs are: 

bullet belongingness  
(affection, belonging, acceptance, and friendship),
bullet esteem  
(self-respect, autonomy, achievement, status recognition), and
bullet self-actualization  
(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. 

Field 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 be missing.

"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. We 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 form.

"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." (Spergel, 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. 

Gangs 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 join them. Moore (1998) 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.

The 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, Therapist Interview)

Some researchers have written about the pushes and pulls of gangs. (Reckless being the among the first)  That is, there are factors which push youths into gangs and 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. (Klein, 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.

bulletIssues raised by Maslow's hierarchy of needs provide a silent but ever present backdrop for understanding several of the explanations.

bulletExcerpts from the literature on gangs often allude to the interaction or relationship between one cause for gang formation and another (e.g., the causes are often intermingled).

bulletThe causal role of social disorganization (as measured by the weakness of social institutions of informal social control - family, school, faith institutions) on gang formation lies behind several of the explanations.

Rapid urban population change, community disintegration, increasing poverty, and social isolation contribute to institutional failures and the consequent development of youth gangs. The interplay of social disorganization and lack of access to legitimate resources, in particular, figure in the development of seriously deviant groups. (Spergel, et al., 1994, p. 3)

The following are the most apparent explanations for the formation of gangs. The explanations are not mutually exclusive and the exact mix of one or more explanations with other explanations may vary over time and from one neighborhood to another. There are a few, however, which regularly appear in chronic gang communities. Addressing and removing them would have a major impact upon the gang phenomenon. There are other explanations, not covered here, which suggest that the typical sociological and psychological explanations are misleading.

Click on "Topic 1: Social Discrimination or Rejection" or "Next" (found at the bottom of the page) to be taken through all the components of this chart in the order shown or click on only those components you wish to explore.

Why Gangs Form What Gangs Offer Why Youths Join
Topic 1:
Social discrimination 
or rejection
Acceptance. They are discriminated against and long to be accepted and have a sense of belonging.
Topic 2: 
The absence of a family and its unconditional love, positive adult role models, and proper discipline.
A surrogate family. Their need for a family, unconditional love, positive adult role models, and discipline.
Topic 3:
Feelings of powerlessness.
Power. To overcome their powerlessness.
Topic 4:
Abuse, fear, and 
a lack of security
Security. To reduce feelings of fear and to feel secure.
Topic 5:
Economic deprivation.
A means of earning money. For economic gain.
Topic 6:
School failure and delinquency.
An alternative to school. Out of frustration.
Topic 7:
Low self-esteem.
Opportunities to build high self-esteem. To acquire high self-esteem.
Topic 8:
The lack of acceptable rites of passage into adulthood.
A rite of passage to adulthood. To accomplish the passage from childhood to adulthood.
Topic 9:
The lack of free-time legitimate activities.
Activity. To keep from being bored.
Topic 10:
By building upon a pathological offender's needs.
A setting in which one can act out his or her aggression. To vent their anger.
Topic 11:
The influence of migrating gang members.
Any of the aforementioned. Any of the aforementioned.
Topic 12: 
Mass Media Portrayals of Gangs and Gang Members
Any of the aforementioned. Any of the aforementioned.
Topic 13:
Following in the footsteps of others.
Any of the
Tradition and acceptance.
Topic 14:
Because they can.
Any of the aforementioned. Any of the aforementioned.

Conclusion: Why Gangs Form


Additional Resources: The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention offers the findings of a Seattle-based study of why some youths join gangs entitled Early Precursors of Gang Membership.

You may also read more about the theories of Abraham Maslow and about the books he wrote.

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.