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

Why Gangs Form

Gang behavior is often an appropriate response to the pathological conditions that exist in the inner cities of the United States. (Yablonsky, 1997, p. 181)

One of the goals I wanted to accomplish with Into the Abyss was to encourage readers to think more about why gangs form than about why some youths join them. Removing the need to join a gang represents a more significant step toward reducing gang activity and youth violence than focusing on why certain individuals join gangs. 

Removing the need for gangs reduces the likelihood of anyone joining them. That's why I opened this part of the book on Why Gangs Form with a quote from Randy Martin in which he wrote "... 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) For our purpose, the subculture is the gang. 

Gangs form because they fulfill unmet needs for their members. Many of the those needs were identified by Maslow as discussed in the Introduction. They included the lower level needs:

(hunger, thirst, shelter, sex, and other bodily needs)

bulletsafety related  
(security and protection from physical and emotional harm) 

and the higher level needs

(affection, belonging, acceptance, and friendship)

(self-respect, autonomy, achievement, status recognition)

(the drive to fulfill one's potential and self-fulfillment)

Gangs serve a purpose. They are functional. Their members "derive psychological benefits of recognition and respect" and gain in "self-esteem and in social status" as a consequence of being a member of a gang. (ibid This thread of functionality, or the satisfying of unmet needs, is woven through all the explanations for the formation of gangs identified in Why Gangs Form.

While racial and ethnic discrimination rank high on my list of reasons for gang formation, many of the explanations we explored speak to problems arising from various social institutions (i.e., family, school, faith, commerce, criminal justice). The presence of gangs suggests one or more of the social institutions in the neighborhood in which the gang members live may have failed to do what they were supposed to do. 

Field Note: One of the more senior gang members I interviewed in Kansas City said "In the black community we [the gang] protect our people [neighbors] against gang members who come speeding through in their cars or who shoot up the place."

He told me of times when resident gang members admonished a rival gang member for driving through the neighborhood at a high rate of speed. "We have kids here," he said. "The first time we warn speeders about speeding ... it's like a man do. The second time we have to raise it to another level and someone gets hurt." In this case the gang is functioning as neighborhood law enforcement.

It was not the first time I heard of gangs providing a neighborhood law enforcement function as several of them told me about neighborhoods which police were reluctant to patrol. These neighborhoods are referred to as "Dead Zones" and are found in several large inner-city areas across the country. Even emergency services (ambulance and fire) are uneasy when entering dead zones.

Social institutional failure may also be generating or accelerating other problems such as teen suicide, teen pregnancy, school violence, delinquent or criminal behavior, and other social pathologies.

The type and severity of youth gang problems may be largely a response to two conditions, poverty or limited access to social opportunities; and social disorganization, i.e., the lack of integration and stability of social institutions including family, school, and employment in a local community. (Kane, 1992)

Causal Integration

While writing this book, one of my colleagues sent me an email in which he asked if there was a way in which I could link some of the causes of gang formation together. He wrote:

I've been thinking about your list of causes for gang formation and the combinations one could make of them. Can you think of clusters of causes, that is, causal factors that tend to go together? If you can, perhaps you could identify a small number of clusters or nexuses of causes. If you could, you'll help your reader think accurately about the causality of gang formation. (Jeff Nash, October, 2001, email)

It was a wonderful question. I don't know if it's a personal bias or if it reflects the reality of the situation, or both, but after a year in the field studying the gang phenomenon several things became obvious to me:

bulletMost of the street gang activity I observed was located in neighborhoods which could only be characterized as poor. Most of the gang members and associates I observed and interviewed were from these neighborhoods. I tried to find more middle- and upper-class gang members, but they were few and far between.

bulletThe vast majority of gang members were either African-American or Hispanic. The only reason why one group may have outnumbered the other had to do with the city or part of the country in which I was conducting research (reflecting regional variations in their number).

bulletConversations with gang-neighborhood residents and casual observations of the physical infrastructure of their surroundings indicated deterioration in their level of social organization. Families, schools, faith institutions, and government oversight appeared weak.

If I were given a grant of money to reduce gang activity in my community I would dedicate the largest portion of the funds to reducing racial and ethnic discrimination. I believe there is an obvious connection between discrimination and several of the other causes of gang formation presented in Into the Abyss. Consider these (bolded terms indicate causes of gang formation discussed earlier):

bulletEconomic deprivation and the health of families are linked to discrimination in employment (i.e., hiring, wages/salaries, and promotions).

Neighborhoods plagued by high levels of joblessness are more likely to experience low levels of social organization: the two go hand in hand. High rates of joblessness trigger other neighborhood problems that undermine social organization, ranging from crime, gang violence, and drug trafficking to family breakups and problems in the organization of family life. (Wilson, 1996, p. 21)

bulletPoor families and the neighborhoods in which they live must struggle to provide legitimate free-time activities for their children.

bulletThe accumulated stress associated with discrimination and feelings of rejection negatively impact the family resulting, in some cases, in abuse, conflict, divorce, and substance abuse.

bulletDiscrimination fosters feelings of powerlessness as forces over which one has little control determine the individual's fate.

bulletDiscrimination may lead to school failure as poor children suffer from the application of stereotypes by school teachers and administrators which peg them as uneducable. 

bulletPoor academic performance may result in low self-esteem. Those who are discriminated against and perform poorly in an academic environment are given little respect by those who discriminate against them. It is difficult to feel good about one's self when other's don't share that perception.

The quality of neighborhood schools and, thus, school failure among its students, may be a result of discrimination. In neighborhoods where those who are discriminated against reside we also find economic deprivation and other forms of social disorganization which undermine the neighborhood economy. Good schools require a solid tax base and poor neighborhoods can not meet this requirement.

bulletWithout a robust economy, hope of meaningful employment, or a solid education, there are few socially-approved rites of passage from childhood to adulthood among those who are being discriminated against. 

I believe connections can be made between discrimination and many of the causes of gang formation. Reducing racial and ethnic discrimination will take us far in breaking the chain of causality which results in gang formation as well as substance abuse, child abuse, and so much else that is negative about our culture and the subculture of poverty, misunderstanding, and hatred it has fostered.

An example of the compounding effect of a variety of causes of gang formation may be found in the work of Barbara Mendenhall. Mendenhall conducted a study of the Navajo Nation in the United States in order to determine why youth gangs were appearing on the Nation's reservation. (Mendenhall, 2004) Among the most significant of her findings were the impact of off-reservation influences upon Navajo youth. "Apparently, when families who have moved to nearby towns and cities return to their reservations, some of their children transport a knowledge and a set of experiences derived from having been involved in youth gangs in these more urbanized settings. Here, one sees a very compelling argument for an "importation effect" as to why gang form on reservations. (Mendenhall, 2004, p. 2-3)

Another factor leading to the formation of gangs on the Navajo reservation is cluster housing. (Mendenhall, 2004, p. 7-8) During and after the 1970s, cluster housing was built in various communities on the reservation. As Mendenhall found,

Historically, dispersed home sites have been the foundation for maintaining the core of Navajo culture even while participating in ongoing culture change. This is the setting where Navajo families reside with or near extended relatives, sharing resources, participating and sharing in traditional pastoral and agricultural subsistence activities, and having access to traditional hogans to hold ceremonies and continue day-to-day practice of traditional cultural beliefs and values.

These locales are where children are successfully socialized to be independent and self-reliant in the enveloping cocoon of an extended family where they also learn the importance of reciprocity and establish deep spiritual connection to family land. This is the sociocultural setting in which Navajo children learn that they matter to their community. In contrast, single-family, densely populated cluster housing neighborhoods offer none of these critical, supportive components of Navajo tradition. Living in cluster housing frequently isolates families from the support and shared resources of extended relatives. (Mendenhall, 2004, p. 7-8)

In addition to the impact of outside (urban, non-reservation) influences, we find in this scenario that changes in housing and losses of traditional culture compound the problem. In addition, Mendenhall found that poverty, substance abuse, family dysfunction, alienated Navajo youth, high rates of geographic mobility (between the reservation and metropolitan areas) impact Navajo and, in some instances, find them adopting a "'gangsta' identity." (Mendenhall, 2004, p. 1)

 The Other Side of the Chart:
Why (Some) Youths Join

As I have noted previously, my own preference is to focus on the reasons for gang formation in hopes that attention and effort will be paid to reducing those forces. Turning off the spigot is more effective in reducing gang activity and youth violence in the long term than is endlessly studying and attempting to clean up the spill.

There are others, however, who are more interested in why some youths join gangs and, for those folks, there's a substantial body of literature to explore. The following is an excerpt from James C. Howell's Youth Gangs: An Overview (1998) in which he refers to several timely and important studies on why some youths join gangs. I've included links to the bibliography for each of the works cited in Howell's work if you'd like to explore their findings in greater detail.

Decker and Van Winkle (1996) view joining youth gangs as consisting of both pulls and pushes. Pulls pertain to the attractiveness of the gang. Gang membership can enhance prestige or status among friends (Baccaglini, 1993), especially among girls (for boys) (Decker and Van Winkle, 1996), and provide opportunities to be with them (Slayton, Stephens, and MacKenna, 1993)

Gangs provide other attractive opportunities such as the chance for excitement (Pennell et al., 1994) by selling drugs and making money (Decker and Van Winkle, 1996). Thus, many youth see themselves as making a rational choice in deciding to join a gang: They see personal advantages to gang membership (Sanchez-Jankowski, 1991).

Social, economic, and cultural forces push many adolescents in the direction of gangs. Protection from other gangs and perceived general well-being are key factors (Baccaglini, 1993; Decker and Van Winkle, 1996). As noted above, some researchers contend that the "underclass" (Wilson, 1987) status of minority youth serves to push them into gangs (Hagedorn, 1988; Moore, 1978; Taylor, 1989; Vigil, 1988).

Feeling marginal, adolescents join gangs for social relationships that give them a sense of identity (Vigil and Long, 1990). For some youth, gangs provide a way of solving social adjustment problems, particularly the trials and tribulations of adolescence (Short and Strodtbeck, 1965).

In some communities, youth are intensively recruited or coerced into gangs (Johnstone, 1983). They seemingly have no choice. A few are virtually born into gangs as a result of neighborhood traditions and their parents' earlier (and perhaps continuing) gang participation or involvement in criminal activity (Moore, 1978). (Howell, 1998)

We now have an idea of what a gang is, what a gang member is, the demographic composition of gangs, what kinds of gangs there are, what their culture is like, how they are structured, and why they form. But where does one find a gang? That's our next topic.


Additional Resources: You can learn more about why gangs form and about why some Vietnamese youths join gangs and why some Mexican gangs form.

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.