What is past is prologue: A century of gangs in the United States

This week in North Philly Notes, Scott Decker, David Pyrooz, and James Densley, the coauthors of On Gangs take a look back at gangs in American society.

Like most social phenomena, gangs are dynamic. The structure, membership, activities and relationships among gangs and gang members change over time and space. Against this backdrop of evolving gang life, there are some common findings. Levels of involvement in crime, gender imbalance, short-term membership, and a loosely structured organization remain common features of gangs historically and geographically.

On Gangs examines transcendent and emerging issues in the understanding of gangs. The book is motivated by a simple, but sometimes elusive principle; understanding should bring about fairer, more just and effective policies, practices, and programs. The study of gangs has had an important job to do in this regard. Explaining the increase in gang membership during the crack cocaine epidemic, rising gun violence, mass incarceration and the role of technology (particularly computer-mediated communication) in conflict, crime and the response to crime are all topics that gang research has tackled.  

If asked to identify a single finding from gang research, policy, and practice, we would point to the enhanced involvement in crime that accompanies gang membership. Simply put, gang membership increases involvement in crime, particularly violent crime, and increases the risk of victimization, resulting in loss, debilitating injury, and, tragically, death. Group processes in gangs are what land gang members in jail or prison, dimming their chances for education, employment, housing, and participation in many civic activities. Gang membership impedes adolescents and young adults from participating in the very activities that social scientists expect to either prevent them from further criminal involvement or enable them to reverse their involvement in crime. From this perspective, addressing mass incarceration and the pipeline from schools and the streets to prison is a key issue to address through economic and social policy.

The field has learned a good deal about gangs in the past three decades. The pace and volume of gang research increased dramatically as data improved and a broader range of scholars grappled with understanding involvement in and consequences of gang membership. Critical issues such as the involvement of women in gangs, the role of technology in gang joining and activities, the spread of US-style gangs to other countries, and the changing structure of gang membership are all features of the book.

On Gangs also provides comprehensive assessments of the role of gender and masculinities in gangs, immigration, race, and ethnicity, the changing role of imprisonment in gang life, and a sober assessment not only of gang “programming” but also of how criminologists must go about assessing the impact of a wide range of interventions from prevention through confinement. We take a critical look at policing gangs in the 21st century and the emergence and expansion of controversial anti-gang legislation. We take the “What Works” question head on and offer objective frameworks for assessing the impact of a wide range of policies and practices.

One measure of the importance of gangs in American society can be gauged by their role in popular culture, particularly movies and music. As we note in the book, “Gangster Movies” are just as old as academic gang research. James Cagney and Jean Harlow, two of the biggest names in Hollywood starred in The Public Enemy in 1931, one of the first portrayals of gangs and gang members on screen. West Side Story debuted in 1961, and now sixty years later has been remade by Steven Spielberg. And Al Pacino’s Scarface continues to serve as inspiration for gang members; in some cases, Tony Montana’s rags to riches story is a blueprint for their gang careers. Public fascination with gangs, gang members and gang activity certainly help spin myths about gangs (e.g., once you join a gang, you can never leave; gangs are highly organized; women are “appendages” to male gangs; prison gangs run the streets, etc.), which often have negative consequences. Such myths impair our ability to build consensus about gang interventions, secure funding and public support for such interventions and spread fear and racial animus.

As comprehensive as On Gangs is, it is not the final word. There will be new challenges—globalization, climate change, continued demographic churning, the changing nature and structure of employment, virtual life and the metaverse—that will alter the character of social relations and social structure. Certainly, gangs will be affected by and have effects on the social orders to come. It is our contention that the accumulated knowledge on gangs be viewed with a critical lens and be used to shape future perceptions of and responses to gangs and gang members.

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