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.

Cricket Tragic: How the game “seeps into an author’s life”

This week in North Philly Notes, Samir Chopra, author of The Evolution of a Cricket Fan: My Shapeshifting Journey, writes about how the game of cricket informed his life.

A memoir can be a score-settler against real and imagined foes, a confessional from a therapeutic couch, a made-up story to reconcile oneself to the present, to seek exculpation for the many sins we commit in our lives. I suspect my book The Evolution of a Cricket Fan: My Shapeshifting Journey is all these things. Unapologetically.

In my book, through the act of writing a memoir of a fan of the game of cricket, I wanted to clarify the internal world of a dedicated sports fan, but with a difference: I had not had a stable identity through my ‘sports career,’ and so as the game of cricket changed—as it had to, in response to a changing world of politics, culture, technology—so did I, a paired dance of shifting identities that made for some interesting interactions between the two. I wanted to contribute, in my own way, to cricketing literature, a great corpus of writing, dominated by the works of professional writers and its players but not so much by its fans. I sought to do so mostly as an act of personal discovery and understanding but also as clarification and illumination of that entity whose commitment to the game supply its attendant dreams and wellsprings of motivation and passion. Players of the game, we must remember, begin their lives as fans of it first.  

‘Fan,’ it is said, is short for ‘fanatic.’ I do not think of myself as one, but my following of cricket has been described in similar terms: “obsessive” and “cricket tragic.” I suspect this term means, as my book shows, that my following of the sport is a loaded business, that I see much more than just sportsmen on a field, more than just bat making contact with ball, when I see players playing. It means that the game seeps into my life; that I derive lessons from the game for my life; that the changing events in my life influence the interpretations I place on sporting events; that I take the game to illustrate important truths relevant to the ways we live our lives; that the game influences how I view the world and its peoples, and of course, how I view myself.  

A ‘fan’ then, is someone who will laugh in your face if you say something like, “Relax, it’s just a game.” You would not say to an avid reader that a book is “just words on a page,” or “just ink marks on wood pulp,” would you? Once you see that, you see that the sports fan is not watching a game; he is reading and writing a text. He is reading the game, and he is writing himself into its playing and meaning. In doing so, he is changing the game itself because the products of his imagination inform the way the game is understood by others.  

Our lives are a long process of self-construction and self-discovery; cricket has aided me in both these endeavors; It was how I learned geography, history, politics, literature, and indeed, how to write. I am an immigrant, and so I have either multiple homes or none; this displacement always meant that my understanding of a “mere game” would be informed by this absence of a stable political identity, one riven by all too many conflicting imperatives and influences. Cricket was the mirror that let me observe myself as I morphed and transformed; this book is an attempt to reduce that resultant blur just a bit.

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