Do you happen to know anything about gang culture? I've been doing some research about it, and if you had anything to add that would be fantastic for me! (Thanks so much even if you can't answer <3)
So, there are different types of gangs, each with their own subculture. In the US, we have a history of three types: Street gangs, the mafia, and biker gangs. Biker gangs I honestly know nothing about, and the mafia I only have a basic knowledge of culture-wise. Street gangs I can help you with, and I’m going to assume that’s the kind you meant, since that’s what most people mean when they talk about gangs sans qualifier. And then I have no idea what you do or don’t already know, so I’m going to give just a large overview, which means this is going to get… long. Very long. Prepare yourself.
Keep in mind when reading this that I am referencing street gangs in the United States. Though the social factors that lead to gangs can be applied outside of the US, and the theories I discuss are used in sociological studies outside the US, the majority of my info is on gangs inside of it. So while you may be able to take this information and apply it elsewhere, just know that not everything will carry over, as every society has a unique social history and idea of social deviance.
Why we have gangs:
There’s a pretty specific social setting that needs to occur to create street gangs. First, you need an influx of people to the cities. This creates an overabundance of people with not enough available housing, leading to fights for resources (namely homes and jobs). This is how we get turf wars. Historically, street gangs were not necessarily criminal - they weren’t involved in the drug trade, they didn’t rob people, they didn’t extort businesses (like street gangs that become the mafia do) (Howell and Moore 2010). Before the Civil War, street gangs were just groups of people (usually youths) fighting to protect their homes from outsiders.
Second, there needs to be a great amount of immigration from other countries, or a second wave of inner migration that’s largely non-white. The first street gangs (I’m still talking pre-Civil War here) were immigrants - Irish, Brits, Germans. They came over here, found themselves subjected to a ton of discrimination by white Americans, and were forced to take low-income factory jobs and live in the slums (we’d call them the projects or ghettos now) (Howell and Moore 2010). They didn’t have much in the way of resources, and so fought to keep whatever they did have - this is how you get small neighborhood-sized street gangs. The second wave of street gangs were Poles, Italians, and Jews, who, again, came in such mass numbers the cities (particularly NYC) could not keep up with the demand for housing. Immigrants were put into tenement houses, where the conditions were horrid.
Now, when the ethnocentrism in the US started to change from “only these certain white people are allowed” to “okay we’re chill with all white people (except for Jews), but you non-whites gotta stay in your designated areas (including Jews),” that’s when these inner-city slums started having mostly black and Latino populations. Before, during, and directly after the Civil War, there honestly wasn’t a large black population outside of the south, and most Hispanics and Latinos were still in the southwest. (Freed slaves that hadn’t already escaped to the north were largely stuck in the same situation they were in before emancipation, tbh, but that’s a whole other post.) It wasn’t until about the 1940s/1950s that large amounts of Southern black folks started moving north, to NYC, Chicago, Boston, Philly, etc. Like the white immigrants before them, they were segregated to slums, the areas that the white population didn’t want. This was also around when there was a large migration of Latinx from the southwest to other cities in the US, who were pushed into the same places.
By this time, most of the old gangs and the mafia had died out, or at least started to, as white immigrants found themselves able to move up the social ladder in legitimate instead of deviant ways.
Which brings me to the third need: In order to have street gangs as we know them today, there needs to be deviance. Deviance is a broad spectrum of theories, so I’ll just talk about the one that’s most important for understanding street gangs: Strain Theory by Robert Merton.
Strain Theory states that when there is a societal goal (think the American Dream here), people will react to it in one of five ways: Conformity, Innovation, Ritualism, Retreatism, and Rebellion. The important ones in terms of street gangs are innovation and retreatism.
Innovation is when a person or group of people still want to achieve the social goal (in this case, of having financial security), but they have rejected the socially accepted means of achieving that goal (going to school, getting a high-paying job, etc.). Street gangs that involve themselves with the drug trade, robbery, intimidation, etc., are innovators. They have accepted the social goal to obtain and keep a lot of money, but they know there’s no chance they’ll achieve that goal through socially accepted (“legitimate”) means, so they came up with their own.
Retreatism is when a person or group of people go “screw it” and throw both the socially accepted goals and socially accepted means out the window. The most common examples of this in a subculture are certain homeless people and beggars. The most common examples of this in a counterculture (a subculture that actively goes against the morals, values, and goals of the large culture) are cults, but some street gangs also fit into it. In the case of a retreatist counterculture, though, the group will have to come up with their own socially accepted goals and the socially accepted means with which to obtain them.
Creation of gang culture:
Whether your street gang is more innovative or retreatist, both of these will result in them creating a counterculture in their respective area (whether it’s a single neighborhood or a whole section of a city) where people are socially conditioned to follow suit. This gets into Cultural Deviance Theory by Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay, which states that being in a lower socioeconomic areas in inner-cities correlated with race and ethnicity (note: correlation is not causation! It just means there is a significant relationship, not that one causes the other). Those living in these areas then created their own unique culture, with their own values, morals, goals, and sense of what is deviant and what isn’t, and they pass down these ideas to their children.
Now, getting into the specifics of current gang culture… most gangs are made up of youths, somewhere between the ages of 14-25 (Howell and Moore 2010; Wood and Alleyne 2008; Vigil 2003). Obviously there are outliers, like in the book Monster, Sanyika Shakur I believe states that he and/or his peers were recruited to a gang as early as age 10? I haven’t read that book in a really long time, so don’t quote me on that. But after mid-20s, most people either leave gangs to reenter society, are in jail, or dead. The life expectancy of a gang member is not very high. Most gangs are made up of men, though that has been changing in the last 15 or so years - it’s very rare to find a gang that is a mix of genders, but female gangs are on the rise, which suggests gang violence is less of a masculine aggression-issue and more of a lower-class aggression issue (Vigil 2003).
There are also studies coming out that suggest that actual financial status of a family is less of an indicator of gang involvement in youth than parental involvement in children’s lives (Wood and Alleyne 2008). However, and I don’t have a source for this off the cuff, but other studies show that the amount of time parents are able to devote to their kids (helping with homework, talking to them, even just eating dinner with them) has a direct correlation to socioeconomic status - those in the middle class have more time and energy than those in the lower class, who usually work more than one job. However, generally speaking, high social ties don’t necessarily lessen the existence of gangs - if you’re surrounded by gangs, and the norm in your social circle is to become part of the local gang, chances are you will join (Morenoff, Sampson, and Raudenbush 2001).
Still, it’s important to remember that just living in an area with high gang violence does not necessarily mean that youth will join a gang - “Youth who live in disorganized neighborhoods (i.e., with a high turnover of residents) and who have psychopathic tendencies (i.e. higher levels of hyperactivity and lower levels of anxiety and pro-social tendencies) are five times more likely to become gang members than youth without this configuration of traits” (Wood and Alleyene 2008:106). And the more heterogeneous (or, the more racially diverse) the area is, the less likely it is that youths will join or start gangs (Morenoff et. al. 2001). When people are racially and ethnically segregated into areas, it brings a lot of problems with ethnocentrism, which leads to a lot of interracial violence.
My last note on gang culture is that, though the media would have us believe that they tend to be overly violent, that’s not necessarily the case. There’s this cool theory called Interaction Ritual Chains by Richard Collins that discusses this a lot, that actual violence is a statistically rare occurrence. People make fronts and threats far more than they actually engage in violence. The homicide rates in and between gangs, for example, is directly correlated to the level of “collective efficacy,” or the local community’s ability to control the behavior of those in the community, and violence is more likely to occur as a response to other violence or serious culture deviation (Morenoff et. al. 2001).
As such, the gang-related violence that happens tends to be pretty specific. Life-threatening in-gang violence is low, but life-threatening violence between gangs of different racial backgrounds is also low. Most crime in general tends to remain intraracial (within the same racial group - white on white, black on black, etc.). While territory is important to gangs, and constructs much of the violent encounters between gangs, the fact is that gangs are more likely to run into other gangs of the same race than other gangs of different races.
That’s my basic overview on gang cultures. Honestly, a lot of the culture specifics will depend on where the gang is situated and who is in it, but from this hopefully you have a good idea of how gangs are socially created and what drives them. If you have any more specific questions, feel free to ask.
Sources: Howell, James C. and John P. Moore. 2010. “History of Street Gangs in the United States.” National Gang Center Bulletin 4:1-25. Morenoff, Jeffrey, Robert Sampson, and Stephen Raudenbush. 2001. “Neighborhood Inequality, Collective Efficacy, and the Spatial Dynamics of Urban Violence.” Criminology 39(3):517-559. Vigil, James. 2003. “Urban Violence and Street Gangs.” Annual Review of Anthropology 32:225-242. Wood, Jane and Emma Alleyne. 2008. “Street Gang Theory and Research: Where are we now and where do we go from here?” Aggression and Violent Behavior 15:100-111.
And if you want more personal looks at gang and inner-city violence, check out these: Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member by Sanyika Shakur Between Good and Ghetto: African American Girls and Inner-City Violence by Nikki Jones
Dead Man’s Hole was discovered in Texas in 1821. The sinkhole earned its reputation during the American Civil War, when Confederate gangs used the hole as a dumping ground for those with Unionist sympathies. The bones of at least 17 people have been found piled at the bottom of the sinkhole.
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