The cause and effect of Gangs in Society

According to Street Wars by Tom Hayden, an estimate of over 25,000 young people in the United States, the majority of them African American and Latino, have been killed in street wars during the past two decades (Hayden, Foreword). Because of these violent events, those who live in poorer areas of the country are stereotyped: “every child with a tattoo and street child is stigmatized as a criminal who is creating an unfriendly climate for investment or tourism in the country(Hayden, Preface, IX).” Gangs never used to be called gangs, and some still do not call themselves gangs(Hayden, 2). Although several gang members see themselves as a family or neighborhood, it is pointed out that gangs are “essentially a criminal enterprise(Hayden, 3).” This review of literature will examine the factors that contribute to the cause of people coming together to commit crimes, as well as the question of whether the decisions made to join gangs are forced or made at free will. An explanation for the growth of gangs is “the continuation of extreme poverty and isolation among the generation labeled ‘at risk’ in our nation’s cities(Hayden, 16).” The stereotype that these people are all criminals has become one of the reasons gangs rebel against the society “just because it was wrong and violated society’s standards of acceptable behavior(Carrigan, 278).”

Growing Up Without Proper Nurturing

Gang members often come from dysfunctional, abusive, or broken homes, poor living conditions, lack of parental discipline, neglect and low incomes(Carrigan, 285). “A variety of studies have shown that a lack of time spent nurturing and properly disciplining children can be a significant contributor to problem behavior(Carrigan, 305).” The National Center of Health Statistics in 1988 discovered that, “Children’s well being is associated with family structure…children from divorced families and those living with single parents have been found to have more emotional, behavioral, and academic problems than children living with both of their biological parents (Carrigan, 287).” For the upbringing of gang members from single parent households, it “wasn’t so much the family status that caused the problem. Rather, the status brought on stresses and strains that contributed to the deprivation of good parenting(Carrigan, 287).” Jane Rodd, an experienced social worker, states that, “What society has to learn is that children growing up have needs: support, love, respect, fair discipline and a family with positive social values. If these elements are not a strong part of childhood development, the child may well become antisocial as a youth(Carrigan, 287).”

Study done for the Ministry of the Solicitor General of Canada (1985) reviewed the literature on family relationships and delinquency and reached the conclusions that “family criminality, whether it be parents or siblings, is a powerful predictor of children’s delinquency,” and “parental supervision, followed by mother’s affection during childhood, appear to be the two most important variables accounting for adult criminality(Carrigan, 286).” Some of the gang members are even homeless, either because their parents “are on drugs and they discard them, or they have no homes and the children drift away(Castro).” Most gang members “have nothing to live for, except their ‘hood. They pledge allegiance to their neighborhood gang, and it becomes their whole wide world, their family. Their loyalty is fierce(Castro).” Donald J. McKinnon suggests that the main cause of juvenile delinquency “is the lack of a sense of responsibility on the part of parents in the matter of bringing up and training children,” leaving them out on the streets(Carrigan, 284).

“The particular culture of a lower-class community” is seen as one of the major factors that causes gang delinquency(Carrigan, 278). “The individual is influenced by the norms of the gang, which in turn reflect modes of behavior acceptable to a lower-class culture. These norms are different from the middle-class culture, which places a higher value on conformist behavior(Carrigan, 278).” Throughout American history, a high percentage of delinquents has come from poor economic backgrounds. The correlation led to the easy conclusion that poverty causes crime(Carrigan, 283). “It is conveniently forgotten that the sources of most street gangs lie in violent oppression, dispossession, and migration(Hayden, 200).” In the twenty-first century, the new generation has been “Brought up in a materialistic environment, indulged, protected, and taught by consumer-oriented society that instant gratification was a normal expectation in life,” therefore youths often “lacked patience and an ability to cope with frustration”(Carrigan 299). “Influences in the past that had helped to nurture values and character were, by the 1960s, either substantially diminished or gone(Carrigan, 300).” The “decline in the influence of the churches, less emphasis on values education in the schools, and the diminution of the role of the state as a moral agent have contributed to the lessening of interest in the role of values as a governor on human behavior(Carrigan, 288).”


While bad neighborhoods and lack of moral education is blamed for the formation of gangs, some studies indicate that the “urge to join gangs might lie, at least in part, in their genes(“Boys May Feel a Genetic Pull Toward Gangs”).” Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909), professor of medicine at the University of Turin in Italy, argues “that more persistent and violent criminals were born that way. They were throwbacks to a more primitive stage of development(Carrigan, 273).” He also defined a criminal as “an atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals,” stating that these people generally have “enormous jaws, high cheekbones, prominent superciliary arches, solitary lines in the palms, extreme size of the orbits, handle-shaped or sessile ears found in criminals, savages, and apes; insensibility to pain, extremely acute sight, tattooing, excessive idleness, love of orgies, and the irresistible craving for evil for its own sake, the desire not only to extinguish life in the victim, but to mutilate the corpse, tear its flesh, and drink its blood(Carrigan, 273).” Also, those born with criminal traits “start lawless activities at an early age,” and constantly demonstrate “anger, a spirit of revenge, idleness, volubility and lack of affection(Carrigan, 273).” It is said that aggressive behavior is one of the early signs of antisocial and criminal tendencies(Carrigan, 306).

Other traits are also said to be hints of rebellion when children grow older: “a taste for risk; below average verbal intelligence; response to frustration more likely to involve resentment and anger rather than composure or anxiety, guilt or depression; egocentricism; moral immaturity; and poor problem-solving, coping or self-regulation skills(Carrigan, 281).” Children that have “high tolerance for deviance in general; rejection of the validity of the law in particular, applies rationalizations for law violations to a wide range of stimuli as reasons for anger,” tend to become a lot more rebellious when they grow older(Carrigan, 280). “Even the most sensitive among them [the gang members] often have committed terrible violence(Castro).” However, those who are insensible to pain are often one of the most violent members in the gangs. One gang member “tried to steal a car from this guy, and when the guy resisted, he knocked him down and ran over him with the car. Then he backed up, ran over him again, then he drove around the block and came back and ran over him again. Then he put the car in reverse, and as he ran over the guy a fourth time, the police came along and saw it(Castro).”

According to a study, “Boys who have a variant of the gene monoamine oxidase A(MAOA) — otherwise known as the “warrior gene” — are not only more likely to be in gangs than boys without the variant, but they tend to be among the most violent members(“Boys May Feel a Genetic Pull Toward Gangs”).” It is not only the poverty-stricken environment or the broken homes that deprive individuals of a sense of belonging, desperate to join gangs. The study shows that joining gangs also has to do with the genetics of a person (“Boys May Feel a Genetic Pull Toward Gangs”). “Previous research has linked low-activity MAOA variants to a wide range of antisocial, even violent, behavior, but our study confirms that these variants can predict gang membership,” the study’s lead author, Kevin M. Beaver, a biosocial criminologist at Florida State University’s College of Criminology and Criminal Justice, said in a university news release. “Moreover, we found that variants of this gene could distinguish gang members who were markedly more likely to behave violently and use weapons from members who were less likely to do either(“Boys May Feel a Genetic Pull Toward Gangs”).” The MAOA gene is believed to affect levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin that are related to mood and behavior, according to the study. Previous research found that the “warrior gene” is more prevalent in cultures that are typified by warfare and aggression.

Strain Theory

When someone is “unable to gain wealth, power, status, or possessions by legitimate means(Carrigan, 276),” due to the “frustration felt at being blocked by the system,” the individual violates “the accepted code of conduct and to resort to illegitimate or illegal means”(Carrigan, 277). Strain theory “emphasizes the relationship in society between the goals that constitute status and the conventions or does of conduct that regulate the manner in which those aspirations may be pursued(Carrigan, 276).” General Strain Theory identifies three major sources of strain: the failure to achieve positively valued goals, the loss of positively valued stimuli, and the presentation of negative stimuli. The first type of strain includes three subtypes: the failure to achieve aspirations or ideal goals, the failure to achieve expectations, and the failure to be treated in a just / fair manner(Broidy and Agnew). It also “considers types of strain other than goal blockage, such as the loss of positive stimuli like friends and romantic partners, and the presentation of negative stimuli like excessive demands and verbal, sexual or physical abuse(Broidy and Agnew).” “The delinquent accepts society’s norms that place an importance on the ownership of certain things, but social inequalities, such as poverty, prevent their attainment,” therefore turning to crime(Carrigan, 277).

Sampson and Wilson (1995) proposed “an integrated social disorganization-strain theory in which strain factors are viewed as causing the deterioration of social controls, which are hypothesized to have the more direct effect on crime(DeFronzo). They argue that the forms of social disorganization that promote crime most likely include disrupted, dysfunctional, and/or structurally impaired households; ethnic, racial, and class discrimination and hostility; and the development of “deviant” subcultures, although they specified that such subcultures are not entirely distinct from the conventional-dominant culture but rather deviant in the sense of fostering at least the tolerance of certain nonconformist behaviors(DeFronzo). Sampson and Wilson concluded that strain factors such as economically generated frustrations or the lack of access to legitimate opportunities tend to create forms of social disorganization. For example, limited economic resources might be expected to result in stress–which, in turn, increases the likelihood of excessive use of alcohol or other drugs–and unprotected sexual intercourse outside of marriage often resulting in children being raised in one-parent households(DeFronzo).

The Hippie Movement could be one of the examples of gang-like rebellion against mainstream society, although it influenced the culture later on(Carrigan, 300). “The revolt of the 1960s was led, disproportionately, by advantaged, well-educated young people who began the first phase of their protest in universities…When faulty and administrations resisted their demands for change, they resorted to protest and sometimes violence to achieve their goals(Carrigan, 300).” Clothing styles were changed as an increasing number of people defied convention by opting for casual dress on all occasions, including topless bathing suits; language took on a new coarseness, as four-letter words became the style and symbol of liberation; drug use reached epidemic proportion, as a way of defying legal restraints(Carrigan, 301).

It is said that, “The social structure itself is the source of the pressure that forces a person into nonconformist or criminal conduct(Carrigan, 276).” In a similar way, different strains gang members experience push them into the situation where they would rather commit crimes together than facing their previous struggles(Hayden, 216-217).


The formation of gangs hasn’t intensified or surfaced until the past few decades(Hayden, 3). It has caused the death of innocent people, and ruined the future for several gang members that initially joined for the sense of belonging, outside of their dysfunctional families and failed relationships. Those who have been bold, allowed themselves to befriend the gang members and have learned more about them as people, have fortunately survived (Castro). They have also been able to turn some lives around, and help them realize gang violence is preventable (Hayden, Foreword). We must put effort into peacemaking, so that our country would become more civilized and be rid of unnecessary violence. Mike Davis from Planet of Slums emphasized that, “What is clear is that the contemporary mega-slum poses unique problems of imperial order and social control that conventional geopolitics has barely begun to register. If the aim of the ‘war on terrorism; is to pursue the erstwhile enemy into his sociological and cultural labyrinth, then the poor peripheries of developing cities will be the permanent battlefields of the twenty-first century(Hayden, Preface).”

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