street gangs
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Assignment #2: Analyze if a street gang is a reflection of the American capitalist system. Is there evidence that the American street gang is a reaction to the capitalist system or is it because of the environment created by the capitalist system (Social Disorganization).
Why Are There Gangs?
xplanations of why there are gangs are really part of a much larger con-
cern with explaining crime and delinquency in general. In fact, some of
the most popular sociological theories of crime and delinquency have
actually been attempts to explain gang delinquency or crime (e.g., the theories
of Cohen, Cloward, Ohlin, and Miller to be discussed here). Thus, in a sense,
this chapter is really a summary of some of the major theories of crime and
Multiple theories have been offered to explain crime, delinquency, and
gangs. Some have taken a strictly sociological perspective, others have come
from a purely psychological point of view, while others have been a combina-
tion of both of these perspectives. Space does not permit a complete review of
all the theories of crime and delinquency and gangs, although the most com-
mon theories are included here, and these take a mostly sociological approach
to the problem. The theories to be reviewed here can be grouped into eight
general categories: 1) social disorganization/social ecology, 2) strain/anomie,
3) cultural deviance, 4) control theory (also known as social bond), 5) social
learning, 6)  rational choice, 7) labeling, and 8) critical/Marxist perspectives.
Figure 6.1 provides a general summary of each of these perspectives. In this
chapter we will provide a general overview of each of these perspectives, fol-
lowed by a more detailed discussion of specific representations of these theories.
9781111398194, Youth Gangs in American Society, RANDALLG. SHELDEN – © Cengage Learning
Major Points/Key Factors
1. Social disorganization     Crime stems from certain community or neighborhood
characteristics, such as poverty, dilapidated housing, high
density, high mobility, and high rates of unemployment.
Concentric zone theory is a variation that argues that crime
increases toward the inner city area.
2. Strain/anomie
Cultural norms of “success” emphasize such goals as
money, status, and power, while the means to obtain such
success are not equally distributed; as a result of blocked
opportunities many among the disadvantaged resort to
illegal means, which are more readily available.
3. Cultural deviance              Certain subcultures, including a gang subculture, exist within
poor communities, which contain values, attitudes, beliefs,
norms, and so on that are often counter to the prevailing
middle class culture; an important feature of this culture is
the absence of fathers, thus resulting in female-headed
households which tend to be poorer; youths get exposed to
this subculture early in life and become embedded in it.
4. Control/social bond         Delinquency persists when a youth’s “bonds” or “ties” to
society are weak or broken, especially bonds with family,
school, and other institutions; when this occurs a youth is
apt to seek bonds with other groups, including gangs, in
order to get his/her needs met.
5. Learning
Delinquency is learned through association with others,
especially gang members, over a period of time. This
involves a process that includes the acquisition of attitudes
and values, the instigation of a criminal act
based on certain stimuli, and the maintenance or
perpetuation of such behavior over time.
6. Labeling
Definitions of delinquency and crime stem from differences
in power and status in the larger society, and those
without power are the most likely to have their behaviors
labeled as “delinquency”; delinquency may be generated,
and especially perpetuated, through negative labeling by
significant others and by the judicial system; one may
associate with others similarly labeled, such as gangs.
7. Rational choice                People freely choose to commit crime based on selfinterest
because they are goal oriented and want to maximize their
pleasure and minimize their pain. A variation is known as
routine activities theory, which suggests that criminals plan
very carefully by selecting specific targets based on such
things as vulnerability (e.g., elderly citizens, unguarded
premises, lack of police presence) and commit their crimes
accordingly. However, choices are often based not on pure
reason and rationality.
8. Critical/Marxist                 Gangs are inevitable products of social (and racial)
inequality brought about by capitalism itself; power is
unequally distributed, and those without power often
resort to criminal means to survive.
Perspectives on delinquency, crime, and gangs.
9781111398194, Youth Gangs in American Society, RANDALLG. SHELDEN – © Cengage Learning
traditions, including delinquent and criminal norms. For example, Racketville,
a mostly Italian neighborhood, had a long tradition of organized racketeering.
Gangs in this neighborhood were mostly involved in the rackets because this
was where the criminal opportunities were to be found (Spergel, 1964).
In contrast, the area Spergel called Slumtown was primarily a Puerto Rican
neighborhood with a history of conflict and aggression. The gangs in this area
were mostly involved in various conflict situations with rival gangs (usually over
turf). Haulberg was a mixed ethnic neighborhood (Irish, German, Italian, and oth-
ers) with a tradition of mostly property crimes; thus a theft subculture flourished.
A more recent variation of this theme can be seen in the ethnographic
fieldwork of Sullivan (1989). His study of three neighborhoods in Brooklyn
(which he called Projectville,  La Barriada,  and Hamilton Park) provides
important new information about the relationship between social, cultural, and
economic factors and gangs.
The three neighborhoods studied by Sullivan varied according to several
socioeconomic indicators.These neighborhoods also had significantly different
patterns of crime. Hamilton Park had the lowest rate of all three neighbor-
hoods,  whereas Projectville ranked first,  and La Barriada ranked second.
La Barriada ranked the highest for crimes of violence.
La Barriada was a mixed Latino and white area; Projectville was a largely
African-American neighborhood. The third area, Hamilton Park, was predom-
inantly white.The two neighborhoods with the highest crime rates (Projectville
and La Barriada) also had 1) the highest poverty level, with more than half the
families receiving public assistance; 2) the highest percentage of single-parent
families; 3) the highest rate of renter-occupied housing; 4) the highest rate of
school dropouts; and 5) the lowest labor-force participation rates (and corre-
spondingly highest levels of unemployment) (Sullivan, 1989:21–27, 98).
Sullivan suggests that these differences can be explained by noting;
The concentration in the two poor, minority neighborhoods [La Barriada
and Projectville] of sustained involvement in high-risk, low-return theft as
a primary source of income during the middle teens.The primary causes
for their greater willingness to engage in desperate, highly exposed crimes
for uncertain and meager monetary returns were the greater poverty of
their households, the specific and severe lack of employment opportunities
during these same mid-teen years, and the weakened local social control
environment, itself a product of general poverty and joblessness among
neighborhood residents. (Ibid.:203)
A key to understanding these differences, argues Sullivan, is that of personal
networks rather than merely human capital. He explains that these
personal networks derived from existing patterns of articulation between
the local neighborhoods and particular sectors of the labor market.These
effects of labor market segmentation were important for youth jobs both
in the middle teens and during the ensuing period of work establishment.
The Hamilton Park youths found a relatively plentiful supply of
9781111398194, Youth Gangs in American Society, RANDALLG. SHELDEN – © Cengage Learning
temporary, part-time, almost always off-the-books work through relatives,
friends and local employers during the middle teens, most of it in the local
vicinity. (Ibid.:103)
When these youths reached their late teens, they were able to make use of these
same contacts to get more secure and better-paying jobs.The minority youths
from Projectville and La Barriada never developed such networks.
Sullivan found that among the precursors to a criminal career among most of
the youths studied was involvement in some gang or clique of youths. It typically
began with fighting with and against other youths. Street fighting was motivated
mostly by status and territory. Beginning in their early teens, these youths would
spend a great amount of time within what they considered to be their own terri-
tory or turf. The cliques and gangs these youths belonged to “were quasi-familial
groupings that served to protect their members from outsiders” (ibid.:110).
Strain theory originated with Robert Merton, who borrowed the term
from the 19th-century French sociologist E
mile Durkheim and applied it to the
problem of crime in America (Merton, 1968).The concept of anomie refers to
inconsistencies between societal conditions and opportunities for growth, ful-
fillment, and productivity within a society (the term
has been used to
refer to those who experience personal frustration and alienation as a result of
anomie within a society). It also involves the weakening of the normative order
of society—that is, norms (rules, laws, and so on) lose their impact on people.
The existence of anomie within a culture can also produce a high level of flex-
ibility in the pursuit of goals, even suggesting that it may at times be appropri-
ate to deviate from the norms concerning the methods of achieving success.
Durkheim, writing during the late 19th century, suggested that under cap-
italism there is a more or less chronic state of deregulation and that industrial-
ization had removed traditional social controls on aspirations.  The
capitalist culture produces in humans a constant dissatisfaction resulting in a
never-ending longing for more and more. And there is never enough—
whether this be money, material things, or power. There is a morality under
capitalism that dictates “anything goes,” especially when it comes to making
money (it certainly applies to the modern corporation).
What Durkheim was hinting at (but never coming right out and saying it—
this was said very forcefully by Karl Marx) was that a very strong social structure is
needed to offset or place limits on this morality. In other words, strong institutions,
such as the family, religion, and education, are needed to place some limits on us.
But the failure of these institutions can be seen in our high crime rates and the fact
that the economic institution is so powerful that it has sort of “invaded” and
become dominant over other institutions. (More will be said about this shortly.)
The basic thesis of strain theory is this: Crime stems from the lack of artic-
ulation or fit between two of the most basic components of society:
9781111398194, Youth Gangs in American Society, RANDALLG. SHELDEN – © Cengage Learning

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