Gang Life and Why People Join Gangs

Gang Life and Why People Join Gangs

1.0  Introduction


The scope of the term gang is highly contested in criminology. However, the United States Department of justice defines the concept as “organized groups of three or more people with a collective identity surrounding a criminal activity.” The US has recorded a dramatic increase in gangs over the last decade. The data held by the National Gang Intelligence Center (2011) shows that gang involvement constitutes about 90% of the total violent crimes recorded in US cities. This aspect implies that gang involvement has detrimental effects on present-day societies. Besides the fact that gang activities are dangerous to society, it also has damaging consequences to their members. The NGIC survey further shows that the number of gang groups is gradually growing in the United States.

In 2012, more than 30% of US jurisdictions reported dangerous gang activities. The survey at that time indicated that the country had more than 300, 000 organized gangs in 3,100 jurisdictions. The figure translates to 850, 000 gang members of which a significant percentage is below 18 years (Egley, Howell & Harris, 2014). Several researchers have explored the topic with an aim to gain insights on factors that drive people to join gang groups. This research paper seeks to determine risk factors for why people join gangs. Also, it synthesizes empirical evidence on gang life and the way the young generation, in particular, is involved in such violent groups. People’s involvement in gang activities has underlying detrimental effects not only to society but also gang members. The youth that engages in gang-related activities have high chances of experiencing physical violence. The aspect also increases the rate of unemployment, substance abuse, and an increase in incarceration.


2.0 Theories of Gang Involvement

2.1 Maslow’s Theory (1943)


The model is based on the hierarchy of needs. It is a theoretical framework based on factors that drive a person’s involvement in gang activities. Firstly, Maslow’s, the founder of the theory posits that human beings have a hierarchy of needs that must be met to realize positive outcomes in the society. It suggests that individuals tend to join gangs and organized crimes whenever they do not meet the components of the hierarchy of needs. These aspects, according to Maslow’s are love, safety, physiological, and esteem. Secondly, Maslow’s argued that individuals could only attain a state of self-actualization only if they have met all the basic needs.

The theory further goes that the necessity to fulfill all the needs drives nearly all motivation among individuals. In this case, the three arguments comprise significant points that are relevant in establishing a framework for gang involvement. The basis of the theory relies on the reasoning that people tend to seek gang membership as one of the approaches to fulfill their needs. Typically, it applies to the young generation whenever their families do not meet their basic needs. In this regard, such environments trigger the youth to develop a mind that joining gang groups is a way that will enable them to fulfill their basic needs.

2.2 The Sub-Cultural Theory (1955)


Cohen (1955), a renowned American criminologist is the founder of the theoretical model. Cohen suggested that learned behaviors that significantly differ from that of society shape a person’s involvement in gangs. Such behavioral attributes depend on the subcultural values that are prevalent in specific societies. However, a narrow segment of the middle-class people may view such learned behaviors to de diverse. The reality is that such practices may look different, but there is no significant deviation. The theory further asserts that every society has values that its people culturally accept their ultimate objectives. However, all members of the community do not have access to the goals. This element suggests that people tend to devise unacceptable approaches as a strategy to achieve them. Cohen argued that people had joined gangs as a means to reconcile the differences between such goals.

The founder further noted that delinquent subcultures employ common solutions to seek limited opportunities in society. These groups, in most instances, are the dominant middle class that attempts to challenge the working segment in their communities. Some of the values that are prevalent among the delinquent subcultures according to Cohen are the respect for property, ambition, and deferred gratification. Frustration is usual among the middle-class delinquents in their attempt to improve their status. The theoretical model, therefore, explains the existence of non-utilitarian delinquency that underpins crimes and factors that leads to gang membership. Some of these involvements and practices are anti-social behaviors, vandalism, and violence, to mention a few.

2.3 Social Learning, and Control Theories.


However, several theories explain crime membership besides Maslow’s and the sub-cultural theory. The control theory, for instance, posits that small success in education and occupation drive the young generation to seek gang membership. It arises when young people have little attachment to their parents, guardians, and schools. The theory further goes that inadequate belief in the validity of the law and the legitimacy of some activities are essential aspects of gang membership. The social learning theory, on the other hand, posits that gang membership is rooted in the behaviors and the reasoning of delinquent peers (Osgood & Anderson, 2004). As such, the entire group tends to have a similar way of thinking, acting, and feeling. These aspects directly associate with the values of rationalization and ideas that are prevalent ay a crime context.

3.0 Research on Why People Join Gangs


The theories of crime above offer the guiding principles that allude reasons as to why people seek gang membership. The study incorporated people who have ever joined gang membership as its participants. The survey shows that individuals have different reasons for joining crime groups in the present-day world. The study involved twenty respondents. In this regard, participants filled questionnaires designed to collect data on the subject. Participants who have ever joined gang groups also wrote essays describing their experiences in crime groups. The other question, in this regard, was the motives behind joining gang groups.

The primary factors that make the young generation to register with gang groups directly associates with the theories above. The significant risk factors apparent from the research are poor parental supervision, alcohol and drug abuse, employment potentials (poverty), and education backgrounds. The other aspects are the need for recognition and belonging, adverse influences at a young stage, and people’s limited attachment to the community. In this case, the risk factors fall under the following categories: community, peer groups, family, community schools, and individual characteristics.





3.1 Poverty


The respondents acknowledged that poverty is the primary driver that motivates people to join gang groups despite being outlawed. Arguably, individuals seek membership in these groups as a strategy to acquire their basic needs through activities that involve violence. In this regard, the inability to meet physiological needs is a characteristic associated with poverty. The respondents admit that yearning to satisfy basic needs drives them to enroll in gang groups. Through such approaches, street gangs would be able to demand financial and material wealth from innocent civilians. Poverty, however, correlates with unstable housing, and food insecurity. The aspect relates to the Maslow’s on the involvement in gang activities. While money is not a physiological need in itself, housing and hunger directly relate to gang membership. Unstable housing and food insecurity, in particular, are predictive of the environment that triggers young people to join gangs.

There is a causal relationship between the variables of gang involvement. It is apparent that people join and get engaged in gang activities as their sources of income. The practice is prevalent among youth who have unstable sources of income. The primary psychological needs that drive such crime groups are shelter and food. However, a significant proportion of children under extreme poverty admit that joining gang groups was the only ideal way to survive. Their reasoning is based on the idea that the Department of Labor prohibits under-aged teenagers below the legal working age from engaging in any employment contracts. One of the respondents, for instance, admits having joined gang groups after secondary education. The reason behind this aspect is inadequate funds to enroll in institutions of higher learning.


3.2 Delinquency and Peer Pressure


Gang membership directly associates with delinquent behaviors, especially among the young generation. The research shows that the respondents admitted that engagement in delinquency-related behaviors motivated them to join gangs and other forms of social groups in society. Also, the respondents revealed that young people join street gangs as an approach to enhance their delinquency activities in cities and other urban areas. The study further shows that three delinquent behaviors drive people to engage in gang-related activities. These aspects are serious theft, drug trafficking, and severe violence. The respondents opined that the youth in active gangs either engage in one or more delinquency behaviors. However, it is also apparent that some of the members in the non-gang groups are involved in one or more delinquency practices. The primary reason for their engagement in delinquencies is to use the membership to coordinate violent crimes, drug trafficking and other forms of underground economies.

However, the proliferation of gang membership has fueled fear and security concerns in urban areas. The aspect implies that people who join gangs engage in crimes. It is argued in this regard that enrolment in a street gang and any other form of gang membership intensifies the emergence of delinquent related behaviors. It is apparent from the study that peer pressure is a predictor of the delinquency, especially among young people. For instance, testimony by an interviewee posits that constant association with peers led to the involvement in such groups. Upon enrolling in gangs, the members engage in rowdy behaviors, especially in urban areas.

A significant proportion of the respondents who have joined violent groups acknowledged having been members since the adolescence stage. In this regard, they initially joined non-violent street gangs. Their engagement in delinquency activities ultimately led to the emergence of violent groups that break the law through delinquency activities. The most significant juvenile delinquency, in this case, are underage smoking, failure to attend school and violent crimes such as robbery with violence, especially in large cities and towns. While the law recognizes such activities as forms of crimes, they would be termed as “delinquent acts” since it involves the minors. Some of the significant causes of delinquency are lack of parental care, failure in schools, frustration, and child neglect. The other aspects are child abuse and the increased availability of alcohol and drugs. Therefore, it is apparent that peer pressure and delinquency is one of the factors that make people join gangs. The aspect is prevalent among teenagers who struggle to overcome the effects of peer pressure at an adolescence stage. The influence of peer groups and delinquency behaviors relates to the social learning theory that explains gang membership. Its argument goes that peer groups and engagement in delinquency behaviors motivate young people to join gangs.

3.3 Social Disorganization and Influence in the Neighborhoods


The respondents admitted that several aspects in the neighborhood compel them to join gangs. These factors are multiple and are categorized under the community. Some of these elements are residential mobility, availability of firearms, and presence of groups in the neighborhoods. Also, high accessibility to drugs and cultural norms that support crimes trigger them to join gangs. For instance, one of the respondents said that joining violent groups was an ideal option whenever people are feeling unsafe in the neighborhood. The explanation of the relations between neighborhood disadvantages and gang membership is based on the Social Disorganization Theory. The theoretical model, in this case, goes that there are high chances for the emergence of delinquency where the social institutions of the society cannot maintain effective social controls. It is argued that social disorganization contributes to an increase in poverty and residential instability.

The ultimate consequence of social disorganization is that it opens opportunities for the emergence and spread of crimes in society. Also, it adversely impacts on the interpersonal relationships that guide how people relate in their neighborhoods. Such relations within the community and its social institutions increase the likelihoods that people will join gangs. The young people also will affiliate with deviant peers. Therefore, this aspect will influence them to join street gangs and other violent social groups in the neighborhoods. This aspect suggests that lack of social controls increase the chances that the young people will join deviance groups. The effect on the entire society is an increase in street gangs that engage in violent practices such as robbery. However, the existence of strong social controls in the community and its neighborhoods decrease the chances that people will join gangs. It is apparent from the survey findings that the young people join violent groups owing to a weak system of social controls.

A participant who was once a gangster, for instance, admitted having joined street gangs four years ago owing to weak family relationships and effective social controls in the neighborhood. It relates to the Social Control Theory that posits that people will naturally commit crimes when there are no laws in society. The typical examples of the controlling forces that regulate people’s behaviors according to the theory are the law, peers, schools, and families. However, individuals do not necessarily commit crimes owing to the existence of these forces. Social disorganization, therefore, falls under the community factors that provide explanations as to why there are many people joining gangs in society.

3.4 The desire for Group Rewards


A significant proportion of the youth that joins gangs do so for group rewards. Their decision for gang membership, in this case, is based on the need for self-esteem, identity, companionship, and protection. The research shows that gang norms instill the spirits of status during the initiation of new members. Some of the people have desires to attain self-esteem through violent activities associated with the gang. However, a significant proportion of violent social groups such as gangs have norms that support the use of violence. The study indicates that the need for self-identity drives impulsive and emotional defense for violent groups. People that are interested in promoting delinquency behaviors, for instance, enhance their identity by joining a gang. Such individuals view joining violent groups as an approach to meeting their desires, self-esteem and most importantly improving their status in the society.

The study shows that people join gangs to support their ideologies associated with violent groups. Accordingly, membership to such groups provides an opportunity for interested people to promote their ideologies by defending the social group and its members. Joining gang is also an excellent opportunity to enhance the glorification of the reputation that underpins street gangs and other violent social groups advocating for specific ideas in society. However, some individuals perceive joining gangs as a way of addressing conflicts and disputes in society. Drug trafficking groups, for instance, view enrolling more people to join gangs an approach to enhance drug distribution networks besides protecting the underground business. By doing so, the social groups would be promoting the achievement of group rewards by using violent means.

The group, however, gradually evolve to a criminal organization when they engage in crimes such as drug trafficking and robbery with violence. Low school commitment and attachment to the parents makes the teenagers develop ideas of joining gang groups. Low self-esteem, in most instances, triggers a person’s involvement in several crime events. However, there is a consensus among the respondents who were once gang members that being part of the social group is not instrumental in enhancing self-esteem. As such, it is apparent that the desires for group rewards; the need to achieve self-esteem and identity is one of the risk factors for gang membership. The aspect requires immediate interventions from the government to prevent the citizens, particularly the young generation who engage in violent gang activities.

4.0 Gang Life


The primary risk factors that influence the involvement in gangs are poverty, desires for group rewards, delinquency, and peer pressure, social disorganization, and the influence of the neighboring behaviors. Nonetheless, the literature is in consensus that gang life exposes people to violent activities that are prohibited by the law. Individuals that join gangs participate in practices such as drug trafficking, robbery, and other forms of illegal underground businesses. The rival groups in some cases fight and therefore raising tension and inter-gang conflicts.         Gang life varies depending on the nature of the group. Criminologists have identified three significant categories of street gangs. These groups are ethic, turf, and prison gangs. The ethnic class involves violent social groups that define themselves by their nationality or race. This group, in most instances, unites because of their hatred towards people of certain nationalities, race, or religion. The turf gangs, on the other hand, come together by the virtue that they share the same territory that they control. They have norms that uphold the notion that they ought to battle members of other regions that invade their land. The ultimate consequence is that turf gangs often spark deadly conflicts that not only adversely impact on their members, but also the entire society. Violent practices, tattoos, and hand signs characterize their life, to mention a few. The prison gangs, on the other hand, consist of members in prisons who have not relinquished their membership (Decker, Decker & Van, 2006).

The underlying norms and traditions trigger inter-gang fights in corrective institutions. It is also possible, however, that some gangs emerge within the prisons where they extend their reach upon release from the corrective facilities. Many gangsters were exposed to the group at an early age. The senior members often intentionally recruit members whom they use to commit crimes. The young members, in this case, support the seniors by carrying weapons, drugs, and other illegal materials. The people who join the gang life have to undergo the initiation process. The aspect involves formalities and ceremonies to usher in new members. Getting an identity symbol such as tattoos is a typical example of the elements that underpin the gang initiation process.



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Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Decker, S., Decker, S. H., & Van Winkle, B. (2006). Life in the Gang: Family, friends, and

            Violence. Cambridge University Press.

Egley Jr, A., Howell, J. C., & Harris, M. (2014). Highlights of the 2012 National Youth Gang

Survey. Juvenile Justice Fact Sheet. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency


Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396.

National Gang Intelligence Center. (2011). National gang threat assessment. Retrieved from:


Osgood, D. W., & Anderson, A. L. (2004). Unstructured socializing and rates of delinquency.

Criminology, 42, 519–549.

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