In every society, young people form loose or organized groups or networks around myriads of intertwining and competing interests and practices: It is a normal form of sociality based on generation. Members and outsiders, however, often see and label these formations in different, sometimes contradictory ways. And political institutions may define and public imaginaries understand these groups in ways that determine and justify interventions and programs that help to shape a group’s public institutional status and their stake in the overall political process. If formations of groups, networks, or other forms of sociality are normal activities, and if this process is common across historical time and cultural space, then through what epistemological processes should some of them be labeled “gangs,” with all that that implies. What is this modern link between the biopolitics of identity and the construction of sociopolitical groupings such that the notion of the gang makes sense? This is the challenge facing social sciences, anthropology included, for there exists an ideological predicament underlying the category “gang” and the phenomenon it purportedly refers to that threatens to subvert its epistemological status. Indeed, gangs as discussed in literature and official reports appear to be a production of the United States’s social fabric that is becoming global. It is not surprising that the bulk of the anthropological discussion on gangs uses the materials from and takes place in the United States, and that this commentary is then projected outward into a compressing global space that this commentary is partly responsible for creating.
Though the term was part of the popular sociological vocabulary in Europe by the 18th century, it was not until the 19th century, when the cities of Britain and the United States were reconfigured by mass migrations and the Industrial Revolution, that the term became an established part of the urban lexicon. At this point, the term gang was used to identify outcasts, thieves, and other displaced groups considered highly dangerous for order and progress in society. Indeed, by the time Frederic Thrasher, Emory Bogardus, and Herbert Asbury sought to appropriate the term to analytically designate a wide array of delinquent behaviors associated with groups of marginalized youths living primarily in the Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City ghettos, it had already become deeply engraved in law enforcement vocabularies and the popular imagination. Like gangs themselves, the term has tended to occupy an interstitial space, simultaneously suggesting popular, quasilegal, and analytical theoretical referents.
Thrasher laid down the first systematic work on the phenomenon by providing a cultural ecological framework that defines gangs in terms of the members’ potential for criminality and deviance, and explains gang emergence in terms of socioracial marginalization, social disorganization, and shifting populations in poor, isolated neighborhoods. Gangs, he observed, consist primarily of “interstitial groups” of boys “originally formed spontaneously,” then integrated through conflict, “more especially in corporate action, in hunting, capture, conflict, flight, and escape.” In his view, conflict constitutes a central principle underlying the group dynamics of gangs and their oppositional interactions with larger state/societal institutions. According to Thrasher, fighting with other gangs and the world around them furnishes the occasion to find excitement and thrill that members could not find in mainstream society. Thrasher characterized gangs in cultural terms, with their peculiar language, rules, collective behaviors, symbols, and signs. These cultural but contained worlds are further alienated by their shared conditions and their geographic isolation.
In the United States, the Great Depression, World War II, and then the flow of African Americans from the South to the major cities of the North led to profound structural transformations that were accompanied by increasing poverty, drug use, and growing urban marginalization—conditions ripe for criminal gang development. So by the second half of the 20th century, analysts, many sponsored by government grants, overwhelmingly conducted “gang studies” under criminological and juvenile delinquency premises. Urban policy development heavily inflected the formulation of research questions. Researchers placed emphasis on how the young boys who are recruited into gang activities develop “frustration.” Robert Merton and Albert Cohen’s work underlined that such frustrations were the result of “blocked opportunities.” Accordingly, gang members in their experience of “status frustration” search to develop an alternative ensemble of values and cultural practices that set them apart from the rest of society and provide them with the identity and status they crave. The research questions from this period generated a new line of studies of gangs that placed the concept of subculture at the center of its analytical strategy. For example, Walter Miller suggested that lower-class subculture constitutes a fertile milieu that breeds delinquency. Other researchers have argued, however, that the notion of subculture has never really shaken off the ambiguity surrounding it.
By the mid 1980s, gang activity, along with drug trafficking and violent crime rates, were being made more visible to the general public through the media, law enforcement reports, and politicians. Crime-conscious citizens became alarmed and stated their growing concerns regarding law and order in their cities. Fear of crime, combined with a “moral panic” about gangs and drugs in inner-city neighborhoods, influenced what Richard Quinney identified as the “formulation and application of criminal definitions, the development of patterns related to criminal definitions, and the construction of criminal conceptions” of gangs as social reality. Youths, primarily black and Hispanic immigrants and natives, living in U.S. ghettos where criminality and gangs were perceived as developing and thriving, became the primary empirical unit for large-scale surveys and sociological investigations. But these rather formulaic “outsider” approaches were soon exhausted, and theorists began to search for alternative ways to conceptualize gangs.
In this vein, new qualitative perspectives on gangs and gang members began to generate a more thorough description of processes and activities. Not least, the evidence showed that both the internal structure of gangs and their external relationship to mainstream society was extremely variegated and could not be reduced to any predetermined formula. Joan Moore provided anthropological descriptions of gangs that tackled some of the common stereotypes put forward by public discourses and media representations. Among other things, her ethnographic work helped destabilize several stereotypes that inform public representations of law enforcement reports on gangs and gang members, including female memberships in gangs and modes of sociability among gang members that do not fit the stereotypes of “they’re all drug users and criminals.” Drawing from William Julius Wilson’s work on the inner city and the underclass and Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton’s on segregation in U.S. cities, and applying the ethnographic field research method, anthropologists demonstrated how the underclass predicament and racial segregation deny residents from U.S. ghettos economic opportunity and political integration. Ethnographic researchers like Elijah Anderson, Joan Moore, Felix Padilla, and John Hagedorn investigated how the growth of the urban underclass combined with socioracial segregation to perpetuate the reproduction of particular street identities with their code (Anderson), mechanisms of social isolation (Moore), and ethnic marginalization with particular Hispanic identity challenges (Padilla, Hagedorn, Vigil). J. Diego Vigil’s concept of “choloization” (the mechanism through which social isolation alienates Chicano youth from mainstream society) allowed him to capture the ways in which the streets provide alternative avenues for socialization to Chicano youths in Los Angeles. In his view, Chicano youths are experiencing redundant and multiple levels of marginality from social institutions, their families, and themselves. Multiple marginality, Vigil argues, generates for marginal youths an integrated framework that “combines sociogenic and psychogenic elements and actions.” After gathering data on ethnicity of incarcerated youths (who are overwhelmingly blacks and Hispanics) and the rate of gang members among them who are imprisoned, ethnographic studies conducted by researchers like Joan Moore and Loic Wacquant helped establish the importance of carceral institutions in producing structural relations between prison and the streets. Anthropologists Scott Decker and Barrick Van Winkle explored through ethnographic methods the relationships between family, friendship networks, and violence among gang members. The study shed light on humane aspects of gang members, reinforcing Daniel Monti’s argument that gangs are not alien to the social world. Indeed, according to Monti, “gangs are merely one among many types of groups” that people create to structure their lives. The anthropological approach on gangs had opened new explorations on the use of gender and masculinity in gang formation as well as on ethnicity, culture, and gang membership, thereby shedding light on the complexity of the gang phenomenon.
The process of alternative street socialization, what has been called the “underground economy,” constitutes a critical area of investigation for anthropologists, such as Philippe Bourgois and Felix Padilla Sudhir Vankatesh. The scale of gang involvement in the underground economy, while largely reported by law enforcement institutions and the media, has yet to be scientifically established, despite the growing interest and body of research on the business of gangs. Although alternative definitions exist on what constitutes gang entrepreneurial activity, there is ethnographic evidence that points toward a positive relationship between gang membership and drug trafficking. Some have focused on how gang entrepreneurial activities have mediated the relationships between gangs and their surrounding communities. Others like Martin Sanchez Jankowski went one step further to stress that a gang’s dialectical connection with its larger community was key to its survival.
Gangs as a social phenomenon have captured the interest of the public as well as educational, political, and social institutions throughout the United States. Fueled by more visible gang activity in other nations, increasing opportunities for researchers to speak freely (that is, without political reprisal) about local gangs, and growing awareness of the value of studying gangs and allocation of resources in this direction, other countries are producing sizable bibliographies on gang life, particularly in South America, Australia, the Caribbean, Europe, and Southeast Asia. In Brazil, anthropologist Alba Zaluar suggests that the involvement of youth gangs cannot solely be explained by poverty and marginalization. There is growing evidence, she contends, that young males in gangs are mostly driven by a “hypermasculinity,” fed by the performance of gang celebrity figures in the media. This can be captured, although tangentially, in Paulo Lins Ribeiro’s Cidade de Deus (City of God), which gave rise to the movie with the same name. Youth gang, masculinity, and globalization are also thematized to think about gang formation and gang processes in other countries or across countries. White, for example, found that a great bulk of gangs in Melbourne, Australia, are “social gangs,” wannabees that try to redefine the “cool pause” and “tough guys” in the mean streets projected in the media and reported in ethnography of gangs in the United States. In France, Colette Petonnet produced one of the most powerful ethnographies of marginalized young people in a banlieue of Paris. On est tous dans le brouillard (We are all in the fog) decrypts how institutional politics articulate public representations and fear of the youths of the banlieue. Petonnet used ethnography to destabilize public perceptions of these youths, who tend to be mostly Algerian descents and whose marginalized conditions estrange them from the sociocultural benefits that the society claims belong to everybody in the name of the republic. In Southeast Asia and the Caribbean, emerging studies are trying to unfold the intertwining between the globalization process, new configurations of inequalities, and formations of gangs as a locus of resistance. Haiti and Honduras epitomize the quintessence of how larger transnational politics and global economics may shape young people’s lives in a way that criminality seems to be the shortcut for accomplishing their goals. While other countries have long histories of youth groups developing in various forms, ethnographic studies of countries in the Caribbean, such as Honduras and Haiti, have linked the deportation of convicted young offenders to the rise of gangs outside the United States. While in the United States, these offenders presumably mastered the technologies of gangs sufficiently to reconstitute the same organization upon return to their countries of origin. These deported youths, however, need to be situated within the larger sociopolitical context of civil war and political instabilities of their home countries and to which the United States has been an active protagonist.
Given the extensive history of gangs in the United States and the origin of gangs in other countries being attributed to the United States, the international research community has built upon the U.S. bibliography on gangs and is currently extending it in directions similar to those currently being pursued within the United States. This provides a common perspective on gang that is utilized as an entryway to think about marginality, delinquency, and the exotic other’s cultural adaptation to the larger society (for example, young Algerians living in parts of France or young Vietnamese and Lebanese immigrants residing in Australia). This circulation of concepts between researchers in the United States and those in the rest of the world is concomitant with the global circulation of fear of gangs in these same societies and people’s simultaneous fascination of the youths characterized as comprising these “ethnic gangs.” American projection of its popular culture, epitomized through movies on “gangs,” MTV, gangsta rap, and other forms of commodified venues, which lead to a globalization of youth cultural practices in different segments of societies in the world, is happening at the same time that literature on gangs in the United States constitutes the primary references for researchers, policymakers, and social workers in other countries that already feel affected by youth gang problems, particularly crime, violence, drug use, and delinquency. Nonetheless, it is still worth asking whether youth in other countries are simply adopting the American concept of the gang or whether, correlatively, the socioeconomic and political conditions for the production of gangs are now evolving in those nations, leading to sociohistorically specific versions of what has become a globally modular form.
Gangs have had, and continue to play, a key role in the politics of the modern, stranger-based nationstate. In many countries, politicians have cited the presence of gangs and the need to control their behavior as part of a law and order platform but also to help mobilize voters to support a particular candidate. Politicians and state authorities have enlisted and sometimes funded gangs to function as unofficial arms of state policy and to suppress civil society opposition in ways outlawed to the police. In some cases, from South Africa to the Americas, gangs have been employed to intimidate and sometimes kill opposition candidates. Gangs have also appeared as ways to defend the community from state action or to serve as a community-based police in the absence of state law and order power. In these cases, gangs provide protection in ways that police either will not or cannot provide, though they may impose their burdens on the community, such as a tax/ransom for their services. Yet the importance of local histories and contexts as well as their articulations with the global process are critical to be understood for anthropologists to situate youth group formation as well as youth involvement in gangs in these countries.
Because of its condition of emergence, the concept of gangs has dubious epistemological status, since it is invested by morality and politics and structured by popular and scientific constructions as well as institutional stakes. It performs by creating its own reality. The analytical concept “gang,” while imprecise and therefore incapable of rendering explicit the sociological unit it intends to describe and of defining the behaviors it vows itself to translate, becomes what Pierre Bourdieu called a “realized” category, in the sense that it analytically encompasses American cultural definitions of gang—definitions that conflate popular ideas of race, class, and gender— and thereby offers an open flank for contestation and struggle of classification. For example, in the United States, three young individuals standing on a street corner may go unnoticed. If these same three individuals were black and the street corner was situated in a poor neighborhood, they likely would call the attention of both the gang researcher and the police. What constitutes a gang is neither exact nor is it static.
Today, the anthropology of gang faces key issues related to definitions and conceptualization. The use of the concept of culture in describing gang behavior or gang cultural practices is, at best, in the United States, a shortcut for “race.” In the field of gang research, anthropologists enter a complex semiotic terrain in which the very concept that defines their perspectives, the concept of culture, condenses a number of tenets held by gang researchers from many disciplinary (and political) perspectives. Moreover, anthropologists in their search for a new epistemology of gang studies must investigate the extent to which the concept of gang itself is culturally bounded, despite (and maybe because of) the abundant scholarship gang studies have generated. The anthropology of gangs should strive to render explicit the implicit meanings that underlie the concerns and questions generated by citizens and scientists alike in their fear of gangs and the cultural practices that are associated with it. The conceptualization of gangs as youth cultural practices in anthropology must attempt to deghettoize its strategy in order to relate the dynamic relationship the phenomenon refers to with the global political economy.
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