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Critical Perspectives on Gangs

Summary and Keywords

The majority of studies on youth gangs are in the tradition of positivistic social science. When natural science is taken as the paradigm, a premium is placed on the value neutrality of the observer, the scientific rigor of the methodology, the unpolluted character of the data, and the generalizability of the findings—all with the aim of proving or disproving ideologically free testable hypotheses. In contrast, critical gang studies adopt a different lens that is best suited to the study of subaltern groups whose lifestyles, “habitats,” and characteristics are stigmatized and pathologized by the larger society. Critical gang studies are based on the premise that all social and cultural phenomena emerge from tensions between the agents and interests of those who seek to control everyday life and those who have little option but to resist this relationship of domination. In this way, critical gang studies adopt interpretive, reflexive, holistic, and probing approaches to research, rejecting the penchant for survey-based truth claims and studies whose findings uncritically reflect the race, class, and gendered positions of the investigators.

Thus, practitioners of critical gang studies contend that the key to understanding the gang is found in its dialectical relationship between inclusion and exclusion viewed historically and holistically. Therefore, critical gang students create a counter body of knowledge and an alternative methodology to illuminate (over)shadowed spaces of criminalized social action where hope mixes with survival, creativity with accommodation and, resistance with social reproduction. The data on critical gang studies draw from the entire world of gang members, revealing their agency as well as their structured environments, their organizational systems, rites, rituals, performances, ideologies and cultural products. The critical approach places emphasis on the meaning systems of gangs, their changes across time, and the possibilities that lie within their specific subcultural formations. Welcome to critical gang studies!

Keywords: resistance, cultural criminology, gangs, street organization, direct violence, indirect violence, Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation, identity, street politics, subculture

To approach the gang from a critical and increasingly global perspective, six themes are chosen to understand the structure, drift, and meanings of this phenomenon in a world that is made and remade (see also Brotherton, 2015; Fraser, 2017; Rodgers & Hazen, 2014). These themes, social citizenship and transnationalism, gang intersectionality, spatial politics, gang culture and violence and the political economy, and peacemaking might be seen as foci within a set of perspectives that depart from the usual orthodoxy in gang studies and in particular from the increasingly dominant criminal justice approach to the subject. A growing body of research both within and outside the United States supports and informs some of these areas and together constitutes a critical study of the gang. The themes, listed in no particular order, and the foci will to some degree depend on researchers’ access to these groups and their sociological/criminological imagination, interests, and training. The list is a summary of some of the most glaring omissions in gang research that has suffered from the general pathologization of the gang and, in particular, from the overwhelming emphasis on violence and drugs in relation to gang formation and membership.

Social Citizenship and Transnationalism

In many countries where gangs proliferate, there is a direct link to the lack of social citizenship or what T. H. Marshall (1950) famously defined as “from the right to a modicum of economic welfare or security to the right to share to the full the social heritage and to live the life of a civilized being to the standards prevailing in society.” The lack of social citizenship is particularly apparent in neoliberal times when the state is withdrawing from its obligation to its citizens (and residents). A critical approach to gangs would have to begin from this premise that societies with low rates of social citizenship and high rates of transnationalism will likely experience high rates of gang membership.

In the United States with its large number of undocumented residents, hundreds of thousands of “deportable aliens,” and residents/citizens who live their lives between nation-states, the gang can provide a group setting, a sense of belonging, and an identity through which one can resolve one’s in-betweenness. Such youth may seek to reaffirm or anchor their cultural and ethnic identities through this medium, thereby creating their own imagined community. These populations, loosened by both the porosity and reinforcement of borders in late modernity, are one reason for the multiplication of gangs at the global level in certain sociopolitical areas. Within such areas, there are also intense geographies of exclusion (Sibley, 1995), for example, as stigmatized emigrants are repatriated with the mark of the felon and the failure, which of course compounds the lack of social citizenship (Brotherton & Barrios, 2011).

Central America is an excellent example of such a space where gang proliferation has been principally caused by the mass expulsion of undesirable/undeserving immigrants from the United States. This might be seen as the unintentional consequence of the U.S. policy to export its social problems during an era of extreme security state punitiveness and/or the consequence of integrating its “impossible subjects” (Ngai, 2004). But gang transnationalism is found in many settings. In Europe, immigrant youth “sin papeles,” that is, the undocumented, join and form street groups/gangs to survive socially, economically, and culturally. Some of these youth, after losing their lifelines in the depression/recession that hit southern Europe, have been cast adrift by the global labor market and by the particular ways capital is being accumulated on the European stage. Others are the children of adults who migrated during better times from developing countries, particularly Latin America. Both are seeking some form of stability, place, and societal attachment, and the gang provides a level of sociality and acceptance that is difficult to attain in western Europe with its racialized policing practices, border controls, and politics of containment, all of which have intensified under the pressures of an ascendant extreme right. In New York, street organizations1 have performed a similar transnationally supportive role, as when members from the Dominican Republic, for example, felt the pressures of “liminal legality” (Menjivar, 2006),2 or when Puerto Rican youth felt both culturally alienated and socially subordinate and hence invented their own nation within a nation (Brotherton & Barrios, 2004).

These groups are in both similar and different, circumstances from those imagined in classic Chicago renditions of urban social disorganization. The borders of Thrasher’s day (see Thrasher, 1927) were different zones from those of the early 21st century, with little of the militarization surveillance and punishment meted out in these points of transit (Miller, 2014). This analytical issue of borders is crucial to understand the contemporary formation of gangs and is a legal, political, social, and cultural entity that has to be recognized in all its manifestations. It is, as Mendoza-Denton has argued, a way to see history collide and be given meaning by these subcultures at the base of society (Mendoza-Denton, 2008).

But who or what is going to redraw these boundaries so that they make sense to these vulnerable communities? In late modernity, it is precisely the liquidity of daily life that is a chief characteristic of the era, inevitably reinforced by the penchant of societies to adopt market fundamentalism (see Somers, 2008) as a panacea for so many of our social and economic problems. Therefore, what is the meaning of citizenship in this environment where risk and deep levels of precariousness are the norm? This question is crucial, and, in many ways, it is the elephant in the room in many gang studies, regardless of location (Flynn & Brotherton, 2008).

The Intersectionality of the Gang

It is difficult to approach the gang today without thinking seriously about its race/ethnic, gender, and class makeup and about where these analytic and constructed categories intersect (Crenshaw, 1991). However, all these categories are unstable. Gender, for example, is constructed along a continuum, intersecting with race, ethnicity, and class in multiple ways. The gang adapts to these categories, reinforcing some while undermining others, producing what appear to outsiders as overtly gendered norms and practices (captured stereotypically in the notion of hypermasculinity), while other norms are closeted, concealed, and not so easily revealed (Panfil, 2017). In the generalized communities outside of the gang, these norms are also in flux, with traditional familial roles, especially in cross-cultural settings, under a great deal of pressure.

For example, females might use the gang to assert their independence to break from traditional models and expectations within their ethnic culture. Males might similarly utilize gang membership to live up to their gendered expectations, but beneath their assumed and often master status might live another life involved in quite different sexualized subcultures (Panfil, 2017). Flores (2014), drawing on ethnomethodological sociology, argues that gender is done in gangs and is created in negotiations both within and outside of the gang. He concludes that gang masculinities are fluid, which is particularly the case as members seek ways out of the subculture. Panfil (2017) shows how gender identities are performed in gang life and how a whole queer subculture can be bubbling underneath the presumed heteronormativity. Mendoza-Denton (2008) illustrates how gender and ethnicity are closely linked in gangs facing a demeaning colonizing society that produces different forms of cultural resistance rather than cultural conformity. While others (e.g., Miller, 2001; Campbell, 1991) argue that the gang helps to reproduce gendered subordination and beyond the United States, Steinberg’s (2004) work on South Africa’s prison gangs reveals highly organized same-sex relations existing within a generalized culture that is heavily homophobic.

Some important empirical work (Brotherton & Barrios, 2004) has been done in which a range of gender-related sexualities within the gang scene are rarely referred to in the literature. While researching the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation during the 1990s, members of the group approached researcher Luis Barrios to ask if he could help negotiate a safe social and political space, allowing them to come out openly as gay-identified. Luis raised the issue with the leader at the time, who, though receptive to the idea, thought that the majority of the members were not ready for such a development. Another group, the Ñetas, which has been studied in New York, Puerto Rico, and currently in Ecuador (Brotherton & Gude, 2018), permits gay-identified inmates and transsexuals into its prison membership. It is apparently the only prison “gang” that does so openly, and it was a result of the group’s early days in Puerto Rico when it fought against “Los Insectos,” during which gay-identified prison inmates allied with the Ñetas against the abuse of the guards and the predatory practices of other prisoners. In Brooklyn, in recent years, one leader of the Bloods gang was a gay-identified female who was highly politicized and a fervent advocate of gay rights. In short, a range of masculinities and femininities in gangs can be observed that contrast strongly with both hypermasculine and submissive feminine stereotypes.

Class identities and locations are similarly going through multiple changes and belie many assumptions of outsiders as well as the tropes reproduced in much gang criminology. The notion of the underclass gang, for example, though still relevant in some quarters (Hagedorn, 1998), is not a characteristic of all such groups or its members despite the era of postindustrialism. Research on the Latin Kings and Queens in New York, Europe, and South America reveals that they are largely part of the working classes, with members engaged in both the formal and informal economies—but not necessarily the drug economy (Feixa, Porzio, & Recio, 2006; Palmas, 2016). In other settings with high rates of unemployment and underemployment, the gang may have a different class constitution, and its character will depend on the opportunity structures available to its members.

The issue of class is complicated by the different approaches to this category: whether an orthodox sociological analysis using socioeconomic status (SES; i.e., SES usually based on income, education and occupation) or a more Marxist approach that sees class membership in relationship to the ownership of the means of production and exchange. In the Marxist approach, the level of class consciousness of the membership and how such a class awareness is manifested in the activities of the group and its ideological properties represent a key focus of inquiry (see also White, 2013, for conditions in Australia).

Finally, regarding race and ethnicity, a critical perspective sees race itself as a social construction that changes markedly across society. For example, in the United States “Blackness” is primarily applied to those with African American heritage, unlike Great Britain where it often includes subjects from the Caribbean and East Asia. In South Africa, it is different again, especially because of the residual effects of apartheid, and in Brazil, with its myth of a racial democracy (Oliveira, 1996), the construction and identification process is of great contrast. Moreover, subjects with mixed ancestry are often denied part of their identity. This is particularly true of Black Latinos/as in the United States, partly because the United States has often operated on a dualism (i.e., Black and White) in racial-ethnic relations, and so the extraordinary range of racial-ethnic identities and heritages become lost in this dichotomizing discourse.

Further, in the world today is what some call a hyperpluralist world (Young, 2011) with constant and rapid changes in population demographics and cultural hybridity increasingly the norm, all of which are particularly noticeable in urban and urbanizing areas. These processes are leading to the reconfiguration of traditional race and ethnic enclaves where lines of spatial separation were reinforced not just by culture but by institutional discrimination and overt white supremacy in different national contexts. Thus, racism and racial constructions are alive and well, and many gang-prone youths in the United States continue to be schooled in unofficially segregated schools and neighborhoods, while those in Latin America might attend racially marginalized public schools where the white middle and upper classes rarely send their children.

Nevertheless, the racial-ethnic results for the gang are extremely diverse and are reinforced in ground studies, which is not at all to deny the impact of racial structures on the dynamics of marginalization (see Vigil, 2002). For example, in Chicago, Conquergood (1992) referred to the range of non-Latino ethnicities in his long-term ethnographic study of the Latin Kings (whose founder is actually Italian-Puerto Rican), whereas in Spain, Palmas (2016) reveals the variety of ethnicities in the same group. In Los Angeles, Weide (2014) writes about the numbers of Latinos/as in Black-dominated gangs and vice versa, while in South Africa, Steinberg (2004, p. 53) reports on the extraordinary development of the numbers’ prison gangs under a strict racial coding system:

And so the three camps were formed, each with their self-made philosophies of banditry and their collectively assigned roles. The 26s were to accumulate wealth, which was to be distributed among all three camps, and acquired through cunning and trickery, never through violence. The 28s, in turn, were to fight on behalf of all three camps for better conditions for inmates. They would also be permitted to have sex, in their own ritualized manner, among themselves. They were never to touch a 26.

As for the 27s, they were the guarantors of gang law; they were to keep the peace between the three camps. They would learn and retain the laws of all three gangs, as well as the laws of the relationships between gangs. And they would right wrongs by wreaking revenge; when blood is spilled, they would spill blood in turn.

Gangs and the Politics of Space

The importance of situated space and place in understanding the formation and evolution of street gangs cannot be underestimated. This was originally comprehended by the Chicago School with its emphasis on social ecology. However, in the world of rapidly privatized public space, the emergence of global cities, the increasing urbanization of both developed and developing societies, as well as the maze of legal codes aimed at controlling the dangerous classes,3 the question of spatial politics is essential to a critical appreciation of the gang. An example of such an approach is that of Lucas Palmas (2016, p. 93), who has analyzed the five different field sites through long-term collaborative research, creating the comparative grid below.

Table 1. Street Organizations, Young Latinos, and Local Political Spaces

New York




Santo Domingo

Aims of local governmental politics

Contrast between the street economy and businesses linked to the world of gangs

Recognition of the social goals of the group and their visibility in public spaces.

Legalization and issuance of democratic statutes enabling the establishment of a democratic association.

Recognition, issuance of democratic statutes enabling the establishment of a democratic association at the national level

Involvement in community actions in the poorest neighborhoods.

Key actors

City Council, Police, Correctional System, Media, Academia

City Council, University, Social centers, Spaces occupied as community centers, absence of public management of process

Strong management by city council/local bodies; social research and non-profit involvement

City Council, university, and government.

Presidential Commission on AIDS; neighborhood associations and nonprofits.

Membership characteristics

Ethnic minorities in segregated neighborhoods

First- and second-generation immigrants, often undocumented.

First- and second-generation immigrants, often undocumented.

Citizens, youth from the most impoverished neighborhoods.

Citizens, deportees from the United States, youth from the poorest neighborhoods.


Imprisonment; Invisibility of the group; Reproduction of street economy

End of inter-group violence and major increase in group’s social capital plus more legitimacy in public spaces.

End of inter-group violence and major increase in group’s social capital plus more legitimacy in public spaces

Increase in social capital and legitimacy in public spaces.

Legitimacy and recognition of social value in public spaces.

For Palmas, the struggle for space is seen through the relationship of street groups to local governmental forces, the politics of such government entities, and the memberships of the various groups. Based on their complex interaction within the larger politics of the society, Palmas discerns an evolved spatial position of the group that reflects both subcultural and dominant cultural power dynamics working themselves out through discourses and social practices. Crime control, youth empowerment, immigration and settlement, and postcolonial cross-national relations all come within his critical lens. Thus, gangs represent a highly expressive form of the urban subaltern and their spatial imprint on society. While gangs can be interpreted and measured in a discourse of danger and threat, they can also be viewed as both a spontaneous and a conscious effort to create a counterpublic.

The role of the state is central to this analysis, though it is understood not simply from above through its structures, rules, and pronouncements, but from below and within, through the eyes and articulations of state agents and their impacts on and interrelationships with gang-related youth. From a critical perspective, the politics of space is intrinsically linked to the politics of security and the emerging role of the state in late modernity. In the United States, this is manifestly obvious with the various wars against the Other, but similar processes are clearly present in the states of exception, as decreed in Central America, or in the pacification programs aimed at privatizing and clearing the slums and favelas of Brazil in the interests of big capital. Virtually all such coercive social control policies implemented by the state under various auspices involve a spatial cleansing of gangs that unites the class interests of elites with state bureaucracies, systems of (in)justice, and militarized apparatuses.

Such a complex multilayered spatial analysis is present to different degrees in the work of Zilberg (2011) and her notion of security space in the context of El Salvador; Hagedorn’s (2008) and Venkatesh’s (2000) gang research vis-à-vis the race-based and spatial demarcations of Chicago; Davis’s (1990) radical geography of Los Angeles; Mendoza-Denton’s (2008) Latina sociolinguistic research tied to hemispheric gang localism in California; Gutierrez Rivera’s (2013) political geography of the “maras” in Honduras, and less directly to Caldeira’s excavation of the race- and class-based redivision of Brazilian cities; or Sassen’s (2014, p. 222) treatment of global systems of expulsion and her concluding question: “what are the spaces of the expelled?” All of these studies point to the reconstituted role of space and can be interpreted as a politically infused socioeconomic and cultural analytic, especially if the gang is conceived as occupying and developing alternative subterranean grids and counterspaces to those of the dominant society.

Yet, there is still an important ingredient that is frequently omitted in such discussions: gangs in prison. To date, with the exception of pre-mass incarceration studies (e.g., Jacobs, 1977) and the recent work by Skarbek (2014), there is no rigorous analysis of the spatiopolitical relations between the street gang and the prison gang. How does the “gang” configure prison space (see Steinberg, 2004)? What lies between the prison and the street? How do gang members negotiate space after prison in the security state (see Goffman, 2013)? Skarbek answers that a key to these questions is linked to how inmates have employed the “gang” as a rational form of self-government. Despite the decades-long mass incarceration industry in the United States and the expansion of prisons in many other societies, these zones of inquiry receive relatively little attention.

The Culture of Gangs

One would think that the culture of gangs would be foremost in gang research, but that is far from the case. It is still largely the background narratives of gangs that are privileged over their foregrounds. Cultural criminology, in particular, has insisted that research needs to approach the subject from the opposite direction and that without understanding the cultural and existential life of gangs, the meaning of gangs is lost and the crucial naturalistic warnings of Matza (1969) are ignored. Gangs and gang members become little more than the cardboard cutouts of urban, “dark” stereotypes (Conquergood, 1992).

Contemporary street gangs, wherever they are found, are engaged in intense cultural projects, especially as they tap into the network society (Castells, 1997). There are few street gangs today whose members do not utilize social media to broadcast their reputations or claim their space in the virtual world. Papachristos (2009) talks about the virtual street corner, which no doubt is reflected in the fact that most police gang units devote considerable resources to tracking this development as part of their intelligence-gathering endeavors.

Aside from the Internet, it is important to think more concretely about the cultural gang and its relationship to resistance as well as to social reproduction. Gangs are producers of an extraordinary array of cultural meanings, some of which are gratefully exploited by capitalist enterprises as part of the global culture industry. Nonetheless, such subcultures are ongoing incubators of a staggeringly wide-ranging semiotic fare with the rites, rituals, and resistances that befit their location between the aporias of late-modern capitalism, globalization, and postcolonial relations. A critical gang study would have to address the issue of spiritualities and syncretism.

Spiritualities and Syncretism

In the United States, many gangs express themselves through both religious symbolism and syncretic narratives. This mode of expression has been the case for some time, but it seems particularly to have been enhanced in the post–1960s period when gangs started to reclaim or assert their identities as part of an oppressed people, with the language and rhetoric of organized and more popular religious belief systems becoming integrated into gang texts and ideologies. The following quotation, for example, recounts the spiritual evolution of Chicago’s Almighty Black P. Stone Nation in the 1970s:

When he first joined the Stones, Harris was given a uniform along with a list of bylaws that explained the dos and don’ts of membership. Among them were: no drinking in public, no drugs, no fighting each other, respect the black woman. He also received background about the meaning of his uniform. The new teaching of the MSTA explained the older Blackstone uniforms. The red beret stood for the blood of the black people, who were supposed to be descended from the Berber tribe in West Africa that the white man later named Moors, who invaded Spain. Harris was told that the Romans threw one of the leaders—who donned a white fez that represented purity and godliness—from the Berber tribe into a lion’s pit, they discovered that the white fez was now red with blood. The green represented the motherland of Africa, and the black jump boots symbolized the black man’s foot upon the white man’s neck.

(Moore & Williams, 2011, p. 137)

Despite a range of gangs that clearly adopted religious insignia such as beads (from rosaries), tattoos of the Virgin of Guadalupe, prayers (e.g., the many benedictions of the ALKQN and the Ñetas), the Islamic-influenced texts and norms of African American groups such as the 5% Nation and the ALKQNs and Ñetas , the natural disciplinary home of such research, the sociology of religion, has shown little inclination to explore this domain. Recent studies by O’Neil (2015), Flores (2014), and Brenneman (2011) provide some insights into these spiritual–gang relationships, focusing on religion as a vehicle to exit gangs, but they provide scarcely a word on how gangs absorb and appropriate the symbols of and/or express a syncretic spiritual outlook. In the literature, the relationship is frequently dismissed, despite many gang-related youth coming from religious backgrounds. Thus, it should not be surprising that baptisms, weddings, and deaths are often celebrated with strongly religious overtones. Nor is it illogical that many of the primary outreach efforts come from priests, particularly progressive clergy who seek to connect to those deemed marginal and soulless. From a critical perspective, it is important to explore these dimensions of the gang world and to determine how religiospiritual narratives such as those in the preceding quotation from Moore and Williams are used to create a metanarrative for the group. Of course, the pathological interpretation of these tendencies is that the gang is building a cult-like following behind a charismatic leader. Perhaps there is some truth to this interpretation, but it willfully ignores the inner dimensions of youth and adults who are often dealing with extreme levels of social and physical trauma and whose psychosocial as well as political needs are many.

Gang Embodiment

Tattoos, physical gestures, and various forms of clothing are all the typical subjects of media and certain academic treatments of gangs and embodiment. A critical sociology and criminology of the body is needed to better understand why the gang is represented in this way, turning to the body as a space and site of signification to insert the group and the individual in a specific landscape of signs. Within the gang, these signs are languages unto themselves, and, of course, tattooing has a long history, particularly in incarcerated communities, but the body for many gang members is their natural canvas. It is the one place they can control, and if it means dying for that, then so be it. In a world that is experienced as chaotic, stigmatizing and socially excluding it is quite natural for the subjected to affirm themselves and to declare themselves present in opposition to their silencing and invisibility. Many gang members do this through the only platform available to them, that is, the body. The gang body, therefore, has multiple uses, meanings, properties, and possibilities that have still to be appreciated, and, of course, it often changes from group to group. In many respects, the history of the group is written on the body, just as it is often written on the walls of its territory if it claims one.

But more than this, the body is a site to be controlled by the state and where possible made “docile” (Foucault, 1977), particularly within the punitive politics of neoliberalism (Robinson, 2014). The presence of the gang in neighborhoods not only represents a threat to public security but is a challenge to the presumed calm of the normalized social order. This is why many police and judicial authorities define groups of three as a gang, which enables authorities to proscribe such bodies from a certain area—hence the proliferation of injunctions. This proscription of the gang body relates to the authoritarian urges in contemporary society, just as such proscriptions were meted out to more overt political bodies such as communists, anarchists, and socialists in the past. In the present era of Trumpian politics in the United States, this authoritarian impulse is openly expressed and encouraged, with the eradication of “immigrant” gangs used as the pretext for white supremacist designs for racial and ethnic cleansing.

Conquergood, Gangs, and Communications/Performance

Dwight Conquergood was one of the first researchers to shine a light on the complex communication systems gangs use to convey their innermost meanings to each other and to the outside society. What was often read simply as primitive gang graffiti by outsiders (particularly the police) Conquergood interpreted as a deep expression of the subculture’s place in society and its internal economy of signs used to convey threat, sorrow, hope, peace, disapproval, and other displays of collective emotion and identity (Conquergood, 1997). Conquergood called this a form of street literacy and contrasted it to the literacy of texts and codes produced by the dominant culture, which frequently used them to marginalize, control, and criminalize gang members in communities that often felt like occupied zones. Drawing on multiple disciplinary sources, Conquergood produced gang research that became an important part of the growing field of performance studies, with communication through means of texts, speech, gestures, graffiti, clothing, and bodily adornments—all incorporated into a plastic system of street vernacular that has emerged over time within a field of contested urban power relations.

Both the written and visual analysis of communications vis-à-vis gangs is critical in a world saturated by images and copies of the Other and the various struggles for authenticity (and against exoticism). A critical study would draw on these activities, practices, and elements of the gang culture, radically listening to and observing the articulations of the creators, archiving their creations, and documenting their impacts at both the micro and macro levels of society (e.g., the torrent of images that are created as societies go to war against the gang Other and the reaction of the gang to such images, or the rise of global hip-hop and the powerful influence of gangs as subjects, progenitors, and settings).

Conquergood felt that it was difficult to capture adequately the “moral outrage and repression” that such literacy spoke to and of. He assumed that such cultural products were an essential part of a gang’s subjugated knowledge, which consisted of “street sense, survival wisdom, underground history, cultural codes, and protocols of communication” (Personal Communication, 1999). In an articulation of the felt exclusion/inclusion dialectic of gang members living under the constant gaze of the state, he says:

The insult of effacement is compounded by surveillance. In the ocular politics of the ruling classes, subordinate groups are expunged from spaces of respectability, and then rendered hyperinvisible in the surreal zone of the panoptic power.

It is in responding to such pressures and infiltrations that gangs produce communications that are extremely contradictory, that is, both overt and secret, opaque and transparently clear, camouflaged and pointedly direct. For Conquergood, this subjugated knowledge could be seen as constituting an alternative street curriculum that would encompass “all the manifold genres of cultural performance” (Personal Communication, 1999), including the global development of hip-hop influenced by various outlaw subcultures, including the gang. There is no better place to start a critical study of gang communications than with Conquergood’s rich theoretical and empirical legacy.

Resistance or Social Reproduction?

The issue of resistance versus social reproduction in the actions and practices of gangs/street organizations is extremely important for any critical research. To what extent do these subaltern groups break through their structured confines and transgress or subvert existing power relations such that a new imaginary is constructed? Do the ideological “penetrations” by these gang members of these often-colonizing structures always succumb to the habitus (Fraser, 2015) and to their “limitations” (Willis, 1977)? If gangs are creating counterpublics, what are they a counter to?

Group formations on the West and East coasts were quite different, which was especially highlighted by the heightened level of street politics in the 1990s in New York City compared to San Francisco (Brotherton, 2015)—paradoxically during the reign of Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the law and order experiments of zero tolerance and “broken windows.” This newly emerging comparative political realm of the gang was in contrast to the findings of studies that had come out of Milwaukee and Los Angeles (e.g., Hagedorn, 1988; Moore & Garcia, 1978; Moore, 1991), where the potential for gang politics was already being eclipsed by the ravages of what is now referred to as the political economy of neoliberalism. Today, there is a renewed focus on the political history and potential of gangs and their communities, with innovative new voices reporting on Chicago (Ralph, 2014; Aspholm, forthcoming) and Denver (Duran, 2013). Meanwhile, it is important to consider the much more resistance-based street subcultural worlds outside of the United States, for example, in Spain, Italy, and Ecuador (Brotherton, 2015; Feixa, Porzio, & Recio, 2006; Palmas, 2016).

Clearly, both resistance and social reproduction are simultaneously occurring in many gang subcultures that evolve and pass through different stages and processes of development. Levinson (2008) makes this point with regard to the street gangs in Guatemala, for example, and Gutierrez Rivera (2013) asks why the maras in Honduras are not more like street organizations. A critical project would subject the actions/practices, symbols, cultural products, ideologies, and intentionalities of these groups to a test of these two analytical categories as opposed to the assumptions of most orthodox interpretations that they are generally socially reproductionist.

Critical Perspectives on GangsClick to view larger

Figure 1. A hand sign from the Ñetas group in which each finger connotes a different meaning and relationship depicting the history of the group (Street Organization archives).

Gangs, Violence, and the Political Economy

A critical approach always places the gang in relationship to the changing pressures of the political economy and its mediations through social agents. This is a hallmark of the critical perspective, for it is impossible to see the gang outside of this context. But it is context and not simply a determining structure in the sociological and criminological causal sense. Structures can be made and unmade; nonetheless, they frame what people do, and they crucially provide an array of resources that are both containing and liberating, depending on the balance of class forces in any historical moment and the dominant ideas of the day.

Today, it would be folly to ignore the violence engaged in by gang-related youth and adults. There have been too many gang funerals and wakes and too many visits to homes of grieving family members and friends of gang youth whose lives have been ended prematurely through the drama of the street—ended not just by other gang members but by the police or other state agents. Thus, any research on the gang and violence relationship must deal with the subject of direct and indirect violence.

Direct and Indirect Violence and the Gang

While it is important to engage all aspects of the foreground of gang behavior, so much attention is placed on interpersonal and intergroup violence that the relationships of such acts and group norms to the structured environment, or what Salmi (1993) calls “indirect violent” (see also Galtung, 1969), are often occluded or not coherently expressed. Violence itself is often wedged into the dualism of being either expressive or instrumental, but the complexity of the violent act, its psychosocial, cultural, transactional, and behavioral manifestation and its contingent social setting, is what should set the critical perspective apart (Contreras, 2012). There is no substitution for the direct observation of such acts over time. It must always be remembered that there are myriad ways to interpret such violence, regardless of whether or not it is tied to clear goals through a vocabulary of the perpetrator’s motives.

Further, it is imperative to understand the levels of state violence within these vulnerable communities and the cultures of exclusion and social humiliation that fuel the interlocking processes of the internally violent encounter. Sampson (2013), for example, argues that in cities as different as Chicago and Stockholm, it is possible to see similar trends in neighborhoods with high rates of violence and relatively high rates of infant mortality and other negative health outcomes related to poverty. Of course, one cannot make a causal link here, but a host of correlations, both weak and strong, always need to be explored. However, it is only within a critical sensibility that one can make sense of these connections and in so doing make the case for a holistic approach to situated agency of which violence could be one of a number of foci (Brotherton, 2015).

This is not to say that gangs are not involved in indirect violence that affects the community in negative ways. Territorialism is still a big issue among gangs in different parts of the world, but this aspect of gang culture cannot be understood outside of the politics of space as discussed earlier. In addition, gang rivalries have long histories, as gangs engage in tit-for-tat, spiraling conflicts as each death or injury (Adamson, 1998; Horowitz, 1983) has to be avenged as part of the gang culture’s strongly embedded honor code (Sanders, 1994). Nonetheless, a critical approach places such direct violence in a specific context of indirect violence that help explain the spatial conditions within which the violent act is constituted and performed. The critical gang student therefore asks the questions that most positivistic and empiricist researchers fail to ask. For example, do the mass arrests and imprisonment of gang leaders—a favored law enforcement approach in chronic gang areas like Chicago—result in higher levels of intergang violence due to the removal of hierarchical social controls within the gangs themselves? Is it possible that agents of the state (i.e., the police) are responsible for some of the intergang rivalry when they arrest gang members and then deliberately drop them in rival gang territory as a form of punishment (again a favored practice of the Chicago police)? In other words, while gang-related violence is often found in zones of structured poverty and marginalization, the task of the critical researcher is to seek the social and historical roots of the behavior rather than be content with ahistorical databases divorced from the political economy and the material cultural conditions of “conjugated oppression” (Bourgois, 1995) within which forms of individual and collective violence might be embedded (Butterfield, 1995).

Narcotics Trade and the Gang

While some street gang members are involved in the drug trade, it is not the case that all gangs participate, nor do all street gangs make particularly good entrepreneurial conduits for a trade that is normally based somewhere else and that usually have strong ties to society’s elites. Street gangs that become corporatized (Venkatesh, 1997) as drug gangs represent particular forms of the gang and undergo quite specific changes in an historical context. However, the drug trade should be seen as part of a broader informal economy that has grown immeasurably owing to restructuring and deregulating the formal capitalist economy (Venkatesh, 2006). As a result, many poor communities have been forced to rely heavily on this subeconomy especially as welfare benefits have been massively cut back, leading to an endless period of neoliberal “austerity.”

Nonetheless, it is important to seek historical parallels between this illegal trade and the state’s penchant to “legislate morality” (Duster, 1970). A number of researchers have drawn parallels between the entrepreneurial transformation of such groups and the Prohibition period in the United States, which created a massive black market for alcohol and led to the growth of organized crime with the involvement of various street groups (Hayden, 2004). When crack was introduced into the inner cities in the 1980s during the deindustrialization of the United States and the restructuring of the economy, a number of researchers saw two important developments: (1) gang members were less likely to mature out of the gang and into meaningful employment, and (2) the opportunity structures of poor neighborhoods changed, with drugs becoming equal opportunity employers and intergang violence escalating, driven by turf wars and other socioeconomic tensions related to the debilitated social fabric of an already vulnerable community (Fagan, 1996; Hagedorn, 1988, 1998).

But how should this development be viewed critically without engaging in more pathologizing of the gang and its social habitat? How do we study gangs, drugs, and violence without accepting the tropes of the dominant culture or the orthodox, largely empiricist gang literature that shows little appetite for theory or a sociological/criminological imagination (Garot, 2011)? A critical inquiry must start with the historical emergence of the phenomenon and then a situated analysis of both the players and the structures within which the purported relationship has emerged, cognizant of the need to constantly question the analytical categories being employed. Further, it is necessary to look not just down but up and to see the links between the phenomena and those more powerful interests that are intrinsically involved in all aspects of the political economy, both formal and informal.

For example, one of the most powerful and most violent gangs in Mexico is the Zetas, which is made up principally of ex-police officers from a so-called elite antidrug squad (Cockayne, 2014). The drug cartels in Colombia have long been related to governing political parties with the vast sums of money that accrue from the global cocaine trade routinely washed by mainstream banks with global reaches.4 In the Dominican Republic, one of the centers of the Caribbean’s illicit drugs trade, it is no secret that this informal economy would not exist without the complicity of the military and the police force and the connections to leading politicians, including the presidency (Bobea, 2015). In addition, it is important to recognize that successful players in the informal economy, such as mafia-like organized crime groups, are often a powerful model for getting some of that American dream for highly marginalized gang youth (Hagedorn, 2016; Merton, 1938). This might be understood as subcultural innovation or simply as the objective realities of the local opportunity structure. However, a critical approach would question the contradictions of both structure and agency (Mills, 1959), seeing the relations between the formal and informal economies under conditions of an increasingly integrated global capitalist system (see Robinson, 2014).

Consequently, any discussion of the drug trade and the corresponding violence that is usually linked to street gangs must be placed and excavated in these contexts, within these sets of relationships and with these provisos. Further, it is impossible to talk about these aspects of the global political economy without citing the amplifying effects of U.S.-dominated global drug policy, which has given us the infamously failed “War on Drugs” (see Phillips, 2012 for a particularly edifying case study set in Los Angeles) as well as the highly vindictive and socially corrosive “Mano Dura” across the Northern Triangle of Central America (see inter alia Levinson, 2008; Ward, 2013; Wolf, 2017).

And finally, any research into these relationships must consider the social harm caused by the drug trade (including the impact of corporate capitalist pharmaceutical companies) on gangs and the surrounding community. Since many gang members with histories of drug use and abuse come from areas with the least access to health services, they are not likely to receive the kind of therapy their condition requires. Such an analysis will require deep inquiry into the politics of health in poor communities and the particular trajectories of drug-using gang members who often have to rely on internal resources to treat their habit or sustain their recovery.

Gangs and Peacemaking

Although gangs emerge from marginalization and social conflicts in which they themselves often engage, they are also profoundly social entities whose members are seeking resolutions to the contradictions and problems they face on a day-to-day basis. Any gang researcher who has spent significant amounts of time in the field will be able to recount gangs’ countless efforts to resolve differences without resorting to violence. This, of course, sounds counterintuitive, especially since most definitions of gangs ascribe to them the characteristic of seeking conflict to increase their cohesiveness or to affirm their identity. This is true since gangs usually operate in a competitive arena in which groups vie to build their reputations and enhance their status. However, this is always done through a set of relationships, which, in turn, are based on a range of individual and collective affiliations (e.g., group, familial, fictive kinship, friendship, ethnoracial, class, gender, neighborhood). Consequently, it is hardly surprising that gangs are often involved in peacemaking activities as they seek to resolve differences through internal and external pressures.

Hayden (2004) takes up this point on the basis of his own involvement in gang truces in his former constituency in Los Angeles. He found that working with both present and past gang members was critical to the sustainability of any peace process in areas with large numbers of competing gangs. However, he made a number of important observations that need careful consideration. First, gang rivalries often have long, complex histories that must be considered before any lasting peace can be restored. Second, gangs are often riddled with informers working for the police, thereby making peace between groups difficult to achieve. Third, often a strong relationship exists between the street and prison in coming to terms with the dimensions of the conflict. Fourth, conflicts can be regulated in the short term, perhaps through such interventions as Operation Ceasefire (which attempts to contain the contagion of violence as a social currency through the intervention of neighborhood peacemakers) or Pulling Levers (which asserts that most gang violence can be attributed to a few powerful figures in gangs whose services and influence can be enlisted through threats of outstanding warrants and other “deterrents” while organizing open meetings for the gang in which job training and other incentives are proposed). Hayden argues that without long-term, guaranteed investment in these highly marginalized communities, any reduction in violence will be short lived. Hayden (2004, p. 351) concluded that while these interventions were more progressive than the “zero tolerance” or “broken windows” policing adopted elsewhere, they did not amount to a “structural reform or an institutional shift of power … The police retained ultimate control of policy, operations, and, of course, budget. The ministers [involved as community go-betweens] represented a moral authority, a citizen base, and an ability to generate headlines. But the fundamental difference was that the police could deliver swift and certain punishment, while the coalition [the organization of forces behind the intervention] couldn’t deliver swift and certain jobs.”

Consequently, although conflict receives most of the attention in gang research, it is equally important from a critical perspective that closer attention be diverted to what happens to the processes of peace that are started in gang communities. Currently, one of the sharpest drops in homicide in the world is being reported in Ecuador where a national public security policy based on social inclusion has created incentives for gangs to engage in peaceful dialogue and to exercise their potential as empowered community organizations (Brotherton & Gude, 2018). It is imperative to take stock of the lessons that can be learned in furthering a more peaceful environment through considering both overt and covert power relations and the possibilities of reaching resolutions without recourse to coercive controls from above or the sowing of internal divisions through the classic strategies of social control (Dúran, 2013).

Going Forward

Gang-related literature and research that bucks the uncritical positivist and empiricist trend in gang studies are growing rapidly through the disciplinary lenses of criminology and criminal justice (see Fraser, 2017). Such work emphasizes the need for both a global and comparative approach to the topic of gangs and a healthy skepticism toward many of the organizing concepts often inherited from a conformist social scientific discourse.

As in so many approaches to the study of social phenomena, one has only to shift one’s gaze a little to see a very different picture of the social problem. Gangs are particularly vulnerable to this partial and often prejudiced gaze, as their construction is filled with the criminalizing and pathologizing tropes of the outside society. It is hoped that the critical student of gangs armed with the tools of reflexivity and sensitive to the theater of absurdity—which has often come to resemble this “upside down” world (Galeano, 2001)—will get close enough to the gang world to ask the difficult questions and come away with the level of complex answers that the gang phenomenon intrinsically requires.

Further Reading

Hallsworth, S. (2013). The gang and beyond: Interpreting violent street worlds. London: Palgrave.Find this resource:

    Ilan, J. (2017). Understand street culture: Poverty, crime, youth and cool. London: Palgrave.Find this resource:

      Kontos, L., Brotherton, D., & Barrios, L. (2003). Gangs and society: Alternative perspectives. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

        Rodriguez, L. (1993). Always running: La Vida Loca, gang days in L.A. New York: Touchstone.Find this resource:

          Stephenson, S. (2015). Gangs of Russia: From streets to the corridors of power. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Find this resource:

            Winlow, S., & Hall, S. (2006). Violent night: Urban leisure and contemporary culture. London: Bloomsbury Academic.Find this resource:


              Adamson, C. (1998). Tribute, turf, honor and the American street gang: Patterns of continuity and change since 1820. Theoretical Criminology, 1(2), 57–84.Find this resource:

                Aspholm, R. (Forthcoming). Views from the streets: Gangs, history, and resistance on the souths side of Chicago. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

                  Bobea, L. (2015). Criminalidad compleja, ecosistemas transgresores violentos, y Estadotropismo en el Carib. In Catalina Niño Guarnizo (Ed.), Anuario 2015 de la Seguridad Regional en América Latina y el Caribe. Bogotá, Colombia: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.Find this resource:

                    Bourgois, P. (1995). In search of respect: Selling crack in El Barrio. New York: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

                      Brenneman, R. (2011). Homies and Hermanos: God and gangs in Central America. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                        Brotherton, D., & Gude, R. (2018). Social inclusion from below: The perspectives of street gangs and their possible effects on declining homicide rates in Ecuador, Inter-American Development Bank, Washington, DC.Find this resource:

                          Brotherton, D. C. (2015). Youth street gangs: A critical appraisal. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

                            Brotherton, D. C., & Barrios, L. (2004). The Almighty Latin king and queen nation: Street politics and the transformation of a New York City gang. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

                              Brotherton, D. C., & Barrios, L. (2011). Banished to the homeland: Social exclusion, resistance and the Dominican deportee. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

                                Butterfield, F. (1995). All god’s children: The basket family and the American tradition of violence. New York: Avon.Find this resource:

                                  Caldeira, T. (2000). City of walls: Crime, segregation, and citizenship in Sao Paolo. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

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                                                                          Galtung, J. (1969). Violence, peace and peace research. Journal of Peace Research, 3(6), 167–191.Find this resource:

                                                                            Garot, R. (2011). Who do you claim? Performing gang identity in school and on the streets. New York: New York University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                              Goffman, A. (2013). On the run: Fugitive life in an American city (fieldwork encounters and discoveries). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

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                                                                                  Hagedorn, J. (1988). People and folks: Gangs, crime and the underclass in a Rustbelt city. Chicago: Lake View Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                    Hagedorn, J. (1998). People and folks: Gangs, crime and the underclass in a Rustbelt city (2nd ed.). Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                      Hagedorn, J. (2008). A world of gangs. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                        Hagedorn, J. (2016). The insane Chicago way: The daring plan by Chicago gangs to create a Spanish Mafia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                          Hallsworth, S. (2013). The gang and beyond: Interpreting violent street worlds. London: Palgrave.Find this resource:

                                                                                            Hayden, T. (2004). Street wars: Gangs and the future of violence. New York: New Press.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                              Miller, J. (2001). One of the guys: Girls, gangs, and gender. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                    Moore, J. (1991). Going down to the barrio: Homeboys and homegirls in change. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                      Moore, J., & García, R. (1978). Homeboys: Gangs, drugs and prison in the barrios of Los Angeles. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                        Moore, N., & Williams, L. (2011). The almighty black P stone nation: The rise, fall and resurgence of an American gang. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                          Ngai, M. M. (2004). Impossible subjects: Illegal aliens and the making of modern America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                            Oliveira, Ney dos Santos. (1996). Favelas and ghettos: Race and class in Rio de Janeiro and New York City. Latin American Perspectives, 23(4), 71–89.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                              O’Neil, K. L. (2015). Secure the soul: Christian piety and gang prevention in Guatemala. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                Palmas, L. (2016). Enemigos públicos. La Fabricación de las Bandas en la España Contemporánea. Madrid: Traficantes del Sueño.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                                      Phillips, S. (2012). Operation fly trap: L.A. gangs, drugs, and the law. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                                                                                      (1.) One of the major findings in the New York study was the need to redefine the gang based on empirical data revealing groups as hybrid organizations, essentially subcultures with both gang and social movement characteristics. Hence, we defined the street organization as “a group formed largely by youth and adults of a marginalized social class which aims to provide its members with a resistant identity, an opportunity to be individually and collectively empowered, a voice to speak back to and challenge the dominant culture, a refuge from the stresses and strains of barrio or ghetto life and a spiritual enclave within which its own sacred rituals can be generated and practiced” (Brotherton & Barrios, 2004, p. 23).

                                                                                                                                                                                      (2.) Menjivar (2006) is simply referring to the legal ambiguity and “in-betweenness” of noncitizens, mainly undocumented immigrants. Their legal status not only affects their relationship with the labor market but has profound sociocultural implications, a focus she argues which is often missing from the literature.

                                                                                                                                                                                      (3.) For example, in Los Angeles County alone, there are over 100 gang injunctions supposedly in an effort to control the movement and formation of these subcultures.

                                                                                                                                                                                      (4.) During the 2008 Great Recession, Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said he had seen evidence that the proceeds of organized crime were “the only liquid investment capital” available to some banks on the brink of collapse last year. He said that a majority of the $350 billion of drugs profits was absorbed into the economic system as a result.”