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Ethnography and the Study of Gangs

Summary and Keywords

The study of gangs has emerged alongside the use of a research methodology known as ethnography. Ethnography is based on participant observation and interviews to provide a detailed description of a wide variety of social groups and settings. The researcher is trained to immerse himself or herself into the setting and group of interest and to learn the way participants think and feel. The origins of ethnography date back to W. E. B. Du Bois and the Atlanta School along with the University of Chicago, known as the Chicago School. Gang research began in the 1920s in the city of Chicago with additional studies emerging in Boston, New York City, and Los Angeles. Ethnographic researchers learned to rely on key participants to provide access to social settings and social groups, often very different from those of the researcher. The social work orientation of reaching out to gang members through the use of gang workers allowed researchers the opportunity to obtain additional forms of access. Nevertheless, the principal investigator remained the source for interpretation of the data and results. In the 1970s and 1980s greater awareness developed regarding the role of insiders and outsiders to particular groups and settings. In response, researchers moved ethnography into one of three strands of discovery: (1) cultivating an outsider role to present a non-threatening presence; (2) working in collaboration with gang members; and (3) attempting to nurture an insider status through enhanced membership roles. Contemporary gang ethnographies have moved toward utilizing mixed methodological designs as highlighted by the Eurogang program and more critically approached strategies emerging in the United States. In addition, research in Latin America has provided a greater form of reflexivity as primarily white researchers have outlined their initial standing in the community and how they have worked to develop rapport. Ethnography continues to be of importance for the study of gangs but has increasingly become more conscious as toward how personal biographies and backgrounds shape the data collection process. In so doing, ethnography has become more focused on reducing bias and increasing ethical forms of justice.

Keywords: Gangs, ethnography, gang workers, insiders and outsiders, collaboration, membership roles, methodological challenges

Fieldwork and Interviews as the Foundation for Ethnography

The ethnographic study of gangs has a long history. As a research methodology for learning about our social world, ethnography consists of utilizing fieldwork also described as participant observation along with interviews to learn first-hand how individuals interpret and make sense of daily actions and behaviors (Atkinson, Coffey, Delamont, Lofland, & Lofland, 2001; Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 2011; Jorgensen, 1989). The methodology pushes the researcher to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell what it’s like to live in particular settings and to belong to certain groups. Incorporating ethnography to study gangs has existed since the 1920s as researchers have struggled to immerse themselves in a variety of unfamiliar settings and cultural groups, often very different from their own backgrounds (Thrasher, 1963; Whyte, 1993). Over time and experience, gang researchers have worked to develop strategies to improve rapport, work collaboratively, and contribute something back to the communities and individuals from where the data was obtained (Brotherton, 2015; Durán, 2013; Fleisher, 1998; Hagedorn, 1998; Moore, 1978). Ethically, this has become of increasing importance, since gangs were never seen as normal social groups but more likely to be attributed to behaviors involving delinquency, deviance, criminality, and violence. Much of this behavior coincided with the social environment where gangs were found to exist: socially disorganized neighborhoods with high rates of poverty. Gang members were described as immigrants, racial and ethnic minorities, and youth encountering high levels of criminal justice oversight. As paradigm shifts have occurred within the social sciences, gang ethnographies have become more critically oriented (Brotherton, 2015; Durán, 2013; Hagedorn, 1998).

To provide an overview of ethnography and the study of gangs, this entry will outline the origins of gang ethnography, incorporation of gang workers, acknowledge challenges presented by insider and outsider research, outline contemporary developments, and discuss methodological obstacles that still limit insight.

The Origin of Gang Ethnographies

The first recognized research study conducted on gangs was completed by a doctoral student at the University of Chicago named Frederic Thrasher. This style of ethnography, known as the “Chicago School,” had a profound influence on the discipline as researchers were encouraged to get out into the social world to learn the subjective view of the actor (Adler & Adler, 1987; Deegan, 2001). For seven years, Thrasher gathered data on 1,313 gangs. He found the city of Chicago divided into several areas (North Side Jungles, West Side Wilderness, and Southside Badlands). Different gangs laid territorial claim to each area. Gang members were primarily immigrants of Polish, Italian, and Irish descent. Black membership in gangs was higher than the proportion of black people in the city, between the ages of 10 and 24, but were overall only seven percent of the total number of gangs. Conflict between gangs was not perceived as based on race or nationality, but rather territory. In recommending solutions, Thrasher advocated devoting more effort towards improving immigrant adjustment by cleaning up the slums. If such efforts were not possible, it was recommended to move the boy out of the slums or transform the gang into a more wholesome group with adult supervision. Despite paving the way for a large number of gang studies to follow, Thrasher himself moved onto other topics involving education, media, and juvenile delinquency.

In the 1940s, several studies written about gangs focused on children born in the United States to immigrant parents and encountering a wide array of discrimination (Bogardus, 1943; Whyte, 1993). The key ethnographic study during the decade was written by William Foote Whyte titled Street Corner Society. In this book, Whyte described the challenges encountered by Italian residents living in a slum district in the North End of Boston. The lives of the young men varied between whether they were members of the corner boys or college boys. Unlike Thrasher, who described little of how he utilized his methodology to gain access or study the city, Whyte provided an extensive appendix where he outlined how the study began, his personal background, and how his participant observation was enhanced by the leader of the corner boys. In his later years, Whyte became an advocate of participatory action research (PAR) as a way to bridge the gap between professional researchers and members of organizations. This was a strategy he was unable to follow in Street Corner Society because as a doctoral student, he had been trained to follow the Harvard norm of “pure science,” and he did not have a secure position in the corner boy organization. The findings Whyte reported upon continued to shape sociological thinking of poor areas, immigration, gangs, and politics. An additional contribution has been his writings on ethnography covered in Street Corner Society and a subsequent publication which can continue to inform future researchers working to improve this methodology (Whyte, 1994).

Utilizing Gang Workers and Official Agencies to Study Gangs and Alter Behavior

In the 1950s and 1960s, gang research could be divided into pure theoretical work, with very little to nothing written about data collection, to research studies that primarily involved the inclusion of gang workers, detached workers, or street-corner group workers herein referred to as gang workers (Austin, 1957; Klein, 1995). Public officials began utilizing programs to decrease gang delinquency and utilizing primary investigators to determine the level of effectiveness. Many of the primary investigators appeared to not necessarily conduct the interviews themselves or engage in participant observation, but rather collect and analyze the notes of gang workers. Thus, gang ethnography shifted into a larger collective responsibility beyond one researcher and the management of data provided from a variety of sources.

In the mid-1950s, two researchers were given the task to assess gang programs and their effectiveness in preventing crime and delinquency. The first researcher to accept the task of directing a crime prevention program focused on gangs was Lewis Yablonsky (1970). Yablonsky was appointed by a community organization that received sponsorships from several educational, religious, and medical institutions in New York City. During his five years of study from 1953 to 1958, he focused on more than 100 violent gangs and turf battles. He combined a variety of data sources including interviews, field notes, questionnaires, employment of two former gang leaders as paid interviewers, and utilizing data obtained from a gang leader’s diary. Yablonsky argued that gangs were more pathological and alien to society, whereas in the past they were more woven into the neighborhood. The slums reflected a breakdown of social controls and between adult and youth associations and communication. He questioned gang members’ pronounced fight against prejudice while at the same time battling members of similar racial and ethnic backgrounds. A large number of the gang members were black and Puerto Rican, but he stated there was a wide range of skin variation, even among whites, where it was hard to tell who was of which racial or ethnic background. Thus, he found most violent gangs racially mixed. The disorganized slums where youth lived were conducive to violent gangs, but it also required members to have a sociopathic personality which determined who joined these gangs. During a similar period (1954 to 1957) in Boston, Massachusetts, Walter Miller supervised seven outreach workers assigned to seven gangs (Miller, 1958, 2011). Two gangs were primarily African American and five were of European backgrounds, primarily Irish. Interviews were conducted with 204 gang members, of which 50 were female. The gangs studied were found in a lower-class community that experienced an exodus of higher status populations. Miller disagreed with a lot of the conclusions reached by Yablonsky, and rather than describing gangs as pathological, he viewed them as conforming to values that existed in the community in which they lived.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the city of Chicago became the next location to build on the access of gang workers. As the primary researcher, Irving Spergel (1964) devoted eight months during the summers from 1959 and 1960 to build upon his six years as a street-club or gang worker in these neighborhoods. He conducted participant observations and interviewed 125 individuals in three separate neighborhoods. He described one neighborhood as Racketville, of which most of the interviewees’ parents were born in Italy. The second neighborhood was labeled Slumtown and consisted of primarily youth of Puerto Rican descent. The third neighborhood was labeled Haulburg and consisted of gang members whose parents were born in the United States but were primarily of Irish, Italian, or German descent. Despite Spergel’s previous involvement as a gang worker, he encountered difficulty gaining rapport. At times he was viewed as a “policeman,” “plain-clothes man,” “federal agent,” “reporter,” “street-club worker,” “drug addict,” or “adult homosexual.” Spergel had to make sure that his efforts to gain rapport did not result in his own exploitation. He found the Racketville neighborhood to be the greatest challenge for gaining access because it had many community members involved in numbers, gambling, and loan-shark rackets that were warier of outsiders coming in and asking questions. Around the time Spergel was doing his research, James Short and Fred Strodtbeck (1974) utilized the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) as a resource when they began assessing gangs by utilizing detached workers assigned to one white gang and six black gangs. The study began in June of 1959 and continued until August of 1962. In total, data was obtained on 16 gangs, totaling 598 boys of whom 78% were black and 22% were white. Gang membership was considered more fluid and involving black youth who were more firmly embedded into the lower class with peer conflict than white areas that were still bound by more conventional institutions such as the church. Short and Strodtbeck discovered that neighborhood differences were profound in shaping behaviors. This finding supported the conclusions offered by Spergel in the differences he noted in three different communities.

Finally, the city of Los Angeles became part of one of these larger scale research studies on gangs and delinquency prevention that utilized fieldwork and interviews. Malcolm Klein (1971) was responsible for administering several grants from 1962 to 1968 in Los Angeles, California. One of the grants was focused on an intensified gang intervention through the probation department. The second grant, named the Ladino Hills Project, was designed by the researchers based on the insights obtained from the first grant. The clients served were black and Mexican American. At the time, Klein was very critical of several gang prevention programs nationwide for failing to reduce delinquency and not being evaluated systematically. His own administration of the grant with the probation department, found the number of offenses committed by gangs had increased. He attributed this rise to the increased cohesiveness of the gang, which was a result of the greater time involvement of the gang worker. The Ladino Hills Project was more successful in reducing the amount of delinquency for Latino gangs, but not the rate of offenses committed per boy under the age of 18. Klein proposed eliminating all gang programs and he himself grew tired of observing gang meetings and withdrew from gang research for more than a decade.

Insiders and Outsiders

In the 1970s, the ethical implications of ethnography began to become more politicized as an increasing number of questions began to inquire why most of the researchers were white and most of those researched were racial and ethnic minorities (Ladner, 1973). Questions arose about insiders and outsiders (Merton, 1972) along with efforts to decolonize research (Blauner & Wellman, 1973). Nationwide, an increasing number of universities began establishing academic disciplines in Africana Studies, Chicano Studies, Native American Studies, and Ethnic Studies (Acuña, 2011). Members of oppressed groups questioned negative portrayals of their communities while at the same time experiencing differential treatment. Patterns of deficit thinking regarding black and Latino youth groups coincided with the rise of increased social control. The criminal justice system expanded with more law enforcement officers and higher incarceration rates. The United States was experiencing a change in demographics and this was captured in many of the gang studies occurring after the 1950s. Most of the researchers remained primarily the same: older in age, white, male, and often coming from middle- and upper-class backgrounds. The gangs, however, became regarded as more racially and ethnically diverse.

Thus, one of the central challenges that emerged was how ethnographers could lessen their personal disconnect in order to provide an accurate portrayal of the groups they were studying. Several gang researchers noted that in the earlier time period there was still a disconnect by class, nativity, and different European ethnic groups, but over time the distance between black, Latino, Native American, and Asian backgrounds appeared to present a greater cultural divide. Due to these challenges, gang research moved to become more quantitative and no longer required the researcher to talk with gang members, but rather utilize surveys or secondary data analysis to understand gang life. Some gang researchers abandoned participant observation and focused only on interviews. Changes in methodological focus and increased relational distance pushed the study of gangs to become less empathetic and more focused on crime and violence. During this time, the United States also moved toward various wars against crime, drugs, immigrants, and even gangs (Alexander, 2012; Cole, 2003; Durán, 2013).

As these questions were emerging about how research should be done and what it meant for ethnography, it is of interest to observe how gang research developed from the 1970s until 2000. The gang research studies conducted during this period highlight the strengths of an outsider status, working collaboratively, and building upon an insider status through more active membership roles.

The first theme developed during this period of ethnography and the study of gangs is how an outsider status can provide access and information not made available to insiders. Ruth Horowitz (1986) was probably the first to write about how being an outsider to gangs and the community was an asset because gang members and people in the community did not view her as a threat. There was some awkwardness when she rented her apartment, because residents were not used to seeing a single woman with no children take up residence alone without it being for an illegal purpose. She described herself as Jewish, educated, small, fairly dark, and only a few years older than the individuals she observed. Horowitz (1983) began her research by sitting at a park bench and when a ball came over she picked it up and started a conversation with the leader of the gang. Her ethnographic study of Chicano youth gangs in the city of Chicago went from 1971 to 1974, and she found a lot of the obstacles the youth encountered were based on class.

Other researchers also emphasized how their outside status allowed them access to gangs. For example, Sudhir Venkatesh (2008) described how he would have been attacked had he been Latino or black when he began his 18-month study of the Black Kings in the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago. Thus, his outside status as East Indian allowed him a level of access that over time developed into becoming a gang leader for a day. Susan Phillips (1999) acknowledged her ability to drive into Chicano and black communities and take pictures of graffiti and talk to gang members was aided by no one viewing her as a physical threat. She did have to remain constantly aware of her role as a cultural oppressor and being viewed as the enemy, which she described as mild form of mental torture. Some researchers describing the importance of participant observation for ethnography but not wanting to admit an outsider status hired a field worker who spent most of his day to day activities “on the street” (Decker & Van Winkle, 1996). Gaining insight into gangs has also developed from researchers conducting ethnographies on law enforcement agencies that respond to gangs (Katz & Webb, 2006; Sanders, 1994).

The second theme developed was using ethnography to work collaboratively with the community and utilizing current and former gang members as part of the research team. These researchers understood their personal biography limitations, along with oppression of racial and ethnic minority communities. Thus, to capture these stories, they worked to incorporate gang members, prisoners, and community members into the research study. Key among these efforts was Joan Moore. Her research began by studying Mexican Americans and then later began shifting her research on gangs and drug use. Her first study on gangs, Homeboys: Gangs, Drugs, and Prison the Barrios of Los Angeles, began as a research collaboration between the academic world and Chicano ex-convicts and gang members. Most of the research was completed from 1974 to 1975. The study began from several convicts active in the prison self-help movement who believed research could aid in creating policy changes. Thus, the prison and ex-prison subculture merged with academics to study drug use and gang involvement in three Los Angeles neighborhoods. Moore described how the Chicago School influenced a lot of research but began to fade by the late 1950s due to the proliferation of sociology departments and the research took greater time involvement and highly individualized training that was no longer being offered. Moore’s book was a direct effort to merge and amplify a new thread of field research that stemmed from the struggle of neglected minorities and the Chicago tradition of field work. Moore and her team outlined how the barrio gangs were strengthened by Los Angeles racism. This process began in the neighborhoods and was enhanced through juvenile corrections and prison. Demonstrating a commitment to the community, Moore’s research did not end in 1975 but continued with a follow-up study in 1984 and 1985, where she interviewed members from the early gangs and recent gangs to determine change over time. From the beginning of this study, she continued the collaboration approach developed from the first study and made sure to include female gang members and associates. In total, team members and herself interviewed 106 gang members, of whom 52 were women.

John Hagedorn built on the mentorship from Joan Moore to follow a collaborative approach with gang members to learn more about gangs. From 1985 to 1986, he interviewed 47 gang members who were considered the top dogs of 15 black gangs, three Hispanic gangs, and one white gang. Three of these gangs were composed of females. In his review of the literature, Hagedorn critiqued the divide between researcher demographics (mostly white) and the individuals in gangs (mostly minority) and how the emphasis had been focused on crime. Hagedorn argued how the demographics of the country had shifted from the time frame of Thrasher and Whyte and the study of primarily European gang members. Alienation, lack of political clout, and a lack of good education were considered central for challenging the impacts of racism in shaping the response to gangs. When he had a chance to receive support to follow-up on his previous study by conducting interviews with male and female gang members in 1991, 1992, and 1994, he set out to see what changes had occurred from when his study first began. In this economically deprived area, many of the former gang members had reduced their gang involvement and replaced it with drug selling. Most of the women had quit their gang involvement by the time they turned 20 years of age, did not graduate from high school, became mothers, and moved out of their old neighborhood. Hagedorn saw most of the problems involving gangs and these neighborhoods involving the wars on drugs and crime and the promotion of the American Dream’s accumulation of material success and a masculinity defined by the domination of women.

Several additional researchers have worked collaboratively to put together some excellent ethnographies on gangs. David Brotherton and Luis Barrios developed a close relationship with members of the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation in 1996. Their holistic study provides great insight into a large-size gang in New York City. They even hired the leader as a research assistant and gathered 67 life histories. The research team outlined patterns not covered by previous research by focusing on the prison to street influences, drug markets, women involvement, and the linking of gangs to social movements. Another team of researchers in San Antonio, Texas were also influenced by the work of Joan Moore and set out to develop research teams that involved male and female research assistants and interviews with both genders. (Valdez, 2007; Valdez, Cepeda, & Kaplan, 2009). A project they began in 1998 has resulted in 150 interviews of young women.

The third theme developed by ethnographers was using their individual backgrounds to increase their level of rapport with the communities being studied. Rather than go into the division between insiders and outsiders, Adler and Adler (1987) emphasized how ethnography varies in terms of membership roles. Along this continuum researchers can maintain peripheral membership, active membership, or complete membership. Thus, rather than simply viewing ethnography through the lens of participant observation, they advocated the following:

This, then, is what we see as the future of ethnography—people making this kind of commitment and fully immersing themselves in the field; people going beyond participation to membership. We are the research instrument. We acquire more sensitivity, knowledge, and skill each time we delve into another membership world. We must draw on, expand, and continue to dig deeper into our multiple memberships to enlighten the social science community about the worlds in which we live. (p. 87)

Thus, this next set of gang ethnographies highlights an effort of the researcher to not only observe but to develop a relationship with gang members and their communities based on their own background in terms of gender, race and ethnicity, or lived experiences. First among these is the research by Anne Campbell (1984). Although clearly not of a similar background as the women she selected to interview in 1979, she emphasized the importance of research about women by a woman due to the often negative portrayals. Campbell’s study began in 1979 and involved three women between the ages of 15 and 30 in New York City. One of the women was involved in a biker gang, another in a street gang, and the third woman in a religio-cultural gang. One gang was racially mixed, the other Puerto Rican, and the final group black. She devoted six months to each gang and focused on one girl. She acknowledged many differences from her life and those she was writing about, in particular how she lived in an all-white neighborhood, was middle class, and already had a publisher waiting for her to write the book. Nevertheless, Campbell was able to bring the lives and experiences of the young women she interviewed to provide a more empathetic approach than the traditional narratives written about women gang members and their lives.

Several other researchers have been able to use their backgrounds in terms of race and ethnicity, class, and upbringing to develop a rapport and commitment to the topic of gangs. First among these is James Diego Vigil. Although his research could also be described as collaborative, it is his background that has led to a lifelong commitment to the residents and their overall well-being. His interest in gangs began with his own association with gangs as a juvenile and later as a high school teacher. He began his formal fieldwork from 1976 to 1978, collecting life histories of Mexican American youth involved in gangs in Los Angeles and two surrounding counties. His research continued into several additional projects. In his book The Projects: Gang and Non-Gang Families in East Los Angeles he set out to discover why most youth do not join gangs and what sets them apart from those who do when they both live in the same housing projects. Martín Sánchez Jankowski is another researcher who has utilized his background growing up with project gangs in Detroit in order to conduct one of the few ethnographic studies of gangs involving several cities (Boston, Los Angeles, and New York City) and several different gangs of varying ethnicities and races. He devoted 10 years and five months to conduct such a study from 1978 to 1989. Felix Padilla (1992) is another researcher who described growing up around gangs, knowing several members as an adult, and doing research on the Puerto Rican community before launching his study of youth gangs and their relationship with drug dealing. He found ethnic solidary was an important feature of this Puerto Rican gang and how members viewed themselves as victims of ethnic discrimination. Chin’s (1996) research also highlights how his background and that of his research team provided a great asset in designing the research, conducting the research, and analyzing the results for his book titled Chinatown Gangs: Extortion, Enterprise, and Ethnicity.

Another key research study which builds on the background of the researcher is Steven Cureton’s (2008) book Hoover Crips: When Cripin’ Becomes a Way of Life. Although he devoted six years to his study, it was based on 24 days of field observation and interviews. In May of 1999 and August of 2000, he conducted his field observations in Los Angeles, California with members of the Hoover Crips. He was able to accumulate 170 interviews. Cureton provided a solid argument about how his background of being black, growing up in a housing project, and belonging to a black fraternity provided him race, social, and cultural capital. He described how his personal background helped to provide insight into black gangs for which there is very little research and even less research conducted by someone of this similar racial background.

These three themes of outsider status, collaboration, and membership roles highlight the changes occurring with gang ethnographies. How this insight has been adopted can be reflected in contemporary gang ethnographies.

Contemporary Gang Ethnographies

At the time Decker and Pyrooz wrote their chapter on contemporary gang ethnographies, which published in 2013, they had reached the conclusion that since the late 1990s there had become a decline in US gang ethnographies. They described how earlier gang ethnographies provided a conceptual foundation for the more common quantitative analyses. Rather than leaving the final section of their chapter blank, they shifted their focus toward the increasing number of ethnographic research occurring in Europe. However, in the four years since this publication, there has been a significant number of US-based gang ethnographies in the form of books, articles, and ongoing research studies which continue to highlight the three themes developed since the 1970s.

In addition, there has arisen increased attention toward the Chicago School and the Atlanta School (Morris, 2015; Wright, 2002; Wright & Calhoun, 2006). The Atlanta School research highlights the scholarship of W. E. B. Du Bois as the first researcher to use ethnography and rather than remain distant from the subject populations, he strived to improve society and the standing of racial and ethnic minorities. As gangs have increasingly been described by law enforcement agencies as black and Latino researchers have begun examining how race has structured US society into divergent social worlds. Peterson and Krivo’s (2012) research has highlighted how blacks live in neighborhoods with the highest levels of disadvantage and violent crime. Latinos lived in high but less extreme-disadvantage neighborhoods compared to blacks and unexpectedly lower rates of violence. Whites lived in areas with the lowest violence rates and best neighborhood circumstances. Ethnography, as a research methodology has continued to provide great insight into neighborhood differences and social groups, yet it must continually reflect upon issues of ethical responsibility.

Decker and Pyrooz’s (2013) chapter on gang ethnographies highlights how European gang research has focused on themes such as population migration, ethnic and cultural conflict, marginalization, and cultural transmission. Several US-based gang researchers have begun collaborating with European researchers under the Eurogang program (Decker & Weerman, 2005; Klein, Kerner, Maxson, & Weitekamp, 2001). These collaborations have utilized qualitative, quantitative, and integrative methods to examine street gangs in a different context. Of interest is how European researchers have responded to groups that are racially and ethnically marginalized and in what ways are race relations and issues of immigration different than compared to the United States. Key insights into these forms of ethnography can be found in the chapter written by Decker and Pyrooz (2013) along with the book European Street Gangs and Troublesome Youth Groups, edited by Scott Decker and Frank Weerman (2005).

One of the members of Eurogang who has taken his research outside of Europe and to Latin America is Tom Ward (2013). Ward devoted eight-and-a-half years (1993 to 2001) to conduct a study on MS-13 in both Los Angeles and San Salvador. He had grown up sheltered in an upper-middle-class white neighborhood that was a suburb in Dallas, Texas, but he began his research by first studying the Salvadorian population prior to studying gangs. In the beginning, he was often perceived as a cop or FBI agent, and respondents would wonder why an old gringo would have interest in their lives. His experience highlights how his outsider status yet investment in studying the population group has allowed him the opportunity to conduct an ethnographic study of gangs in two different countries. Additional research in Nicaragua and Colombia highlighted how levels of violence in Latin America shaped the ethnographic experience (Baird, 2017; Rodgers, 2007).

In terms of US-based research, there are a lot of exciting ethnographic studies being written. In terms of utilizing varying membership roles that highlight increased insider access there are research studies by Contreras (2017), Durán (2013), Flores (2014), Martinez (2016), Ralph (2014), Tapia (2017), Weide (2015), and Zatz and Portillos (2000). There is an ongoing research collaboration in San Antonio with Avelardo Valdez and Alice Cepeda. Researchers who demonstrate access by building upon an outsider status (Garot, 2010; Lauger, 2012; Panfil, 2017) or bridging between an insider and outsider status (Bolden, 2013; Lopez-Aguado, 2016; Mendoza-Denton, 2008). Another point of note is how the new research studies of gangs are overwhelmingly written with lead researchers who share minority racial and ethnic backgrounds with the individuals whom they interviewed.

Methodological Challenges

Despite the wide use of an expressed interest in participant observation (fieldwork), along with conducting interviews, most gang researchers have written little about the strengths and limitations of gaining access, conducting interviews, developing rapports, and linking their own biography with those involved in gangs and living in the communities being studied. It is unclear for many of these studies exactly how much fieldwork was utilized by the primary researcher or incorporated into the research study or what level of membership role was able to be obtained. Interviews were used prominently in some of these studies, whereas other studies emphasize fieldwork, but questions as toward what empirical tools were utilized continue to be of importance for understanding the findings obtained. Does it matter how many interviews? How many times should the same individual be interviewed? What does fieldwork entail? Who has to do the fieldwork, the primary researcher or members of the research team? How are collaborators incorporated into a research study? Can or should researchers have a complete membership role in a gang?

Insight into some of the questions have been provided by Whyte (1993, 1994) and Horowitz (1986), but a large number of gang ethnographies have discussed little about their methodology. Since the 1970s, this has begun to change, but it is probably only more recent where this discussion has become a key topic of importance for contemporary gang ethnographies. Another key discussion can be found in a chapter written by John Hagedorn in in C. Ronald Huff’s edited volume Gangs in America titled “Back in the Field Again: Gang Research in the Nineties” (1990). Hagedorn advocates more field studies and urges researchers to work collaboratively with participants from the same neighborhoods and gangs. At the time, Hagedorn was critical of the push for gang research to rely on official statistics gathered from law enforcement officials which he called “courthouse criminology.” His next concern was “surrogate sociology,” in which researchers would use intermediaries to identify gang members and allow the researcher to gain temporary access to gangland. Thus the use of correctional officers, probation and parole officers, or relying on community agencies to locate and interview gang members. When Hagedorn wrote his chapter, he mentioned the difficulties of gaining access and how race was often given as a reason, but he outlined several research projects which did gain access. He encouraged commitment and reciprocity to break down these barriers. Another insightful chapter was written by Fleisher (1998). He discussed the ethics of research and working to ensure that the data gathered can be used to contribute back to the individuals and the communities rather than publishing being considered as the primary objective.

Brotherton’s (2015) book titled Youth Street Gangs: A Critical Appraisal addresses many of the concerns listed in this review and draws upon his 20 years researching gang. He argued much of the problem stems from deficit thinking regarding gangs, gang members, and the communities that develop these social groups. He described how the ethnographies of Thrasher and Whyte did not pathologize gangs but that began to change as positivism in the social sciences increased the social distance between the researcher and the researched and it reduced reflexivity. Brotherton provides insightful chapters on how to study gangs critically and the need for critical gang studies. Although not inherently critical, comparative studies that attempt to merge US-based gang research with other locations around the globe have the potential to broaden our level of understanding regarding gangs (Decker & Weerman, 2005; Hazen & Rodgers, 2014).

Based on the insights obtained from reviewing the information available on gang ethnographies, there continues to be a need for several additional patterns of focus. First, broadening the number of cities of interest. Although cities such as Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City have long histories with gangs, scholars know less about how they compare to gangs in other locations around the country. The size of the city, politics, levels of racial and ethnic segregation, and levels of violence vary, but some of what researchers focus on regarding gangs may in fact be differences in the communities where gangs are being studied. Second, another topic of importance is studying other social groups that exhibit similar characteristics as gangs but do not receive this label. Understanding how these groups differ from gangs can hold important insight into the activities and manifestations that form within gangs. For example, there needs to be more research on other deviant groups such as hate groups, motorcycle clubs, prison gangs, drug dealing, robbery crews, and cartels, along with more pro-social groups such as fraternities, sororities, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and car clubs. Even groups with social power deserve increased study and how they differ from gangs including the comparison of gangs to law enforcement agencies, members of the armed forces, and groups with high levels of social power in society, such as political parties. Third, the Eurogang program provides a great opportunity to study gangs in Europe, but other continents deserve increased attention. Hazen and Rodgers’s (2014) edited book Global Gangs: Street Violence across the World seeks to address this omission. Fourth, gang scholars know very little about the connections between street gangs and prison gangs. What about gangs in rural and suburban locations? Gang scholarship needs more studies that aren’t built from deficit thinking and more insider perspectives. Gang scholarship needs more research on female gang members. How do gangs fit within larger social movements as outlined by Montejano (2010) in San Antonio?

In sum, there is plenty of work to be done in the ethnographic study of gangs. Moore (1978) described how the time investment and lack of training in ethnography may limit future research studies utilizing this methodology. The academic pressure to publish and the privilege given to quantitative research may contribute to this distance away from gang ethnographies that pressure the researcher to often enter settings and associate with individuals from backgrounds very different from oneself. However, as Hagedorn (1990) has described, steps can be taken to utilize fieldwork and interviews to obtain insight into social groups that were highly stigmatized in society. It occurs that some gang research has taken a decade to produce whereas other studies have been broken into two- or three-year increments. Such a time-frame could continue to contribute to our understanding of gangs.

Ethnographic Gang Research in a Global Society

As a methodology, ethnography is unique in attempting to learn and describe the subjective perspectives and experiences of individuals in a variety of social settings and groups. The methodology applied to the study of gangs can provide insight into a population group that has received a lot of negative attention from authority figures but varying responses from community members and the individuals who join. In nearly 100 years of scholarship, gang ethnographies have continued to shape how society thinks and responds to gangs and gang members. As the United States has become more punitive in terms of punishment, gangs have increasingly become a target worldwide. Separating fact from fiction and developing an understanding of these social groups and the individuals who join continues to have important implications in a global society.

Review of the Literature and Primary Sources

A good review of the rise of ethnography as a methodology from the Chicago School and Atlanta School can be found in the works of Adler and Adler (1987), Deegan (2001), Morris (2015), Wright (2002), and Wright and Calhoun (2006). The use of ethnography in gang research can be found in the works of Brotherton (2015), Fleisher (1998), Hagedorn (1990), and Whyte (1993).

Early ethnographic works on the study of gangs can be found in Thrasher (1963) and Whyte (1993). The use of gang workers in gang research can be found in Klein (1971), Miller (2011), Short and Strodtbeck (1974), Spergel (1964), and Yablonsky (1970). Outsider research as an asset can found in Horowitz (1983, 1986), Phillips (1999), and Venkatesh (2008). Collaborative efforts with gangs can be found in the work of Moore (1978, 1991), Hagedorn (1998), Brotherton and Barrios (2004), and Valdez (2007). Using personal biography to improve rapport with gang members can be found in the works of Vigil (1988, 2007), Weide (2015), Durán (2013), Cureton (2008), and Sanchez-Jankowski (1991). For an overview of research on gangs in Europe see Decker and Weerman (2005) and more broadly in India, Latin America, South Africa, etc., see Hazen and Rodgers (2014).

For a discussion about the role of race and greater punishment in US society, take a look at Alexander (2012) and Cole (2003). For the importance of race in social sciences see Blauner and Wellman (1973), Ladner (1973), Morris (2015), Wright (2002), and Wright and Calhoun (2006).

Further Reading

Adler, P. A., & Adler, P. (1987). Membership roles in field research. Newbury Park, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

    Atkinson, P., Coffey, A., Delamont, S., Lofland, J., & Lofland, L. (Eds.). (2001). Handbook of ethnography. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

      Blauner, R., & Wellman, D. (1973). Toward the decolonization of social research. In J. A. Ladner (Ed.), The death of white sociology (pp. 310–330). New York: Vintage Books.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:

            Decker, S. H., & Pyrooz, D. (2013). Contemporary gang ethnographies. In F. T. Cullen & P. Wilcox (Eds.), Oxford handbook of criminological theory (pp. 274–293). New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

              Decker, S. H., & Weerman, F. M. (2005). European street gangs and troublesome youth groups. New York: AltaMira Press.Find this resource:

                Durán, R. J. (2013). Gang life in two cities: An insider’s journey. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

                  Fleisher, M. S. (1998). Ethnographers, pimps, and the company store. In J. Ferrell & M. S. Hamm (Eds.), Ethnography at the edge: Crime, deviance, and field research (pp. 44–64). Boston: Northeastern University Press.Find this resource:

                    Hagedorn, J. M. (1990). Back in field again: Gang research in the nineties. In C. R. Huff (Ed.), Gangs in America (pp. 240–259). Newbury Park, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

                      Hagedorn, J. M. (1998). People and folks: Gangs, crime and the underclass in a rustbelt city. Chicago: Lakeview Press. (Original work published 1988.)Find this resource:

                        Hazen, J. M., & Rodgers, D. (2014). Global gangs: Street violence across the world. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Find this resource:

                          Horowitz, R. (1986). Remaining an outsider: Membership as a threat to research rapport. Urban Life, 14, 409–430.Find this resource:

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

                              Morris, A. D. (2015). The scholar denied: W. E. B. Du Bois and the birth of modern sociology. Oakland: University of California Press.Find this resource:

                                Whyte, W. F. (1993). Street corner society: The social structure of an Italian slum. Chicago: University of Chicago. (Original work published 1943.)Find this resource:


                                  Acuña, R. F. (2011). The making of Chicana/o Studies: In the trenches of academe. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.Find this resource:

                                    Adler, P. A., & Adler, P. (1987). Membership roles in field research. Newbury Park, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

                                      Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: The New Press.Find this resource:

                                        Atkinson, P., Coffey, A., Delamont, S., Lofland, J., & Lofland, L. (Eds.). (2001). Handbook of ethnography. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

                                          Austin, D. M. (1957). Goals for gang workers. Social Work, 2(4), 43–50.Find this resource:

                                            Baird, A. (2017). Dancing with danger: Ethnographic safety, male bravado and gang research in Colombia. Qualitative Research. Advance online publication.Find this resource:

                                              Blauner, R., & Wellman, D. (1973). Toward the decolonization of social research. In J. A. Ladner (Ed.), The death of white sociology (pp. 310–330). New York: Vintage Books.Find this resource:

                                                Bogardus, E. S. (1943). Gangs of Mexican-American youth. Sociology and Social Research, 28, 55–66.Find this resource:

                                                  Bolden, C. (2013). Tales from the hood: An emic perspective on gang joining and gang desistance. Criminal Justice Review, 38, 473–490.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:

                                                        Campbell, A. (1984). The girls in the gang. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.Find this resource:

                                                          Chin, K. (1996). Chinatown gangs: Extortion, enterprise, and ethnicity. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                                            Cole, D. (2003). Enemy aliens: Double standards and constitutional freedoms in the war on terrorism. New York: New Press.Find this resource:

                                                              Contreras, R. (2017). There’s no sunshine: Spatial anguish, deflections, and intersectionality in Compton and South Central. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 35, 656–673.Find this resource:

                                                                Cureton, S. R. (2008). Hoover Crips: When Cripin’ becomes a way of life. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.Find this resource:

                                                                  Decker, S. H., & Pyrooz, D. (2013). Contemporary gang ethnographies. In F. T. Cullen & P. Wilcox (Eds.), Oxford handbook of criminological theory (pp. 274–293). New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                    Decker, S. H., & Van Winkle, B. (1996). Life in the gang: Family, friends, and violence. New York: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                      Decker, S. H., & Weerman, F. M. (2005). European street gangs and troublesome youth groups. New York: AltaMira Press.Find this resource:

                                                                        Deegan, M. J. (2001). The Chicago school of ethnography. In P. Atkinson, A. Coffey, S. Delamont, J. Lofland, & L. Lofland (Eds.), Handbook of ethnography (pp. 11–25). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

                                                                          Durán, R. J. (2013). Gang life in two cities: An insider’s journey. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                            Emerson, R. M., Fretz, R. I., & Shaw, L. L. (2011). Writing ethnographic fieldnotes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

                                                                              Fleisher, M. S. (1998). Ethnographers, pimps, and the company store. In J. Ferrell & M. S. Hamm (Eds.), Ethnography at the edge: Crime, deviance, and field research (pp. 44–64). Boston: Northeastern University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                Flores, E. O. (2014). God’s gangs: Barrio ministry, masculinity, and gang recovery. New York: New York University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                  Garot, R. (2010). Who you claim: Performing gang identity in school and on the streets. New York: New York University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                    Hagedorn, J. M. (1990). Back in field again: Gang research in the nineties. In C. R. Huff (Ed.), Gangs in America (pp. 240–259). Newbury Park, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

                                                                                      Hagedorn, J. M. (1998). People and folks: Gangs, crime and the underclass in a rustbelt city. Chicago: Lakeview Press. (Original work published 1988.)Find this resource:

                                                                                        Hazen, J. M., & Rodgers, D. (2014). Global gangs: Street violence across the world. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                          Horowitz, R. (1983). Honor and the American dream: Culture and identity in a Chicano community. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                            Horowitz, R. (1986). Remaining an outsider: Membership as a threat to research rapport. Urban Life, 14, 409–430.Find this resource:

                                                                                              Jorgensen, D. L. (1989). Participant observation: A methodology for human studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

                                                                                                Katz, C. M., & Webb, V. J. (2006). Policing gangs in America. New York: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                  Klein, M. W. (1971). Street gangs and street workers. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.Find this resource:

                                                                                                    Klein, M. W. (1995). The American street gang: Its nature, prevalence, and control. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                      Klein, M. W., Kerner, H., Maxson, C. L., & Weitekamp, G. M. (2001). The Eurogang paradox: Street gangs and youth groups in the U.S. and Europe. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.Find this resource:

                                                                                                        Ladner, J. A. (1973). The death of white sociology. New York: Random House.Find this resource:

                                                                                                          Lauger, T. R. (2012). Real gangstas: Legitimacy, reputation, and violence in the intergang environment. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                            Lopez-Aguado, P. (2016). “I would be a Bulldog”: Tracing the spillover of carceral identity. Social Problems, 63, 203–221.Find this resource:

                                                                                                              Martinez, C. G. (2016). The neighborhood has its own rules: Latinos and African Americans in South Los Angeles. New York: New York University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                Mendoza-Denton, N. (2008). Homegirls: Language and cultural practice among Latina youth gangs. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                  Merton, R. K. (1972). Insiders and outsiders: A chapter in the sociology of knowledge. The American Journal of Sociology, 78, 9–47.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                    Miller, W. B. (1958). Lower class culture as a generating milieu of gang delinquency. Journal of Social Issues, 14, 5–19.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                      Miller, W. B. (2011). City gangs. Unpublished manuscript. Retrieved from this resource:

                                                                                                                        Montejano, D. (2010). Quixote’s soldiers: A local history of the Chicano movement, 1966–1981. Austin: University of Texas Press.Find this resource:

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

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

                                                                                                                              Morris, A. D. (2015). The scholar denied: W. E. B. Du Bois and the birth of modern sociology. Oakland: University of California Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                Padilla, F. M. (1992). The gang as an American enterprise. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                  Panfil, V. R. (2017). The gang’s all queer: The lives of gay gang members. New York: New York University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                    Peterson, R. D., & Krivo, L. J. (2012). Divergent social worlds: Neighborhood crime and the racial-spatial divide. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                                          Rodgers, D. (2007). Joining the gang and becoming a broder: The violence of ethnography in contemporary Nicaragua. Bulletin of Latin American Research, 26(4), 444–461.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                                                                      Whyte, W. F. (1993). Street corner society: The social structure of an Italian slum. Chicago: University of Chicago. (Original work published 1943.)Find this resource:

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