Street Gangs

III. The Chicago School of Urban Sociology

Specific definitional criteria have long influenced the way in which criminologists think about and study gangs—and, consequently, what has been learned about them. Rooted in the tradition of the Chicago School of Urban Sociology, early studies tended to view and present gangs as products of their environment, directly and indirectly shaped by (and shaping) their relations with neighborhood adults, local agencies and institutions, and each other. Gangs, therefore, were to be understood as part of a complex story unfolding in the real world. Even as disciplinary emphases shifted to grand theory and opportunity structures in American society, researchers remained open to new discoveries in the field and to identification of mechanisms by which problems in the broader class system translated into behavior on the streets. Having intentionally exposed themselves to “data not specifically relevant to existing hypotheses concerning gang delinquency,” for example, Short and Strodtbeck (1965, pp. 24–25) and their research team (with the Program for Detached Workers of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago) quickly realized that there was more to gangs than suggested by the macrolevel theories they had set out to test, that the behaviors observed by street workers and graduate students in situ could not be fully explained without reference to the specific contexts in which they occurred.

“Keeping a window open” on the daily lives of gang members and their behavior, individually and collectively, Short and Strodtbeck (1965) conceptualized street gangs and their behaviors as products of ongoing processes rather than as a series of disjointed pathological outcomes. Much like Thrasher (1927), they came to view the gang as the primary social world of its members, and they suggested that the decisions of members, especially leaders, to engage in violence and other serious delinquency were better understood as a product of group dynamics than as exaggerated reactions to middle-class America. Indeed, much of what previously had been taken as evidence of short-run hedonism and flouting of conventional norms appeared, under closer scrutiny, to reflect a rational balancing of immediate status losses or gains within specific gang contexts.

Klein’s research (1969) identified gang cohesiveness as the “quintessential” group process. Based on analysis of research data from a 1960s street worker program (the Group Guidance Project) in Los Angeles County in California, Klein suggested that “a group-work approach to gang intervention may inadvertently defeat its own purpose” (p. 135), increasing feelings of attachment to the gang and willingness to engage in delinquency with other gang members. Before this link could be examined systematically, however, street worker programs faded in popularity. As a result, there have been few opportunities to consider more “active development of alternatives to gang participation” (p. 135) or to reconcile Klein’s findings with other research showing the risk of gang delinquency to be highest during periods of low, not high, group cohesion.

Outside the academy, multiple social and political movements, some quite militant, converged during this period, polarizing society and fostering a climate in which some street gangs became politically and economically active in Chicago’s black ghetto and elsewhere. In Chicago, with the help of private foundation and federal agency grants, programs attempted to promote and institutionalize efforts begun by a few street gangs to better themselves and their communities. Money poured into the hands of three black gangs boasting membership in the thousands and expressing publicly their intent to “go conservative,” that is, legitimate: Black Stone Rangers, Devil’s Disciples, and the Conservative Vice Lords. Almost as soon as these programs were launched, however, they were overshadowed by massive rioting touched off by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and by growing resentment among police and local businesspeople toward what they viewed as preferential treatment of predatory teens. Allegations of fraud, mismanagement of funds, and downright failure quickly followed. Recalling this history, as noted elsewhere (Hughes & Short, 2006),

Defenders of the projects attributed failure to resistance by police and local authorities or to the lack of expertise required of such enterprises. Critics charged that the projects were riddled with fraud and that the gangs used government resources as a front to their continuing criminal activities. The U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations (named the McClellan committee, after its chairman, Senator John McClellan) documented massive fraud in the Manpower project and the tortured path by which the grant from the Office of Economic Opportunity was secured. Running throughout the committee hearing documents are the political struggles between The Woodlawn Organization (TWO, which received the grant), Reverend Fry (minister of the church in which many gang meetings occurred), and Chicago officialdom, including the Police Department and the Mayor’s office. Although the committee’s findings were tainted by charges of committee bias and harassment by police and other authorities, the troubles it highlighted were followed shortly after, in 1969, by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s “war on gangs.” Controversy continues concerning both the programs and official responses to them, including charges that some prominent gang leaders were “framed” by officials. (pp. 45–46, citations omitted)

During this turbulent era, major changes also occurred in the academy. Study of the human ecology of the city and the diverse and sometimes conflicting forces within local communities grew increasingly rare in sociology, as survey research methods and preoccupation with grand theory came to dominate the discipline. Although the Chicago School tradition continued to live on in the work of gang researchers such as Joan Moore (1978), whose Homeboys study extended Suttles’s (1968) The Social Order of the Slum to analysis of barrios of East Los Angeles, the 1970s may be best remembered as a decade of transition, in between the social problems approach of Chicago-style inquiry and the research paradigm that followed.

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