Street Gangs

IV. The Variables Paradigm

Hoping to correct common misconceptions of Chicago sociology in the 1920s and 1930s, Martin Bulmer (1984) noted that an “emphasis on field research and personal documents, though certainly a distinctive feature, is far from the whole story. . . . Notable developments in early quantitative methods took place which tend to have been ignored” (p. 188). For evidence of such methodological coexistence in the study of gangs, one need look no further than Thrasher (1927), whose commitment to the collection of social facts demanded both qualitative and quantitative approaches. Picking up where Thrasher left off, the subsequent generation of researchers tended to blend then-sophisticated quantitative analyses with qualitative insights, relying on both to bring gangs into clearer focus.

As the popularity of the group work approach to gang intervention waned, comprehensive research efforts became increasingly difficult to sustain. Throughout the 1980s, and especially the 1990s, studies of gangs divided sharply along methodological lines. The survey data approach, with its ease of administration and quick turnaround to publication (compared to field research), fit well within the new “variables paradigm” dominating sociological inquiry. Surveys and statistical manipulation of data obtained from official records also suited the interests of government funding agencies in quantitative findings obtained quickly, objectively, and for purposes of gang control policy. In addition, crack cocaine had exploded onto the American scene, and despite conflicting evidence, the frequency of hustling activities among individual gang members convinced many within and outside of law enforcement that gangs had assumed violent control over the drug trade and become virtually synonymous with organized crime. Furthering this perception were soaring rates of gun violence and gang homicides; high-profile convictions of ranking members of the Gangster Disciples and their imprisoned leader, Larry Hoover; big-screen movies, such as Colors (1988) and Boys N the Hood (1991), which drew national attention to the often deadly rivalry between L.A.’s Crips and Bloods; news reports of drive-by shootings claiming the lives of gangbangers and innocent bystanders alike; and the growing prominence of hypermasculine gangsta rap and related industry feuds. What everyone now wanted to know was how many gangs and gang members were out there, who these people were, and how much crime they were committing.

Such questions required answers only quantitative studies could provide. Surveys of law enforcement officials, analyses of police and court records, and self-reports by youth in institutionalized and noninstitutionalized settings were all employed in an effort to determine the overall scope of gang problems.2 In addition, although the data occasionally were contradictory, a consensus emerged identifying the typical gang member as a young minority (black or Hispanic) male living in an inner-city urban area plagued by a host of neighborhood, educational, or family challenges. Bolstered by analyses of longitudinal self-report data, quantitative studies also provided the clearest and most convincing evidence that something about gangs causes its members to behave badly.

Explanation of this “something,” together with the reasons behind the formation and evolution of gangs, should have been the next order of business, but the shift toward quantitative research methodologies was so strong and pervasive that etiological inquiry suffered. By their very nature, survey research and analyses of official records focus primarily on individual gang members, rather than on the complexity and dynamics of gangs as groups. Even field research came to be based primarily on in-depth interviews with former and current gang members. Although these studies yielded important insight into the attitudes, experiences, and activities of gangs and gang members, including females and Asians in the United States and elsewhere, too often they lacked attention to the contexts of these young people’s lives.

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