Street Gangs

VI. Global Contexts

Although disagreement exists concerning the precise nature of the forces comprising globalization, it is impossible to deny the human impact of worldwide changes in economic and political systems, international criminal enterprises, and responses to crime. Global trends, often driven by advances in technology and transportation, have transformed economies on many levels of organization. The most devastating effect for inner-city local economies has been the loss of well-paying manufacturing jobs. Once providing avenues of mobility out of poverty and poverty-stricken neighborhoods, these jobs have moved to the suburbs and, in many cases, to developing and third world countries in which human labor is easily exploited.

Extending the argument of Wilson (1987) in the United States, Hagedorn (2008) argues that an important result of global trends has been the emergence of large-scale underclass populations in many cities throughout the world. Hagedorn’s “world of gangs” thesis paints a very different picture of gangs than did research carried out during much of the 20th century. Contrary to Thrasher’s (1927) emphasis on the spontaneous emergence of street gangs out of common interests and play groups, for example, Hagedorn argues that the forces of globalization have transformed and institutionalized traditional street gangs and created new collectivities of “armed young men.” Hagedorn adopts the view that a “new geography of social exclusion” increasingly affects the “Fourth World,” comprising “large areas of the globe, such as much of Sub-Saharan Africa and impoverished areas of Latin America and Asia,” and is “present in literally every country, and every city” (cited in Castells, 2000, p. 168). Large numbers of young people in these places have been displaced by intertribal conflict and genocide, pressed into military service, sexually enslaved, recruited into drug distribution, and forced to adapt to other extreme conditions. Although such devastations are not limited to young people, the effects of exposure to violence and posttraumatic stress disorder—previously observed among military veterans, street gang members, and victims of crime and torture—may be especially harmful and lasting among youth. In some countries, entire generations of children have become victims.

Despite Hagedorn’s (2008) defense that “gangs are not a unique form but one of many kinds of armed groups that occupy the uncontrolled spaces of a ‘world of slums’” (p. xxiv), his amorphous definition of gangs as “alienated groups socialized by the streets or prisons, not conventional institutions” (p. 89) obscures important distinctions among and between “street gangs” and other gangs in levels of alienation, armament, and unconventional socialization. Child soldiers and other groups of armed young men (and young women) have become a tragic reality, no matter their differences from street gangs. However, Hagedorn’s impressive documentation that such groups exist in many parts of the world fails to provide the sort of rich, locally contextualized information needed to answer questions of how, why, and under what conditions they develop into a street gang or “morph into an ethnic militia, a fundamentalist paramilitary group, or a drug cartel” (p. 22). His overall theme that the ubiquity and permanence of racism and the black/white divide trumps social class and the underclass thesis fits uncomfortably with armed conflicts involving other groups and with huge variations in intergroup relations based on class distinctions in the United States and elsewhere.

However, Hagedorn’s (2008) insistence that gangs are “social actors” rather than passive reactors to oppressive conditions is surely correct, as confirmed by a number of researchers. Venkatesh (2000) links the emergence of street gang control of the distribution of crack cocaine in Robert Taylor Homes (on the South Side of Chicago), the largest public housing complex in the world, to a combination of the disappearance of legitimate work, weakened police and Chicago Housing Authority control, and the compensatory rise of indigenous forms of social control within the massive complex. Indigenous forms of control included gang leaders and members who provided “protection” for legitimate as well as underground businesses and “enforcement” of informal contractual arrangements. Such arrangements were successful for a time, but in the absence of effective police protection, they proved to be too fragile to contain excesses of gang violence and harassment. Venkatesh and Murphy (2007) concur with Hagedorn in suggesting that local indigenous behaviors, including those of gangs, “can be understood as a reaction to and a manifestation of greater, global shifts that have transformed both the formal and informal structures under which communities balance local demands and relations with those of a broader, global order” (p. 153).

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