Posted: March 18th, 2023
Youth Gangs: The Role of the Family in the Formation and Prevention of Youth Gangs
The issue of youth gangs is one of the most serious concerns facing administrators in the UK today. Numerous factors have been identified as increasing the risk of one getting lured into gang activity. The most prominent of these factors include poverty and deprivation, poor performance in school, drug and substance abuse, and crime-prone surroundings. While not underestimating the role of these factors, this study seeks to establish the role of the family as an influencing factor of youth delinquency and gang involvement. It is intent on showing that disorganization within the family unit is the main reason as to why young people engage in gang activities, and the best way to address the problem is by giving families and parents a central role in policy and interventions.
Table of Contents
Defining a Gang.
The push and pull factors that drive gang membership.. 13
The role of the family in gang involvement
The urban underclass.. 17
Family structure and gang involvement.. 18
Familial criminality and gang involvement. 19
Theoretical framework. 21
Findings and discussion.
Chapter One: Introduction
Youth gangs are back on the government’s agenda, with Prime Minister David Cameron recently promising to put up an “all out fight” against gangs wreaking havoc in the country’s inner cities. A 2008 study by the Home Office established that nearly 6% of adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 in England and Wales belong to some form of gang. In London alone, police have reported approximately 171 “dangerous” gangs, and have found almost half of all teenage deaths in the city to be gang-related (Castella & McClatchey, 2011). The situation is no different in Manchester, Glasgow, and Liverpool, where 60% of shootings are linked to gang involvement (Castella & McClatchey, 2011). However, whilst not disputing these statistics, criminology experts are raising questions over the criterion used by police to categorize a group as a gang – given that most of the young offenders arrested on gang-related charges do not even identify themselves as gang members in their court appearances (Castella & McClatchey, 2011). In his book, One Blood, for instance, John Heale (2009: 1968) expresses that we do not even have a standard definition for the term “gang” in the UK, and it is likely, therefore, that we may perceive every “suspicious” group as a gang even when they are just kids hanging around together because they do not have anything useful to do. Owing to this lack of information on the nature and operations of gangs, and the effect of misrepresentation on the part of the media, we have developed this common perception that urban groups nurture attitudes and values that encourage delinquency. What is even more worrying though is that we do not stop to consider the effect of external push and pull factors that contribute to gang membership and gang involvement (Cox, 2011:1). Well, if this is the mentality that PM David Cameron and his team intend to use in their war against gang activities, then we should not expect the youth gang problem to go away any time soon.
If we are to effectively tackle the issue of youth gangs, we will need to adopt a holistic approach that responds not only to the surface issues, but also the underlying issues that drive young people to join gangs. As Gavin Poole, the executive director at the Center for Social Justice, says, we cannot eradicate youth gangs by eliminating those who are already caught up in them; the best we can do is prevent more youths from joining the same (Castella & McClatchey, 2011). Doing so will, however, require us to first heighten our understanding of the social, individual, and psychological factors that drive the youth to join gangs. If we can effectively address these, then we will be able to minimize the youth gang effect, which has threatened the nation’s security for centuries.
This dissertation examines the causal factors in the youth gang problem, with particular emphasis on the role of the family in criminality and gang membership. The researcher hypothesizes that disorganization within the family unit is the main reason why young people engage in gang activities. This is, however, not to underestimate the role of other social, psychological, and individual factors because the researcher fully understands that one’s involvement in criminality is driven by their socio-economic context as a whole, and not a single factor. All the same, compared to other factors, familial influences have been largely understudied, and the researcher feels that the current study not only complements existing research, but also addresses the existing knowledge gaps and provides some good insight to policymakers on how to effectively structure policies geared at responding to the gang problem.
To meet its primary objectives, the study made use of web-based documents and secondary sources, with the key areas of focus being the different definitions of the term “youth gang,” the similarities and differences between UK and U.S. gangs, the push and pull factors that drive gang involvement, the role of the family in driving gang involvement, and the various responses to the issue undertaken by the government in the past.
Chapter 2 focuses on the methodologies that were used to help the study realize its objectives. It outlines the advantages and disadvantages of using both primary and secondary data and gives reasons as to why the latter was more preferable for this particular study. Further, it presents the strengths and weaknesses of quantitative as well as qualitative studies, and explains why the latter was preferred despite its inherent weaknesses. It also outlines the various steps that were taken to ensure the validity and reliability of results.
Chapter 3 covers the various focus areas that have been studied by researchers in the past in relation to the causes of gang involvement. It is divided into two sections. The first section reviews data and statistics from the Home Office and various police reports with the aim of analyzing the different definitions of the term “youth gang” to show why there is need to conduct more research in this area of study. The trends established in this section form the basis of the second section, which focuses on the pull and push factors that drive young people to join gangs. Significant emphasis is placed on the family as a contributing factor.
Chapter 4 gives the study its deductive approach through theory. It uses Hirsch’s social control theory to show how structural changes and unfavorable conditions within the family unit drive young people to join gangs. It demonstrates that young people are more likely to engage in gang activities if they are disentangled from their pro-social institutions such as school and family, or worse still, if these institutions are non-existent. In this regard, having delinquent parents, having gang-associated families, being from large and disadvantaged households, and single parenting are all risk factors for gang involvement. By applying academic theory to a contemporary issue, this chapter provides redress to the knowledge gaps that characterize the existing body of literature.
Chapter 5 summarizes the main findings of the study and provides a justification for the argument that disorganization within the family unit is the main reason why young people engage in gang activities. It builds the case that in order for policy to be effective in addressing the issue of youth gangs, policymakers will need to appreciate the role of the family and accord it a central role in any gang-related policies they develop. The chapter concludes with a statement of the study limitations and areas for future research.
Chapter 6, the final chapter, reminds the reader of the primary objectives of the study, the methodological approaches used to realize these objectives, the overall findings, and the significance of these findings in policy development.
Chapter 2: Methodology
Secondary sources from the internet and the library were used to realize the study objectives. They included journal articles, books, academic texts, government reports and police reports, and official statistics from the Home Office. The researcher reckons that it would have been more beneficial to conduct primary research for this particular study given that very little data exists on the topic of youth gangs in the UK, and most of it is obsolete and out-of-date. However, he feels that this would have been rather too ambitious for a dissertation at this level particularly because of the ethical requirements that surround the conduction of research using human subjects. For instance, the British society of Criminology’s Code of Ethics requires researchers conducting studies on young, vulnerable subjects to first acquire ethical approval for the same (Cox, 2011). Given that this study would have been conducted on young people, some teenagers and adolescents whom may have been affected by, participated in, or witnessed violent crime, and who can be deemed vulnerable by virtue of age, it would have been subject to the society’s regulations. Obtaining the requisite approval would have consumed a considerable amount of time, and would have forced the researcher to rush the study to be able to beat deadlines, thereby compromising the quality of results. It is these very reasons that informed the decision to use secondary sources and data that has already been conducted by past researchers to meet the study objectives.
Conducting secondary research has several advantages, including; it is affected less by researcher manipulation, is less time consuming, and is less costly to conduct. The fact that materials are readily available on the internet allows researchers to spend less time on data collection and more time on the interpretation of results. This gives room for the results to be more credible. Further, resources such as books can help in the recognition of trends over time, enabling the researcher to draw some useful conclusions. However, secondary research is not without its share of disadvantages. To begin with, there usually is difficulty assessing the quality of resources, particularly online resources, which may contain out-of-date content. Websites could specifically be marred by credibility and authenticity issues, particularly if the author is unknown.
To increase the credibility of results, in light of these disadvantages, the researcher made only very minimal use of website information; most of the information used in the study was obtained from books, government reports, and peer-reviewed journal articles, which are generally considered more credible sources. The researcher recognizes that government reports could also be subject to bias particularly in regard to statistics on gang-related crime and the ineffectiveness of past responses and policy. However, since these are still the best sources of such information, the researcher gives the information presented therein the benefit of doubt, and lists this as one of the major limitations of the study. The few internet resources that were used in the study were subjected to Scott’s four-item criteria for quality assessment — authenticity, representativeness, credibility, and meaning as a way of quality-assurance. The findings of the study can, therefore, be considered credible and reliable.
Qualitative vs. Quantitative Studies
This study uses qualitative techniques to realize its objectives. The overriding aim of any research study is to gather intelligence about a phenomenon of interest and bring to light elements and behaviors that had previously not been identified. Quantitative techniques use numbers and statistics to identify these trends whereas qualitative frameworks use people’s opinions and perspectives to explain why such trends are the way they are. Quantitative studies are usually interested in proving or falsifying certain hypotheses or theories more than they are in understanding phenomena. They are more beneficial to studies seeking to make generalizations about a certain phenomenon, and have several advantages including i) being able to minimize the risk of bias and manipulation since researchers make use of random samples and subjects unknown to them; and ii) ensuring accuracy of results by availing statistical instruments for validity-testing.
The exploratory nature of this study, however, lends itself more to qualitative techniques. The researcher reviewed the perspectives and opinions of young people involved in gang activities as presented in past studies. The core focus was to determine how families contribute to their gang involvement by obtaining first-hand information from subjects on, among other things, what their familial relationships are like, the size of their families, the availability of both parents in the home, and delinquency on the part of parents or older siblings. With this information, the researcher was able to understand the role of family in teenage gang involvement and to establish links to support the argument that disorganization within the family unit is the main reason why young people engage in gang activities.
The main problem with this approach, however, is that unlike the quantitative framework, it does not lend itself to mathematical and statistical determinations of validity. All the same, the researcher ensured the validity of results through triangulation, particularly investigator triangulation (Golofshani, 2003). Triangulation is basically defined as the use of multiple methods or techniques to increase the validity of data in qualitative studies. Triangulation in this case will be achieved through considering the explanations and ideas generated by multiple researchers who studied the phenomenon of youth gangs in the past, and comparing the same with the aim of identifying differences and similarities.
Chapter 3: Literature Review
Defining a Gang
The UK does not have a standard definition for what constitutes a gang (Cox, 2011:5; Young, et al., 2013: 14; Hallsworth & Young, 2008). Consensus is yet to be reached on the question of which groups can rightly be considered as gangs, and the exact point at which a group ceases to be just a group and becomes a gang. This lack of a standard definition has driven different parties to develop and adopt their own definitions for the same, and to consequently quote different figures in relation to the number of gangs in the UK. Owing to the lack of gang-related literature in the UK, most of the definitions used by agencies in the country are based on an American context (Cox, 2011:5). The definition problem is not any better in the U.S.; however, the widely recognized definition is that advanced by Walter Miller in 1982, which defines a gang as:
A group of recurrently associating individuals with identifiable leadership and internal organization, identifying with or claiming control over territory in the community, and engaging either individually or collectively in violent or other forms of illegal behavior (Cox, 2011:5).
Concern has, however, been raised over the applicability of this particular definition in the UK context. Hallsworth and Young (2004:13), for instance, express that the definition creates a false image that American gang stereotypes are the same as those of the UK, yet research has shown that there are significant differences between UK and U.S. gangs. The authors posit that due to time and place variations between the two countries, the gang characteristics of the two countries ought not to be compared; and for that reason, the UK needs to adopt a different definition that is specific to its context. Gordon (2000) and Heale (2009) hold a similar view — they contend that under this definition, informal youth groups could be labeled as gangs even when they themselves do not consider themselves as such, and even if they are not criminal. Recent decades have seen UK researchers shed off the “Eurogang” and attempt to come up with definitions that are better-suited to the UK context
Stelfox (1998), for instance, defined a gang as any group, excluding terrorists and football hooligans, that uses violence to further criminal intentions. Based on this definition, he identified a total of 72 gangs in the country (Stelfox, 1998: 398). Other definitions have given rise to different figures. The Metropolitan Police, with their definition, placed the number of gangs at 169, whereas Hallsworth and Young (2008: 179) found that gang membership accounts for between 3 and7% of the country’s youthful population. These discrepancies are sufficient proof that the lack of a standard definition makes it difficult for us to accurately estimate the number of gangs there are in the country, and increases the likelihood of us wrongly giving groups of youth who innocently love hanging out together a gang name, and unfairly characterizing them with all these negative stereotypical images that we hold about youth gangs.
In order to avoid the stigmatizing potential associated with the gang label, agencies and researchers have created alternative labels for referring to informal youth groups that seemingly meet the Walter Millers criteria — engage in illegal activities either collectively or individually, has a regular meeting pattern, are tied to a particular geographical territory, has an identifiable leadership, is known by a gang name, and is characterized by specific symbols (Cox, 2011:5). The Home Office, for instance, avoids using the term “gang” in its reports, choosing instead to use the term “delinquent youth groups” (Cox, 2011:5). Other researchers refer to them as “troublesome youth groups” (Klein, et al., 2006) or “on-road” youth (Young, et al., 2013). Well, whether or not these alternative names have any tangible effect on the way people view youth gangs remains a subject of debate; what is quite evident, however, is that in order to tackle the youth gang problem, we will need to first determine the actual extent of the problem, and it starts with getting a standard definition for what actually constitutes a gang.
The Push and Pull Factors that Drive Gang Membership and Gang Involvement
Researchers have sought to establish why some youths are more predisposed to engage in gang activity than others. They have identified three categories of factors that make one more predisposed to join a gang — individual factors, social factors, and psychological factors.
Individual Factors: research has shown that just as is the case in the U.S., gang membership in the UK is characterized mainly by young persons between the ages of 12 and 25 (Rizzo, 2003). It has further been shown that most of those who join gangs in their adolescent years continue membership into their early twenties (Rizzo, 2003). Adolescents between the ages of 12 and 18 have been found to be more at risk of getting lured into gang activity than people in other age groups (Rizzo, 2003). Further, whilst there is still significant concern over the rising number of females getting involved in gang activity, statistics have shown that males are still the more dominant gender in youth gangs in the UK (Castella & McClatchey, 2011; Rizzo, 2003; Bennett & Holloway, 2004). Individuals with mental illness issues and learning disabilities have also been found to be more at risk of getting lured into gang activities, compared to the rest of the population (Hill, et al., 1999). Studies have shown that contrary to what was reported in the past, ethnicity is not so much of an issue in the composition of the modern gang (Rizzo, 2003). Mixed results have actually been reported in this regard, with some studies showing gangs to be ethnically homogenous (Esbensen & Weerman, 2005) and others showing them to be heterogeneous (Aldridge & Medina, 2006). Researchers have interpreted these inconsistencies to mean that modern gangs are just a representation of the ethnic composition of the neighborhoods within which they are formed (Rizzo, 2003).
Social Factors: studies have shown that adolescents are more likely to join gangs if they are from an economically-disadvantaged background or from disorganized neighborhoods that report significant instances of crime, unemployment, and drug abuse (Rizzo, 2003; Cox, 2011; Young, et al., 2013). In their study seeking to establish the familial backgrounds of 63 young people who belonged to a gang at some point in their past, Young and his colleagues (2013) found slightly more than a third of their respondents to be from the country’s most deprived areas. Further, over three-quarters of the respondents reported being from areas reporting significant instances of violent crime (Young, et al., 2013). When asked how their criminal environments induced them to join gangs, one of the respondents expressed that “they had little choice, but to be associated with gang groups as protection from victimization” (Young, et al., 2013, p. 36). Others expressed that they only joined gang groups because they felt that needed to emulate and impress the older members of the community — according to one participant, it was the only way to survive (Young, et al., 2013).
Other studies have sought to establish the effect of the school environment. Cox (2011), for instance, found exclusion at school due to underperformance or any related factors to be a significant push factor for gang involvement. The participants in the Young, et al. (2013) study heavily supporting this view, with some arguing that since their teachers and fellow students had no respect for them, joining gang groups was the only way to achieve respect and recognition. Others reported getting disenchanted from school because school was neither giving them money nor protecting them from bullying from their colleagues and rival sports teams — gang groups offered both (Young, et al., 2013).
Poverty and unemployment have also been found to play a crucial role in driving young people into gang activity (Cox, 2011; Alleyne & Wood, 2010). Most participants in the Young, et al. (2013) study quoted “the need to make money” as their primary motivation for joining gang groups. To one participant, joining a gang and selling drugs was the only rational way of dealing with the relative poverty he lived in, and it was the only way to fit in. Multiple others reported that having been forced to drop out of school due to poor performance and pronounced exclusion, they were unable to obtain employment, and the only way to make money was through joining gang groups (Young, et al., 2013).
Psychological Factors: studies have shown low self-esteem to have a direct link with aggression, antisocial behavior, and delinquency, all of which are characteristic features of gang membership (Rizzo, 2003; Alleyne & Wood, 2010). Alleyne and Wood (2010), for instance, express that youths with self-esteem issues, low levels of confidence, and weak attachments to pro-social institutions such as school and family run significantly high risks of joining gang groups. Duke and his colleagues (1997) were able to show that self-esteem plays a central role in determining not only whether one joins a gang, but also whether they are able to leave the gang when they no longer wish to participate in its activities. They suggest that a young person with self-esteem issues will often join a gang to obtain psychological support and satisfaction, and as the collective esteem of the group goes up (following their success in antisocial and delinquent activities), that person’s individual esteem also rises (Dukes, Martinez & Stein, 1997). However, if it so happens that the individual wishes to disenchant himself from the activities of the gang later on, they will need high self-esteem to be able to effectively resist backward pressure from the rest of the gang members (Dukes, et al., 1997). Other psychological constructs that have been linked with gang involvement among young people include peer-pressure (Young, et al., 2013), risk-seeking tendencies (Cox, 2011; Young, et al., 2013), and impulsivity (Alleyne & Wood, 2010).
Guided by the effect of these psychological factors, researchers have established that young people will often join gang groups in order to gain independence and an identity (Cox, 2011; Alleyne & Wood, 2010; Young, et al., 2013). Around one-third of the participants in the Young study, for instance, expressed that they were motivated to join gang activity by an inner desire to be able to provide for themselves, “stand on their own two feet,” and “be a man” (Young, et al., 2013). One of the participants expressed frustration at how his parents would, despite the fact that he was sixteen, keep calling whenever he stayed out late just to make sure that he was okay — to him, he was a grown man and needed to be left alone, to live his life however he pleases; but that would not happen as long as he was still dependent on his parents (Young, et al., 2013). Multiple other respondents harbored the same view, with most expressing frustration at how school, family, and other pro-social institutions were trying to control and regulate their behavior, yet they had literally failed to respond to their physical and psychological needs (Young, et al., 2013). These responses prompt an interesting question — what exactly is the role of the family in youth’s involvement in gang activity; has the family unit failed in its regulatory role?
The Role of the Family in Youth’s Involvement in Gangs
There is consensus among existing studies that the family unit has a lot to do with an individual’s decision to join a gang (Cox, 2011; Rizzo, 2003; Dukes, et al., 1997; Young, et al., 1997). Variables such as familial criminality, multigenerational gang membership, domestic violence, drug and substance abuse on the part of the parent, lack of role models, fatherlessness, weak familial ties, lack of parental control, and poor home socialization have been found to have a direct link with gang membership. Studies have, for instance, suggested that children from dysfunctional family units will often join gangs to obtain the physical and psychological support they are not getting in the home (Rizzo, 2003). There is contention in the literature though that gang membership is driven by the need to fill some form of void that would, under normal circumstances, be filled by pro-social institutions such as school and family (Rizzo, 2003; Cox, 2011).
The Urban Underclass
Charles Murray’s “underclass thesis” forms the basis of family-delinquency studies in the UK (Murray, 1996; Young, et al., 2013). It links non-traditional households (particularly single-parent families headed by women) with youth delinquency and gang involvement. In Murray’s view, Britain’s delinquency problems began in the 1990s, when the number of illegitimate births among members of the lower class in municipal district shot up to record high levels (Murray, 1996). He suggests that this was detrimental because women who have “children out of wedlock live in a “different world from other Britons” and subscribe to norms, values, and behaviors that were “contaminating entire neighborhoods” (Young, et al., 2013, p. 19). Murray’s argument is that women’s biological givens make them unable to bring up children, particularly male children, effectively. In his view, women could not bring up the boy child in a moral and socially-accepted way because they themselves do not even know what being a man in a morally and socially acceptable man entails (Murray, 1996). Boys raised entirely by their mothers with no father figure are, therefore, predisposed to display some form of unruliness that made it difficult for those around them to live comfortably (Murray, 1996; Young, et al., 2013). Moreover, such boys were likely to be clueless about what being a good father entails; as a result, they are unable to guide their own children in a “fatherly” way and in the end, the society finds itself entangled in a vicious cycle of dysfunctional families (Murray, 1996). In Murray’s view, this is what transpired in the 1990s, leading to the formation of a fleckless, lawless underclass community characterized by a criminal youth population that predominantly consists of deviant young men (Murray, 1996).
Despite attracting serious criticism from various researchers, Murray’s ideology still continues to inform contemporary studies as well as government policy. The government, through policy, continues to appreciate the link between the family and youths’ involvement in gang-related activity. The Parenting Order, and by extension the Crime and Disorder Act of 1998 was, for instance, geared at tackling the parenting problem by providing support for, and at the same time imposing sanctions on those unable to control the behavior of their children (Young, et al., 2013). The Family Intervention program launched later sough to serve more or less the same course by providing the requisite support to families whose children were seen as posing substantial harm to the community (Young, et al., 2013). Statistics show that these initiatives have largely been ineffective, particularly because in as much as they appreciate the role of the family in the youth criminality problem, they do not recognize that familial dysfunction is not a single-factor phenomenon, but an interplay of multiple factors including family structure, the entry of women into the workforce, equality rights and so on.
Family Structure and Gang Involvement/Delinquency
Studies have reported higher delinquency rates among children brought up in non-traditional families compared to their counterparts in traditional family settings (where both parents live with their children) (Williams, 2004; Alleyne & Wood, 2010). In traditional settings, the woman’s primary goal in the family was child-rearing, whereas that of the man was to work and provide for the family. Thanks to the entry of women into the workforce, and the increasing prevalence of gender equality rights, however, that is no longer the case. Most women today work away from the home, and this makes it extremely difficult for them to identify and respond effectively to the psychological needs of their children (Young, et al., 2013). This perhaps explains the rising number of children from traditional households joining gangs. In their study on UK youth, for instance, Smith and Bradshaw (2005) found the gang involvement rates for such youth to have risen significantly between 2000 and 2005; and by 2005, one in every 5 youths involved in gang activity was from a non-traditional setting (living with both biological parents) (Smith & Bradshaw, 2005). This has been interpreted to mean that owing to the changing dynamics, parents (even those in traditional households) are taking a less active role in their children’s lives.
Still within the context of family structure, several studies have found there to be a direct link between the size of the family and the risk of delinquency and gang involvement. Young and his colleagues (2013), for instance, found that young people from households with more than four children were between four and five times more likely to engage in gang activity – compared to their colleagues from smaller families. Research in this area is, however, still scarce and there is need for more studies to focus on the same.
Familial Criminality and Gang Involvement/Delinquency
Numerous studies have shown a direct link between parental criminality and delinquency/gang involvement (Young, et al., 2013; Alleyne & Wood, 2010). For instance, of the 99 respondents interviewed in the Young study, 12 reported having gang-affiliated fathers, and out of these, 4 had a gang-affiliated mother (Young, et al., 2013). The effect of parental involvement in gang activities, however, appears not to be as influential a factor as having a gang-affiliated sibling. This can be attributed to the fact that due to work-related commitments, more and more parents are spending time away from the family, and parental influence is, as a result, fading away. Of the 12 who admitted to having gang-affiliated parents, for instance, none reported any kind of coercion or encouragement from their parents, and in fact, none cited their parent’s involvement as their reason for joining gangs (Young, et al., 2013).
However, more than a third reported being influenced by their older siblings, particularly their brothers. This should not, however, be taken to mean that having a gang-affiliated brother inevitably leads to gang membership because a considerable number of those who reported having gang-affiliated brothers did not cite this as their reason for joining gangs (Young, et al., 2013). Most of those who reported being influenced by their brothers were, however, also promised protection and security by their influencers (Young, et al., 2013). Further, most acknowledge that despite their regular meeting patterns and their symbolic mode of dressing, their parents do not know that they are gang-affiliated (Young, et al., 2013). This is a perfect demonstration of the parent-child disconnect that characterizes modern society.
Evidently, the existing body of literature appreciates the role of the family in delinquency and gang involvement; however, it does little to show how this knowledge could be incorporated into the country’s policy-development framework. This has led to a knowledge dearth that is perhaps to blame for the continued development of shallow and ineffective gang-related policies. The current study outlines what needs to be done to address this issue, and its findings are, therefore, a crucial source of insight for policymakers.
Chapter 4: Theoretical Framework
Findings from research support the premise that a child’s criminality is dependent on the strength of the bond that they share with their parents. A child who is closely attached to their parents is less likely to engage in criminality than one who is not. Hirschi’s social control theory attempts to explain why this is so. The theory postulates that all humans are born with antisocial tendencies, but the reason why some engage in crime and others do not is because we have different degrees of attachment to our pro-social institutions, one of which is family (Young, et al. 2013). When a child shares a strong bond with their family, particularly their parents, they are more likely to commit to societal values, and are consequently, less inclined to take part in antisocial practices individually or as part of a gang; first because they have been taught the wrongness of such engagement, and secondly, because “they identify with their families and do not want to engage in acts that may cause them to suffer” (Young, et al., 2013, p. 22). In a similar fashion, when the parent-child attachment is weak, the child is likely to display deviant tendencies because they do not identify with their pro-social institutions.
As outlined in the literature reviewed earlier on, one of the key factors that could cause this attachment to be weak is parental absenteeism. Other influential factors include domestic and sexual abuse, domestic violence, drug and substance abuse, and erratic or authoritative parenting. Miller (2001), for instance, in her analysis of factors that drive female youths to join gangs, was able to show that most gang-affiliated females have a history of domestic and sexual abuse, the latter often perpetrated by close family members. Most of the girls interviewed in the Miller study reported that they had run away from their family environments and joined gangs as a way of seeking refuge from abuse (Miller, 2001).
In another study, Hawkins and his colleagues showed that the lack of positive interaction between children and their parents also had a hand in the weakening of the parent-child attachment and created breeding grounds for delinquency (Hawkins, et al., 1998). The researchers, for instance, found a father’s disengagement from the leisure pursuits of their son to be a strong predictor of delinquency (Hawkins, et al., 1998).
Elsewhere, Young and his colleagues (2013) were also able to show that the strength of the parent-child relationship is also affected by parental absenteeism, occasioned perhaps by both parents working away from the home. This makes it rather difficult for them to identify the emotional and psychological needs of their children, and to consequently respond effectively to the same. Parental absenteeism does not, however, have to result from work-related reasons. It could also be caused by bereavement, divorce and separation, disability, chronic illness, drug abuse, alcoholism, and long-term imprisonment (Young, et al., 2013).
Other studies have identified inadequate parental supervision as another influential factor in the weakening of the parent-child bond. Cox (2011), for instance, posits that it is crucial for parents to establish effective boundaries and exercise healthy supervision on their children, failure to which they risk creating breeding grounds for gang membership. It would be prudent to note, however that exercising too much supervision, characterized by overly permissive and punitive modes of discipline, could damage the relationship. There is need, therefore, for parents to exercise healthy levels of control over their children’s behavior.
Despite its role in explaining the relationship between familial/parental attachment and the risk of delinquency and gang involvement, the social control theory has one fundamental weakness limiting its applicability to this context — it is affected by the dynamism of the parent-child bond (Young, et al., 2013). A parent’s influence over their child fades as the child matures and develops relationships with other people outside the home (Williams, 2004). As time progresses, therefore, the child’s perspectives are shaped more by these external parties and less by their parents. At that point, the constructs of the social control theory may not work effectively. For this reason, parents are advised to take an active role in their children’s lives right from their formative years.
Chapter 5: Findings and Discussion
Gang membership is a direct consequence of the complex interaction of individual, social, and psychological risk factors. Families, however, still play a crucial role in criminality by either exacerbating or mitigating these risk factors. Hirschi’s social control theory provides a sound basis for understanding what the role of the family is in criminality and gang membership. It suggests that when a child shares a strong bond with their family, particularly their parents, they are more likely to commit to societal values, and are less inclined to take part in antisocial practices, be it individually or as part of a gang. Based on this theory, it is apparent that young people are likely to join gangs if they come from disorganized households characterized by parental absenteeism occasioned by imprisonment, bereavement, work-related commitments, and divorce and separation. Domestic and sexual abuse by a close family member was found to be a fundamental motivator for gang membership, particularly in the case of girls. Inadequate parenting was also found to be a crucial factor in delinquency and gang involvement. Authoritative and permissive parenting styles, for instance, were seen to increase the risk of delinquency and gang involvement by weakening the bond between parents and their children. It was deemed prudent, therefore, for parents to establish effective boundaries and to exercise healthy supervision on their children’s behaviors to keep this bond strong. Familial criminality too was found to have a hand in gang membership. Having gang-affiliated siblings was, for instance, found to increase one’s possibility of gang membership.
The role of the family can, however, not be overstated. Other social factors, such as poverty and deprivation, poor performance in school, and rowdy and criminal issues; and psychological factors such as impulsivity and low self-esteem were also seen to be crucial predictors of gang membership among young people. It was, however, established that parents could mitigate the effect of these factors by taking a more active role in their children’s lives. The study proves to be a crucial source of insight for policymakers and program developers alike, particularly in regard to how intervention policies ought to be structured and designed. However, it has one crucial limitation that casts doubt on the validity of its findings. Data was obtained from past studies that sought to examine the effects of certain constructs on gang membership through qualitative interviewee testimonies; as such, there was no way of assessing the extent of truth in these testimonies. Future studies could perhaps focus on studying the effect of familial constructs through quantitative techniques, which allow for better verification of data.
All the same, the study is a valuable piece, and the following policy recommendations have been proposed:
i) That a standard definition for the term “gang” be adopted so that the actual extent of the problem is determined. We can only put up an effective fight if we know what we are up against
ii) That multiagency intervention programs be directed at helping vulnerable parents better their parenting skills; and these be designed to focus on non-corporal, healthy modes of punishment and adolescent parenting
iii) That mechanisms be put in place to provide long-term housing facilities away from the rest of the gang members for youths who wish to desist from gang activities
iv) That interventions be targeted at addressing the underlying causes of gang involvement rather than at flushing out existing gang members. We cannot eradicate youth gangs by eliminating those who are already caught up in them; the best approach we can take is prevent more youths from joining the same
Chapter 6: Conclusion
Youth gangs are among the leading concerns facing administrators and policymakers in the UK. Youth’s involvement in gangs has been attributed to a number of individual, social, and psychological factors. The most prominent ones include poverty and deprivation, unemployment, crime-prone environments, peer pressure, drug and substance issues, low self-esteem, having gang-affiliated family members, and poor performance in school. The family unit has been found to play a crucial role by either mitigating or exacerbating these factors. Generally, this study has established that addressing parenting problems is the best approach in preventing young people from joining gangs.
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