Gangs and Social Networks Research Paper

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Traditional depictions of gang organization have been erroneous or static or were unable to be measured. Relying on these traditional depictions, modern rhetoric regarding organization is that gangs have evolved into hybrid groups that participate in nontraditional behavior such as merging and cooperating with rival gangs. Examining this phenomenon through emic perspectives suggests an alternate explanation. Previous literature has indicated that gangs are very loosely organized, and more recent works have demonstrated that gangs are social networks rather than structured groups. The following essay comparatively examines gang organization through the social network lens.

Key Issues/Controversies

Gang organization has long been a topic of dispute in gang research. Outside of the academic realm remains a pervasive conceptualization of gangs in the American media and law enforcement rhetoric as one of national, highly organized, violent, drug-dealing entities. If this viewpoint were true, then it would indeed be worthy of the fear that it inspires. The problem is that academic research consistently shows that there is little to no validity to this conceptualization (Klein 1995). From the early gang literature, continuing to present day research, there are no strong indications that gangs are highly organized, but instead are loose, fluid affiliations.

If gangs are not the national entities they are believed to be, then what organizational structure do they have? After the millennium, police reports began to note “new” organizational structures that law enforcement agencies were unfamiliar with. This lead to further definitional problems and the introduction of groups referred to as “hybrid gangs.” Believed to be significantly different than “traditional gangs” in composition and behavior, hybrid gangs are described as having:

…members of different racial/ethnic groups participating in a single gang, individuals participating in multiple gangs, unclear rules or codes of conduct, symbolic associations with more than one well-established gang (e.g., use of colors and graffiti from different gangs), cooperation of rival gangs in criminal activity, and frequent mergers of small gangs. (Starbuck et al. 2004, p. 200)

More and more law enforcement agencies began reporting this phenomenon, specifically as characteristic of late-onset gangs or gangs that appeared in cities post-1990 (Starbuck et al., 2004), and it began entering the collective knowledge of the mainstream. In 2008, the History Channel’s series Gangland aired an episode called “Sin City.” This episode, set in Las Vegas, Nevada, highlights hybrid gangs as an evolutionary advancement and emphatically states that multiple associations among gang members of different gangs are more deadly, but never explains why.

The sensationalism of claims that gangs have reached evolutionary advancement and presented increased danger called for further investigation, more so due to “hybrid gangs” not appearing in the literature beyond Thrasher’s (1927) reference to gangs that included different racial/ethnic groups. However, under closer scrutiny, the fluid behaviors associated with hybrid gangs have been appearing in the literature since Yablonsky (1959) argued that gangs were near groups rather than solid organizations. More recently, some research has presented evidence that gangs are porous social networks intertwined with other gang networks and have been so for quite some time (Fleisher 2002). Differing viewpoints may be explained by the use of etic or emic methodology. Etic methodology is the imposition of an outsider’s (i.e., law enforcement) interpretation of a phenomenon; in this case the behavior is believed to be a new gang structure. Alternatively, using emic methodology or understanding phenomenon from the respondent’s point of view or, in this case, the gang member’s point of view explains gang fluidity and nontraditional membership as elements of a social network system (Fleisher 2002; Weisel 2002).

Outside observers may be imputing meanings to gang behaviors that would be understood quite differently from the perspective of the gang member. Examining the literature more thoroughly may help clear up the disputed perspectives on the subject: Is the “hybrid gang” a new phenomenon? Are gangs more like social networks than organizations? Or are these social constructions that amount to “putting old wine into new bottles?”

Structural Typologies

Research has consistently presented gangs as marginally or very loosely organized and widely varied in the activities in which they engage. These findings have led to differing ways in how scholars have interpreted gang structures. For example, in a national survey of 385 police agencies, 45 % indicated that the typical gang was loose knit, and 47 % noted no formal structure in typical gangs (Weisel 2002). However, Weisel (2002) also reported regional differences in gang structure with police indicating more loosely structured delinquent gangs in the Southeast and Midwest, more violent gangs in the West, and more income-generating gangs in the Northeast. Smaller cities were more likely to have delinquent gangs, which engaged in criminal activity but had little involvement with drugs. Furthermore, violent gangs and drug selling gangs most often did not have consistent leadership or a highly structured organization.

Weisel (2002) takes an unusual step and includes in-depth interviews with members of the Black Gangster Disciples and Latin Kings in Chicago and Lincoln Park Piru and Logan in San Diego. Consistent with stereotypes, the Black Gangster Disciples and Latin Kings had extensive organizational structure. In accordance with most literature, the San Diego gangs had little structure, and members considered the groups to be friendship/kinship networks. While some gangs appear to be highly organized, an extensive amount of research indicates that most gangs are not as highly organized as generally believed (Klein 1995; Huff 1996; Decker et al. 1998; Fleisher 1998; Miller 2001).

Attempting to make systematic sense of gang organization has led to a plethora of gang typologies. Although these typologies may be useful in identifying characteristics of a gang at the time of the study, they present the assumption that the gang is static. Typologies focusing on particular criminal activity do not capture the social processes of the gang or a particular gang’s relationships with others. Some of the typologies rely on precarious variables such as amount of drug use and type of crime engaged in or threat level, which have extreme within-group variation and are not stable over time. Klein’s (2002) structural typology provides measurable variables and thus more utility, but does not take fluidity, permeability, or networking behavior into account.

Gang structures are anything but static, but the dynamic gang processes of changing, merging, or splintering have rarely been examined in considerable depth. Most authors have been cursory on the subject, and there has been little in-depth investigation. The information that has been gained concerning these processes was obtained, while scholars investigated gang structures and whether or not they had changed over time.

An intriguing contribution to the extant knowledge on the subject comes from Weisel, (2002) whose interviews portray mergers such as the Black Gangster Disciples forming from the combined gangs of the Black Disciples, Gangster Disciples, and High Supreme Gangsters. Interviews in San Diego also revealed that Logan splintered into “Logan Trece” and “Red Steps” as the gang grew larger and natural boundaries emerged. Unfortunately more detailed information about these mergers and splinter groups was not provided. Spergel (1990) argues that splintering develops from internal competition or if more criminal opportunity becomes available. Monti (1993) argues that it is the lack of control over larger gangs that causes them to split and that agegraded cliques are like gang building blocks that can merge, dissolve, and reassemble. Weisel (2002) views the process of merging and splintering through organizational theory, arguing that a path to organizational equilibrium explains why some groups dissipate and others break off from larger groups until a stable number of organizations are reached. This theoretical approach explicitly ignores the gang member worldview in favor of the assumption that gangs can be called organizations.

It is no surprise that relational behavior and emic perspectives are not often considered when discussing gang organization because doing so would recognize gangs as dynamic processes rather than static structures. Processes are much harder to define and subsequently eschewed by agencies that would like clearly labeled categories. Even though gang relationships are often sidestepped, they are nonetheless important. The gang as a criminological topic is predicated on the idea that individuals are committing crime in a group. The group as characterized by names, colors, symbols, and the like has become such a preoccupation that the relationship of “who” is committing crime together has been ignored. Not all organizational arguments have missed this dynamic. In Cloward and Ohlin’s (1960) typology of delinquent sub-cultures, they recognized that criminal subcultures necessitated adult criminals to indoctrinate younger people into illicit activities or at the very least model illegitimate behavior.

Although limited by focusing only on Mexican-American gangs in San Antonio, Texas, Valdez (2003) provides a typology that further bridges gang structure and social network dynamics. One of the gang types is the “criminal-adult-dependent gang,” which is a highly organized group that is focused on earning illegal income usually through drug sales. Adults outside of the gang provide the group with weapons, drugs, stolen merchandise, protection, and extensions to their criminal networks. Valdez (2003) notes two subtypes of this category. One of the subtypes is a family network in which the adult criminals are closely related to the gang members. The other subtype is dependent on a prison gang, which exerts control over the street gang. Either way, the importance of gang relationships is stressed. If members of different categorical groups work together, then at what point do organizational lines become blurred or nonexistent?

Hybrid Gangs Or Social Networks?

Largely untouched by academic researchers, the “hybrid” gang phenomenon has been discussed primarily by law enforcement agencies such as Missouri’s Kansas City Police Department (Starbuck et al. 2004). The “hybrid” gang is not a new term or idea. It was initially used by Thrasher (1927) to describe gangs of mixed race/ ethnicity, but in the modern era, the term encompasses many other characteristics as well. Different than most traditional depictions of gangs, which described gangs as being comprised mostly of lower class and minority males, police in many jurisdictions are starting to report hybrid gangs. These gangs in late-onset localities (i.e., post-1990) have a greater mix of race/ethnicity, with an increase of white youth, the presence of more females, and a larger proportion of middle-class teens (Howell et al. 2002). Additionally, it appears that members may switch gangs or participate in multiple gangs (Starbuck et al. 2004). For example, in San Antonio, 8 out of 15 former gang members interviewed had switched gangs or belonged to multiple gangs, and two gangs had switched their entire allegiance (Bolden 2012). Although San Antonio agencies have reported gangs since the 1950s, the gangs appeared to have the same “hybrid” characteristics that were being pointed out in emergent gangs.

Cooperation between gangs that are sometimes rivals is also noticed by law enforcement, as is the mixing of gang symbols from Chicagoand Los Angeles-based gangs. Just as these gangs are engaged in cafeteria-style offending, they are selecting characteristics of different established gangs. This gives further credence to the idea that gangs have now become popular brand names (Klein 1995). The use of the term “hybrid gangs” to describe groups that have more fluid membership and nontraditional membership (Starbuck et al. 2004) is an illustration of etic methodology,

In emic methodology, the idea of self-identifying oneself as a member of a particular gang becomes relevant. Fleisher (2002) argues that self-nomination as a gang member refers to both an attribute and a relational aspect of membership. Gang research tends to examine membership as an attribute and neglect the relational component. However, it is of great importance that self-nomination is a statement of having a particular relational status to other people. Fleisher (2002) used social network analysis to examine the nature of gang member relationships between females and how these affiliations affected gang participation. In explaining a gang member’s ego network, which is the group of people that an individual directly interacts with on a regular basis, Fleisher (2002) found many members had relationships with people from other gangs than their own. Furthermore, while gang members certainly associated with other members of their gang, Fleisher found that none of the gang members knew all of the other members in their gang. The members who knew the most members in their gang only knew 10 % of the members in their gang. The gangs studied ranged from large Midwestern gangs such as the Gangster Disciples and Vice Lords to an independent gang called the Fremont Hustlers. It would seem that his conclusions may not be as relevant to smaller gangs, but Fleisher was revealing that individuals knew, interacted with, and spent time with several other gang members, in different gangs, rather than exclusively with people who identified themselves as being in the same gang.

The actual ego networks of each gang member, or the people they regularly interacted with, were fairly small and often included members of other gangs. Fleisher (2002) argued that the status of gang membership provided social capital and being included in the social networks of other gangs would further increase someone’s social capital. While Bolden (2012) notes that gang members often referred to positive interactions with members of other gangs, Decker et al. (1998) provide one of the only studies that actually examined relationships among gangs. Studying 26 Gangster Disciples and 18 Latin Kings in Chicago, as well as 20 members of Logan Heights and 21 members of Lincoln Park Piru in San Diego, Decker et al. (1998) found that relationships with other gangs were very common. All of the San Diego gang members reported maintaining relationships with other street gangs, while 80 % of the Gangster Disciples and 75 % of the Latin Kings maintained these types of relationships. Furthermore, all of the Latin Kings and Logan Heights members maintained relationships with prison gangs. Eighty-seven percent of the Gangster Disciples and 75 % of the Lincoln Park Piru also maintained relationships with prison gangs. Although some would argue that gang alliances are brittle (Monti 1993), they do not deny that gangs assist each other in varying ways. Decker et al. (1998) provide us with evidence that in spite of often being overlooked, gang relationships are common and these networks may be an important part of the gang experience.

With data from a gang task force in New Jersey, McGloin (2007) also provides evidence that gangs are more aptly described as social networks and rather than being structured organizations, the gang boundaries are dynamic and opaque. Also using social network analysis, Papachristos (2006) did not find cohesion in gangs as a whole, but strong cohesion in subgroups of the gang. These ego networks were responsible for specific crimes and behaviors indicating that crimes are ego network related rather than gang related or motivated (Fleisher 2002). This is an alternate interpretation to the idea of organizational cooperation between rivals in hybrid gangs (Starbuck et al. 2004). Understanding gangs from a social network standpoint can help clear up the ambiguities in determining whether individuals or whole groups work together. It can also examine whether the “hybrid” label is a valid concept or if it is a misinterpretation of kinship/friendship networks.

The gang members in Weisel’s (2002) study saw the gang as a friendship network, which is consistent with the findings of Fleisher (2002). Furthermore, though Yablonsky (1973) has been attacked for his depiction of the gang as sociopathic and violent, few have paid attention to his concept of the gang as near group. Yablonsky (1959) reported that gang members had no measurable number of members, no definition of membership, no specific roles, no understood consensus of norms, and no clear flow of leadership to action. Weisel (2002) placed the particular gangs studied in an organizational context because they portrayed orientation towards goals and organizational continuity. However if gangs lack the vast majority of organizational aspects as pointed out by Yablonsky (1959), can they really be considered organizations?

Viewing gangs in an organizational context forces categorical boundaries that may only exist in the mind of the outside observer. As gang characteristics noted by Yablonsky (1959) indicate, there is much more fluidity to gangs and gang members, and gang boundaries may be much more porous. The organizational viewpoint may also lead to an ecological fallacy of assuming that members of different gangs engaging in activity together means gangs are working together. Finally, this idea ignores the viewpoint of gang members that gangs are kinship/friendship networks. Confusing or misinterpreting the relationships of gang members may have led to the present label of “hybrid gangs.” Viewing gang processes from a social network viewpoint clears up this confusion by distinguishing relationships among gang members as well as among gangs.

State Of The Art

Examination of what law enforcement call hybrid gangs is in its infancy and as of yet has not received serious empirical investigation. Whether gangs have actually changed or these processes have previously existed and been overlooked, the “hybrid” gang label implies fluid membership between gangs, a lessening of violent events in joining and leaving gangs, more interaction among gangs, and a selective mix of identifying elements of well-known gangs. These gangs are also claimed to be lateonset (i.e., post-1990) gangs that are characterized as having an increase in females, an increase of whites, and an increase of middleclass youth. These apparent differences challenge many previously used assumptions of gangs as social islands with impermeable boundaries.

A considerable amount of literature informs us that gangs tend to not be highly organized structures but rather loose conglomerations of clique structures (Decker and Curry 2000; Fleisher 2002; Klein and Crawford 1967; Papachristos 2006). These conglomerations are not highly cohesive as a whole, albeit stronger cohesion occurs among particular cliques. These smaller cohesive cliques dilute the influence of the overall gang in favor of the immediate people that an individual interacts with. Lerman (1967, p. 71) describes the gang subcultural unit as “a network of pairs, triads, groups with names, and groups without names.” What has not been discussed in the literature, with the notable exception of Fleisher (2002, 2006), is who is actually in these particular cliques.

If these smaller cohesive units are in networks, then the most viable framework for examining gang member relationships emerging from previous literature is social network analysis (SNA). Social network analysis is both a theoretical framework and a methodological approach. From a theoretical standpoint, people belong to intricate webs of social relationships that influence their lives in a myriad of ways and affect occupational chances, general opportunities, and perceptions of the world (Simmel 1955; Papachristos 2006). Social networks can be analyzed on the group level through degree centrality and density or by using individual ego networks as the unit of analysis. The ego network refers to the social ties/ bond the individual has to other individuals. Until recently social network analysis has rarely been used to study gangs. Klein and Crawford (1967) and, more recently, McGloin (2005, 2007) and Papachristos (2006) have used this framework to examine cohesion of members within a gang, finding that there were cohesive subgroups or cliques but not strong cohesion in the gang as a whole. Fleisher (2006) used nomination of friends to identify ties between members of different gangs such as the Gangster Disciples, Vice Lords, and Stones, which are sometimes rivals. Fleisher argued that affiliation in the same categorical gang was not sufficient to foster sentiment between members. Even if members hung out with each other, they often indicated preference for other friends that were not a part of their own particular affiliation. Preference was also related to the social capital created by network relationships. Social capital in networks makes more actions and opportunities available (Papachristos 2006). Fleisher (2006) argues that even though belonging to a gang provides a level of social capital, gang member relationships are based more on the expanded social capital that a connection provides rather than affiliation with a particular group.

Fleisher (2006) explains that the use of other methods to study gangs has resulted in the concept of the bounded group. Although it makes obvious sense that gang members, like most other people in society, interact in many different social circles and utilize agency in choosing who to associate with, resulting in their not being bound by the gang per se, the conventional depiction of the gang member as the folk devil allows for easy disregard of viewing any behavior of the gang member as normal. Ironically, Cotterell (1996) comes to conclusion that interactional behavior between gang members is actually more fluid and less stable than other adolescent cliques. Cliques are groups of people who spend time together. Usually adolescents belong to many cliques with different sets of friends in varying contexts, such as sports teams, neighborhood friends, and school friends. In gangs, however, membership provides the individual with the social capital to more freely move between cliques. Cotterell (1996, pp. 33–34) describes gangs as “a series of changing microsystems. The individual joins one group for a time, then leaves, and rejoins or moves on to another.”

Ayling (2009), who views gangs as organized criminal networks, theoretically argues that the weak links between gang network hubs or “loose couplings” make the gang functionally resilient against both law enforcement suppression and attacks from other groups. Damage done to one hub or clique will not destroy the entire network. Furthermore, the clique type network removes the sluggish and burdensome chain of command, allowing members enough freedom to instantly act and have improvisational responses to immediate concerns. Using police data, McGloin (2005) identified particular gang members as “cut-points” or the only connection or intermediaries between the different cliques within a gang.

Controversies And Questions


Papachristos (2006, 2009) challenges Fleisher’s (2006) characterization of gang membership as relational attributes and argues instead that they are social groups based on the patterned actions that are caused by relational ties. Arguing that gangs are groups and not “pedagogical constructs,” Papachristos (2009) examines gang network relationships and demonstrates predictable patterns of homicide activity. Fleisher (2006) explains however that methodological choice will cause this discrepancy, and indeed Papachristos uses (2006, 2009) police data to examine gang networks.

Using emic methodology and qualitative interviews in San Antonio, Texas, and Orlando, Florida, Bolden (2010) expands on Fleisher’s work, which was conducted with female gang members, by not only identifying ties among male and female members of different gangs but also the nature and consequences of those network ties in regard to “hybrid” gang processes, such as belonging to multiple gangs, switching gangs, and fluidity of joining or leaving gangs. The social network of the gang member allows for expansion of social capital and expanded opportunities in the urban arena.

The following example is an ego-network depiction of a gang member in Orlando, Florida (see Fig. 1). Caribe self-identifies as belonging to Hoover Folk, yet his most common interactions were with members of different gangs. His social group that he spent time partying and getting high with consisted of two Bloods and a Latin Queen, all of which are the traditional primary enemies to his gang. The other members of Caribe’s ego network, a Crip and a member of a Jamaican Posse, are his business associates that he engages in illicit profit-oriented activity with.

Gangs and Social Networks Research Paper

This example of one gang member’s ego network has profound implications for the study of gang organization, which include:

(a) This is not a categorical group (no shared name, signs, symbols, etc.).

(b) From an etic standpoint, this would be seen as one group and labeled as a hybrid gang. From an emic standpoint, this is not one group, but two separate segments of an ego network.

(c) Criminal activity is being committed by gang members together, but they are not in the same categorical gang. This becomes especially relevant to jurisdictions that define gang activity along the lines of categorical variables.

(d) Rather than gangs cooperating, this illustrates individual gang members cooperating.

(e) If the crime occurring in this network is considered gang crime, which bounded categorical group is attributed with the crime? If these actors commit a homicide together, which gang is credited for it?

Bolden (2010) found that all but 2 of the 48 current and former gang members he interviewed indicated that strong relationships along the lines of kinship, business, friendship, conflict-partners, sports, school, and romance existed between themselves and members of rival gangs. Many of these relationships were primary, in the sense that more time and activity, both criminal and benign, was spent with members of other gangs than members of their own gangs. Also of interest was that 22 of the interviewees were gang migrants from Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, where they described the same dynamics occurring.

Gangs and Social Networks Research Paper


Though there is more academic support for understanding gangs as social networks than there is for the “hybrid gang” label, the question of emergence still remains. Both Fleisher’s (2002) and Bolden’s (2010) studies were post-1990, clearly placing the networks studied in the late-gang onset era. This is not evidence that the networking phenomenon is new. It could be that the behavior was not previously noticed. Indeed, four of Bolden’s (2010) interviewees participated in gang activity prior to the 1990s (one in the 1960s, three in the 1970s), and all indicated the same relational activities. Furthermore, Reymundo Sanchez (2000) chronicles his criminal activity as a Latin King in the early 1970s, which includes more criminal cooperation with members of other gangs including rivals than activity with the Latin Kings.

The evidence of preexistence, though not strong, indicates that to some extent the cooperation between rival gang members is not a new occurrence. This question remains open, but as it concerns history, it may be that we cannot ascertain the answer. What is more pertinent are the modern conceptions of gang organization. Will evidence that gangs are fluid, dynamic, network structures continue to be overlooked by all but a few in favor of static structural interpretations, or will we deign to entertain other arguments about gang organization?

Social network analyses of gangs are not new but have been relatively unused. Investigative hurdles in this regard are the lack of dissemination of SNA as a viable research option and training in this methodology. These analyses may require specific software programs such as UCINET that researchers have not had any training with. Furthermore, the data used in these analyses have to be very specific, and any quantitative data gleaned from police reporting would need some detailed component of gang member relational ties. Due to this major hurdle, researchers need to find agencies that already keep rich data or direct the data collection process from the onset of a study.

Key studies using social network analysis have been few and far between largely due to the difficulty of gaining access to the required information and the lack of dissemination regarding SNA as a viable option. Expansions of studies of this nature are extremely important because the question of organization has characterized the field of gang research for quite some time. The vast majority of literature indicates that most gangs are loose-knit pseudoorganizations, yet the idea of an organized group persists in the collective mind of the public and law enforcement. Examining the literature more carefully and more specifically from the gang member’s perspective rather than an outsider’s viewpoint indicates that the gang is a fluid network of connections between members of different “groups” that give said members the social capital needed for expansion and access in the street. Perceived gang boundaries seem to be more of an imposition of an outsider’s insistence on categorical distinctions but may have nothing to do with the actual social activity of the gang member. Indeed, outsider insistence on categorical relationships ignores relational ties and their importance when it comes to who is actually committing crime together. Using alternate tools for study will help our field avoid the trap of adhering to outdated concepts and bring us closer to understanding the phenomenon at hand.


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