Do youths lacking proper adult role models, guidance, and supervision, respond to the stresses of their transition from adolescents to adulthood, with gang membership?

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Uraina Owens

Senior Thesis

Do youths lacking proper adult role models, guidance, and supervision, respond to the stresses of their transition from adolescents to adulthood, with gang membership?


The source of street gangs has been a widely debated topic for years. Originating in the Five-Points area of New York City since the 1800s, Forty-Thieves is thought to have been the first youth street gang. Since this time, youth street gangs have emerged in numerous U.S. cities and more recently have even spread to suburban and rural areas. Researchers who study this phenomenon have looked to topics such as immigration, ethnicity, and poverty as possible explanations.

Although New York City was much smaller at the turn of the 1800s, in many ways the city was similar to what we see today. At this time, the city was experiencing a growing immigration population who came to America seeking work and prosperity. This forced many immigrants to compete for limited low-paying jobs and to work long hours in factories, which left their children unsupervised in this new world. In addition, these children were exposed to a variety of social ills such as overcrowding, discrimination, and filth and were witness to the struggles for jobs, inadequate education, and illiteracy amongst those they encountered. In some instances, these children responded by banning together in order to attain food, protection, a sense of family, or just to pass the time.

With a description such as this, one can notice that these ordeals must have been strenuous on these youth. Strain theorists, such as Robert Merton, Albert Cohen, Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin, and contemporary theorist, Robert Agnew, would come to view the formation of gangs as an adaptation to the ills of the inner-city (Agnew, 2009; Cloward & Ohlin, 1960; Cohen, 1960; Merton, 1959). They would hold that past and present youth gang members have experienced strenuous events that make them more prone to crime, and for the case of this paper, to join street gangs.

Although this argument makes sense on the surface, when looked into further a different picture is painted. If gangs are a response or adaptation to the stress of these social ills, then why is this same inner-city problem now present in suburbia? The emergence of street gangs in rural and suburban areas challenges the traditional thoughts of gangs as a response to poverty, heterogeneity, high residential mobility, lagging traditional institutions, or other problems thought to plague the inner-city (Shaw & Mckay, 1942). Instead, it suggests that either these same ills have penetrated our perceived “safe-haven” of suburbia or that there is something else going on.

In my research, I have noticed a common thread between the emergence of suburban and urban street gangs. While the common thread is strain, as noted above by strain theorists, I propose that the source of strain is not unique to the problems of the inner city, but rather to youth attempting to make the transition to adulthood without adequate supervision and adult role models. While current research on strain, adolescence, and urban gangs is in abundance, there is little academic research on the emergence and characteristics of suburban gangs.

This paper seeks to fill this void in the literature by proposing a theoretical framework for exploring the issue or suburban and rural gang membership and to propose a research strategy for testing the proposed theoretical connections. Specifically, in this paper I explore whether youths lacking proper adult role models, guidance, and supervision, may respond to the stresses of their transition from adolescents to adulthood, with gang membership. Building upon the work of previous strain theorists, I will propose a research design exploring how lacking proper guidance may result in increased levels of strain among adolescents as well as unconventional responses to such strain or stress. This paper will provide the reader with a glimpse as to not only why youths join gangs, but also whether crime is a response to strain. In addition, it will also explore reasons why individuals age-out of crime, how adult role models, or lack thereof, may influence gang membership, and why the problem of urban street gangs is spreading. Not only is this paper seeking to establish whether these relationships have any significance on the spread of gangs, but also to examine why and how the quality of these relationships affect individual decisions to join gangs and commit delinquent acts. In the next section, I further elaborate the ways in which strain, proper adult presence, and street gangs are intertwined.

Theoretical Framework

In 1927, Thrasher’s research on youth gangs led him to define them as interstitial groups that form out of spontaneity, and are then integrated through conflict (Thrasher, 1927). These groups, according to Thrasher, develop from an inability of primary and secondary community institutions to provide opportunities and control (Thrasher, 1927). Primary and secondary community institutions are places such as school, church, family, media and peer groups. These institutions are expected to transmit cultural goals and values to residents. The term “interstitial” give us a glimpse early on into a possible explanation of youth street gangs. Interstitial refers to physical areas within slum neighborhoods. In these areas, youths tend to congregate without adult supervision or other authority figures to guide their behavior. These places would be the park, sandboxes, street corners, and other areas out of adult earshot and within slums. For the purposes of this paper, this term will be used in a slightly different manner. Instead of only being ascribed to slums, this term will be used to describe areas in general that are out of adult supervision. As these children transition into adolescents, their areas of congregation change to places such as movies, roller rinks, parties and other popular hang-out spots for teens. These new arenas bring new stresses and societal expectations. These transitional stresses ,combined with the second part of the definition, referring to inadequate traditional social institutions, seems to suggest that these spontaneous play groups are responding to pressures outside of themselves, and within the neighborhood. Drawing from Thrasher’s definition, one can conclude that these institutions failed to aid these youths in their transition to maturity. Although Thrasher does not state this, from a strain perspective, these gangs would be a response to the stresses of this transition.

Thrasher’s study was conducted in neighborhoods characterized by deterioration, poverty, shifting populations, and residential mobility, resulting into what we would call today a disorganized slum (Thrasher, 1927). Although Thrasher does not specifically state how adults affect this phenomenon, one can conclude that these would be stressful circumstances for anyone, let alone a child. The various versions of Strain theory all connect such stresses to crime and the emergence of gangs, but provide a slightly different causal explanation. For example, Merton’s version of strain theory assumes all American’s hold the same values and goals while subcultural strain theories, such as Cohen’s Status Frustration theory suggest that subcultures arise in which members actually adopt different goals. The following sections briefly review the basic assumptions of the various forms of Strain theory.

The first of these pioneers is Robert Merton, whose Anomie theory proposed that America’s promotion of material success is met with adaptations when the means to attain that goal are limited or unfound. This is described as a state of anomie, in which the societal goal of material success is focused on more than the means used to attain that success (Merton, 1959). In our society, “proper” means to attain this goal are education and hard work, however in American society the attainment of material success is the focus rather than how one attains it. Strain occurs when these individuals are unable to access these means, resulting in adaptations like crime or a complete rejection of the goal (Merton, 1959). Instead of being content with education and hard work, these individuals either seek material gain and status to represent success or reject the goal and result to five adaptations proposed by Merton. Individuals either are compliant with the societal goal and means, which are conformist, or they can be supporters of the goal but not the means to attain it, making them innovators. An innovator resorts to behaviors like dealing drugs, gangs, and other behaviors outside the norm to reach success. Individuals could also result to retreatism, in which they completely reject the goal and the means. These tend to be drug addicts or the mentally ill. Another adaptations people may result to is ritualism, in which one is not compliant with the goal, however they are willing to comply with the means, such as hard work. The last adaptation is rebellion, in which the means and goals are rejected in hopes for a new set of societal values. An example of this would be subcultures where individuals have established their own set of rules, values, goals, and expectations.

Cohen goes further with his Status frustration theory, challenging Merton’s belief that individuals are frustrated because they are trying to attain material success (Cohen, 1959). Instead, Cohen suggests that lower-class males are seeking status, not money. Cohen suggests that these males are strained in their hopes to attain status amongst their peers and the outside world (Cohen, 1960).The main stage for his feat is school, however according to Cohen, these males are unable to measure up to middle- class standards due to differences in socialization (Cohen, 1960). Instead of being socialized into middle-class values, such as delayed gratification, self-control, and conventional success, these individuals adapt to their “failure” in these traditional middle class settings by developing their own set of values and goals. Cohen refers to this subculture as literally “spitting in the face” of conventional standards. Thus, if the middle class values school, these youth will not. If the middle class values peaceful solutions to a problem, these youth will favor violence. In more recent years scholars such as Elijah Anderson (1994) have described this set of goals and values as “Street-Culture.”

Cloward and Ohlin (1960) also look at strain and socialization as sources of gang membership. However, they propose its effects in a different manner. These scholars questioned the notion that strained individuals will automatically respond with crime. Instead they held that these individuals needed to be presented with illegitimate opportunity structures, in order to acquire or learn deviant behavior (Cloward & Ohlin, 1960). An illegitimate opportunity structure is one that facilitates and develops unconventional societal means. For example, if one is unable to attain success through a legitimate opportunity structure, such as school, in order for them to turn to an illegitimate structure such as gangs, they would need gangs be present. Instead of utilizing traditional education system to attain material success, these individuals would use gangs. Depending on the context of the neighborhood, individuals would either respond with criminal, conflict, or retreatist behavior (Cloward & Ohlin, 1960). Criminal gangs develop in more organized areas, and aim at the goal of conventional society through unconventional avenues. Conflict gangs develop in disorganized areas, in which the main goal or focus is establishing a reputation through fighting since there is limited access to illegitimate or legitimate structures. This also holds in line with Miller’s theory, and like Miller, it does not explain how these same gangs are present in suburban and rural areas. Retreatist gangs turn to drug use, rejecting the societal goal. These individuals have access to both legitimate and illegitimate opportunity structures, however they have not had success in either avenue.

Going back to Miller’s Lower-class Focal Concerns Theory, in which the conditions of these slums result in a subculture with an alternative set of values, goals, and means of attainment (Miller W. , 1958). This subculture focuses on being tough, getting into or out of trouble, not allowing anyone to get over, thrill seeking, and autonomy. These individuals also have a lack of hope or uncertainty for their future (Miller W. , 1958).

Although many of these characteristics are important to the explanation of gang membership, this theory poses coping mechanisms to the strains of economic conditions, along with female-headed households (Miller W. , 1958). This lack of male role-models is important to this study since I focus on guidance. If I am correct, young males lacking adult male role models may be responding to the pressures of inadequate guidance. Young males are forced to rely on their own interpretations of masculinity. With financial pressures placed upon single mothers, youths are also more susceptible to poverty, crime, and ill-education. These strains coupled with a perceived subculture (stemming from this same issue) perpetuates violence and hopelessness as a response to all issues.

This once again opens up the question as to how a perceived urban ill, such as gangs, can emerge or spread to a suburban and rural areas, in which organization and prosperity are in plain sight. Is there a gang subculture that has been spreading, regardless of economic standing? From this perspective gangs would be a result of these concerns, and if gangs are emerging in these areas, then street gangs could not be a result of these concerns alone. The concerns also represent goals that individuals experiencing these conditions are seeking to attain, however what about youths who do not turn to deviant behavior or why youths that do not experience these conditions also turn to the same behavior? The answers to these questions may establish whether youths have the same goals of adult status attainment, and what influences their choices in this transition. Utilizing early and contemporary strain theorists, this paper will establish the goal(s) of youths, along with the coping mechanisms used to adjust to the strains, if present, these individuals experience in their transition. It will also describe the effects of adult presence in coping with these stresses or conditions.

Most recently, contemporary strain theorist Robert Agnew presents a collective view of these theories, offering what he entitles a General Strain Theory. This theory holds that strain is the blockage of positively valued goals, the loss of positive stimuli, and the presentation of negative stimuli (Agnew, 2009). Those that are more prone to respond with crime are those who have values conducive to criminal behavior, and also have the presence of criminal others or groups, and an opportunity for crime. Agnew also points out several possible ways to cope with strain. These strategies are cognitive, in which the individual psychologically deals with the issue, behavioral, in which the individual utilizes physical actions like stealing or overeating, and emotional, in which the individual acts directly on the emotion (Agnew, 2009). An example of emotional coping would be exercising, deep breathing, or music as an expressive outlet for the emotion(s) they are experiencing (Agnew, 2009).

As illustrated above, while each strain theory proposes slightly different sources of strain, they all also offer different descriptions of how youths adapt to strain. Although these theorist point out that strain may cause deviant behavior, they do not hold that this response will be used by youths facing these circumstances at all times. According to Agnew there are several conditions that youths need to experience which will make them more likely to respond with unconventional behavior, or crime. One condition is that the strained area is an important aspect of the individual’s life. The next condition is that the individual has poor coping skills and resources (Agnew, 2009). Another condition that increases the likelihood of a criminal response to strain is when the costs of crime are less and the benefits are high (Agnew, 2009). The last condition Agnew points out is that the youth may be disposed to delinquency. This proposition is a result of delinquent role models, behavioral reinforcement, or personality traits including lack of control (Agnew, 2009). In the next section, this paper will explore how competent adult models, guidance, and supervision affect youths in how they cope with strain. If Agnew is correct, one would expect that all youths have strain, but that youths experiencing these conditions without proper adult guidance will have a higher probability of turning to crime, or for the purposes of this paper, street gangs.

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