Gangs and Society: Alternative Perspectives

Louis Kontos, David Brotherton and Luis Barrios, eds., Gangs and Society: Alternative Perspectives (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).

This collection of fifteen articles examines the question of gangs in society from a critical criminology perspective, challenging orthodox criminological and sociological approaches. Gangs and Society is a refreshing, timely and thought-provoking reader which confronts contemporary media imagery and stereotypical views of gangs. It demonstrates that to understand gangs one has to go beyond simply examining the etiology of crime.

Gangs and Society
is divided into six sections. The first is a theoretical one, in which the authors introduce their critical approach and demonstrate “the limits of conventional theorizing about gangs.” The second section deals with the political aspirations and goals of gangs, and how they are pursued through both criminal and non-criminal means. The next section examines how individual agency is fostered and alternative avenues for youth are created through religion and education. The fourth section provides a glimpse into the lives of women in relation to gangs. Section five introduces a sociology of law perspective on gangs with special attention to the state’s manufacture of social control. Finally, section six contains photo essays with very dramatic and compelling illustrations of life for a number of people involved in gangs.

Kontos, Brotherton and Barrios bring together a wide range of theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of gangs. Sudhir Venkatesh, in the opening chapter, reviews the multifaceted critical approaches of urban sociological analysis from the early Chicago School (particularly ecological analyses), and reminds us that individualistic crime-oriented approaches fail to take into account real inequities. Avelardo Valdez, continuing in the Chicago School tradition while including more recent ecologically based ideas from William Julius Wilson’s Truly Disadvantaged, develops a typology of gangs which demonstrates that gangs are not inherently criminal and violent—that they exist for more than simply drug usage and trafficking.

Ric Curtis, in an especially significant contribution, demonstrates the usefulness of a Marxist-informed theoretical framework as an analytical starting point. He examines the relationship of gangs to drugs and asserts that gangs largely mirror the corporate structure and functions of the more formal capitalist economy—from a reserve pool of potential labor, and corporate disregard of communities, to the exploitative relationship between owners and workers. It seems as though the gang is simply another workplace in a capitalist society. Curtis criticizes the “sound-bite-driven analyses by the media and the reductionist approaches by many academics” and shows that, contrary to common perception, there is a disconnect between gangs and the prevalence of drugs.

Also of exceptional interest is Luis Barrios’s examination of the function of religion within the Almighty Latin Kings and Queens Nation. Employing a classical Durkheimian approach, Barrios examines religion from the perspective of liberation theology, looking at its effect on the structure and solidarity of gangs. His focus on the Almighty Latin Kings and Queens Nation is not in terms of crime or deviance, but is presented as an example of existing “collective resistance to systems of domination”—an important corrective to prevailing assumptions.

The essays in Gangs and Society transcend typical studies of gangs in using a qualitative methodology. Most of the data in the volume come from ethnographic research through the Street Organization Project in New York organized through the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Apart from the New York-based Almighty Latin Kings and Queens Nation, the groups studied include the Asociación Ñeta (New York), Los Sólidos Nation (Hartford), 26 gangs in San Antonio, and even Los Angeles gangs with links to El Salvador. The reliance on qualitative ethnographic research puts these studies in the tradition of the early Chicago School by ‘doing’ sociology and getting on the inside of these groups for a more complete knowledge. This approach, as Albert Dichiara and Russell Chabot remind us in their chapter, demonstrates how the “blanket indictment of gangs as criminal organizations is both intellectually dishonest and sociologically baseless.”

In reading Gangs and Society, I find myself split in opinions and criticism. First, although many of the essays use Marxist analysis, they do not attempt to develop any comprehensive Marxist theory of gangs, remaining anchored instead in a kind of ecological and social-control orientation. This approach, common in much of the criminology literature, leads to accepting official definitions of deviance (imbued with class- and race-based criteria) and to applying, by way of explanation, an individualistic pathology located mainly in the so-called ‘underclass.’ In effect, the authors, despite their deployment of a range of critical approaches (Durkheimian functionalist, symbolic interactionist, liberal feminist, as well as ecological), do not develop the critical implications of their findings about gang culture.

Drugs and violence are categorically accepted as deviant or criminal. Rather than challenging this as a construct of the state, the various authors work to demonstrate how both are simply minor aspects in the cultural life of the people studied. I believe this to be shortsighted as it merely provides an acceptance of what is ‘normal’ and hegemonic for the mainstream in US society. While I believe most people would categorically abhor violence, the state simply criminalizes violent actions of the gang in an attempt to maintain its own monopoly over the use of violence as a means for social control. I would not justify or legitimize gang-banging or other forms of violence, but there is certainly no organization in our society which comes close to the level of state violence exercised by the police. As for drugs, I believe it to be hypocritical to talk of drugs such as marijuana as socially disruptive or criminal when the state, acceding to the demands of corporate power, keeps products such as tobacco, alcohol and certain prescription drugs easily available despite their adverse effects on individuals and society.

I am also disappointed in the range of gangs studied. Most are very large and ‘known’ gangs, and almost all of them are Latino. This gives the work a narrower focus than the title suggests. The book would have done well to include research on disparate groups such as Chicago’s Vice Lords and Black Gangster Disciples Nation. A further gap, in view of the way most states define gangs legally, is the lack of a fully developed discussion of groups of youth targeted by the state under the guise of anti-gang enforcement—particularly when issues of race and class are at the core and the majority of the youth are targeted simply for being in groups of three or more. However, Loren Siegel does caution us that it “is impossible to avoid the similarities between anti-gang legal tactics today, and those that were in play against communists and other left-wing individuals during the McCarthy period.” The illustrations provided are indeed quite interesting as descriptions of gang life and culture. However, there is little analysis of the situation these youth face and certainly no contextualization into the broader socio-political structure of US capitalism and, to paraphrase Althusser, of an omnipresent repressive state apparatus.

While I have a number of criticisms of the various chapters, I believe that Kontos, Brotherton and Barrios offer an overall positive contribution to the study of gangs. In a time when media imagery focusing on criminal behavior of gangs and on individual pathology of gang members is ubiquitous, Kontos, Brotherton and Barrios sharply challenge the associated stereotypes. If gangs fascinate you or if you simply want to get past the hype of the mainstream media (and the unrelenting connection between gangs and drugs replicated by police, academics and popular culture), you will find this book very illuminating. The photo essays in the final section can move you by the dramatic and stark realities. Finally, Gangs and Society is worth reading for its own sake as an engaging application of neo-Marxist analysis. The book is an absolute must for any study on gangs and should also be seriously considered for studies on delinquency and more broadly for education on deviance and studies of race and race relations.

Reviewed by George P. Mason

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