By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD
Societies make many assumptions about the types of young people who join gangs and why this might occur. Yet, as this article in the Register Guard points out, youth voices are often missing from these discussions. Sociology professor Randy Blazak talks about the problem of labelling at-risk youth “gang members.” He notes that not listening to these youth’s experiences can become a “self-fulling prophecy,” increasing the likelihood that troubled youth will join a gang. He adds: “People don’t get better when you focus on the bad stuff.” In Sociology, we know this as labelling theory.
Howard Becker made this theory famous in his book, Outsiders, which showed how labelling people as “deviant” or “criminal” has negative consequences on their behaviour. People who are labelled negatively often feel powerless to escape the stigma that follows them, and it can lead them to become further attached to so-called “deviant” groups because they receive mutual support or a sense of purpose.
Authority figures can benefit from policing people who do not conform to society’s norms and rules – labelling people as a criminal, delinquent, “mad” or “abnormal” helps institutions seek out punishments and treatments. Unfortunately, disadvantaged groups who have to live with these labels are not necessarily better off with increased scrutiny. Consulting with communities through preventative programs has better outcomes. In this case youth who are at-risk of joining gangs are best consulted before they enter the criminal justice system. What positive benefits do young people see with joining a gang? Why are they not accessing these benefits from other community activities? How can social services better meet the reality of these youths’ everyday lives?
Blazak notes that issues of belonging, masculinity, learning difficulties, and a lack of structure in one’s personal life have a great impact on how young men internalise and gravitate towards gang culture. Of course socio-economics also play a role.
Making the assumption that young people join gangs because they are inherently violent, unintelligent and unwilling to be integrated into broader community is dangerous. As one social worker says in the Register Guard article:
It’s amazing how respectful and kind (at-risk youth) can be when you treat them the same way… You really see the benefits of positive attention.
This article is a nice example of how social science extends the so-called “common sense” view of community violence, how it should be addressed, and who should be included in drawing up prevention strategies. Community consultation that draws upon social science expertise is the best way to develop strategies to address social issues. In particular, social science has demonstrated the value of seeking the input of the ultimate stakeholders: community members who are directly affected by poverty, crime and discrimination. This includes young people who may be likely to engage in activities that might damage their future prospects or otherwise negatively impact on their local communities.
Photo 1: Including community consulting. Photos: Francisco Osorio, CC 2.0 via Flickr. Adapted by Social Science Insights.
Photo 2:Photo by by astonishme via Flickr. CC 2.0 Modified by Social Science Insights.