Lyon, J.M., Henggeler, S.W., & Hall, J.A. (1992). The family relations, peer relations, and criminal activities of Caucasian and Hispanic-American gang members. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 20(5), 439-449.
There have been numerous theoretical assumptions about gang members and gang membership. These include the ideas that gang members are more violent and that their parents provide less adequate supervision and emotional support than youth not in gangs. Also theorized has been the idea that gangs are adaptive, as they provide the emotional support lacking in the family unit. It had also been thought that the cultural norms of respect and loyalty to the family would decrease the likelihood of Hispanic gang members engaging in violence. However, these are just guesses. This study attempted to find out if the guesses are correct.
This study compared delinquents (white and Hispanic) who were demonstrably in a gang with those who were not, in order to see if gang membership was related to violence and to assess the social skills and social functioning of the groups.
The study used a number of tests that have been demonstrated to accurately measure delinquency, family relations, peer relations, and parental behavior. These tests were given to 131 delinquent males (ages 13-18) incarcerated at a county "Assessment Center" for juvenile delinquents. Gang membership was determined based on criteria used by the Orange County (CA) Gang Violence Suppression Unit and included admitted membership, recognized gang tattoos, gang dress, and grooming.
Of the delinquents in the study, gang members engaged in significantly more overall crime than did non-gang members. However, whites engaged in more overall crime and in more home delinquency than did Hispanics. There were no differences in the families or the family relationships found either between gang and non-gang members or between Caucasians and Hispanics. However, gang members were significantly less socially mature and more violent than delinquents not involved in gangs. Finally, whites tended to engage in more hard drug use overall, but Hispanic gang members used significantly more hard drugs than did non-gang members.
The researchers conclude that family problems are no more associated with gang membership than with anti-social behavior. However, the findings that whites engage in more crime than do Hispanics raises some questions, since there has been a significant recent increase in Hispanic arrests. The researchers discuss this as one of the weaknesses of the study. They suggest that this finding may reflect a tendency among minorities to underreport on self-report questionnaires, or that it may reflect greater control by either Hispanic mothers or the extended family.
CRITIQUE AND EVALUATION
Based on this author’s interviews and on research by David Foy of Pepperdine, the primary motivation for gang membership, at least in Los Angeles, appears to be fear of physical harm or death. This fact was not considered by the researchers of this study. It may be that youth who lack the social skills and maturity to find appropriate means to maintain their safety are more prone to join gangs. If so, the increased violence measured may be a function of both fear and social ineptness in that these individuals know of no other means of behavior.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
- How can society increase the sense of physical security and the social skills among high risk youth in order to decrease their risk of joining gangs?
- What can be done to modify the lives of those already in gangs to help them feel safe enough to leave?
- How does the issue of safety interact with the call to service?
- It is important to remember that what "experts" say is may not always be so. There is a need for research to see what is really happening.
- It is important to note that there was no racial difference found between white and Hispanic gang members. Race is not a factor in gang membership; neither is the nature of the families.
- It is too easy to use cliché prejudices such as race or bad genes to explain away society’s lack of responsibility.
Michael E. Carter cCYS