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The future of gang research

Scott Decker and David Pyrooz examined the past and future of gang research
October 25, 2012

Substantive research on gangs and gang membership has taken place in the last 20 years.

Scott Decker, director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, wanted to take this explosion of information, qualm its fire and craft a better understanding of the future of gangs in an article titled “What Do We Know About Gangs and Gang Members and Where Do We Go From Here?” The article, co-authored by Chris Melde and David Pyrooz, was published in the online edition of Justice Quarterly.

“This current article looks back over that past 20 years, synthesizes what we’ve learned and then establishes questions and creates a foundation that can lead gang research over the next 10 or 20 years,” said Decker.

To go about this, Decker, Melde and Pyrooz examined the individual, group and macro levels of gang involvement. The individual level proved to have the most current research, especially concerning risk factors.

“This has been incorporated into gang research in important ways that allow us to know when a youth is on the path to becoming a gang member and when they’re not,” he said.

Risk factors can include significant negative life events, such as watching a friend or parent die, as well as overall negative social beliefs.

“What we’ve found, looking over dozens and dozens of students, it’s not just one or two of these factors,” Decker said. “It’s the accumulation of multiple risk factors that put youth most at risk for joining a gang.”

At the group level, Decker found that groups influence gang members to commit acts that he or she may not typically do without the presence of that group.

The macro level examines larger influences on gangs and gang membership, such as the crime distribution in a given city.

All three levels contribute to whether or not someone will join and participate in a gang. Tracking members over time to see the effect of the factors has proven difficult, but necessary, according to Decker.

“We can’t just focus on a single point or we will miss a change,” he said.

Effects of gang membership are common throughout the board, and include anything from decreased educational opportunities to strained family relationships. The longer a person remains active in a gang, the more negative consequences there are.

Continuing to integrate the many factors and associations with gang membership is vital for further research, and is already happening in large cities such as Boston and Los Angeles. Ignoring one level in favor of another is detrimental, according to Decker.

“It’d be like trying to study the human anatomy but only looking at the circulatory system without looking at other parts of the human anatomy like the skeleton or digestive system,” said Decker.