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Professor unearths insightful 1950s research on gangs, urban culture

September 21, 2011

The unpublished work of late Walter B. Miller – a researcher who, in many ways, revolutionized the scholarship of social service research in regard to gang youth and urban culture – is now available online, thanks to ASU's Scott H. Decker, a Foundation Professor and director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. 

The new website features an extensive library of Miller's unpublished research on gangs, as well as his unpublished book "City Gangs" – a 1950s record of his unprecedented field work with gangs in Roxbury, Boston.

When Miller died in 2004, his collected papers "became the property of Hedy Bookin-Weiner, a criminologist who ...  sought applications from individuals who were willing to curate Walter's papers," Decker writes in the foreword to the now published "City Gangs." Decker says he was fortunate to have been chosen to receive the rights to Miller’s work in 2006, but then the real work began.

Decker inherited a staggering 615 papers, 775 newspaper articles, 20 photographs, and an original manuscript of "City Gangs" typed on onionskin paper and bound in 13 separate notebooks.

"The manuscript was accompanied by nearly 100 tables, most in longhand," Decker writes. "The final piece of the treasure was more than 20,000 contact cards, detailing the results of every contact between an area worker and a gang member." After five years of sifting through the treasure chest of voluminous and detailed materials, Decker and his team of doctoral students are ready to share Miller’s work with the world.

A key to Miller's research was his emphasis on the impact of relationships, and "City Gangs" is the most extensive treatment of gang members and their families, Decker says.

"The book describes in great detail the relationships between individual gang members and their families," Decker writes. "In addition, there are extensive discussions of the impact of gang membership on family functioning and the role of the family in shielding delinquents from gang members.

"It’s a compelling and important addition to our understanding of gang behavior, gang culture and youth programming."

So why was the book never published until now? The original manuscript ran more than 600 pages and was deemed too long for publication. When editors requested that Miller shorten it, he refused to do so. He even added another 300 pages.

"In the summer of 2007 we hired a typist to re-type the manuscript," Decker says. "In the fall of 2010, I managed to find a doctoral student who inventoried all the materials, sorted them by author last name within year of publication, and began to type the tables. The manuscript was proofed in the spring and summer of 2011 and prepped for publication by yet another Ph.D. student, Richard Moule, who played an important role in the ultimate publication of this work."

The decision over how to publish "City Gangs" was a difficult one, but in the end, Decker and his team decided to give Miller what he wanted. The published work is 948 pages and includes all of Miller's tables. "The book is as Walter left it, detailed, long and chock full of great information about the study," Decker said.

Miller was not just defined by his research with gangs, but by his prolific involvement with government agencies and public service. His work also acknowledges that little was known about the impact of the social worker. "City Gangs" is Miller's effort to address how one best evaluates process and outcome.

According to Decker, there are many common features between Miller’s work and contemporary gang research. The book's discussion of the role of social institutions, race, ethnicity and immigration; Miller's deep examination of the "street corner" – the space and place of gang youth; and his focus on the role of outreach workers all make "City Gangs" insightful and instructive even today.

The Gang Research website will be an online resource for researchers and students, to provide a deeper understanding and appreciation of Miller’s work, which has gone unseen for more than 40 years.  Additional materials from Miller's work, as well as from ASU researchers, will be added to the website on an ongoing basis.

"While formal network analysis and the software to support such an analysis would be 40 years away, Walter clearly understood what a social network was, how such relationships could be constructed and the significance of such networks for influencing behavior," Decker says.

He then adds: "It is a shame the book wasn't published in a timelier manner. Had it been, our understanding of urban culture, delinquency and gangs would have been advanced considerably."

For more information, visit the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice website.