Gangs: The Societies Within the Society, Article Review Example

Article and Ideas

       Martin Sanchez-Jankowski’s 2010 article, “Gangs and Social Change,” seeks to reexamine traditional and/or commonly held perceptions regarding gangs and gang activity.  The author notes at the outset the immense study devoted to the subject, but he loses no time in citing the typical approaches made in all such research; namely, that gangs are viewed as groups of individuals brought together because of similarly deviant or antisocial tendencies, or as groups gathering to engage in some form of criminal or deviant behavior.  What is evident, then, is that the author disputes the motivational cores so frequently relied upon, for he believes that gang structure indicates something more inherently reflective of society as a whole.  This point of view is seen in the two claims, or hypotheses, Sanchez-Jankowski puts forth: that gangs are not viewed correctly when they are approached as randomized assortments of deviant individuals, for their organizational aspect consistently defines them; and that this organizational or structural component is both traditionally successful and necessary in comprehending how gangs function (Sanchez-Jankowski, 2010,  p. 136).  The author then indicates that he will support these ideas through investigating and citing the drawbacks in the greater part of gang research, and subsequently presenting in greater depth the rationales behind his theories.

Prior Literature

       As Sanchez-Janlowski responsibly explores, there is a great deal of research and literature regarding the subject, and he examines important facets of it in turns.  Focusing more on work done in recent decades, the author turns to research which, as he points out in his introduction, promotes the basis for gang activity as resulting from displaced individuals coming together due to the commonality of marginalized experience.  He cites Horowitz and Vigil, for example, whose studies on Mexican American gangs are based on the formations as occurring from loss of individual or cultural identity within the mainstream society; the gang provides a sense of self-worth not afforded by the dominant culture.  Sanchez-Jankowski also presents the thinking in regard to African American and Puerto Rican gangs as evolving due to unstable home environments, typically marked by absent fathers.  The author challenges both schools of thought through identifying similarities employed to validate the gang formations which exist for untold numbers of youths not affiliated with gangs (Sanchez-Jankowski, 2010,  p. 137).  Put another way, the author disputes the validity of the approaches, in that determining factors are attached “after the fact.”  This literature cited, then, relates to the author’s hypothesis only in terms of substantiating his own theories.  Evincing consistent integrity, Sanchez-Jankowski presents multiple theories going to deprivation and deviance as virtually accidentally enabling the gang, just as he systematically points out the shortcomings.

More pertinent to the author’s thinking is the work cited by Fromm, which explores how distinctive and intelligent personalities, possessed of strong senses of economic and cultural capital, goes to gang formation.  This “defiant individualist” type, the author asserts, is both typically found from low-income backgrounds and a gang fixture.  Literature and research is only just emerging on this approach, which connects strongly to the author’s theories.  Evidence, nonetheless, exists; Sullivan’s study of Brooklyn gangs reveals a consistent and active presence of this calculating “defiance,” in that intelligence and cooperation within the gang is both structured and a means of “getting over,” or achieving perceived success (White, 2001,  p.  249).

Furthermore, other work supports Sanchez-Jankowski’s claim that gang study typically relies on results and behaviors of the groups as wholes, ignoring the critical component of individual entry and motivation, aside from the standard rationales of deprivation and deviance.  Most gang research, even today, does not take into account those key variables (Katz, Jackson-Jacobs,  2004,  p. 111).

Methods, Results

Sanchez-Jankowski employs a qualitative approach, and one largely observational in nature.  More exactly, to establish his reasoning as to the social validity of the gang as a reflection of organizational strategy, he explores gang trends and activity through a trajectory of eras.  Setting aside the traditional focuses on deviant pathology and specific marginalization as bases for gangs, the author asserts that gangs more ordinarily represent rational forms of human agency prompted by adverse circumstances.  This is then supported by his examinations of gangs as arising under specific and widespread social conditions: immigration, blue-collar expansion, drug deregulation, mass incarceration, and monopoly behavior.  In each circumstance, and citing extensive research pertinent to each, the author makes a strong case for the integral structural aspect, if not impetus, of gangs.  He notes, for instance, that early 20th century immigration virtually encouraged gang formation through its emphasis on the defiant and aggressive individualism necessary to survive in environments typically poor and facing extreme discrimination.  Interestingly, the blue-collar expansion of the mid-20th century is presented by the author as generating an actively intelligent motive going to gang formation, in that the young men comprehended the blue-collar work of their parents as unsatisfying, and organized to create leisure for themselves.  The same processes of an organizational response fused with defiant individualism are presented as evident in the Italian Mafia’s loss of drug trade control; essentially, the young men of the neighborhoods organized in ways calculated to weaken the control and thus secure participation for themselves (Sanchez-Jankowski,  2010,  pp. 136-139).   Drawing upon documented fact and reports, the author traces an irrefutable commonality in regard to gangs over multiple eras and in differing conditions; namely, that the unique social and economic circumstances serve to generate the coming together of the more defiant young people, and in ways pointing to strategic thinking and motivations of actual advantages.

Assessment and Implications

       It is important in assessing Sanchez-Jankowski’s article to comprehend several factors.  To begin with, and to his credit, the author detaches himself from the moral aspects so inevitably associated with gang study.  This is not to suggest that prior research is tainted, but rather that the violence and criminality of gang activity inevitably influences perspectives and approaches; given the prevalence of deviant activity of gangs, it then follows that this largely fuels investigation, and motivation becomes narrowed.  Admirably, Sanchez-Jankowski distances himself from these associations, which enables him to more clinically examine the organizational elements which, as he proposes, are very much within the motivations.  Then, the author is careful to acknowledge his own reliance upon elements common to gangs and non-gang individuals.  He notes that, as he is dissatisfied with approaches that define gangs in randomized ways, most “defiant individuals” do not join gangs.  More important, however, is that

gangs often contain these types, which indicates a coming together of organizational and individual interests (Sanchez-Jankowski, 1991, p. 29).  Through a uniform commitment to scholarly integrity and what must be termed insight, the author ultimately presents a persuasive and somewhat novel approach to gang study, observing inescapable traits and patterns within gangs reflective of societal organizations of all kinds.

It seems clear, based on the quality of this article, that the intended audience encompasses serious students of criminology, as well as experts in the field.  Sanchez-Jankowski has certainly provided me with a new perspective, as his thorough examination of gangs in differing eras and conditions convinces me that structure and ambition are as pivotal to the gang, if not more so, than the traditionally held motives of disenfranchisement and deviant personality.  No matter what criminal or violent activities are undertaken, I now perceive a “method to the madness,” and understand that viewing gangs as gatherings of weak, sociopathic, or socially deviant young individuals vastly underestimates the constructions themselves.  This being the case, the implications for the criminal justice system seem to me extraordinary.  In a sense, gangs are more challenging as seen by Sanchez-Jankowski because the formations of them are far more complex – and reflective of normal organizational processes – that has been believed.  These are, criminality notwithstanding, organizations in place to pursue agendas, and consequently no blanket criminal justice policy may be effective in dealing with them.  The crime must be addressed, but it may be that efforts to eradicate the gangs themselves will be seen as futile, for the social conditions will enable them whenever two or more “defiant individuals” choose to defy circumstances in a collective fashion.


Katz, J., & Jackson-Jacobs, C. (2004).  The Criminologists’ Gang. In Summer, C., The Blackwell Companion to Criminology. (pp. 91-124). Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.

Sanchez-Jankowski, M. (2010). Gangs and Social Change. In Walsh, A., & Hemmens, C., Introduction to Criminology: A Text/Reader. (pp. 135-142). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Sanchez-Jankowski, M. (1991). Islands in the Street: Gangs and American Urban Society. Berkeley: University of California :Press.

White, S.O. (2001). Handbook of Youth and Justice. New York: Springer.