Street Gangs, Essay Example

Gang violence as a form of deviance is endemic to all urban environments. The FBI has stated that there are some 33,000 violent street gangs in the US with about 1.4 million members who are criminally active (FBI quote can be found at The means by which society deals with such a phenomenon will depend on the dominant perspectives employed in addressing a range of social issues of which crime and deviance is just one. This paper will examine the potential approaches an urban planner for the city of Los Angeles can employ for balancing the needs of street gangs with those of society as a whole.

Deviance can be defined as a breach of society’s norms. This essentially makes the concept of deviant behaviour a social construction as it varies from one society to the next and through time as well. The subjective nature of deviance therefore needs to be taken into account when performing an important activity such as urban planning, because the perception of deviant actions can vary from one urban group to the next. This is especially true of street gangs who usually have a radically different perspective on cultural norms from the rest of society.

There are a range of perspectives on crime and deviance. Functionalism is a macro all encompassing theory which views society as an organism with the various parts and functions serving an important purpose in the organism’s survival and well being. Consequently theorists such as Durkheim argue that even deviance serves an important function. For example all social change begins with acts of crime and deviance, and as such these are necessary for society to progress rather than stagnate. (Haralambos and Holborn, 2000, p. 353) This point was substantiated in Sanchez-Jankowski’s work which revealed how gangs protect their communities, as well as fulfilling the needs of poor youth who live on the margin of society. Functionalist based planning would therefore require an emphasis on developing alternative initiatives for protecting communities and empowering young people. These would need to be structured so as maintain youth involvement in social activities and change by replacing illegitimate opportunity structures with legitimate ones. (Cloward and Olin, 1961, p. 38)

Interactionists on the other hand take the view that there is no one objective view of social deviance. Instead society is characterized by a multiplicity of views. (Cuff, Sharrock and Francis, 1992, p. 151) As such the reasons some groups such as street gangs commit acts of crime and deviance can only be accessed by observation based ethnographic studies of the type conducted by Sanchez-Jankowski. Interactionists attempt to uncover how and why actors perceive life the way they do, rather than the morality of their actions. The study reveals a number of these such as gaining access to money denied them elsewhere, recreation, protection etc. Their actions clearly flow from a sense of anomie or alienation that is itself a function of social marginalization. Urban planning on its own cannot address all these grievances. However there some areas that can be addressed. These include the provision of employment focused training and adequate recreation facilities. These could ameliorate some of the effects of unemployment and boredom that lead to violence and a rejection of mainstream norms. The transposition of imposed labels of deviancy with self empowering labels would be another important area for consideration. (Jones, 1998, p. 134)

Finally conflict theory considers crime and deviance within the context of power relationships in society. Laws and norms are decided by those who hold economic power, and their inherent values and morals are manipulated to benefit the privileged minority in society (Moore, 1996, p 69). Their enforcement and interpretation are also carried out by and on behalf of those in positions of power. While members of society are socialized to accept the system as operating in everyone’s interests, crime and deviance occurs as a reaction against a system that does not operate in the interests of society’s lower classes. This is evident in Sanchez-Jankowski’s research which highlights crime, in the absence of access to more legitimate methods, as a means of earning money. The fact that gangs can often provide better neighbourhood protection than the police is also an indictment of a policing system that marginalizes or ignores poor neighbourhoods in favour of affluent ones. Once again the scale of this problem may be too big for urban planners, but there are some beneficial initiatives that can help gang members renounce violence and make the transition to mainstream norms. The aforementioned introduction of training programs is one. These would need to be varied and contemporary so as to avoid the deadening and dead end jobs that gang members are keen to avoid. The possibility of movement into part or full time employment at the end of these sessions would also be a crucial incentive to get gang members off the streets. There should also be scope for allowing young people access to local political decision making through methods such as focus groups, lobbying etc. Finally the provision of adequate policing cover would remove the need for a reliance on gang members, or gang members needing to protect themselves.

The subject of crime and deviance is a large and complex field of enquiry. The Sanchez-Janowski study does however provide valid in-depth data into the causes of gang violence and the functions they perform. The test for politicians and urban planners across the country is to maintain the positive functions of gangs by channelling members into legitimate, empowering activities that meet the needs of both the members and society as a whole.


Cloward, R. A. and Olin, L. E. (1961) Delinquency and Opportunity Glencoe: The Free Press

Cuff, E. C. Sharrock, W. W. and Francis, D. W. (1992) Perspectives in Sociology London and New York: Routledge

FBI (2013) Gangs: They Poison our Streets with Drugs, Violence and all Manner of Crime Retrieved on February 15th 2013 from

Haralambos, M. and Holborn, M. (2000) Sociology: Themes and Perspectives London: Harper Collins

Jones, S (1998) Criminology London: Butterworth

Moore, S. (1999) Investigating Crime and Deviance London: Harper Collins

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