A Rational Choice Analysis of Criminal Gangs

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This paper will examine criminal gangs from a rational choice theory perspective. It will be the argument of this paper that individuals join gangs to pursue certain utility benefits and that gangs may often supply such benefits. Also, as long as gang membership remains beneficial, individual membership is not likely to decline. This paper will be divided into four sections. The next section will present an overview of gangs and includes a discussion of why gangs exist. The third section will undertake a brief overview of rational choice theory. The fourth section will apply this rational choice model to the study of gang behavior.


Criminal gangs have a long history in US cities. The effects of gangs on neighborhood life are usually disruptive. This is because gangs are associated with high rates of violent, and sometimes random, crimes. Gangs are also producers of considerable fear and anxiety in any community where they are active (Ruble & Turner, 2000). Criminal gangs might even be classified as a type of terrorist organization based on the general feeling of insecurity they propagate. This criminal behavior has attracted the attention of law enforcement.

The issues related to the formation and spread of gangs has attracted the attention of social research, law enforcement, and the media for many decades. A number of comparative studies have struggled to understand such gangs. Gangs are commonly defined as a grouping of mostly adolescents and young adults, with an organizational structure with various levels of cohesiveness. The gang possesses its own codes of conduct and provides to its members such intangibles as social status, social identity, self-esteem, and a role in life.

Gang members tend to originate from families where there is abuse or weak family structures (Ruble & Turner, 2000). As a result, gangs often provide a substitute for the family. They do so by giving its members a sense of family, protection, and the resources needed for survival in difficult social and economic circumstances. Block and Block (1993) point out that most gang members grew up together and were familiar with one another from a young age. Thus potential gang members are usually socially familiar with each other prior to joining. Some research holds that criminal street gangs can organize as one of three types. The first type of gang is the social gang. This group of individuals tends to congregate at particular locations such as in front of a place of business, on a street corner, or in abandoned buildings (Ruble & Turner, 2000). They can be differentiated from most criminal gangs in that they usually don't contribute to serious illegal activity. Therefore, such groups are rarely motivated towards violence unless it is in the form of retaliation. The cohesiveness of such groups has to do with socializing rather than a need for protection or family support. The second gang type is what can be described as a grouping of delinquents. The members of this type of gang usually associate for the purposes of engaging in various types of anti-social and illegal activities, such as theft, robbery, and burglary (Ruble & Turner, 2000). The survival of the gang is contingent upon each individual member properly executing their assigned roles. It's thought that delinquent gang members perceive themselves as undertaking the only feasible activities available to achieve gainful material success.

The third gang type can be described as the violent type. The raison d'être of such groups is the pursuit of power through the undertaking of violent actions. The members of such groups often believe that such actions bring status and respect to the members of the gang. Ruble and Turner (2000) report research that violent gang members have an exaggerated sense of their size, power, and significance. The violent type is also the one gang type with a hierarchical leadership structure. In addition, verbal and physical abuse, and violence between group members, is not uncommon.

Research into the total membership of criminal gangs is somewhat limited. Ruble and Turner (2000) reported that Los Angeles County has the largest number of gangs and gang members of any US metropolitan area. Estimates for Los Angeles during the 1990s indicated there were as many as 100,000 individuals affiliated with as many as 600 different gangs. Gang activity was believed to be responsible for more than one-third of all homicides in Los Angeles. Many of the same gangs appear to have franchises of a sort across the US. Indeed, the Crips, Bloods, Vicelords, and Latin Kings are active in large US cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Milwaukee, and New York. According to Block and Block (1993), as many as 40 street gangs were active in Chicago. It should be noted only 10 percent of at-risk youth in such stressed communities have ever opted to join a gang.

The age of gang members appears to fall between 10 and 30, with most gang members being between the ages of 14 and 24. It's not completely unheard of to find gang members under age 10 (Ruble & Turner, 2000). Many gangs view such young members as disposable and usually employ them as couriers in the illicit drug trade.

Although most gang members are male, evidence shows that membership in all-female gangs is growing. Most female gang members are associates of male counterpart groups and serve roles as auxiliaries. That is, female gangs will provide back up support to their male counterparts (Ruble & Turner, 2000). However, it's rare for females to obtain full membership status in a male gang. This is because male gang members commonly view females as inferior. Females are usually assigned such roles as carrying gang weapons, giving alibis to law enforcement officers, spying on others, luring victims in for assault, and providing male gang members with sex. According to Vigil (2003), females account for 4 percent to 15 percent of total gang membership. In addition, studies of female incarceration have found that most incarcerated females are gang members. Not all gang activity can be explained by the harsh social and economic realities of low-income communities. Messerschmidt (1995) argues that gang violence is an expression of heterosexual masculinity among the working poor.

Throughout much of the 20th century, most gang members were white Americans. However, since the 1960s, the racial and ethnic makeup of such gangs became disproportionately non-white (Block & Block, 1993). In addition, gangs are notoriously racist organizations and will exclude members not of a particular ethnic or racial group (Ruble & Turner, 2000). From the late 20th century forward, gang membership has skewed towards Black and Hispanic members.

Gangs tend to concentrate in three main locations. The first is the economically depressed inner cities. Neighborhoods that have traditionally been settled by immigrants are also prime gang formation areas (Ruble & Turner, 2000; Decker, van Gemert, & Pyrooz, 2009). Stable slum neighborhoods, where population turnover patterns are fairly low, allow for the entrenchment of social conditions that can foster gang formation and association. Finally, suburban and rural locations are not immune to gang activity. However, in these cases, the areas are experiencing long-term social and economic decline. This coupled with a somewhat inactive police presence allows for gangs to set up thriving operations.

This research is corroborated by other evidence. Block and Block (1993) reported that neighborhoods, where crime and gang activity are prevalent, can be classified into three categories: first, heavily contested turf areas disputed by rival gangs; second, drug locations where gang-oriented drug activity is conducted; and third, locations known for both turf battles and drug activity. The authors report that most gang-related homicide is correlated with disputes over territory. In Chicago, the four largest gangs were responsible for the majority of all gang membership and the predominant volume of documented criminal episodes. When gangs engage in violence, firearms are the weapon of choice (Block & Block, 1993). Gangs have long had access to handguns (Hagedorn, 1998) and in recent years have acquired automatic and semi-automatic, high-caliber weapons (Block & Block, 1993; Hagedorn, 1998). The improving armament of gangs marks a notable shift. The authors relate how most gangs prior to the 1970s had used only fists, sticks, and knives.

This difference in the intensity of gang violence is believed to delineate two phases in gang development. The first or industrial phase ended during the 1960s. The second or post-industrial phase has prevailed since and into the 21st century (Hagedorn, 1998). The author argues that post-industrial gangs are more violent than their predecessors because some gangs have adopted economic functions. Thus violence is used as a means to regulate and protect criminal enterprises. He adds that the easy availability of firearms, the role of prisons in gang recruitment and retention, and the effect of the American culture's obsession with materialism all have powerful effects on poor and disadvantaged youth. These youths perceive they have very few legitimate options for success.

Indeed, patterns of gang activity across different eras have been discussed in other research. Decker, van Gemert, & Pyrooz (2009) report that there were four major eras of gang activity in the US. These periods were the 1890s, 1920s, 1960s and 1990s. According to the authors, each of these periods was associated with a high degree of social change, that included large-scale immigration. The authors argue that the ingredients of gang formation include racial and ethnic uniformity, a lack of residential mobility, and long-term, extreme economic hardship. The next section will provide a brief introduction to rational choice theory.

Rational Choice Theory

Rational choice is an economic theory of the decision-making process. It holds that all individuals are economic actors who will look to maximize their utility. It can be more formally defined by way of the following five concepts (Downs, 1967, p. 82-85). Rational actors will:

1) Always make a decision when confronted with a range of alternatives

2) Rank all alternatives in order of first preference

3) Engage in transitive preference making

4) Select the best preference

5) Always follow this model in decision making

The key assumption of rational choice theory is that social phenomena, of a complex nature, can be understood by way of the basic actions of individuals from which it is formulated. This perspective is also called methodological individualism (Scott, 2000). Therefore, social institutions and societal changes can be understood in terms of how individuals act and interact. It's the argument of rational choice theorists that individuals' motivation is derived from the desires or objectives that fulfill their preferences. Thus individuals will act within particular limitations, such as those relating to time and information.This interaction between limitations and preferences can be viewed by way of the technical conditions of a means of achieving an end. Individuals recognize that it isn't possible to attain everything that is desired (Scott, 2000). As a result, they are forced to make choices relating to both their objectives and the ways in which these objectives will be realized. Thus methodological individualism holds that individuals calculate the results of taking alternative options and then decide which course is most advantageous to pursue. Rational choice theorists argue that individuals will invariably select the option that yields the highest level of satisfaction.

There are three interrelated problems with using rational actor calculus as the basis for wider explanations of societal action. The three problems are social norms, social structure, and collective action (Scott, 2000). Due to space limitations, only a brief review of these problems will be presented below. First, the problem of the social norm raises the question of why individuals ever chose to behave in an altruistic manner. This norms problem recognizes that individuals sometimes accept obligations that deter their own self-interested preferences.

Social structure. This problem raises the question of how any individualistic calculus can make a sufficient account of the presence of large-scale social structures or institutions (Scott, 2000). This viewpoint rejects the notion that the behavior of large-scale social organizations can be reducible to the actions of its individual members. Collective action. Collective action problems are the difficulties inherent in explaining why individuals cooperate in organizations, groups, and other joint enterprises to achieve particular goals (Scott, 2000). Thus if individuals truly undertake a rational calculus to determine the most personally beneficial course of action, why should such individuals ever choose a course of action that would benefit others besides themselves? The response to these objections will simply be that individuals will seek to maximize their utility in ways that only appear to lack self-interest. Thus an act of altruism may bring a reward of its own back to the individual. Thus helping others may also be a means of helping oneself also. Also, individuals will join organizations because joint enterprises are often an effective means to pursue one's utility.

Rational Choice Theory and Gangs

As noted above, the rational choice theory argues that individuals follow the rules of methodological individualism before making a choice to join a criminal gang. There is evidence that such a rational calculus is being made by individuals. The first evidence involves the decision to join a gang at all. The research does show that individuals from extremely stressed families and communities make a rational choice to join a gang. They do so because gang membership comports with certain personal wants. These wants include finding a substitute family that will provide a sense of identity, protection, and resources for survival. Thus it's notable that youths from distressed communities recognize the importance of these needs and also that their own families are unable to provide them. Therefore, youths who join gangs understand from an early age the degree of weakness in their own family structures and how an alternative is needed to provide for their long-term needs (Ruble & Turner, 2000). This choice to abandon one's family for the sake of a gang can be considered an act of extreme self-interest.

A second example is that membership in a gang, particularly one of the larger and more active ones, can confer a certain degree of status to a youth. Gang members usually inspire fear and anxiety in the non-gang residents of a community. It may be that individuals affiliated with gangs believe that minority individuals would unlikely attain status under any other circumstances. In this case, a self-interested want to be respected can be fulfilled by joining a gang.

Finally, there is the profit-motive to join criminal gangs. This may be the most compelling evidence of a rational actor calculus in gang formation. As Block and Block (1993) and other researchers have pointed out, gangs often engage in the drug trade for the purposes of earning an income. Indeed, gangs also undertake other criminal activities, such as robbery, burglary, and theft, for the same purpose. There appears to be a prevalent notion among gang affiliates that poor, disadvantaged minority individuals do not have access to legitimate avenues of economic success in a capitalist system. Therefore, the only way such individuals can attain certain material rewards for themselves is through gang membership.


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