Chicago Gang Violence Facilitated by the Social Strain Theory

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Gang violence can devastate the families of the victims, destabilize the conditions of communities, and jeopardize the safety of its residents. However, many criminal justice theories can help identify the cultural causes of gang activities and the violent crimes that the members commit. A recent high-profile Chicago crime in which a two-year-old baby was killed during a gang shooting can help illustrate how the social strain theory applies to the gang epidemic within the city. Understanding how the social strain theory explains the prevalence of gang activities can help criminal justice professionals then develop and implement strategies to help alleviate the problem and reduce gang violence. The social strain theory contends that residents living in impoverished communities and suffering from a lack of resources often resort to criminal activities as the only methods of obtaining money and prestige. The social strain problem has led to a subculture of gang organizations throughout the country and especially Chicago, the subculture relies on violence to solve conflicts, and this problem-solving method often results in innocent bystanders being murdered as collateral victims of neighborhood gang shootings.

The given crime received substantial attention and generated public outrage because of the victim being a two-year-old boy. In October of 2018, a household in a northwest Chicago neighborhood was enjoying a birthday party in which many friends, neighbors, and family members were celebrating the joyous occasion. However, a leader of the local gang who lived on the block appeared at the birthday party with other gang members despite none of them being invited to the party. Angry that people from other rival gangs were present at the party, the leader and his members began questioning all of the party attendants regarding their gang affiliations. Although the details are still not certain, witnesses asserted that this facilitated a verbal argument and a physical altercation among the party attendants, at which point the leader of the gang shouted orders for one of his members to take out his gun and relentlessly shoot the gun into a group of people at the party (Gallardo, 2018). An 18-year-old man and a two-year-old boy were both shot. 

While the man survived his injuries, the boy was killed by the gunshot wound to his neck, which established the two-year-old as the youngest Chicago shooting victim in 2018. While the police are still searching for the shooter who fired his weapon and killed the boy, law enforcement officials already charged the leader of the gang for delivering the orders for his subordinate to shoot his weapon into the crowd.  27-year-old Alexander Varela, who was the leader of the gang and who ordered the shooting, has been arrested for the incident and charged with first-degree murder (Gallardo, 2018). Thus, a gang altercation at a party led to a shooting, an innocent child was murdered during the attack, and the leader of the involved gang was charged for giving the order to shoot at the crowd despite not actually pulling the trigger himself.

The social strain theory and its impact on gang culture can help explain this horrendous crime. The theory was established by sociologist Robert Merton in 1932 and then expanded upon by Robert Agnew in the recent decades. The strain theory elaborates on the ways in which social pressures to achieve certain desired goals, accompanied by the lack of means to achieve those goals, impel the given residents to engage in criminal activities. For instance, the basic concept of the American Dream encourages people to achieve professional prestige and financial success.  However, many impoverished communities and low-income neighborhoods lack the resources required to achieve those goals, which pressures the residents to engage in criminal activities and to join gang organizations as the only means of making money and achieving success (Agnew, 2010). For instance, detrimental economic policies have deprived many disenfranchised communities of having decent educational systems, for the schools often lack adequate resources, supplies, teachers, desks, books. In turn, the young residents in the neighborhoods do not believe they can receive a high-quality education and then attend college to earn a university degree. The lack of professional opportunities is also discouraging to the residents in low-income communities. The residents typically do not perceive that they can realistically obtain a prestigious occupation within the legitimate structure of society or earn the high-wage salary required to obtain financial and domestic stability for their families.

The desire for success accompanied by the lack of resources impels these residents to join gangs as the only realistic method to earn money for their families and reach success for themselves.  For instance, the gangs offer them a way to participate in a business and earn an income through illegal methods such as selling black market drugs or stolen products. This then allows the residents to enjoy certain benefits that society fails to offer. They view the gangs as an opportunity to achieve financial wealth so they can provide their families with food, shelter, and clothing. The residents also become enthralled by a chance to earn social prestige.  Like any business organization, the gangs offer a chance for residents to climb up the hierarchy of the organization, receive an admirable reputation, and enjoy being respected by their peers and by the entire community (Klemp-North, 2007).  Thus, the social strain theory explains why residents living in impoverished communities lacking basic resources often resort to criminal activities and gang organizations to earn financial and social success.

This development, unfortunately, results in crimes such as the murder of the two-year-old boy at a birthday party. Like many inner-city Chicago communities, this neighborhood is known for being a low-income area with inferior educational systems and insufficient professional opportunities.  In turn, the residents instead create a subculture of gang activities as a means to earn money and receive respect. However, the problem-solving methods of these subculture gang organizations are violence (Klemp-North, 2007). Normal businesses can solve conflicts with rival companies through traditional legal system methods, such as mediation processes or trial procedures. The underground gang organizations do not have recourse to solve conflicts with the legal system. Instead, the gangs often use violence to settle territorial disputes or to claim the limited available resources.  

This problem-solving method manifested itself on the night of the birthday party in Chicago. As members of the gang subculture in a disenfranchised community, their natural instinct was to resolve conflicts with other gangs through violence and shootings. A severe problem that accompanies this problem-solving method is the prevalence of innocent victims who are killed for unfortunately being located in the proximity of the shootings and near the crossfire of the bullets. The United States and especially Chicago has been bombarded with tragic instances of young children being killed inadvertently during gang shootings, but the outrage instigated by the birthday party shooting was exacerbated due to the young age of the innocent victim (Gallardo, 2018). Therefore, the murder of the two-year-old boy can be explained by the gang subculture that has been facilitated by the social strain theory. Residents in the low-income community do not have access to educational or professional opportunities, they resort to the gang subculture to obtain financial and professional success, and the problem-solving method of violence used by the rival gangs often results in innocent bystanders of all ages being killed.

The arrest of the gang leader also reflects the status of these gangs as official organizations.  The leader of the gang did not pull out a gun or shoot anyone.  However, he gave the orders for a subordinate to begin shooting and was then held responsible for the death that ensued. Just as when a CEO of a business gives orders the employees obey, when the leader of a gang gives orders the members also obey. This shows the organized hierarchy of the gang subculture. The organizations operate like any business, the residents are proud to work for the gang organizations, and the members are expected to accommodate the orders passed down the chain-of-command.  Thus, the social strain problem has led to the development of gangs that are organized like other businesses but that resort to violence to settle conflicts. 

The problem of gang violence is experienced all over the country.  But Chicago is confronted with disproportionately high murder rates and exorbitant instances of gang shootings.  The strain theory can help explain the epidemic that is permeating throughout Chicago and that led to the death of the two-year-old boy. The city is experiencing very high poverty rates that are worse than most other major US cities (Glanton, 2017). The abundance of poverty-stricken neighborhoods accompanied by the massive size of the population results in many communities that succumb to the strain theory and that develop these gang subcultures. Though the residents join the gangs to achieve success, the problem-solving method of violence leads to rampant murder rates throughout the city and tragic cases of innocent victims.

Although the murder of a two-year-old boy during a gang shooting is atrocious, understanding the social strain theory can help us alleviate the issues that contributed to the tragedy. Establishing beneficial policies that funnel more economic, educational and professional resources to impoverished neighborhoods would decrease the influence of gangs in the area. Residents would no longer need to form and join gangs to make money but would instead be able to achieve financial success and social prestige through traditional occupations within society. Thus, addressing the social strain theory and providing more resources to desperate communities would reduce the instances of horrible situations such as the murder of a two-year-old boy. The policy changes and the increased resources would reduce the instances of gang violence, decrease the death rates of innocent bystanders, and improve the safety conditions experienced by the communities and the quality of life enjoyed by the residents.  


Agnew, R. (2010). Pressured into crime: An overview of general strain theory. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gallardo, M. (2018, October 22). Gang member charged in murder of 2-year-old boy in Hermosa. Retrieved December 10, 2018, from

Glanton, D. (2017, March 15). Chicago needs a war on poverty to stop the violence. Retrieved December 10, 2018, from

Klemp-North, M. (2007). Theoretical foundation for gang membership. Journal of Gang Research, 14(4), 1-26.