Social Theories: Explaining Gang Violence

by Tabetha Cooper
Criminology is a complex subject chock-full of theories that attempt to explain crime and criminal behavior. Each base theory has several branches of theory which expand upon and compliment their predecessors. Even some of the sub-theories have branches of theories.
This paper is going to discuss two social theories; social structure and social process. It is also going to cover some of the branches of those theories; disorganization theory, strain theory, cultural deviance, social learning theory, social control theory, and social reaction theory. It will go into some of the branches and thoughts within these sub-theories; differential association theory, neutralization theory, techniques of neutralization, and social bond theory. It is also going to investigate how these theories try to explain the phenomenon of gang violence.
Social structure theorists believe that the key elements to criminal behavior are the dominance of social and economic influences that are prominent in rundown neighborhoods where the population is primarily lower-class citizens (Siegel, 2010). Social disorganization theory, strain theory and cultural deviance theory all fall under the social structure theory. Each of these three sub-theories attempt to explain what causes people to join violent gangs. Although each of these theories deviates in some aspects from the thought of each other they all share the common ground of the social structure theory.
Social disorganization theory concentrates on the circumstances in the inner city that affect crimes. These circumstances include the deterioration of the neighborhoods, the lack of social control, gangs and other groups who violate the law, and the opposing social values within these neighborhoods (Siegel, 2010). The fact that youth in this lower class are raised in such dilapidated neighborhoods is a primary reason that they choose to participate in violence and become associated with gangs. These people have no pride in where they live and do not feel a need to become involved in activities to preserve the well being of the neighborhood (OJJDP Bulletin, 2003). To compensate, they take their spare time and invest it into participating in gang activities.
Strain theory suggests that crime is brought on by the overwhelming strain that people feel when they have the personal aspirations but no way to reach them. Strain theorists believe that wealth and power are allocated disproportionately between economic classes and the frustration of not being able to achieve goals and strain of not having opportunities are what influence a person’s choice to commit crime (Featherstone & Deflem, 2003). According to the strain theorists, the youth feel that the only chance to obtain the things that they desire is to join gangs. They see other gang members in the community with money from things such as drug sales and feel that joining the gang will benefit them in the same way.
Cultural deviance theory combines parts of the disorganization and strain theories. They believe that criminal behavior is the result of the strain people feel and the social isolation that the urban environments put them under. These two things form subcultures within the lower class that adopt values that are much different from the rest of the population (Siegel, 2010). A cultural deviance theorist would say a combination of growing up in deteriorated neighborhoods as well as the strain of seeing no other way out is the reason that people participate in gangs. They believe that it would take both factors to push a person to the point at which they felt they needed to take part in this kind of potentially violent behavior.
Social process theory stresses the importance of group involvement and socializing with non-criminal peers within the groups. Social process theorists believe that criminality is determined by a person’s involvement within different institutional affiliations (Siegel, 2010). Social process theory branches off in three other major theories; social learning theory, social control theory, and social reaction theory. Social process theorists would agree that people join gangs because they do not have good influences in their life or ties to different organizations that would keep them out of trouble.
Social learning theory simply states that humans conduct themselves in an illegal manner because all they have been taught is criminal behavior. This criminal behavior is learned through interacting without other human beings that behave criminally. Differential association theory falls under the social learning theory. The creator of the differential association theory, Edwin Sutherland, believed that people became deviants because of being overly exposed to others with bad attitudes and delinquent values. Differential association assumes that criminal behavior is learned, the techniques required to commit crime are learned, the learning process involved in learning crime is the same as learning anything else, and that a person’s perceptions of the law determines how a person behaves (Walsh & Hemmens, 2008). Differential association theory explains gang violence as a person’s exposure to existing gangs within their neighborhoods.
Neutralization theory is another theory that falls under the sub-theory social learning theory. Neutralization theory states that criminals learn techniques that allow them to offset values of society as a whole and go back and forth between conventional and criminal behaviors (Topalli, 2006). This theory was created on the observations that criminals can show remorse for their criminal behavior, offenders admire law abiding citizens, even criminals have lines they will not cross, and criminals can comply with laws when they choose to do so. Criminals develop techniques of neutralization, which are simply excuses for their behavior.
The techniques of neutralization are denial of responsibility, denial of injury, denial of the victim, condemnation of the condemners, and appealing to higher loyalties. Denial of responsibility is just that; the offender claims that they are not at fault for their actions. Denial of injury is when the offender refuses to accept that their actions were wrong. Denial of the victim is when the offender places the blame on the victim; this can sometimes include making themselves out to be the victim. Condemnation of the condemners is when they place the blame on those who say their actions are criminal. And appealing to higher loyalties is a need to please their peers, which really places the blame on the peers that want them commit the illegal act (Topalli, 2006). Neutralization theorists would not give an explanation on why people join gangs but they believe that gang members can associate with noncriminal family members and peers without displaying their violent side. They are able to do this without feeling remorse because of the techniques of neutralization.
Social control theorists believe that everyone in the world has the ability to break the law and choosing to do so is based on the many opportunities that are available in society. They see behavior as being either administered or constrained by an individual’s affiliation with peers and institutions (Walsh & Hemmens, 2008). Participation in gangs would be explained by social theorists as a phenomenon that takes place as a result of people not being tied to or associated with the right peers or organizations. The way a person is raised and the opportunities afforded to them are negative influences in their lives and participating in gangs is all that they know.
A branch theory of the social control sub-theory is the social bond theory. Social bond theory suggests that people become criminals when they do not have proper connections to institutions and the individual processes of conventional civilization. The elements of social bond theory include attachment to family, friend, or the community, commitment to an individual’s future, career, success, or personal goals, involvement with activities, organizations, religious groups and social clubs, and personal beliefs such as honesty, morality, and patriotism (Siegel, 2010). This can explain a person’s tendency for violence within a gang because they have nothing to lose by their antisocial behavior.
The last sub-theory of social process theory is the social reaction theory, commonly referred to as labeling theory. According to the social reaction theory, some people are given classified in a negative way by people of authority. They begin to feel that the label they have been given is correct and further themselves into deviant behaviors. A person initially gets labeled and then strives to live up to the label in a continuing cycle. First the person commits a single criminal act, then they are caught, someone (the courts, a parent, etc.) gives them a deviant label, and they now have a new identity that society knows them by. They begin to believe that society is correct, and at last they try to live up to the label that they know identifies them. This can explain gang involvement because an otherwise ordinary person has been stigmatized by a destructive label. All social “interaction and encounters” (Siegel, 2010) are now negative and in order to feel that a person has a place in society they join a gang and live up to the label they have been given.
Social structure theorists believe that criminality is a result of an offender’s lack of being able to achieve goals through legitimate means. Social learning theorists believe that people deviate from criminal behavior because they have good role models such as family and friends who teach them to obey the law. And social control theorists believe that a person’s behavior is a reflection of the society for which they are a part. It is the internal and external forces that a person is exposed to that determine whether or not they are going to become a deviant (Siegel, 2010). All of these social theories can potentially explain, in part or in whole, why people participate in violent gang activity.
Featherstone, R. & Deflem, M. (2003). Anomie and strain: context and consequences of Merton’s two theories. Sociological Inquiry 73(4):471-489, 2003. Retrieved from: http://www.cas.sc.edu/socy/faculty/deflem/zamoniestrain.html
OJJDP Bulletin. (2003). Social disorganization and rural communities. Retrieved from: http://www.ncjrs.gov/html/ojjdp/193591/page1.html
Seigel, L. (2010). Criminology: theories, patterns, & typologies (10th ed.). Belmont, Ca: Cengage Learning/Wadsworth
Topalli, V. (2006). The seductive nature of autotelic crime: how neutralization theory serves as a boundary condition for understanding hardcore street offending. Retrieved from: http://chhs.gsu.edu/cj/docs/topalli_neutralizationtheory.pdf
Walsh, A. & Hemmens, C. (2008). Introduction to criminology (1st ed.). SAGE publications. Retrieved from: http://www.sagepub.com/upm-data/19629_Section_5___Social_Process_Theories.pdf

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