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You in or out?: Reflecting on positionality in gang research

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Published onSep 29, 2023
You in or out?: Reflecting on positionality in gang research


Positionality is an important consideration when carrying out research. An effective tool for understanding this process is reflexivity—a continual dialogue that explores the interplay between our identities and how data is collected, analyzed, and interpreted. These reflexive accounts have been used in various disciplines, including criminal justice and criminology. In advancing this important practice, we offer insight into our experiences studying a hard-to-reach population: gangs. Specifically, we document how our insider and outsider identities, as well as the space between facilitated access, were used strategically and informed our interpretations of data. We conclude by encouraging reflexivity within criminology broadly and specifically among scholars who study hard-to-reach populations like street gangs.

Keywords: gangs, fieldwork, identity, reflexivity, positionality, qualitative

It is widely acknowledged that the research process (i.e., data collection, analysis, and interpretation) is shaped by researcher and participant interactions. It involves the agentic process of “doing” identities to solicit rich, valid, and authentic data; thus, positionality—one’s perspective that is informed by their various identities—is at the forefront of these interactions. Reflexivity, or the continual critical analysis of one’s positionality, is an effective tool for conveying important information about the factors that shaped the research process (Berger, 2015). Through reflexive exercises, scholars have articulated the emergence of “insider” and “outsider” identities—those we share with the researched population and those that create initial social distance, respectively. Despite the simplicity of this distinction, the reality of fieldwork is much more complicated: We share both these statuses and thus operate within the “space between” (Dwyer & Buckle, 2009). This space allows scholars to strategically maneuver fieldwork to gain the advantages afforded to insiders and outsiders while tempering their methodological disadvantages.

Importantly, criminologists and those who study social control and deviance have taken on the critical task of reflexivity (for some great examples, see Lumsden & Winter, 2014). Unfortunately, most reflexive accounts rarely focus on hidden populations or hard-to-reach groups—often comprising some of the most powerless and misunderstood. One example is gangs plagued by myths that misrepresent their histories, trajectories, and group dynamics (Howell, 2012). This is especially problematic given the proliferation of gang research since the 1920s and the empirical turn that characterizes modern studies (Pyrooz & Mitchell, 2015). Fortunately, several formerly involved gang scholars have added significant contributions to the literature (e.g., Bolden, 2020; Durán, 2006, 2013; Rios, 2012), whose insights have been bolstered by their firsthand accounts of gang life.

Despite arguments that reflexivity statements have no value in research (see Savolainen et al., 2023), we argue that there is much to gain if reflexivity is treated seriously. Rather than stringing together a few sentences about one’s positionality, reflexivity requires a thorough and critical examination of how one’s identities shape the data collection, analytic, and interpretive processes. In advancing this argument, this paper seeks to add to the current body of literature by sharing our experiences as qualitative and quantitative gang scholars. Specifically, we discuss our experiences navigating the space as insiders and outsiders to the gang world within our respective projects. Furthermore, we not only discuss access and contextual awareness (topics that have been identified at length) but also how our identities shaped the data interpretation process—an often cited but rarely discussed aspect of reflexivity. We hope our efforts offer guidance and encourage those studying hard-to-reach populations to take stock of the importance of reflexivity across various methodologies and the value it adds to a growing focus on empiricism.

Insider, Outsider, or the Space Between?

Positionality—one’s perspective shaped by various identities—is an important topic across academic disciplines because scholars bring their worldviews, biases, and personal values into the research process (Berg, 2009; Corbin & Strauss, 2015). As such, reflexivity has been offered as an effective and necessary method for “continual internal dialogue and critical self-evaluation of researcher’s positionality as well as active acknowledgment and explicit recognition that this position may affect the research process and outcome” (Berger, 2015, p. 220). Given this methodological axiom, conversations about researcher positionality have focused extensively on insider and outsider statuses and the space between them.


One of the earliest conceptions of insiders comes from Merton’s (1972) structural definition; they are “members of specified groups and collectivities or occupants of specified social statuses” (p. 21). Since then, different variations of insider status have emerged to capture its complexity, such as total and partial insiders, honorary insiders, insiders by proxy, and indigenous and external insiders (Banks, 1998; Carling, Erdal, & Ezzati, 2014; Chavez, 2008). Nonetheless, scholars generally agree that insiders come from the same population they are studying—they share a common identity, language, and experiential base as their participants (Dwyer & Buckle, 2009; Greene, 2014).

Given their shared social history, insiders occupy a unique position with several methodological advantages, including more authentic data and precise analysis. First, they often have easier and more intimate access to participants and critical information and are afforded a greater sense of legitimacy, at least initially (Chavez, 2008; Decoo, 2022; Labaree, 2002; Sherif, 2001; Zinn, 1979). Second, insiders possess the contextual awareness or “lenses” to collect data in a localized way. That is, they know how to ask meaningful questions, interpret and respond to non-verbal cues, and interact more naturally (Haniff, 1985; Merriam et al., 2001). Third, they may better understand the emotive aspects of social behavior. As Chavez (2008) tells us, insiders “understand the cognitive, emotional, and/or psychological precepts of participants as well as possess a more profound knowledge of the historical and practical happenings of the field” (p. 481). Fourth, one of the most important contributions from insider scholars is their ability to enrich our knowledge and challenge preconceived ideas about those under study (Innes, 2009). For example, Haniff (1985) impugned the anthropological literature in the 1980s that characterized Third World women as oppressed, uneducated, and bearing low self-concepts. Instead, she argued that these interpretations did not adequately capture the reality for these women—many of whom, despite their lower status, had high levels of self-esteem, were assertive, and strong.

However, insiders may succumb to various issues not encountered by outsiders. First, scholars have frequently noted that insider researchers may encounter greater difficulty in maintaining objectivity and accuracy due to over-rapport and bias; that is, they may be too close to participants and their perspectives and thus more prone to accepting habitual modes of behavior without critical interpretation (Mammersley & Atkinson, 1995; Tinker & Armstrong, 2008) which can lead to a “rose-colored observational lens” (Chavez, 2008, p. 475). Inaccuracies may emerge from a consciousness of comfort in which significant observations may be overlooked, including many behaviors that appear ordinary or mundane (Chavez, 2008; Innes, 2009). Insiders may also ignore individual differences between themselves and participants in favor of their perspectives (Dwyer & Buckle, 2009). Furthermore, participants may withhold obvious information or distort data to preserve their relationships (MacRae, 2007; Mercer, 2007; Zinn, 1979). Second, insiders may potentially lead questions through personal disclosures rather than directing participants’ attention. In other words, by sharing their own experiences, insiders may unknowingly (or knowingly) construct a particular response. Third, insider scholars may be bound to culturally prescribed behaviors and requests—those that would not be expected of outsiders. For example, when preparing to leave the field, Chavez (2008) was asked to chronicle the Fuentes family story into a photo album, a task that extended her stay in the field and created additional pressure. Similarly, limits may be placed on the activities insiders participate in or questions they may ask, given their understanding of relational and social dynamics. Indeed, as Sherif (2001) reminds us about her experiences in studying Egyptian social relationships, “there was no question that, from the beginning, I was accepted. Indeed, I was not only accepted, but I was expected to know how to behave” (p. 440, emphasis added).


In contrast, outsider researchers are nonmembers of the studied group (Merton, 1972). Though this may appear detrimental, the literature suggests that many advantages are associated with this research position—most notably perceived objectivity. As Merton (1972) noted, outsiders may “observe social institutions and cultures on the premise that they are more apt to do so with detachment” (p. 34). This detachment may advance important methodological tools not necessarily employable by insiders. First, outsiders may not experience the cultural and ethnic pulls for behavioral conformity; that is, they may not feel compelled to adhere to the norms of the community and participants they study (Rabe, 2003). Second, and relatedly, this social and emotional distance may allow outsiders to analyze data from different perspectives critically and not be blind to the ordinary. Third, an overlooked advantage is the data that emerges from participants’ interactions with outsider researchers and the transition from outsider to insider status. As Rabe (2003, p. 158) argues,

The way an outsider is treated by the researched community, the way in which the outsider is approached as an outsider by them, the information given or not given to the outsider, the feelings portrayed or not portrayed towards outsiders all tell a story of their own…In the journey of the researcher from being an outsider to becoming more of an insider, a lot of revealed about those being studied…This is a journey that can never be undertaken by an insider.

Indeed, arguments that outsiders are unable to attain rich and authentic data is an “essentialist trap,” the idea that only insiders have “privileged access to a singular insider truth” (Hodkinson, 2005, p. 142).

However, a few disadvantages have been documented about outsider status. First, outsider researchers may interpret data in a way that imposes their personal biases and preconceived notions into their research design and analysis, resulting in a positivistic representation of participants (Chavez, 2008; Greene, 2014; Haniff, 1985). Second, because of their initial unfamiliarity, outsiders may lack contextual awareness and thus miss important subtleties and variations from participants. Third, given the challenges with access and establishing rapport (though possible, it may require greater lengths in the field; Hodkinson, 2005), participants may present a distorted image and, thus, offer biased or incomplete data (Zinn, 1979).

The Space Between

Scholars have challenged this binary distinction, arguing that researchers rarely are true insiders or outsiders, but rather, they occupy a space between (Beoku-Betts, 1994; Chavez, 2008; Deutsch, 1981; Dwyer & Buckle, 2009; Innes, 2009; Rabe, 2003; Tinker & Armstrong, 2008). This is a dynamic and multidimensional space where researchers’ identities, cultural backgrounds, relationships with participants, and a priori knowledge continually position them closer to insider or outsider statuses during the research process (Dwyer & Buckle, 2009; Kerstetter, 2012; Milligan, 2016). Merton’s (1972) early account confirms this insight, observing that “individuals have not a single status but a status set: a complement of variously interrelated statuses which interact to affect both their behavior and perspectives” (p. 22).

Importantly, the space between reveals an agentic quality because researchers can “do” insider and outsider statuses depending on a variety of factors, including social interactions and context, appearance, and topics of inquiry (Adu-Ampong & Adams, 2020; Carlin, 2014; Cui, 2015; Decoo, 2022; Ergun & Erdemire, 2010; Kerstetter, 2012; Mercer, 2007; Merton, 1972). Put simply, scholars can actively inch closer to an insider or outsider depending on the situation (Milligan, 2016; Sherif, 2001). For example, in their reflexive account of their respective studies in Azerbaijin and Turkey, Ergun and Erdemir (2010, p. 34) found that

…factors such as cultural, social, and linguistic affinities; ideology and political preferences; age, gender, marital status, and profession; and the interplay of these identities were significant in shaping our relations with our informants. Our ambiguous insider/outsider statuses enabled us to negotiate our identities at various levels.

Additionally, researchers can signal, reinforce, or compensate for their insider and outsider statuses through more malleable aspects of self-presentation, namely one’s physical appearance and clothing style (Carling et al., 2014).

Others have noted that this status can fluctuate in a single interview. In her study of faculty appraisal at two higher education institutions, Mercer (2007) observed that “there were points in some interviews where particular topics appeared to engender a greater degree of insiderness” (p. 4). Likewise, in his study of parental educational expectations among the Chinese, Cui (2015, p. 365) remarked that

I was an insider and simultaneously an outsider to my friend, but not being an absolute insider. This pivotal point reminded me that even though I was a close friend of this interviewee, I could still be perceived an outsider at times during an interview because I was an interviewer or a researcher at the same time.

In short, while there are important advantages and disadvantages associated with insider and outsider statuses, neither is sufficient for capturing positionality in the research process. Instead, scholars are often both and constantly negotiate these identities to gain an insider’s edge and an outsider’s distance. It is precisely this interactive process of truth-seeking that improves our understanding of social life (Merton, 1972). As Breen (2007) concluded about her research on grief experiences resulting from crashes, “being ‘in the middle’ made it easier to keep questioning the research material, because I was not ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ of it” (p. 169).

Positionality in Criminological Research

In line with other disciplines, criminologists have also reflexively evaluated the research process. Importantly, because criminologists work with the powerful and powerless, it is especially crucial that they process how criminological knowledge is constructed (Lumsden & Winter, 2014). Indeed, many scholars have produced important insights about their positionality as insiders, outsiders, and the space between across various settings, including prisons (e.g., Damsa & Ugelvik, 2017; Davies, 2015; Jewkes, 2011; Marquardt, 1986; Rowe, 2014; Sumner, Sexton, & Reiter, 2018), law enforcement agencies (e.g., Sanchez & Portillos, 2021; Sowatey & Tankebe, 2019), as well as deviant groups (e.g., Bucerius, 2015; Contreras, 2015). Mirroring extant literature, the advantages and challenges associated with insider and outsider statuses have been documented, such as the expediency of access and pressures towards shared in-group behaviors and attitudes (Bennett, 2015; Marquardt, 1986; Sanchez & Portillos, 2021; Sumner et al., 2018). Moreover, criminologists have also articulated the specific challenges that women encounter when studying men—and thus outsider gender identity—namely sexual harassment and increased threats of violence when compared to their male counterparts (see Bucerius, 2014; Presser, 2006). In short, the complexities of straddling the space between have also been parsed out within criminological literature.

Importantly, recent and older lessons from the field concerning the space between deserve mention. In discussing the value of leveraging identity and social capital in rapid ethnographies among hard-to-reach populations, Aqil and colleagues (2023) argued that their positionalities and management of these identities before and during fieldwork were integral to gathering rich qualitative data. For instance, they strategically used insider and outsider statuses to expedite access by establishing “comfort zones,” capitalizing on their shared linguistic and ethnic backgrounds to yield rich data, practiced selective incompetence given their outsider identities, and managed risk by acquiescing to certain labels. In short, Aqil and colleagues (2023) noted that “identity shapes practicalities, choices, and possibilities. Importantly, identity determines how one can access the field. While insider or outsider status can affect the capacity to collect certain data, this identity alone is not a roadblock to a successful field trip” (p. 20).

Additionally, in assessing how participants (correctional staff) perceived Carter (a former correctional officer turned academic), Carter and Thomson (2022) found that various identities and perceptions emerged. Namely, Carter was viewed as a snitch (someone who talks), snake (someone who observes and records), mole (someone with inside knowledge but an outsider status), and “Books” (a nickname given to Carter). Together, they noted that Carter’s insider and outsider statuses shaped how participants viewed her and, thus, responded to her presence, constituting a spectrum from being a mole (a person of suspicion) to “Books” (a trustworthy and transparent researcher).

In discussing his roles as a researcher (outsider) and prison manager (insider), Bennett (2015) acknowledged the challenges of this duality. In his efforts to create distance from his insider identity and to signal an outsider status to see things from a new perspective and feel unfamiliarity in the familiar, he selected unfamiliar prisons as research sites and altered his physical appearance and clothing style—two important signals of identity (Carling et al., 2014). Specifically, he wore casual clothing rather than a suit and tie, grew out his hair, and even sported a beard at one point during data collection.

Older accounts confirm similar experiences with straddling the space between. For instance, Marquardt’s (1986) reflection on his nineteen-month ethnography as a correctional guard and researcher in one maximum security prison in Texas illuminated the challenges of being an insider (as a guard) and outsider (as a researcher). He described important strategies for establishing rapport as an insider (e.g., accepting boring work assignments without complaint) and outsider (e.g., weightlifting and boxing with those incarcerated), but also the hidden dilemmas of doing such work, including the pressures of role conflict, reactivity, and the emotional labor of witnessing and being involved in violence.

In short, there are significant reasons for criminologists and those studying crime, deviance, and social control to engage in the reflexive process. These accounts have highlighted important aspects of identity work during data collection and analysis (e.g., see Lumsden & Winter, 2014; Worley, Worley, & Wood, 2016). Indeed, criminologists have discussed positionality to a great extent and drawn our attention to issues of role conflict, organizational pressures, and negotiation strategies—both legal and illegal. Nonetheless, despite this growing interest, fewer studies have addressed positionality within gang research.

Positionality in Gang Research

Within gang research, discussions of positionality have centered on membership status (i.e., gang insider or outsider) and features of race, class, and gender. Below, we review the literature concerning gang outsiders, gang insiders, and those navigating the space between.


Horowitz (1986) was the first scholar to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of insider and outsider statuses within gang research. She argued that being a non-gang woman (i.e., a gender and gang outsider) granted certain advantages, notably her options in pursuing research opportunities among different gangs and with rivaling sets. Furthermore, other scholars have discussed their ability to ask basic questions without repercussions (Urbanik, 2017). Additionally, one noteworthy advantage is that outsiders may be physically safer while collecting data. For example, Venkatesh (2008) stated that his non-gang status afforded him personal safety from gang members and led to his becoming a gang leader for a day.

However, gang scholars have also noted drawbacks to outsider status, namely the difficulty in gaining access to these groups and the initial absence of localized understandings and interpretations of the gang landscape and context. To overcome these limitations, outsiders have recruited gang insiders as gatekeepers and co-researchers. Perhaps the best example is Moore’s (1978) groundbreaking study, where she collaborated with formerly incarcerated individuals and gang members. This collaboration led to substantial modifications in the research design, including the use of oral history and an expanded focus on three neighborhoods. Similarly, other researchers have enlisted former gang members to aid in the research design, data collection (e.g., recruitment, rapport building, interview guides), and assessment of the overall research project (Aspholm, 2016, 2020; Hagedorn, 1990), with some scholars offering a shared partnership with gang leaders (Brotherton & Barrios, 2004). More recently, scholars have also taken to the internet and social media to recruit participants to enhance sample diversity and to facilitate comparative analyses (Gundur, 2019).


There has been a growing number of studies conducted by gang members turned scholars. These insiders have identified several advantages within the field, including the expediency of access to these groups, a nuanced understanding of gang contexts, and the ability to evaluate the veracity of participants’ statements (Durán, 2006, 2013; Weide, 2014, 2022). For example, Maldanado (2022)—a gang-affiliated and system-impacted Latina—accessed and navigated Los Angeles’ gang culture by leveraging her identities. Specifically, her insider status facilitated access, granted immediate rapport, and provided a critical lens for understanding the criminalization of Chicana and Latina gang mothers. However, insider status in gang research is not without its limitations. For example, Weide (2014) reported concerns about his safety, namely that he could be identified by former rival gang members while in the field. Despite these distinctions, gang scholars have quickly recognized the complexities of positionality. For example, Rios (2011) identifies as an outsider and insider. The former concerns his previous gang involvement, while the latter reflects his privileged class position as an academic. Thus, despite the centrality of the gang identity, the space between is very much a relevant and important consideration, even among insiders.

The Space Between

Despite their non-gang status, some scholars have leveraged other shared insider statuses (e.g., gender, sexual identity, and race/ethnicity) to gain access to research sites and participants. For example, Baird (2018) discussed using his male identity to build rapport and establish common ground with gang members in Columbia. Similarly, Flores (2015) noted that his shared working-class Latino background garnered interest among participants and thus expedited the rapport process. Indeed, Panfil (2017) drew on her status and experiences as a queer individual in her study of gay gang members. She found that her familiarity with gay culture aided in exploring important concepts, such as the process of coming out. In fact, participants revealed that they would not have agreed to be interviewed had she not been queer.

Scholars have also navigated the space between more critical and accurate interpretations of their data. Campbell (1984) emphasized the benefits of research about women being conducted by women—namely that it led to less stereotypical perspectives surrounding their experiences. Similarly, Mendoza-Denton (2008, p. 47) elaborated on how growing up in Mexico City shaped her interpretations:

The particular gendered/classed/ethnicized standpoint that I represent shaped and affected my interactions, what kind of data I was able (and unable) to gather, as well as my interpretation of the larger picture that was forged by me…

Importantly, the space between is also complicated. Stuart (2020) illuminates this by discussing how one could be a racial insider but not perceived as such. Specifically, his participants did not know he was black until six months into the study. He argued that his credentials as a professor, nice dress and attire, and speech led to perceptions of a higher class and, thus, an association with wealthy whites. Nonetheless, Stuart (2020) argued that his identities as a non-gang member and perceived racial outsider both helped and hindered data collection, which in turn shaped the claims he made. Specifically, his outsider status increased his exposure to data related to participants’ bragging about their celebrity status as drill rappers while limiting his ability to access the women romantically involved with participants.

In short, these accounts illustrate the importance of other shared identities for recruitment, rapport building, and understanding participants’ social experiences outside of gang involvement. However, with few exceptions, we seldom see reflexive discussions on how data is framed and interpreted and research conducted by quantitative scholars. Considering these gaps, we reflect on our experiences as qualitative and quantitative gang scholars as insiders and outsiders to gang membership and our navigation of the space between.


Who Are We?

This paper draws from our collective experiences as gang scholars. Specifically, we rely on our field notes and observations, journals, and other research documents (e.g., interview protocols) from previous projects to support our reflexive accounts. To facilitate a robust discussion about access, contextual awareness, and data interpretation, we provide an overview of our respective positionalities and research projects.

Sou’s Background

I am a first-generation Hmong American. My parents and two eldest brothers arrived in the United States in 1990 as refugees from the Secret War in Indochina (part of the larger Vietnam War). My family was resettled in Wausau, Wisconsin—a small, predominantly white town. As part of the growing refugee population at that time, we experienced a multitude of issues, including racism and discrimination from the broader community (e.g., explicit racial slurs, xenophobic comments), working-class living conditions (e.g., rental housing, welfare dependency), and difficulty with acculturation (e.g., learning English, cultural adjustments). Although I was never involved in a gang nor participated in gang-motivated activities (e.g., drug sales, assaultive violence, displays of symbols), I knew many Hmong gang members given their proliferation in the 1980s and 1990s across California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin (the three states with the largest Hmong populations in the country). Specifically, I knew about certain rivaling sets, their membership base, symbolic displays, and criminal activities. For these reasons, my identity structure contained many insider and outsider statuses in relation to my study participants. The former included race and ethnicity, gender, culture, and familial and peer identities. However, I was different from many participants, given my non-gang status and upbringing in a small, predominantly white town compared to participants from California and Minnesota.

These experiences guided and informed my dissertation project, which examined the life course among Hmong gang members, namely regarding their involvement, persistence, and disengagement (Lee, 2020). Over a period of nine months (June 2018 to February 2019), I conducted life-history interviews with 34 current and former male Hmong gang members living in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. I coupled these interviews with ethnographic observations on participants, their gangs, and general social life (e.g., family gatherings, interactions with partners and children, leisure activities). These observations amassed over 130 single-spaced pages, triangulated results, documented the familiar and mundane, and recorded my experiences with fieldwork (e.g., methodological challenges and emotional debriefs).

John’s Background

I am of European descent (my paternal grandparents emigrated from Sicily, and my maternal grandparents from Luxembourg). Both my father and grandfather were garbage collectors in the city of Chicago from the early to late 20th century. I grew up in a working-class Chicago neighborhood during the 1990s, where poverty, gangs, and gang culture were highly prevalent. Like many adolescents experiencing uncertain life situations, I started down a self-destructive path when young: I joined the neighborhood gang and, at the age of 16, was charged as an adult for a gang-motivated crime. I served 11 years in prison and 18 months in segregation for gang-related activities. My experiences led to many different identities. Within the gang context, I was a street gang insider, a prison gang insider, and a gender insider. However, my racial identity led to both insider and outsider statuses. In my mixed-ethnicity street gang, I was considered a racial insider; however, my prison gang comprised primarily Latino men. Culturally, I was an insider, given my exposure to and experience with street gangs at a young age. This provided me with a deep cultural understanding of gang life.

My positionality influenced my qualitative and quantitative research projects, which included three data sets. The first project involved 29 qualitative life history interviews gathered in the summer of 2015. The research team comprised former gang members who facilitated recruitment efforts and a non-gang collaborator who participated in the interviews, transcription, and data interpretation. The result of this project was the development of a theoretical framework for explaining the evolving standards of masculinity—which we termed “masculinity maturation”—among gang members as they grew older (Leverso & Hess, 2021). The second project analyzed secondary data from the Denver Youth Survey to investigate the impacts of gang identity and organizational structure on the stability of gang membership (Leverso & Matsueda, 2019).

The third project examined gang interactions on social media (Leverso & Hsiao, 2021; Hsiao, Leverso, & Papachristos, 2023)—an observation I made after my release from prison. By speaking with current members of my former gang, I quickly learned that social media—most notably Facebook—impacted many aspects of gang life. As such, in 2015, I combined my insider knowledge with advanced statistical training to web scrape 23 months of interactions from a public Facebook page devoted to Chicago Latino gangs. Importantly, my insider status was paramount for conducting this study as I could easily identify where gang members interacted and have the cultural literacy to interpret those interactions. From this data, I explored the types of online interactions between gang members and how these interactions were connected to offline violence.

Reflections From the Field



In line with existing research (Aqil et al., 2023; Chavez, 2008; Maldanado, 2022), my presented and perceived racial, ethnic, and gender identities as a Hmong man as well as familial and relational ties expedited the rapport process and facilitated immediate access to interviews and opportunities for ethnographic observations. I looked and talked like many participants (including my bilingual speaking tendencies), and consequently, they often voiced their approval. This was especially true for participants I had not met before my project. For instance, I was often referenced as a fellow “Hmong brother” and received some variation of “Keep doing what you’re doing for our Hmong people, man.” There were many informal moments during interviews and observations that affirmed the importance of my Hmong heritage, including general conversations about Hmong life, our history, and where we hope to see the Hmong people in the future. I recall many participants wishing me luck in my educational pursuits and that they were proud to see a “Hmong brother” going for it. It seemed, at least to me, that my project and aspirations represented progress for the broader Hmong community. Indeed, our identities as Hmong men tethered us to a shared habitus (Bourdieu, 1977), transforming uncomfortable first meetings into tacit understandings of collective struggle, cultural expectations, and social etiquette.

For some participants, much like Chavez (2008), I had a direct familial tie that afforded me an immediate sense of legitimacy, respect, and safety—namely that I was not a snitch or cop or would otherwise distribute information about them or their activities. However, this did not always mean I had a deep history with these individuals. In fact, on one occasion, simply being related was enough to grant access. For example, upon meeting Lue for the first time—a shot caller for a local Fresno gang and my first cousin—he welcomed me with open arms and said I could talk to any of his members if I wanted to. I remember him telling me, “he would not talk to me if I wasn’t his cousin, but because I was, he would do so.” Indeed, fieldnotes during my time in Fresno highlight the expediency of access because of these relationships:

The Thug Riderz gang showed me a lot of love, helped coordinate interviews, and picked me up for rides and interviews. I had not known any of these guys prior to my Fresno trip; however, they were told that I was Lue and Ker’s first cousin from Wisconsin. Also, it was made clear to them that Ker had stayed with my family while he was in Wisconsin, and this was bolstered by my claim that Ker was like a little brother to me. I think the combination of Lue as a shot caller and my close relation to them built enough rapport that the Thug Riderz showed me a lot of love and were willing to talk to me. In fact, I was also related to Tou Yia as well [another member of the gang] and he proudly showed me off to the Thug Riderz as his cousin from Wisconsin doing his PhD. (Fieldnote, September 17th, 2018)

These proclamations were also the case with many participants I considered peers and close friends. They often invoked the same idea, citing our friendship as the main reason for my access to their social lives (“I’ll tell you anything you want to know”).

However, in occupying the space between, my identity as a non-gang member complicated access at times, though it was never insurmountable (as is often the case for many outsiders during initial recruitment; Hodkinson, 2005; Rabe, 2003). For example, my experience with one participant illustrates this challenge:

Meng had originally agreed to do interview but decided he could no longer talk to me. He came to this conclusion after speaking with his “big brother” (who is like an OG in his gang). He said that “Hmong people aren’t like that and that only black, Mexican, and other gangs talk to people”. I informed him that this interview isn’t meant to solicit information pertaining to the gang’s criminal and illicit activities, including drugs, guns, and so on. I told him that I was simply interested in his story and his life, how he grew up, why he joined the gang, stayed, and left (if applicable), and how his life is now. (Fieldnote, July 2nd, 2018)

This information eased Meng’s concerns, and he ultimately agreed to an interview. Importantly, it was clear that despite my insider status, my non-gang identity (specifically as a member of his gang) erected an initial challenge to access.

Additionally, while the Thug Riderz were generally willing to let me into their lives, there were a few instances when boundaries were drawn. The most notable example was when I attended a hangout with several of their members. Throughout the evening, we talked about life, including some of their gang exploits. While I felt this was an invitation to discuss these experiences further, I was quickly (and politely) asked to leave so that they could discuss some pressing gang issues (or, as they called it, “gang shit”). In short, navigating the space between was evident in my efforts to recruit participants (Dwyer & Buckle, 2009; Ergun & Erdemire, 2010), especially when attempting to access more personal aspects of their gang affairs. Notably, my insider statuses undoubtedly granted quick entrée to participants and their social lives. This, of course, was not absolute as my non-gang identity was reified on a few occasions, including initial recruitment and during social interactions.


Access, for me, was dependent on the setting. I was a gang insider in Chicago, but that knowledge was less helpful when researching cities and towns where I was unfamiliar with their local gang culture. To illustrate this, I provide a brief description of my access across three research cities below.

My return to society after 11 years in prison was a jarring personal experience. I did not witness a gradual shift in the day-to-day changes of life in the city, culture, technological advancement, or in the gang of which I was formerly a member. I left everyday society in 2001 and returned in 2012—a decade encompassing rapid development on many fronts. Upon my return, street gangs were drastically different. Partly due to curiosity, I went back to the neighborhood where I grew up and where my former gang resided. While there, I unexpectedly ran into a young man who was a current member of my former gang. We talked for several minutes on the street corner about who was active in the gang, who was retired, who was incarcerated, and how the neighborhood had changed. After our brief conversation, he told me to “look me up on YouTube.” Having limited access to technology for the previous 11 years, I had no idea what YouTube was. I later learned that he, like other young people in Chicago gangs, had made a short video of the gang’s history and posted it on YouTube.

During that summer, I continued to talk to young men informally. Having just been released from prison, my social network consisted almost entirely of individuals I grew up with or knew from prison. That first summer, I would attend family functions of those in my network (July 4th barbeques or birthdays). Oftentimes, at these functions, there would be young men who were more active in gang activities. By talking with these younger gang members, I learned that technology, particularly social media, had become part and parcel of gang life. It fascinated me because the guys my age made fun of these individuals for “telling on themselves” and being “keyboard warriors.” Through these conversations, I learned about the social media sites that gang members used, and I would join them to keep abreast of current topics within the culture. Some would be “private groups” where you had to report what gang you were affiliated with, making my insider status necessary for access. Even after I moved out of the area for graduate school, members of my former gang kept me updated on new social media groups dedicated to Chicago gangs or current events happening on the streets.

My insider status as a former street and prison gang member helped to secure qualitative interviews with former gang members. Namely, my former status provided connections to gang members as a known quantity; I was in the gang with them, grew up with them, and knew these individuals personally in some cases. I leveraged the fact that they knew me personally, knew I was not associated with law enforcement, and trusted that I would keep their comments confidential. When contacting members from my former street and prison gangs, I explained my process for leaving the streets through education and by conducting research as my way out (for context, I had only been out of prison for a couple of years at the time of these interviews). Many interviewees resonated with this and participated because they wanted to help. In other cases, I tapped into larger networks through close contacts I developed within the prison gang I was a part of. For example, the leader of my prison gang—who had a large network—reached out to individuals I did not know and recruited participants. He also vouched for me by saying things like, “he is a good dude trying to do right with his life.” In sum, just like other gang members turned scholars (Bolden, 2020; Durán, 2013; Maldanado-Fabela, 2022; Weide, 2022), I used my insider status to gain access to a hard-to-reach population that I was previously a part of.

Finally, my former gang status also facilitated access to a quantitative project about gang activity in Denver. Namely, my graduate advisor informed me that he was interested in studying gangs and that my insider knowledge would be invaluable. He was impressed by my personal story and told me I was the type of person he wanted to advise. Simply put, my insider status helped me access data by connecting with my graduate advisor. Importantly, while I am certain that others have faced academic obstacles because of their former gang status, this identity was advantageous in my situation as it facilitated research opportunities and collaboration.

Context and Doing Identity


Although positionality involves participants’ perceptions of the researcher, scholars are not helpless in this situation and can strategically navigate or manage these impressions. They can bring their contextual understandings into the field and “do” their identities to gain access to information and establish legitimacy and rapport. For me, these strategic maneuvers entailed two primary approaches: 1) doing my insider identities as a Hmong man and 2) performing my non-gang outsider status.

Given our shared background, I negotiated several cultural practices I knew would aid the rapport process and lead to rich, authentic, and sensitive data that most gang members would be unwilling to provide. In the field, I intentionally engaged in our (the Hmong’s) communal and reciprocal practices. This often took the form of sharing resources and honoring alcoholic drinks. For context, alcohol is used in many traditional rituals and to offer and pay respect to one another. The following field notes document these insider performances:

While hanging out with the Thug Riderz (for the sixth night in a row), they ran out of beer—I drank one Modelo and swigged a couple MD 20/20 bottles…We ran through these drinks rather quickly—within an hour and a half approximately. Cheeleng [one of the gang members] wanted to get more drinks, but clearly was troubled with paying for it…though he eventually offered up $40 to grab another case and one more MD 20/20 bottle…I told him that I would pay for the drinks—to which he responded that I was a guest and did not need too. I told him it was okay and that I wanted to and did not mind (truthfully, I was tired of drinking, but I wanted to maintain good relations with them). I told Cheeleng to keep his money and buy beer for the gang’s annual hangout tomorrow instead—he obliged. While running to the liquor store…Ker [my gatekeeper] apologized and said that I shouldn’t have to buy alcohol since I was the guest—I said it was alright and checked out with about $48 worth of alcohol. (Fieldnote, January 16th, 2019)

After the interview, Chue offered me a beer—I could tell he really wanted to drink even though I did not, but I felt it necessary to reciprocate. I had taken up nearly two hours of his time, so why couldn’t I give him 15 minutes of mine? So I took the beer and we sat down in the living room and chilled on it. I killed it within 10 to 15 minutes and thanked him for his time and said that we could always drink another time too since I was in town. (Fieldnote, November 29th, 2018)

Mirroring Horowitz’s (1983) observation on mutual obligations among Chicano gang members, although these interactions may be erroneously reduced to compensatory exchange, the cultural salience suggests otherwise. The Hmong have a deep history of resource sharing, given their agrarian roots, diasporic history in China and Laos, experiences as newly arrived refugees in the late 1970s, and ongoing economic challenges that persist today.

Additionally, like many patriarchal cultures, the Hmong have established gendered expectations and division of labor. Among the gang members I studied, these expectations were usually intensified, with many of their partners preparing food while they hung out and drank. Indeed, many of my identities, especially gender, were magnified in these social interactions (Wax, 1979). To synchronize with participants, I often chose to stay back and not engage in these household duties, though this was not always the case, as will be discussed below.

At 4:44 p.m. I noted that since being here [at the hangout], all the women cleaned the house (and with stern commands/yelling at their children to clean) while the guys sat outside just chilling on Modelo and talking about their next hangout. This was clearly gendered. (Fieldnote, January 18th, 2019)

Moreover, in performing these expectations, I helped prepare meat—traditionally the men’s responsibility during social gatherings—and engaged in ceremonial rituals that required male participation (i.e., serving as a representative during an alcohol exchange for respect and appreciation). However, these experiences also challenged me to negotiate my gender identity in ways that conflicted with my values. I firmly believe that cleaning and cooking are shared responsibilities in any social setting and are not exclusively a woman’s duty. On a few occasions, I found myself deviating from these gendered expectations—only to be reminded that these types of activities were not my responsibility.

At 7:26 p.m. I asked Ker if we should clean the cases of beer, but he said to not worry about it and that the ladies [wives and sisters] would clean it up—again, these gendered expectations are playing in. (Fieldnote, January 13th, 2019)

I recall one occasion where I completed various household chores (e.g., washed dishes, swept, and vacuumed), and when a few Thug Riderz found out, they yelled at their wives and significant others for not doing “their jobs.” I remember feeling so horribly after this incident that I did not dare to trespass on these gendered boundaries again.

While my insiderness proved useful in establishing rapport and granting access to personal accounts of gang life, I also found that doing my non-gang identity was equally important for soliciting rich data. Specifically, while at times I was called upon as the competent “expert” in criminal justice when talking about the police, court procedures, and so on, I also employed selective incompetence by leveraging my outsider identity to acquire full, unabridged accounts and details (Adu-Ampong & Adams, 2020; Aqil et al., 2023; Bucerius, 2013). For example, while I have a general working knowledge of drug markets, one gang member was delighted to tell me—a non-gang, non-drug dealing “square”—in detail the ideal process behind his drug activities as the “middleman” or distributor.

I asked Cheeleng about the math behind it…If for example the source wants at least $550 per pound of weed (and thus is asking to get $55,000 after everything is sold). Cheeleng and his partner would then sell the 100 lbs of weed at $65,000 to the seller (thus pocketing $10,000), who then will sell it at $1,000 per pound on the streets (thus pocketing $35,000). After the weed is sold at the seller’s price (that is, he gets $100,000), he will keep $35,000 himself and give $65,000 to Cheeleng and his partner, who will keep $10,000 of this, and give the remaining $55,000 back to the source. (Fieldnote, January 16th, 2019)

In short, using both my insider and outsider identities proved useful in establishing rapport and gathering detailed information. Importantly, simply belonging to these groups was not always sufficient; rather, leveraging these identities in strategic and contextually grounded ways was almost always necessary.


When reflecting on the insider and outsider distinction, I found that context is key. Similar to other gang scholars (e.g., Durán, 2014; Maldanado-Fabela, 2022; Weide, 2014), my status as a former gang member enhanced my ability to conduct and evaluate information within the Chicago gang scene but only provided general knowledge about other gang contexts. For example, my insider knowledge about Chicago gangs significantly helped me understand gang interactions and colloquialism on social media and the lexicon used by Chicago gang members. Indeed, it was like knowing another language—I could look at Chicago gang slang and graffiti and instantly understand their meanings. For example, the word “love” denotes being a member of a gang (e.g., “Imperial Gangster Love”). It may be spelled as “love,” luv,” or “lov.” Other positive suffixes include “nation” (e.g., “Latin Count Nation”) and “crazy,” typed with a “K” or a “C.” Conversely, disrespectful gang terms include the word “killer” (e.g., claiming to be or identifying as a Cobra killer) or using the acronym of the gang and adding a “K” (e.g., “MLDK” stands for “Maniac Latin Disciple Killer”). Furthermore, there are approximately 40 Latino gangs in Chicago, and I am aware of all their names, most of their symbols and locations, and how they represent themselves.

Similarly, participants would discuss their gang’s history, and in many cases, I already knew the names and places being described and could easily situate the story within the context. For example, a participant was discussing Chicago gang politics—which has a long history of gang alliances and rivalries and at times were negotiated by high-ranking gang members—and his involvement in violence. During our interview, he mentioned the names of highly influential gang members, violent events that had taken place, and a civil war between different factions within his gang. Specifically, he described his shooting of a fellow member—an event that may have raised concerns, doubts, or suspicion among scholars less privy to Chicago’s gang history.

Importantly, I intentionally signaled my insider understanding of gang politics and history to participants. At the beginning of most interviews, several minutes were spent making small talk, and if I did not know the interviewee, I would strategically direct our conversation to the prisons we were in and who we were in those prisons with. I found these conversations were almost ritualistic among the formerly incarcerated and similar to graduate students talking about their area of research when meeting at a conference. In short, these communications helped me strategically signal my legitimate insider status above and beyond being vouched for by others.

Nonetheless, there were some limitations worth noting. Because I had such a deep understanding of gang life, at times, I took for granted the information being told to me and failed to ask follow-up questions about key topics. For example, one participant discussed “building the nation,” and because I understood its meaning, I did not probe any deeper. However, my non-gang collaborator, who was unfamiliar with this phrase, asked, “What do you mean by that?” The participant provided a very detailed account of its meaning, which led to richer data. However, in other cases, I had reservations about asking certain questions because I felt I was supposed to know the answers as an insider. Indeed, much like Sherif (2001), I was accepted as an insider and, as such, was expected to know certain things. For instance, a question in our protocol was related to how individuals “put in work” for the gang, a topic taken as common knowledge among those who have been or are currently gang-involved. As with Sou, other scholars have noted the utility of selective incompetence in creating teachable moments and soliciting fuller descriptions (Lofland et al., 2006); however, as a gang insider, I did not find many opportunities to do this. As such, despite the advantages afforded by my insider status, some tactics, such as selective incompetence, were not as viable nor effective for me. Fortunately, having a non-gang collaborator was tremendously helpful as he could easily request clarification on any gang-related topic without much scrutiny from participants. Thus, just as gang outsiders have used insiders for context (Asholm, 2020; Brotherton & Barrios, 2004; Moore, 1978), gang insiders can do the same to enhance the richness of data collected.

Moreover, the extent of my insider knowledge was geographically limited. This issue was particularly evident when working with quantitative data from Denver, Colorado. One of the challenges I encountered was identifying members of the same gang—which was paramount to investigating group distinctions instead of individual variation. The survey contained an open-ended question about what gang a respondent was in. I tried to assess membership pools and quickly learned that I did not have the local knowledge necessary to tease this out. I was not from Denver, and Denver gangs differed from those in Chicago. Many gangs in Denver organized primarily around Los Angeles affiliations (i.e., Crips and Bloods) which are almost non-existent in Chicago. Moreover, there were numerous subsets within Crips and Bloods, and because of my lack of local insider knowledge, I had difficulty disentangling this data because these various sets could easily be a subset of one another or distinct entities entirely. Given these difficulties, we were forced to drop this specific analysis from the paper altogether. As such, I found that my insider knowledge of Chicago gangs did not translate into my understanding of Denver gangs.

Data Interpretation


My Hmong identity shaped many questions I asked participants during data collection and how I understood and interpreted the data. Namely, my predilection toward uncovering a potential distinction or uniqueness about Hmong gangs often manifested as a series of questions focused solely on the Hmong experience. For instance, I asked participants to describe their lives as Hmong gang members, how they balanced cultural expectations as Hmong Americans, and how they felt others perceived them as Hmong individuals. I found myself attempting to probe deeper into the cultural and ethnically rich aspects of participants’ lives more so than I had originally anticipated. In fact, in most interviews, participants appeared slightly puzzled or confused by this line of questioning as the consent form emphasized their gang involvement. Nonetheless, they often provided answers, though abridged, given that I was expected to know what they meant. I often heard, “You know what I mean,” “You know how Hmong people are,” and “You know how it is, man.”

My desire to tell the Hmong gang experience extended to data interpretation and analysis as well. Importantly, as a racial and ethnic insider, I felt an added pressure to tell their stories justly. To me, this meant highlighting our history as persecuted refugees who endured a “Holocaust in the hills” (Hamilton-Merritt, 1993), multiple migrations upon resettlement in the United States, and cultural traditions that continue to survive despite acculturative forces. As a Hmong man, I felt compelled to tell my participants’ stories comprehensively, which required documenting and integrating important historical and cultural events and practices. As a result, in my research, I intentionally draw connections to these aspects of Hmong life when discussing the life-course process among Hmong gang members. For example, in a recent paper (Lee, 2023), I highlighted the role of the Model Minority Myth in racializing the salience of power, the reification of the Hmong’s clan system in understanding mutual obligations, the practice of resource sharing given their agrarian and diasporic past, and the impact of emotionally unavailable parenting in understanding gang persistence (i.e., why participants stayed involved in their gangs for an average of 7.5 years). Furthermore, when examining the gang life-course in totality and after accounting for factors frequently cited in the literature (e.g., power, belonging, disillusionment) as motivations for joining, staying, and leaving gangs, I qualified these broader themes within the Hmong context, that is, gang processes reflected participants desire not only to cope with the traumas they’ve personally experienced (again, many of which are tied directly to the Hmong experience) but also to do their Hmong identities in effective ways (Lee, 2020).

Importantly, like Anderson (2002, p. 1538), I position myself as “a kind of vessel, a virtual agent of the subjects themselves by interpreting their world and serving as a communication link to the uninformed.” Simply put, I attempt to tell my participant’s stories from their perspectives by utilizing a grounded theory approach. While there is some argument that theory is never disconnected from data collection (Wacquant, 2002), preserving the inductive quality of my research is necessary to identify the most appropriate frameworks and concepts to unpack the countless stories and social behaviors I’ve heard and witnessed in the field. Nonetheless, given my positionality, I find myself particularly drawn to the stories that connect deeply to the Hmong experience, given our proximity to diaspora and refugeeism and vibrant cultural traditions and practices. Consequently, through grounded theory and my desire for a comprehensive assessment of Hmong gang life, I find that symbolic interactionism best captures my participants’ experiences given the linkages between macro- and micro-level processes (see Lee, 2020). In short, while I acknowledge the robust universal pulls and pushes of gang life, I intentionally lean on culture and history in making sense of the Hmong gang experience—the type of subjectivity that is “often considered a strength, for with it can come profound insight into the core concerns of the people being studied” (Anderson, 2002, p. 1537).


Being an insider impacted how I interpreted the data in multiple ways. First, my knowledge of Chicago gang politics and history helped me understand the “rules of the game” in which participants’ lives unfolded and, similar to Weide (2015), granted me a “bullshit meter” to assess the veracity of participant’s stories. For example, one participant told me a story I quickly recognized as an exaggeration. He misstated his gang's role in the shooting of a well-known rival gang member. Many familiar with Chicago gang history (including the rival gang and law enforcement) knew that a different gang was responsible. Similarly, he likely overstated his position in the gang and the amount of violence he took part in. I knew many members of his gang personally and was incarcerated with the gang’s leaders, who had stated other individuals led a specific section of the gang that he claimed to lead during the interview. Based on the triangulated data, this participant was likely not truthful. Importantly, I did not discard the entire interview when untruthful stories were suspected; rather, I would critically reflect on the narrative and only doubt what I had evidence to doubt. In other words, I would take participants' accounts at face value until evidence suggests otherwise. I also recognize that these exaggerated stories and bragging may have occurred due to my insider status as a former gang member. Thus, at least in this case, my insider status served me in both positive (i.e., “bullshit meter” to assess the veracity of accounts) and negative ways (i.e., potentially exaggerated stories to appeal to me)—the types of data distortion that have been documented in the literature (MacRae, 2007; Mercer, 2007; Zinn, 1979).

Second, my insider status affected my interpretation of quantitative data. At a meeting with my graduate advisor, we discussed how gang organization could impact the trajectory of individual gang involvement (i.e., the length of membership) and the theoretical framework best suited to explain this association. While we were both familiar with the extant literature, I was asked to reflect on my personal experiences as a gang member in a semi-organized gang. In doing so, certain aspects of my former involvement (e.g., mandatory hangouts, meetings, and so on) informed our final theoretical framework: We used social identity theory to explain the relationship between gang organization, gang identity, and length of membership.

Lastly, and most importantly, my insider status influences the “lens” through which I interpret violent events disclosed by participants. While I do not condone violence, I humanize all aspects of the gang experience. In my own story, the prosecutor in my case wrote that “the defendant has contributed nothing to society but pain and suffering and deserves to serve his full sentence.” If this had come to pass, I would have been released in April of 2023 rather than April of 2012. Because of my insider experiences, I firmly believe that if we focus only on gang members’ worst moments, we end up with a simplistic characterization with limited value for preventing future gang membership and crime. For example, in an interview with a former gang member, he, unprompted, went into detail about the killing of another person. Rather than viewing him as a depraved person who committed a heinous crime, I thought about the trauma he endured that led up to it. In his own words, “I was six when…I seen my father laying there dead after he shot himself in the head.” Later, his mother would remarry, but his stepfather would also pass away. These events led his mother into a deep depression, where she became very abusive. In these conditions, he looked up to his older brothers, who were gang members and were involved in a high-profile shooting in the 1980s. He would later join the gang and be arrested for murder as a juvenile. Because of my own experiences, I recognize that these circumstances must be considered when interpreting and telling his story. In short, while I do not condone violence, I understand it does not take place in a vacuum.

Discussion and Conclusions

While other academic disciplines have treated positionality as an important consideration for research, our review suggests this trend has been slower when it comes to studying hard-to-reach populations, notably street gangs. These groups are a hidden and often stigmatized population whose members are involved in high levels of offending, victimization, and spur punitive criminal justice responses. Accordingly, they invoke strong feelings in both the public sphere and the academy. As such, reflexivity is particularly needed when conducting gang research; that is, how do our identities influence access, contextual awareness, and data interpretation? In our efforts to advance this inquiry, we reflected on our collective experiences as insiders, outsiders, and straddling the space between to analyze how our identities shaped our respective projects—namely regarding access, contextual awareness, and data interpretation.

In line with extant literature, our experiences suggest that one status is not better than the other—insider and outsider identities and the strategic navigation of the space between differentially facilitated access, contextual awareness, and data interpretation. Indeed, insider status does not necessarily grant a blank check to the best data. Instead, we found that by negotiating many of our identities (including an outsider status), we could ascertain richer data. For instance, Sou’s use of selective incompetence proved a successful strategy, given his non-gang status. He leveraged this identity to establish a high degree of acceptable incompetence and as someone needing instruction about “obvious” things (Lofland et al., 2006), such as drug markets. In doing so, he solicited unabridged details on many aspects of gang life. However, selective incompetence was less viable for John, given that his insider identity produced a perception that he was privy to all aspects of gang life.

This is not to say insider status is not advantageous. For example, Sou (as a racial, ethnic, and gender insider) was familiar with culturalized interactions such as reciprocity, resource sharing, and gendered expectations. As a gang insider, John had immediate access to social media spaces (e.g., private gang forums) where gangs interacted. Notably, he was familiar with the jargon, symbols, names, politics, and historical references, which allowed him a more accurate interpretation of the data. Put simply, it was less likely that specific events would be misunderstood. Nonetheless, John’s gang insider status was context-specific. Being a Chicago gang insider (historically based on Folks and People) was less helpful when teasing out the nuances of gang culture in Denver, which aligned more with Crips and Bloods. In summary, our collective reflections demonstrate that insider and outsider identities and strategic navigation of the space between provide a comprehensive toolkit for effectively collecting and interpreting data in quantitative and qualitative research projects.


Based on our reflections, we offer several recommendations for conducting research with street gangs and other hard-to-reach populations. First, future research in criminology and on street gangs should move past the insider and outsider dichotomy. While both carry their methodological advantages and pitfalls, we argue that all researchers operate in the space between, which provides agency in “doing” these identities to capture the best data. As demonstrated earlier, a non-gang outsider can utilize selective incompetence in ways that an insider may struggle with. Moreover, an insider’s edge can be used to facilitate entrée into these groups better, navigate interactions more freely, and thus explore the familiar and mundane. By engaging in reflexivity early in the research process, scholars can chart effective strategies to gather data and develop appropriate theoretical frameworks. Furthermore, to overcome the weaknesses of both identities, we recommend future research on hard-to-reach populations consider using teams of individuals with various positionalities. Indeed, previous research has shown that team efforts can yield valuable data (Aspholm, 2020; Brotherton & Barrios, 2004; Hagedorn, 1990; Leverso & Hess, 2021; Moore et al., 1978).

Second, though reflexivity has been a primary exercise in qualitative science, it is evident that quantitative scholars can benefit tremendously from this as well. For example, John’s former gang identity shaped the theoretical framework that guided one of his research projects. Specifically, by leveraging his own lived experiences, he developed testable hypotheses and created distinct variables that emphasized gang organization and identity as core concepts. Indeed, serious engagement in reflexivity can easily carry over into quantitative fieldwork, such as survey design. For these reasons, we encourage quantitative scholars to engage in reflexivity and draw from their own experiences in developing research questions and survey items and making sense of statistical associations and patterns.

Lastly, future discussions of reflexivity need to focus on how our positionality influences the framing and interpretation of data. While the literature is quite clear on the impact this has on access and contextual awareness in the field, there has been less discussion on how our identities impact the findings we present to the academy and public. For example, Sou frames his study findings with symbolic interactionism and draws connections to culturalized social dynamics to explain best the Hmong gang experience (Lee, 2023, 2020). Relatedly, through his journey, John offers a humanistic understanding of gang behavior and thus offers explanations that align with this perspective. Given this, we recommend authors provide a personal biography and reflect on how their positionality may impact the study. This requires an intentional and serious effort at unpacking one’s epistemological position and methodological blind spots; that is, how do your identities influence your fieldwork design and data interpretation? Are you a vessel for communicating participants’ voices? Do you start with ideological and theoretical lenses to make sense of social lives? While these are only a few questions we urge our peers to consider, they are especially important for those studying criminology and criminal justice, given our proximity to the powerful and powerless. This is particularly the case for those working with hard-to-reach populations (e.g., gangs), given our capacity to change the narrative surrounding public policy and perception. In conclusion, every one of us sees the world through our unique pair of goggles, and as such, it is critical that we account for this when engaging in research, from fieldwork to data interpretation.


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Sou Lee is a criminologist who studies prison gang dynamics in the Philippines and the identity mechanisms that facilitate deviant and criminal violence among street gangs. His current research focuses on the lived experiences of Hmong gang members in relation to their broader cultural and sociohistorical profiles.

John Leverso is an Assistant Professor at the University of Cincinnati in the School of Criminal Justice. He is a sociological criminologist whose research investigates the urban street gang and later life consequences of justice involvement, focusing on race/ethnicity, gender, and interactions on the digital street.

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