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Book Review: Decker, S. H., Pyroox, D. C., & Densley, J. A. (2022). On Gangs. Temple University Press: Philadephia, PA. ISBN: 9781439920640.

Published onNov 26, 2022
Book Review: Decker, S. H., Pyroox, D. C., & Densley, J. A. (2022). On Gangs. Temple University Press: Philadephia, PA. ISBN: 9781439920640.

The authors of the book, On Gangs, are well-known criminologists specializing in criminology and gangs. Scott H. Decker is a Foundation Professor Emeritus of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University. David C. Pyrooz is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder. James A. Densley is a Professor and Department Chair of Criminal Justice at Metropolitan State University. The authors provided a current compilation of robust knowledge.

On Gangs is a cumulation of research about gangs. The authors reinterpreted three decades of research into a scholarly work of qualitative ethnographic research. The authors organize gangs into five different periods. Those five significant periods are a) Classic Era (the 1900s-1940s); b) Golden Era (1950s); c) Social Problems (1960s to current day); d) Empirical (1990s to current day); e) Eurogang Program (2000s – to current day).

This timeline of periods of gangs helps organize gang research. The classic era describes gangs as playgroups. The golden era highlights a time when society viewed gang behavior as a form of delinquency. The social problem era explains gangs as a shift toward being a problem the criminal justice system addresses. The empirical period exhibited gang research as robust ethnography and longitudinal analysis yielding critical, logical advances. The Eurogang era highlights research on gangs outside of the United States. These areas included Africa, Asia, Australia, Canada, Europe, and Latin America. The periods for gangs are a cumulation of analysis of gang issues, advances in research methodology and design, federal government funding primacies, and sociopolitical impacts.

The book is organized into fourteen chapters divided into three parts. There is also an introduction to the book providing an overview of the focus of the research on gangs. Part I is titled “Core Issues” and consists of the first six chapters. In these six chapters, the authors use quotes from interviews with gang members and researchers to describe the phenomenon of gangs. The book utilizes social process and structure theories to explain the gang problem.

 Chapter 1, “Defining Gangs, Gang Members, and Gang Crime,” provided an understanding of the challenge of defining a gang based on gangs’ behavior, activity, and environment. Criminologists define gangs as stated in On Gangs (Decker, Pyrooz, and Densley, 2022), “A street gang (or troublesome youth group corresponding to a street gang elsewhere) is any durable, street-oriented youth group whose own identity includes involvement in illegal activity” (Weermann et al., 2009, p. 20). The authors of On Gangs support that the Eurogang definition is reliable and valid (Decker et al., 2022). The Eurogang definition points out vital distinctions between the scope of gangs and gang signifiers. Weerman, Maxson, Esbenson, et al. (2009) define Eurogang as “Gang definers are those elements that are essential to characterize the group as a gang, while descriptors refer to those elements that help to describe the particular elements of the group” (p. 19).

Chapter 2, “Structure, Culture, and Gangs in Communities,” develops the notion that gang activity varies across social space. Time also plays a factor in the decline and surge of their activity. Research has added to the knowledge of gangs related to theoretical frameworks. Understanding the gang phenomenon is gradual because of the makeup of the urban communities in relation to the theories applied. Hence, studying gangs and their environment takes time for a better understanding

Chapter 3, “Gang Structure and Organization,” offers an interpretation of two key attributes that set groups engaged in crime apart, structure and goal preference. The distinction is grounded in symbolic aspects of life in the gang. Gangs pursue symbolic and instrumental feats. Therefore, gangs’ commitment to achieving symbolic ends is more powerful when compared to drug traffickers or human smugglers. The point here is that gangs exhibit more diversity than any other group that participates in criminal behavior. This diversity is exhibited in the distinct characteristics of the gang members, their values, norms, attitudes, knowledge, and skills, and includes those elements external to their environment. The chapter also provides data demonstrating that diversity in gangs is greater when compared to other groups involved in crime. Individual traits are the key points in demonstrating diversity, including human and social capital and external environments. Gangs are also portrayed as vibrant, shifting, and progressing over points in time and place.

Chapter 4, “Joining the Gang,” provided insight into gang membership from the life course perspective. The current research demonstrated that the evidence found implies that low self-esteem, lack of interpersonal skills, low parental supervision, familial gang involvement, poverty, time spent with antisocial peers, school failure and low academic performance, and being brought up in an urban, socioeconomically deprived environment are risk indicators for gang affiliation. Research has demonstrated that the risk factors noted above are common reasons an individual may join a gang. These findings, to some extent, support common theories of gang affiliation. However, research also demonstrates that these risk factors cannot predict who joins a gang and why. Qualitative research has offered important insights into typical motivating factors for gang engagement. Those motivating factors typically are money, status, and protection. Qualitative research also offered insight into how an individual might join a gang and be accepted, whether by conventional initiation or casual social networks.

Chapter 5, “Continuity and Change in Gang Membership,” demonstrated that gang membership is not a lifelong commitment. The most typical reasons an individual leaves a gang are family and disappointment motivated by an overabundance of pushes and pulls. The repercussions of leaving a gang are discrimination and victimization. Reducing inequality is very important in developing public identity as a former gang member.

 Chapter 6, “Gangs, Crime, and Violence,” established that gangs are a grave concern for people and communities. Research has demonstrated that there is an overrepresentation of gang members as lawbreakers and victims of crime. The pattern includes age, crime type, gender, geography, and race. Group processes are the major factors for high-level participation in offending and victimization. The public perception of gangs is criminal, just as is the legislative and scientific definition of gangs. News media, documentaries, policymakers, and criminal justice authorities help draw attention to the gangs, as does their violence.

 The book's next section, “Emerging and Critical Issues” (Chapter 7 – 10), examines the nature of gangs concerning gender, race, and country. Chapter 7, “Women, Gender, and Gangs,” discusses a stable variable in criminology when discussing gangs and gang values: masculinity. Research demonstrated that women participate in gangs extensively. Their participation and roles are different from male gang members. Women do not participate in as much crime, nor are their memberships as lengthy as males. The reasons for males and females joining a gang are similar, with protection from violence being the most common. Familial formation and maturity development are both parts of the equation for gang membership. There is a difference surrounding the locus of violence in why a female joins a gang and why a male joins a gang. Males seek protection from violence on the streets, while females seek protection from family violence.

Chapter 8, “Race, Ethnicity, and Gangs,” provides a social structure and social process viewpoint of gangs. This framework relies on social structural factors such as poverty, hardship, and immigration to explain gang membership and behavior. It also focuses on social processes such as cultural conflict, racial and group threats, street codes, and global street culture. These factors have led to the development, growth, and increase of gangs, particularly amongst immigrant, Black, Latino, and other minority ethnic youth populations. This phenomenon resulted in the criminalization and increased marginalization of such populations.

 Chapter 9, “Gangs Around the World,” discussed research comparing youth gang activity in the United States to other regions of the globe. The authors base these comparisons on the popularity of gang membership, the correlation between gang membership and participation in crime, gang violence developments, the landscape of gang organization, and the increase in gang membership. The research demonstrated that crime and delinquency increase with gang membership. The levels of gang violence are highest in North and South America, excluding Canada and Africa. The Asia-Pacific region and Europe have lower gang violence, with few exceptions. Major contributing factors to gang violence include racial and ethnic conflict, money, and respect or power. Gang violence overseas also can originate from long-time rivalries to more spur-of-the-moment conflicts. Lastly, gangs have spread globally through various social processes, including immigration. Gangs are embedded in youth culture. Youths establish a style of dress and behavior and communicate it via media and social media.

Chapter 10, “Gangs and Social Institutions,” provided a viewpoint of gang membership in conventional or generally accepted social institutions such as families, schools, religion, the labor market, the political system, and the internet. Gangs cannot compare to social institutions regarding the types of outcomes. Gangs do not deserve the label of a social institution because their outcomes are far less productive regarding societal norms. Gangs offer a sense of belonging for those who do not get along at home, an opportunity to make money for those with limited skills, and status for those who are academically and socially challenged at school. Therefore, gangs are not an institution but just a sub-group.

The book's final section, “Responding to Gangs” (Chapters 11 – 14), discusses the criminal justice system’s responses to gangs beginning with law enforcement’s role and interaction with gang members, to prisons and prison gangs, and finally to the political response to gangs. Chapter 11, “Policing Gangs,” provided an outline of how law enforcement has responded to the social problem of gangs and has failed. Some of the challenges law enforcement faces are collecting and sharing information, cooperation and coordination across agencies and communities, and fair and impartial policing toward gangs. The chapter looks at current research for improving public safety through evidence-based research. This research was conducted by the John Jay College Research Advisory Group on Preventing and Reducing Community Violence (2020) and focused on areas where law enforcement was not relied on. The proposed evidence-based strategies include place-based interventions to design out crime, outreach programs (such as Cure Violence, where former gang members and local pastors focus on at-risk youths prone to violent behavior, reinforce antiviolence social norms and peer relationships, to interact with and support those most responsible for community violence), and policies limiting access to tools of violence such as firearms.

Chapter 12, “Gangs and Gang Members in Prison,” discussed similarities and differences between prison gangs, prison gang members, street gangs, and street gang members. Ultimately, the risk factors are the same. The chapter discussed the large gap in research when it comes to prison gangs. There are few studies on correctional facilities' response to prison gang members. The most common topic of those few studies is recidivism. The recidivism rates are higher for gang inmates than for non-gang inmates. Recidivism is also high for those who have disconnected from their gangs while in prison. Research demonstrated that very few program efforts target gang members in prison. The recommendation for future research is to compile prison gang member interventions and record their effect.

Chapter 13, “Anti-Gang Legislation and Legal Responses,” discussed the response to the gang problem by examining legislation and legal responses. The chapter examines the STEP Act in California, passed in 1988. From this examination, researchers discovered that there is not much information on how effective these responses were. Anti-gang legislation focuses on deterrence, incapacitation, and the process of empowering the community. There is not much evidence to determine the effectiveness of the deterrence theory in response to gangs.

Chapter 14 is titled “What Works, What Doesn’t, and How Do We Know?” This chapter examines the strategies for responding to the gang phenomenon. There is diversity in responses to the gang problem. In the last four decades, five overlapping strategies predominated: (a) community organization, (b) social intervention, (c) opportunities provision, (d) suppression, and (e) organizational development and change. Recent responses include hybrid-type interventions with a focus on deterrence and public health. The chapter ends with a review of Klein and Maxson’s social control efforts to help current researchers close that gap between the knowledge of the gang problem and the ability to be successful in addressing the gang problem.

Overall, the book provided a reliable and valid examination of gangs and gang membership. The authors addressed defining gangs across the globe. The book addressed the social problems that gangs pose for communities and the criminal justice system. The book maintained the social process and social structure theories in explaining the gang problem. The authors examined the responses to the gang problem and recommended what is needed for the future. The charts, graphs, and tables add visuals for a better understanding of the data related to gang problems and anti-gang strategies. The book, On Gangs, provided a synthesis of the gang problem globally and is an asset to academic scholars and practitioners in the criminal justice field. Each section was interesting, rich in criminological knowledge, and advanced that knowledge for future research. Anyone studying gangs should use this book to help them understand the social phenomenon.


Decker, S. H., Pyrooz, D. C., and Densley, J. A. (2022). On Gangs. Temple University Press: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

John Jay College Research Advisory Group on Preventing and Reducing Community Violence, (2020). College Research Advisory Group on Preventing and Reducing Community Violence. New York: Research Evaluation Center, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.

Weerman, F. M., Maxson, C. L., Esbenson, J. A., Medina, J., and van Gemert, F. (2009). Eurogang Program Manual: Background, Development, and Use of the Eurogang Instruments in Multi-site, Multi-method Comparative Research. Retrieved from the Eurogang Network website:̴ ccj/eurogang/Eurogang_20Manual.pdf.


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