Successes and Challenges in Recruiting and Retaining Gang Members in Longitudinal Research

Published date01 October 2017
Date01 October 2017
Subject MatterArticles
Successes and Challenges
in Recruiting and Retaining
Gang Members in Longitudinal
Research: Lessons Learned From
a Multisite Social Network Study
Jillian L. Eidson
, Caterina G. Roman
, and Meagan Cahill
Members of hidden or hard-to-survey populations present challenges to social scientists seeking to
engage them in empirical studies, especially if those efforts are longitudinal. In this article, we
document the retention-related successes and failures of a longitudinal, social network-based study
of active and desisting street gang members in Philadelphia, PA, and the District of Columbia. A
purposive sample was used to identify and track 229 gang members at three points in time over 2
years to explore how the social networks of gang members change. Although gang members have
many factors in common with other hidden populations, their criminal behavior and involvement
with the justice system, coupled with the sensitivity of the social network survey questions for this
study, created hurdles to maintaining research contact over time. With continued and systematic
documentation of successes and challenges, academics can build an extensive backdrop from which
to continue to study gang youth. If the field cannot devise cost-effective and transferable ways to
study gangs beyond single-gang ethnographies, it will limit its understanding of important processes
related to gang behavior, including gang joining and desistance.
field methods, gang desistance, hard-to-survey, hidden populations
Across the social sciences, even with recent advances in computer technology, there remain great
challenges in rigorously studying justice-involved populations, such as street gangs, or those
involved in particular high-risk behaviors, such as prostitution or intravenous (IV) drug use. These
groups, often referred to as ‘‘hidden populations’’ or ‘‘hard to survey,’’ are understudied because of
the complexity of obtaining data about them. In particular, high-risk adolescents and young adults
who are not attached to a traditional institution such as school or work present additional data
Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, USA
RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Caterina G. Roman, Temple University, 1115 Polett Walk, 5th Fl Gladfelter Hall, Philadelphia, PA 19122, USA.
Youth Violence and JuvenileJustice
2017, Vol. 15(4) 396-418
ªThe Author(s) 2016
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/1541204016657395
collection-related difficulties. Recognizing the inherent challenges in procuring officially recorded
data (e.g., academic records, health data, wage records, etc.) and cross-systems data, many research-
ers turn to self-report data.
While there are many published works reporting the results of studies of hard-to-survey and
hidden populations, there are few pieces which focus mainly on the methodologies used to complete
these undertakings (Lyberg et al., 2014). In addition to this gap in the literature on hidden and hard-
to-survey populations in general, in gang research specifically, there have been calls for studies
employing larger sample sizes and longitudinal efforts to better measure gang processes such as
group identity and gang desistance (Pyrooz & Decker, 2011; Pyrooz, Sweeten, & Piquero, 2013;
Sweeten, Pyrooz, & Piquero, 2013). Yet there remains little published guidance on field methods to
aid researchers in longitudinal studies of gang processes.
This article begins to address the gap in the literature by discussing strategies to recruit and
retain one specific hidden group—gang members. We focus primarily on strat egies and issues
related to retention of gang members, but because methods of recruitment can be related to
retention success, we also touch on recruitment. Surprisingly, gang members are not commonly
described in the literature on field methods with hidden populations. Although researchers have
been studying gangs for decades and tens of thousands of gang members are represented in social
science research, published studies have often employed qualitative methods such as ethnography
(Curtis, 2010) or use data from a few well-known longitudinal studies that started with a sample of
school-based youth, such as the Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A .T.) program
evaluations (Esbensen, Osgood, Taylor, Peterson, & Freng, 2001; Esben sen, Peterson, Taylor, &
Osgood, 2012) or the Pittsburgh Youth Study and Rochester Youth Development Study, designed
to examine delinquency and criminal behavior (Huizinga, Loeber, & Thornberry, 1995; Thorn-
berry, Huizinga, & Loeber, 2004). The Denver Youth Survey is similar to the Pittsburgh and
Rochester studies, but it drew its youth sample from randomly selected households in high-risk
neighborhoods (Thornberry et al., 2004).
These studies had large enough youth samples at baseline to obtain a sufficient number of gang
members over multiple waves, enabling hypothesis testing, but remain limited in many facets with
regard to producing valid and generalizable data on some gang processes. For instance, although
some of these data sets have yielded rich information on the reasons why youth join gangs (Carson,
Peterson, & Esbensen, 2013; Pyrooz & Decker, 2011; Sweeten et al., 2013), the data sets are less
suitable for examining why these individuals choose to leave gangs because the surveys were not
designed to capture detailed information on gang processes that would inform gang desistance. In
addition, the resulting research products from these studies have included very few published works
on the lessons learned for recruiting and retention, and the few that have, do not focus specifically on
gang members.
In this article, we document the successes and failures of a longitudinal, social network- based
study of active and desisting street gang members ages 14–25 in Philadelphia, PA, and the
District of Columbia (DC). The study we describe specifically targeted active gang members,
as opposed to youth who might be gang members or were at risk of joining a gang, to ensure a
relatively large sample of active gang members. Because obtainingavalidsamplingframeof
gangs and their members from the two cities was not feasible, we relied on nonprobability
sampling methods, with a focus on widespread recruitment of gang members from a range of
street gangs and crews. The goals of the study were exploratory and descriptive: to describe how
social networks of gang members change over time and to develop hypotheses related to how
personal social networks might be associated with leaving a gang. Primary data collection over
time is costly, and hence, carefully targeting and tracking the ‘‘eligible’’ population is paramount
for gaining insights into gang processes and drawing conclusions amid the likely loss of subjects
over time.
Eidson et al. 397

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