Understanding the Role of Violence and Conflict in the Stages of Gang Membership

AuthorJ. Michael Vecchio,Dena C. Carson
Published date01 January 2023
Date01 January 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice
2023, Vol. 21(1) 2743
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/15412040221116305
Understanding the Role of
Violence and Conf‌lict in the
Stages of Gang Membership
J. Michael Vecchio
and Dena C. Carson
This work uses social learning theorys perspective on continuation and cessation of offending to
explore the how rewards and punishments for violence change across the stages of gang
membership. Qualitative interviews with a racially/ethnically diverse sample of 39 former gang
members within two emergent gang cities in the American south are used to explore the role of
violence across the stages of gang aff‌iliation. Inductive analytic techniques are used to analyze gang
membersin-depth, semi-structured interviews to identify and further ref‌ine emergent theme s
through the use of modif‌ied ground theory. Results indicate that violence is expressed as central
to the experiences of youth gang members across the life cycle of gang involvement and alters
former membersperceptions of the gangs ability to provide a protective function. The extent to
which the role of violence changes over timeas it interacts with youth decision-making specif‌ic
to the balance of experienced and anticipated rewards and punishments of gang involvementis
integral in understanding its reinforcing effect on gang membership and association.
social learning theory, gang, violence, disengagement, youth gangs, gang leaving
The link between gangs and violence is one of the most consistent f‌indings in scholarly gang
research and is believed to be the key factor that differentiates gangs from other delinquent peer
groups (Decker, 1996;Decker & Van Winkle, 1996;Melde & Esbensen, 2013). While we know
violence is amplif‌ied during periods of active membership, both direct and vicarious experiences
with violence impact youth even before they become gang-involved. The fact that protection is so
often cited as a motivation for gang involvement (Decker, 1996;Decker & Van Winkle, 1996;
Miller, 2001;Vigil,1988) indicates that youth experience elevated levels of fear and perceived risk
Department of Criminology, DePaul University, Chicago, IL, SA
Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, Indianapolis, IN, USA
Corresponding Author:
Dena C. Carson, Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, 801 W Michigan St.-BS4057, Indianapolis, IN 46202,
Email: carsond@iupui.edu
prior to joining (Taylor et al., 2007). Alternatively,youth who alrea dyhave higher propensities for
offending and violence may seek out gang membership (see Esbensen & Huizinga, 1993;Melde
& Esbensen, 2013). Research generally f‌inds an enhancement effect of gang membership in that
violent youth seek out gang membership, but that the gang will, in turn, facilitate violent behavior
(Esbensen & Huizinga, 1993;Melde & Esbensen, 2013;Thornberry et al., 1993,2003).
Active gang members are also at increased risk of exposure to violent victimization (Fox et al.,
2013;Melde et al., 2009;Miller, 2001;Taylor et al., 2007) from rival gangs (i.e., inter-gang) as
well as members of their current gang (i.e., intra-gang). The ubiquitous presence of violent
perpetration and victimization throughout the tenure of gang membership has led researchers to
argue that there is an upper-limit to the violence experienced by gang members (Bubolz & Simi,
2014;Carson et al., 2013;Decker & Lauritsen, 2002;Roman et al., 2017). This typically takes the
form of violence fatigue in that gang members become tired of the threat of violence, the nature of
retaliation (Decker & Lauritsen, 2002;Decker & Van Winkle, 1996;Pyrooz & Decker, 2011;
Vigil, 1988), and/or due to their direct and vicarious experiences with violence (Decker &
Lauritsen, 2002;Vigil, 1988). The argument for an upper-limit of violence is supported by the
gang disengagement literature, which f‌inds that violent experiences can motivate individuals to
leave gang life (Carson et al., 2013;Decker & Lauritsen, 2002;Pyrooz & Decker, 2011;Vigil,
1988). However, others argue that in order for violent experiences to act as a push to leave the
gang, they must be accompanied by a change in identity (Roman et al., 2017). This argument
comports with broader desistence literature that suggests experiencing negative events or an
accumulation of negative events informs an individuals decision to desist from offending
(Paternoster & Bushway, 2009). Within the context of gang membership, however, we know less
about how violent exposure can impact the decision-making process when leaving a gang.
In order to understand the role of violence in the decision to leave the gang it is helpful to
examine violent experiences before, during, and at the time to gang leaving. The focus of social
learning theory (Akers, 1998) on the construct of differential reinforcement makes it a useful
framework for understanding the reinforcing role of violence in the stages of gang membership.
Social learning theory has been used as a framework to understand desistance from offending
(Warr, 1998) and is especially useful in this context as it suggests that the factors associated with
initiation into offending are also associated with desistance (Weaver, 2016). Moreover, social
learning theory has been used to understand the gang context (for a review see Winfree & Freng,
2015) and gangs are viewed as the quintessential context in which the learning process operates
(Akers & Jensen, 2008). In the current manuscript, we add to the literature linking social learning
theory to gangs by examining its utility in understanding the initiation, continuation, and cessation
of gang membership. We view gang membership as a status that can be reinforced similarly to
behavior. The rewards and punishments associated with life in gang can cause one to change and
reassess their attitudes (or def‌initions) about gang involvementresulting in disengagement from
gang life. While there are multiple rewards and punishers associated with gang life, we are
concerned with how violent experiences, whether via perpetration or victimization, shape dif-
ferential reinforcements for the initiation into, continuation of, and disengagement from gang life.
We rely on qualitative narratives with a diverse sample of gang-involved youth to better
understand the role of differential reinforcements for violence. In doing so, our work has im-
plications for research on gangs, desistance from crime, as well as social learning theory. First, this
work has implications for gang research in that it improves understanding of the relationship
between violent experiences and gang membership as well as the role of violence in the decision to
leave the gang (i.e., how the upper-limit of violence is reached). A deeper understanding of the
underlying processes involved with reaching the upper-limit of violent experiences is important
for the development of interventions to help youth leave a gang. Our work can inform practitioners
as well as program developers so they are better able to leverage violent incidents with gang
28 Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice 21(1)

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