When analyzing the reasons why adolescents from poor communities who have experienced trauma engage in gang violence, it is crucial to look at the problem through the lens of social theories. There is a variety of frameworks that might be useful to investigate the research question, but some of them seem to be the most helpful, such as the social reaction, social conflict, intersectionality, critical race, strain, and social disorganization theories. Each of these approaches provides an insight into youth violence and offers a view on the reasons why delinquent behaviors might emerge. The overview of the theories aims at understanding the core causes of gang violence, the relationship between criminal activity and ethnicity, and the effect of deprivation and low opportunities on young people’s likelihood to break the law.
The Social Reaction Theory
Social reaction theory is one of the most suitable means of explaining the effect of community trauma on young people’s delinquency. The premise of social reaction theory is that crime and deviant behavior emerge not from personal or biological characteristics but from social influences on one’s personality, which makes deviance essential to the development of the feeling of self (Lemert, 2017). The theory posits that it is the severe societal reaction to deviant behavior that defines the acts performed by someone as delinquent. As such, normal and pathological types of conduct may exist as “strange and somewhat tensional bedfellows” in the same individual (Lemert, 2017, p. 262).
When considering gang violence from the point of the social reaction theory, it is evident that the response of society to such acts differs depending on the age and race of those involved in the gang and the characteristics of those defining such acts as violent.
Another way of defining social reaction is labeling, the very name of which involves a negative context. The basis of this theory infers that the moral content of illegal actions does not define delinquent behavior. Instead, the reaction of the social audience is what defines an act as violent or nonviolent (Siegel, 2018). For instance, killing a person may be justified when it is an act of self-defense or an accident, when it is mandated by law, or when it has been committed by a mentally ill person.
For every crime, there may be different reactions of people, and the abundance of such reactions makes it easy to err when identifying one’s actions as breaking the law or staying within its frame. Hence, due to the subjectivity of the definitions of delinquency, they change in different locations and at different times (Siegel, 2018). In the context of the present study, labeling becomes a highly significant issue since urban youths coming from low-income families are often stigmatized.
The social reaction is involved not only in society’s treatment of underserved youths but also in their relationships within the group. Peer pressure and peer victimization as the outcomes of labeling may lead to a young person’s decision to join the gang and engage in deviant behavior (Wilson, Hunter, Rasmussen, & McGowan, 2015). Young individuals who find it difficult to cope with peer pressure and competition lack coping skills and develop insecurity (Eltink, van der Helm, Wissink, & Stams, 2015). However, research indicates that despite the general belief in the similarity of gangs in different contexts, there is no such unanimity (Fraser & Hagedorn, 2016). What is common for adolescents from urban communities, though, is the aspiration to resist being treated as disadvantaged, which leads to expressing their life position in a deviant way.
The Social Conflict Theory
One more viable approach to understanding gang violence as a consequence of community trauma is the social conflict theory. According to this theory, the definition of antisocial behavior is constructed by those people in society who represent the ruling class and in whose hands economic and social power rests (Morin, 2014). The part of society that sets the rules related to social and antisocial conduct also controls the law, which makes it possible for its representatives to decide who is deviant, criminal, or delinquent and who is not (Siegel & Welsh, 2018).
What is most alarming about the social conflict is that decisions referring to behavior are made not on the basis of morality but on the premise of economic and financial interests. The social conflict theory presumes that there is a continuous state of internal and external struggle between society members due to the endeavor of various groups to enforce their will on others (Siegel & Welsh, 2018). Not surprisingly, people from higher ranks of society, who have money and power, succeed in making the law correspond to their needs and promote their interests.
By exploiting the criminal justice system, those with more power manage to take control of the lower social class. This theory is closely related to the problem of gang violence since economic and social inequality is both the trigger to engage in delinquent behavior and the outcome of the lack of equality in society. The conflict paradigm presupposes that society is made of various social groups, which are diversified by such characteristics as ethnicity, race, gender, and status (social, economic, or educational) (Morin, 2014).
Hence, there is a distinction between the lower class and the higher one. Due to the lack of equity in power and wealth distribution, the governmental and societal institutions are frequently biased (Morin, 2014). Social conflict is present at all levels of society (Lanier, Henry, & Anastasia, 2018). Therefore, it is obvious that the theory is related to the theme of gang violence and community trauma.
The social conflict theory plays a crucial role in the process of understanding the major discrepancies between social levels to which different people belong. Scholars define conflict as the “confrontation or dynamic balance of power” (Lemos, 2018, p. 7). At the same time, the need for recognition as the means of individual conflict capacity is emphasized (Bertram & Celikates, 2015). Furthermore, compassion is being investigated by present-day authors as the way of “awakening” people’s conflicted condition (Wilkinson, 2017). Therefore, the current state of affairs allows identifying the social conflict theory as one of the major approaches to understanding gang violence. At the same time, efforts are being made to alleviate the level of conflict in society by exercising compassion and recognition. However, these attempts have not gained enough attention or produced sufficient effect yet.
The theory of intersectionality differs from other social approaches in that it focuses not on one aspect but on a variety of them in concord. Intersectionality is the recognition of a deep relationship between such social factors as ethnicity, race, gender, trauma, family environment, and community settings and their mutual impact on the individual (Glennon, 2016). Therefore, it is viable to conclude that the theory is highly pertinent to the selected research problem. Young people of African-American descent living in harsh conditions and poverty are more likely to engage in criminal activity than White youths whose level of life is much higher.
The theory strives not only to find the links between various social factors affecting young delinquents’ decisions but also to explain how these connections’ adverse influence might be eliminated. So far, according to research, intersectionality has not gained sufficient attention, which leads to numerous cases of discrimination pertaining to Black youths, especially males (Brown, 2015). Meanwhile, intersectionality can lead to such severe instances as bullying and even suicidal attempts (Garnett et al., 2014). Hence, more attention is required to the regard of the problem from the intersectional point.
Intersectionality can influence the target population group at different stages of the gang violence problem. First of all, demographic characteristics, which are frequently overlooked, are strong predictors of individuals’ criminal behavior (Brown, 2015). Thus, it is evident than Black male adolescents with the experience of trauma and violence are more likely to engage in violent actions. Secondly, the approach to selecting criminal punishment differs depending on people’s race and gender, as well as other crucial factors. As Steffensmeier, Painter-Davis, and Ulmer (2016) report, there is evidence of harsher sentences being given to Hispanic and African-American male offenders than to females or Whites of different ages.
Further, scholars have found that demographic factors can have a significant impact on one’s probation failure prediction (Steinmetz & Henderson, 2015). Specifically, there is a strong correlation between probation revocation and being a male of African-American or Hispanic descent. Finally, as Fader and Taylor (2015) note, the theory of intersectionality is involved in what concerns desistance, which is the cessation of antisocial behavior. Being a male and an African-Americans significantly decreases the likelihood of individuals to discontinue the criminal activity, which aggravates the dilemma further.
The Critical Race Theory
Another lens through which it is possible to analyze the problem of gang violence is the critical race theory (CRT). According to the premises of the CRT, critical theory is employed by social sciences to investigate the issues of race, power, and principles of behavior. The CRT offers a framework that helps to scrutinize how racism is instilled in social structures and, more importantly, how it affects racial minorities’ lives (Frerichs et al., 2016). The major presumption of the CRT is that race and racism are intertwined with other types of oppression. Other principles of the theory state that the dominant ideology can be disputed, experiential knowledge occupies the paramount place, and the main perspective is transdisciplinary (Frerichs et al., 2016). Intercentricity of race and racism is one of the core premises of the CRT.
Intercentricity is synonymous with intersectionality in that it views racial-related issues as inseparable from gender and class aspects, which leads to complex problems at individual, interpersonal, and institutional levels (Frerichs et al., 2016). Therefore, the CRT is grounded in a similar belief as intersectionality, both theories emphasizing the influence of combined social impacts on youth.
Many scholars argue that the CRT is closely linked to intersectionality. According to Gillborn (2015), many researchers report that race is a socially constructed concept and that racial difference is augmented by society. In this respect, it is necessary to note that the CRT gives racism the central place in the process of shaping society. Those working in the CRT direction strive to identify how racial inequities emerge under the impact of social structure and identity (Gillborn, 2015).
Consequently, the CRT and intersectionality have some issues in common, which makes it possible both to single out similarities between them and to analyze the research question with the help of their combination. The CRT is also associated with critical legal research due to its purpose of analyzing the inconsistencies of the criminal system’s treatment of individuals belonging to different social categories (Armaline, Vera Sanchez, & Correia, 2014; Ibrahim, 2014). Based on the CRT, scholars have found a variety of microaggressions prevailing in the treatment of racial minority groups (Pérez Huber & Solorzano, 2015). Hence, the CRT is a helpful approach to analyzing gang violence among youths with community trauma experience.
The Strain Theory
The premise of the strain theory is that although all people’s values are similar, such as living in a comfortable house and having a good education, the ability to attain such goals is not the same for everyone. Specifically, the social class plays a major role in such a possibility, making the wealthy living the way they like and leaving the poor behind the line (Siegel & Welsh, 2018). The younger generation of those who cannot achieve what they strive for may feel angry or frustrated.
The condition identified by such behavior is titled strain (Siegel & Welsh, 2018). Not all adolescents give in to strain, but those who do have little resistance to the conditions in which they live. The scholars operating the strain theory report that young people’s strains, delinquency, and negative emotionality depend on gender and race (Cudmore, Cuevas, & Sabina, 2015; Yun, Kim, & Morris, 2014). Thus, the strain theory can be applied to social context to understand the relationship between teenagers’ and adolescents’ victimization and delinquency. The likelihood of African-American youth to engage in gang violence may be explained by their poor social conditions.
The strain theory has been employed abundantly to explain juvenile delinquencies, such as drug abuse, angry behavior, and criminal activity. Scholars pay much attention to the fact that being victimized at an early age most frequently leads to behaving in an aggressive way in adolescence. Grothoff, Kempf-Leonard, and Mullins (2014) report that living conditions play a prominent role in determining young people’s strains and, consequently, in shaping their behaviors. The theory presumes that every individual can be influenced by strains. However, those living in the conditions of economic hardships and societal disorganization tend to have a greater potential to develop delinquent behavior (Grothoff et al., 2014).
Wojciechowski (2018) notes that the strain theory is a highly influential framework helping to understand why young people become involved in violent activities. Huck, Spraitz, Bowers, and Morris (2016) argue that the combination of strain and opportunity is a significant predictor of engaging in deviant behavior. Scholars report that social connections and peer pressure can increase strains and lead to adolescents’ violence (Huck et al., 2016). Therefore, the strain theory might be useful when analyzing gang violence among African-Americans living in unfavorable social circumstances.
The Social Disorganization Theory
Finally, there is a theory that aims at analyzing criminal activity based not on racial characteristics but the place of residence. The social disorganization theory was introduced by Shaw and McKay in the 20th century (Siegel & Welsh, 2018). The theory originated from human ecology studies, its founders believing that living in “undesirable” neighborhoods undermined individuals’ possibility to reach common goals (Ravalin & Tevis, 2016, p. 29). Such an inability to gain objectives was called social disorganization. The theory of social disorganization analyzes social structures and community organization aspects as mediating factors in averting crime.
Community organization elements involve communication with influential adults and membership in organized groups (Ravalin & Tevis, 2016). Meanwhile, social structures at the core of the theory include low socioeconomic status, residential mobility, and ethnic heterogeneity (Kubrin & Wo, 2016). Therefore, it is viable to note that despite being focused on residential issues, social disorganization is also associated with ethnic characteristics. The theory imposes that communities that lack organization have higher rates of criminal activity, which is strengthened by cultural transmission (da Silva, 2014). The composition of the population, thus, has an impact on adolescents’ behavior.
Social disorganization theorists argue that crime rates in cities are related to certain locations. What is more, disorganization is affected by informal social controls (Braga & Clarke, 2014). Opportunity for crime is higher in some residential areas, which results in young people’s higher likelihood of becoming involved in gang violence (Weisburd, Groff, & Yang, 2014). The problem of many communities is their failure to realize the values and goals of their residents, as well as work on finding solutions to the problems that people experience (Ravalin & Tevis, 2016).
As a result, residents acquire a sense of hopelessness and the lack of trust in society. Teenagers are exposed to violence and disruption, which increases the risk of their being recruited in law-violating groups and gangs (Siegel & Welsh, 2018). According to the social disorganization theory, the disintegration of the neighborhood is the main reason for delinquent behavior. Social control is almost impossible because of poverty, which eliminates the ability of the neighborhood to control its people (Siegel & Welsh, 2018). All of these issues testify the relevance of the social disorganization theory to the selected research question.
Each of the theories under analysis offers a unique approach to understanding youth delinquency and deviance, as well as the reasons why these negative behaviors develop. The majority of the theories focus on ethnicity and gender as the main factors affecting young people’s disposition toward violence. The social reaction theory focuses on social impact on the individuals’ development. The social conflict theory posits that the ruling class defines what is social and what is antisocial. The critical race theory presupposes that belonging to a minority race affects society’s attitude toward certain population groups. Intersectionality scrutinizes a variety of conditions simultaneously, such as trauma, race, and gender.
The strain theory, as well as the social conflict theory, emphasizes the effect of disparate opportunities on youths’ development. Finally, the theory of social disorganization argues that the predisposition of people to become gang members is closely associated with their residential area. All of the theories have different focal points, but each of them is useful in determining the reasons for young people’s engagement in violent behaviors and criminal activities.
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