By Danielle,

Youth Gangs and Structural Theories - Agency vs. Structure

9/20/2012 DK 5 Comments

“People choose to act badly, to hurt others or themselves. Solving crime means first changing what is inside people’s heads.”
The assertion that "people choose to act badly" is the main idea of the classical theory, popularized in the 18th Century, which put much emphasis on agency, claiming that individuals act on free will (Siegal 2010). That is, people commit crime when, in their calculations, the possible rewards from that act of crime outweighs the potential punishment. However, with the development of the study of criminology, many criminologists began to consider and argue for the significance and role of structure and its influence on deviant behaviour. This paper will consider a number of structural theories such as strain (Merton 1938), anomie (Cohen 1955) and subcultural (Wolfgang & Ferracuti 1967) theories to evaluate the following statement: "people choose to act badly, to hurt other or themselves. Solving crime means first changing what is inside people's heads". This paper will explore the benefits and limitations of accepting the structural theories in relation to the issue of youth gang violence.

Many criminological, sociological and psychological research have been carried out to better understand the causes of youth gang violence (Vigil 2003, 225). Although there is no consensus on the universal definition (Encyclopedia Britannica), the term "youth gang" is generally described as 'a group of youths organised around illegal activity' (Australian Institute of Criminology; AIC 2007) usually characterised by 'some level of ... continuity over time' (Encyclopedia Britannica). In his paper Urban Violence and Street Gangs (2003), James Vigil reported that gangs are mostly made up of 'groups of male adolescents and youths who have grown up together' and usually reside in 'a low-income neighborhood of a city' (226). The organised illegal activities are said to be typically violent, including 'turf and drug wars and battles over resources' typically involving weapons such as handguns (Vigil 2003, 225).
Here, applying the classical theory as the cause of youth gang activities seems problematic. It seems implausible to assume that all or most who choose to join a gang are coincidentally from similar kinds of neighbourhoods and socio-economic status backgrounds.

In a different light from the classical theory, the causes of formation and delinquent activities of youth gangs can be examined using different structural theories. Structural theories emphasise the significance of the role of social and economic structures as the causes of delinquent behaviour, and tend to treat criminal behaviour as the result of the undesirable and disfunctional structures. Of these theories, strain (Merton 1938) and anomie (Cohen 1955) theories will be closely examined in the next part of this paper, followed by other structural theories which may contribute to explaining the deviant nature of youth gangs.

Strain theory says that delinquent behaviours are likely to occur when an individual experiences strain (frustration) caused by an unequal distribution of the legitimate means to achieve the common goals of society such as financial and materialistic gain (Merton 1938, 672-4). That is, when the means of achieving socially acceptable goals are unavailable to one, he is likely to turn to illegitimate ways in order to achieve them. Further, anomie theory says that this kind of strain leads individuals to feel a lack of belongingness to the mainstream culture and, in turn, motivates them to find their own identity within subcultures to which they can relate (Cohen 1955).

Applying these theories to the youth gangs, it can be understood that the social structure creates an environment in which young individuals from low-income neighbourhoods find themselves under pressure when their families' low incomes prevent them from gaining materialistic goods which are popular and commonly accepted in mainstream culture. Then, joining a gang can be understood as a way of finding one's place in a part of society to which one can belong; namely, a group whose members come from similar backgrounds with similar goals. In this sense, deviant youth gang behaviours such as drug dealing and turf wars are an illegitimate way of achieving financial gain.

Another aspect of the strain, anomie and subcultural theories highly emphasise the importance of status (Vigil 2003, 234); that is, the youth gangs' goals are not just financial success, but the gaining of status and power (Wolfgang & Ferracuti 1967). In these youth gangs in which violence is the norm, gang members 'risk being disrespected' (Vigil 2003, 228) if they fail to live up to the norm and maintain their tough and masculine self-images by violently retaliating to other gangs (229). Undoubtedly, then, the most violent, vicious and 'crazy' ones are praised and respected. Thus, the respected members would feel a sense of achievement and pride as well as a sense of authority over other gang members (227). This characteristic of the subculture group would then reassure that the members aspire to be as aggressive as the ones they respect and thus reassure the ongoing violent activities.

However, the above theories have their limits in that they do not provide explanations as to 'how the violent norms are transmitted' (Vigil 2003, 229) and in that the causes of violent behaviour in youth gangs cannot be wholly reduced down to socio-economic status and a sense of group belongingness. For example, most youths in low-income neighborhoods do not join gangs (226), and once in the gang, there seems to be no automatic and logical link between violence as the norm and the membership of a youth gang.

While these limitations may seem like a loophole in structural theories which may only be explained by the classical perspective that, ultimately, criminal behaviours are a choice, additional structural theories may be able to provide some possible solutions; namely, differential association (Sutherland 1939) and social control (Hirschi 2002) theories.
Differential association theory says that criminal behaviour, skills and techniques, and favourable attitudes towards delinquency are learned through interactions with one’s intimate others (Sutherland 1939). Similarly, social control theory says that individuals turn to criminal and delinquent behaviours when their bonds to society are weak or broken (Hirschi 2002). An individual learns not to commit crime by learning and internalising the norms and values of society through his bond to his intimate others, conventional institutions and society itself (Chriss 2007, 691).

The occurring theme of youth gangs is that a large number of adolescents in gangs are from 'marginalized, highly stressful families' which create an environment in which they inevitably become peer-dependent and rely on other gang members as role models (Vigil 2003, 227). The stressful family conditions include domestic violence and, particularly for females, sexual abuse and exploitation (227), from which the adolescents escape and become exposed to the streets (235). They are taught the street ways of life by their new peers and learn to internalise their new values including violence (Sutherland 1934). However, in some aspects, involvement in youth gangs are not much different from involvement in conventional institutions such as school and work. Positive traits like loyalty, trust and respect (especially for older members), as well as strong "work" ethics are highly valued by the members (Sutherland 1934). Hence, as stated above, youth gangs maintain their organised structures by reinforcing these values. Thus, involvement in youth gangs can provide some positive experiences for the members, 'giving support, security, opportunity for status, group identification and excitement, which they may not be getting otherwise' (AIC 2007).

This idea, together with the subcultural theory, provides some theoretical explanations as to 'where and how the subculture of violence is learned and practiced' (Vigil 2003, 235); adolescents' disconnection from families and schools, and bond with the subcultural group of youth gangs, introduce them to participate in violent activities.

So far, the disfunctional social structure, economic pressure, group bonding and subcultural groups, and disconnection with family and school have been introduced to examine the structural impact on the formation and violent activities of youth gangs. Such explanations offer an understanding of the role of the structure, and that criminal behaviour cannot be explained wholly in terms of individual choices and free will.

In addition, there are other possible structural and psychological explanations for the aggressive nature of youth gangs, such as masculinity, forced gender roles, age, and ethnicity (Vigil 2003, 227). In brief, Vigil (2003) argues that the human development stage from childhood to adulthood is an ambivalent period in which adolescents struggle to find their social and sexual identities (227). In this stage, dependence on peer groups increases and thus, it is easier to learn and adapt behaviours, whether they are ethnic- or cultural-specific, or gender-specific behaviours.

Accepting these structural theories will argue that people do not choose to act badly to hurt others or themselves, but are influenced by the wider social and economic structures.
However, structural theories as a whole still fail to provide an explanation as to why the majority of certain socio-economic groups and adolescents from problematic families do not join gangs or engage in delinquent activities (Vigil 2003, 226). This seems to be the ultimate debate between structural and agency theories; while structural explanations can help us to better understand the contributing factors surrounding crime and youth gangs, they imply that individuals are vulnerable to their environment and that crime is inevitable for people in certain places and status groups.

Should we nevertheless accept these subcultural theories, then, solving crime would involve more than just "changing what is inside people's heads". Instead, society as a whole would perhaps be required to undergo a correction of social structure; an extreme social reform, such as the removal of income hierarchy, cheaper and easier access to material goods and education, fairer tax distributions and so on. Or, on a more plausible side, as suggested by Rob White in his paper outlining the most effective anti-gang strategies (2007), stronger focus on opportunity enhancement for youths and community-based strategies would be useful. White (2007) suggests strategies which include improving local conditions, catering for 'social differences within communities', creating safe, inclusive and welcoming social conditions, and ensuring fair 'media reporting of youth, particularly of ethnic minorities' (AIC 2007).

To summarise, this paper explored different aspects of social and economic structure surrounding the youth gangs. Applying a number of structural theories including strain (Merton 1938), anomie (Cohen 1955) and subcultural (Wolfgang & Ferracuti 1967) theories, this paper concluded that adolescents from low socio-economic status and stressful family background are likely to join gangs, become dependent on peers, and learn and practice violent acts. Then, it acknowledged an area which structural theories seem to fail to explain; namely, that only a small percentage of individuals from such environments become involved in criminal activities.
It is evident that the causes of youth gang violence or crime as a whole cannot be approached with a reductionist account of explaining them wholly in terms of agency or structure. Instead, the causes of delinquent behaviour seemingly involve a combination of complex theoretical explanations, including structural theories not included in this essay, such as edgework theory (Lyng 2005), conflict theories (Hasley 2006, 97-100), routine activities theory (Vigil 2003, 228) and many more. In relation to the statement that "people choose to act badly", though, it would be an understatement to say that "acting badly" involves much more than just "what is in people's heads", that social and economic influences on agency are not to be ignored.

Australian Institute of Criminology (2007) Targeting youth gangs at a grassroots level . [online] Available at: [Accessed: 13 September 2012].
Chriss, J., (2007) The functions of the social bond. The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 48, Issue 4, doi: 10.1111/j.1533-8525.2007.00097.x
Cohen, A., (1955) Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang. New York: Free Press. (2012) Youth gang, © Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.. [online] Available at: gang [Accessed: 13 Sep 2012].
Hasley, M., (2006) Social Explanations for Crime. In: Goldsmith, A., Israel, M. and Daly, K., Crime and Justice: A Guide to Criminology. Sydney: Lawbook Company, 97-100.
Hirschi, T., (2002) Causes of delinquency. New Brunswick, N.J., Transaction Publishers.
Lyng, S., (2005) Edgework: The Sociology of Risk-Taking, New York and London, Routledge.
Merton, R., (1938) Social Structure and Anomie, American Sociological Review, Vol. 3, No. 5, 672-4.
Siegal, L. J. (2010) Criminology, The Core. Lowell: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
Sutherland, E. (eds.), (1939) Principles of Criminology. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott.
Vigil, J. (2003) Urban Violence and Street Gangs. Annual Review of Anthropology, (32) 225-35.
White, R. (2007) Anti-gang strategies and interventions. Perth: Australian Research Alliance for Children & Youth.
Wolfgang, M. E. & Ferracuti, F. (1967) The subculture of violence: Towards an integrated theory in criminology. London: Tavistock Publications.

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  1. Well written essay. And I'd imagine now the classical perspective isn't very popular? Well, I'm sure it hasn't been for ages. I'm definitely more into the structural theories. Just can't reduce it all down to "free will" like you said.

  2. It's me again (Tomaflous). I made up some URL up there ( and it actually exists! haha

  3. Haha, it took me to a Chinese (I think?) shopping website! :p Thanks for your comment, and yeah, I don't think the classical theory is very popular. I'm especially into conflict theories like radical theory and labelling theory, etc, but the classical perspective has some valid points in that in the end you have to think about why only a small percentage commit "crime" while others don't. It's a fascinating debate!

  4. Youth gangs could also be tied to differential opportunity theory, where these low income kids have an opportunity to make more money by joining a gang than getting a job somewhere in the neighborhood. It is also likely with these times that there are just no jobs available to them, even if they wanted them. So for them, it is more opportunistic to work as drug dealer in a street gang, as this would provide them with enough money to get the things they needed to and to possibly help out their parents who may be struggling financially.

  5. Yes! I knew I was missing something... Thanks for that :)
    In the end, it seems like all these theories work together rather than independently. Not necessarily that one factor causes another to happen, but that they wouldn't exist without each other. I still don't know what to think about the whole "free-will" theory, though..