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Joining Street Gangs: Theoretical Motivations Research Paper


Research has shown that gang membership is motivated by the desire for power, money, protection, brotherhood, and sense of belonging. Both children and adults join street gangs in search for a sense of personal identity mainly due to the failure of social agents including the media, schools and churches. This phenomenon can be explained using criminological and psychological theories. Applicable criminological theories include strain theory, subcultural theory, labeling theory, social control theory, and underclass theory. On the other hand, applicable psychological theories include social learning theory, personality theory, and self control theory. It is important for schools, churches, and families to play active parts in the growth and development of children especially during early childhood.


The proliferation of street gangs in the United States has become an issue of national concern that has attracted the attention of scholars. Gang activities pose security risks to members and the society, and cause tremendous amounts of damage (Decker & Pyrooz, 2015). The study of the theoretical basis of street gangs is divided into psychological and criminological theories. Criminological theories are based on aspects that include social strain, moral order, and societal attachment (Decker & Pyrooz, 2015). On the other hand, psychological theories are based on the psychological processes that make gang membership appealing to children and adults. Motivations for joining gangs fall into any one of the following classes, namely intimidation, criminal activity, protection, fellowship and brotherhood, and identity or recognition (Decker & Pyrooz, 2015).

Criminological Theories

Social Disorganization Theory

According to this theory, people join gangs because of the lack of social connectedness with personal and societal institutions. Lack of social connectedness originates from rapid population movements, political, economic, and social changes, social unrest, and industrialization (Siegel, 2010). Other factors include community fragmentation, racism, political instability, and the failure of social agents such as schools and churches in addressing the needs of individuals in changing environments. The theory suggests that joining a gang is a normal response to unusual social situations that change how people think and act (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2014).

The creator of the theory believed that gangs originated from young people who wanted to create a society that addressed their needs. The main goal of joining gangs is to enjoy the satisfaction and rewards that social agents like schools and families fail to provide (Siegel, 2010). For example, young people will join gangs for protection if they experience violence in their families. Street gangs also offer opportunities for enjoyment that many young people lack. Children in lower-class neighborhoods are raised in poor living conditions where violence is an aspect of life (Lilly et al., 2014). They have no pride in where they live and, as a result, take no initiative to improve the standards of living. They do not feel responsible for enhancing the well being of their communities

Strain Theory

One of the theories that effectively explain why young people and adults join street gangs is the strain theory. It postulates that gang membership is a consequence of the lack of means to achieve economic aspirations that people have due to cultural and social affiliations to certain groups (Lilly et al., 2014). Two major assumptions of the theory are that people usually have economic goals to pursue and lack the means for their attainment. People engage in illegal activities in order to compensate for the lack of resources to achieve their goals (Decker & Pyrooz, 2015). Strain theorists believe that the proliferation of gangs is a consequence of the unequal distribution of wealth and power (Siegel, 2010).

People in lower-class neighborhoods lack the means to pursue their goals and, as a result, result to crime to get access to economic opportunities. Many adults believe that the only way to mitigate the strain caused by limited resources is to join street gangs (Decker & Pyrooz, 2015). Gangs provide economic opportunities for members to make money and take care of their families. People adapt to strain by embracing conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, or rebellion (Siegel, 2010). Joining street gangs is an example of rebelling against cultural goals and means. Socially accepted goals pressure people to excel and as such, put great amounts of strain on them to an extent that they join deviant subculture groups for means to achieve their goals (Decker & Pyrooz, 2015).

Subcultural Theory

This theory postulates that certain groups have values, cultural norms, and attitudes that encourage their members to participate in activities related to crime and violence. The theory was developed from concepts of the strain theory. However, it differs from strain theory in that people create their own subculture to facilitate the attainment of goals (Siegel, 2010). They do not strive to attain their goals through culturally acceptable means because their new subculture is characterized by criminal tendencies such as aggression, autonomy, and hedonism (Siegel, 2010). In many cases, people become so frustrated in their pursuance of goals that they turn to the group affiliation of street gangs. Street gangs usually have their own value systems that promote negative and dysfunctional behaviors (Lilly et al., 2014). Creation of value systems within street gangs creates a subculture that is transmitted between generations. In that regard, some people are members of street gangs because of the values and cultural norms their parents embraced as members of gangs (Decker & Pyrooz, 2015).

Labeling Theory

This theory states that the terms used to describe or group people have the potential to mold their self-identity and behaviors (Thornberry, 2004). In that regard, describing young people as deviant encourages them to engage in deviant behaviors. This theory provides a rationale for the clash between social norms and people’s behavior. For instance, a young person who lives in a neighborhood renowned for the presence of street gangs might be labeled as a gang member. For that reason, the teenager might embrace the behavioral tendencies of gang members. In many cases, the teenager incorporates the label into their self-identity and starts behaving like a gang member (Decker & Pyrooz, 2015). According to research, people of lower social status are more prone to deviant behaviors because of the influence of their environment (Thornberry, 2004). The use of negative or stereotypical labels to describe people promotes deviant behavior because they try to live up to the meaning of those labels (Thornberry, 2004). For example, calling someone a criminal is destructive because it influences their self-concept and identity negatively. They internalize the idea that they are criminals and behave in ways that validate the label.

Social Control Theory

The social control theory postulates that socialization and social learning reduce individuals’ propensity to engage in deviant behaviors by increasing their levels of self-control (Decker & Pyrooz, 2015). The four types of control include direct, internal, indirect, and control through needs satisfaction. In the case of direct control, individuals are threatened with punishment in case they engage in negative behaviors and rewards if they engage in positive behaviors (Siegel, 2010). Parents use rewards and punishment to control their children. Internal control involves the use of conscience to prevent criminal activities. People join street gangs if their deviant behaviors are rewarded by parental reinforcement or lack of punishment (Decker & Pyrooz, 2015). The lack of social and personal control is another motivator for joining street gangs. The failure by parents to control and guide their children leads to participation in criminal activities because of gang socialization (Decker & Pyrooz, 2015).

Underclass Theory

This theory postulates that engagement in criminal activity is a natural response to tough life situations created by societal inequalities. Structural divestment in society limits the number of cultural and economic opportunities available to people living in lower class neighborhoods (Decker & Pyrooz, 2015). The “underclass” status is used to describe people who live in environments worse than those of the traditional lower class. Underclass youths and adults feel marginalized. As a result, they join street gangs for social associations that give them a sense of belonging and identity (Siegel, 2010). Some teenagers join gangs because criminal groups offer means of solving problems related to social adjustment particularly in new environments.

Psychological Theories

Social Learning Theory

This theory explains the motivations behind gang membership and participation in criminal activities. One of the main tenets of the theory is that the two main motivators of human behavior are pain and pleasure (Hollin, 2013). People behave in a certain way either to avoid pain or seek pleasure. Humans learn by repeating pleasurable behaviors and avoiding painful behaviors. In that regard, people join street gangs because engaging in criminal activities is pleasurable (Wortley, 2011). For instance, the opportunity to have a sense of identity and belonging provides as well as the enjoyment of material possessions provides pleasure. Therefore, material and social reinforcements encourage individuals to continue engaging in the activities of street gangs for the pleasure they provide (Hollin, 2013). In many cases, punishments for criminal activities create more pleasure than pain. Therefore, members of gangs choose to repeat criminal acts oblivious of the pain that could be associated with their actions.

Personality Theory

This theory suggests that criminality originates from individual personality characteristics that cannot be easily altered by social learning (Hollin, 2013). It rejects the proposition that criminality is a consequence of social factors. It assumes that people possess certain innate personality traits that can be changed by life experiences. It also assumes that people possess core personality traits that remain intact because they cannot be influenced by living experiences (Hollin, 2013). In the case of people who join street gangs, their core personality traits are responsible for their deviant behavior. According to theorists, examples of personality traits that interact to cause deviant behavior include extroversion, reckless thinking, neuroticism, lack of self-control and psycopathy (Wortley, 2011).

Self-Control Theory

Self-control theorists suggest that participation in criminal activities is caused by lack of self-control (Wortley, 2011). It states that poor parenting during the early childhood years leads to the development of low levels of self-control in children when compared to effective parenting (Wortley, 2011). Research studies show that deviant behavior is one of the consequences of low levels of self-control among children and adults (Hollin, 2013). In that regard, children and adults join street gangs because of the lack of adequate amounts of self-control. Lack of self-control is founded on the pleasure principle that refers to the inability to delay gratification. People without self-control seek instant gratification by seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.


Criminality is a concept that can be discussed using both criminological and psychological theories. The proliferation of street gangs has become a national issue because of its threats to peace and stability, as well as its negative influence on young people and adults. Motivations for joining street gangs include criminal activity, protection, lack of self-control, fellowship and brotherhood, identify or recognition, and discontentment with living conditions. Lack of social and personal control is a key motivator for criminality. Parents need to control their children because lack of containment pushes children to engage in criminal activities. On the other hand, adults need to practice self-control and avoid seeking instant gratification. Theorists believe that low levels of self-control are a consequence of poor parenting during childhood that manifest in an individual’s inability to delay gratification.


Decker, S. H., & Pyrooz, D. C. (2015). The handbook of gangs. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Hollin, C. R. (2013). Psychology and crime: an introduction to criminological psychology. New York, NY: Routledge.

Lilly, J. R., Cullen, F. T., & Ball, R. A. (2014). Criminological theory: context and consequences. New York, NY: SAGE Publications.

Siegel, L. J. (2010). Criminology: theories, patterns, and typologies. Belmont, Ca: Cengage Learning.

Thornberry, T. P. (2004). Developmental theories of crime and delinquency. New York, NY: Transaction Publishers.

Wortley, R. (2011). Psychological criminology: an integrative approach. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

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