The Lived Experience of Gang Membership

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By Tom Boden

The role of gangs and gang membership in young people’s lives have recently received an increasing amount of political and media attention. Alarming statistics have been published suggesting an increased prevalence of young people involved with gangs. The Children’s Commissioner reported that an estimated 27,000 children identify as being part of a gang. As described in our recent blog post more educational psychologists are working with Youth Offending Teams with opportunities to work with young people who may be involved with or be vulnerable to gang membership.

Yet, establishing a clear understanding of the incidence and nature of gang membership is difficult due to a range of methodological challenges in research. Definitions of what a “gang” is are not clear as they can range from international organised crime syndicates to young people hanging around in the street. There no clear delineation of where a “gang begins, and a group of mates dressed in sportswear ends”. In many definitions gangs are associated with involvement in criminal behaviour.

I became interested in the experiences of young gang members, as their views are often overlooked. To do this I looked for research studies that capture the lived experiences of young gang members who have offended. I found six published research papers that looked at the experiences of young people and analysed them for common themes.

In summary the themes from the young people were:

  • The gang as a site of belonging

One of the most consistent findings within my research was the importance of the role of the gang as a community of belonging. This was linked to an increase in social status and feelings of respect, worth and pride. This sense of belonging was reinforced using symbolic collectives such as gestures, attire and language. These demonstrated allegiance to a group social identity and reinforced expected norms of conduct and social order.

  • The gang as a provider

This was associated with both the ability to gain material resources and the role of the gang as a protector. Gang members discussed how the gang helped to protect them from other groups or contexts where there was increased exposure to and fear of crime and anti-social behaviour. It was also associated a sense of vocational value and entrepreneurialism with ‘enterprising activities’ within the gang, contributing to an improved sense of self.

  • Gangs and living within oppressive contexts

Gang membership is linked to a lack of economic opportunity, stereotyped, or racist discourses and unstable families. Many young gang members had experience of rejection such as exclusion from school and for some, experiences of the care system. Therefore, the gang provided a space where they could resolve the ‘social stress’ created from such adverse experiences.

My research suggests that practitioners such as educational psychologists working with young people associated with gangs should consider the voice and lived experience of young people. Another implication from my research is that the focus of intervention should be altering the environment around young people to address the social factors that may lead them to value gang membership.

I would also like to see the young people themselves bringing their lived experiences to panels or policy around youth crime. My research highlights the importance of starting from a point where individuals and communities are enabled to provide their views and change the oppressive narratives that focus upon individual deficit and the inevitability of outcomes. We need to co-develop participatory, meaningful and lasting intervention across the systems and assets around the young person, their family and community. This is most likely to produce the most sustained impact, giving young people the opportunities they need to develop a belief that they have a say in their environment. This should involve coordination across systems and include everyone from employers, community organisations, families, individuals to health, educational and youth justice services.

There are some promising movements towards this way of working within the Youth Justice System. The Good Lives Model, for example, provides a strength-based framework that focuses on a young person’s orientation towards set of ‘primary human goods’ and their ‘routes’ or means of accessibility to acquiring these goods. This allows for a person centred ‘Good Lives Plan’ to be co-developed and worked towards with the young person. There are also some emergent examples of this on a policy level, including the integration of Article 12 of the United Nations Conventions for Rights of the Child within the Youth Justice Board’s Participation Strategy. Here the Youth Justice Board have committed to make “every aspect of our work to be an opportunity to consider the voices of young people”. This is a positive step and more needs to be done ensure that policy represents an evidence-based welfare and rights orientated approach rather than one that increases the agency of the young person.

Tom is a Year 3 trainee on the initial training course for educational psychologists at the University of Birmingham.

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