David Brotherton's Beyond Social Reproduction: Back in Gang THeory

on, New Delhi and Singapore. www.sagepublications.com Vol. 12(1): 55–77; 1362–4806 DOI: 10.1177/1362480607085794
Beyond social reproduction
Bringing resistance back in gang theory


CUNY Graduate Center, USA


Researchers and theorists have described violent street gang subcultures in the USA as a response to the intersecting forces of marginalization inflicted on minority communities. Most gang scholars agree that the urban youth street gang is the quintessential example of social reproduction at work. While evidence can be mustered to defend such a position, it is important to consider how street gangs may constitute counter-hegemonic forms of both individual and collective resistance. In this article, I concentrate on the theoretical questions posed by such a perspective. My argument is that the open-ended view of earlier criminologists has been discarded and a pathological view of gang behavior holds sway. While this latter perspective may apply to some gangs, it does not pertain to all such subcultures. Based on my own and other studies, I advocate a return to resistance-based theory informed by literatures not normally consulted in gang criminology.

Key Words
late modernity positivism resistance social reproduction street organization subcultural theory the gang


During the last two decades, varied researchers and theorists have described the hyper-masculine, violent gang subcultures that have become common- place in US ghettoes and barrios as a response to the multiple, intersecting

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forces of economic, social and cultural marginalization inflicted on minority communities during a period of deindustrialization (see Wilson, 1987; Hagedorn, 1988; Vigil, 1988; Moore, 1991; Anderson, 1999; Young, 1999; Bourgois, 2001). Sharp disagreements have emerged over who or what is responsible for these structured pathologies (see Wacquant, 2002a) and vibrant debates have unfolded over notions of the underclass. Yet, in the context of US racism and the complicity of the academy in neo- liberal hegemony, most gang scholars agree that the urban youth street gang is the quintessential example of social reproduction at work. For these schol- ars, gangs are a key socializing milieu or even quasi-institution that produce a habitus wherein members develop the dispositions and/or reproduce the social conditions that cement their class trajectory (Bourdieu, 1973).

While evidence can be mustered to defend this position, it is equally important to consider that street gangs in late modernity can change and may constitute counter-hegemonic forms and moments of both individual and collective resistance organized deep within the poorest, subaltern com- munities (see also Venkatesh and Coughlin, 2004). Such a counter-intuitive view of gangs is worth debating if only to bring into focus a rapidly chang- ing empirical world in which several historical factors have converged. These include a diversifying array of gang-types (see Jankowski, 1991; Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1998; Kontos et al., 2003; Venkatesh and Coughlin, 2004; Short, 2007); changes in gang mem- bership’s class, gender and race-ethnic makeup (see Chesney-Lind, 1997; Miller, 2001; Moore and Hagedorn, 2001; Vigil, 2002; Brotherton and Barrios, 2004; Feixa et al., 2006 inter alia); and the globalization and transnationalization of gangs (Hagedorn, 2005; Smith, 2005; Barrios et al., 2006; Feixa et al., 2006).

Here, I wish to concentrate primarily on the theoretical questions posed by this alternative to the dominant perspective. Put simply, my argument is that the original open-ended view of the gang in the work of earlier criminologists has been discarded. Instead, a view of gang behavior that could be called social reproductionist and unwittingly pathologizing now holds sway across theoretical frameworks that inform myriad empirical studies. While the social reproductionist perspective may indeed be valid to describe some and perhaps even the majority of gangs, it does not pertain to all such subcultures. One can therefore point to a void in the literature on gangs. For this reason, and based on my own and other empirical studies, I advocate a return to a more resistance-based theoretical orientation informed by literatures not normally consulted in gang criminology. This theoretical turn is necessary if we are not to exclude important developments among national, international and transnational youth and their organizations in late modernity.

In the following, I first discuss critically how gang definitions have changed over the past century reflecting, in part, the professionalization and specialization of social science and especially criminology. This is followed by a consideration of the analytical concept of resistance, its appearance in the study of gangs and youth subcultures, and its disappearance as a
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meaningful form of agency in the face of social reproductionist paradigms. Finally, I turn to a set of critical issues in the broader realm of sociological and criminological theory, which support my argument that resistance needs to be seriously reintroduced into gang studies. This latter point is exempli- fied by what I intend as self-reflexive engagement with my own 15 years of field experience in gang research.

What is a gang?

The definition of gangs has changed significantly since the early days of Thrasher in the 1920s and has shifted significantly away from the Chicago School’s focus on group processes and collective behavior in bounded ecol- ogy contexts. Thrasher’s study, which is the foundation of most contempo- rary gang research, concerned itself with the variability of gang-related youth and their capacities to adapt to prevailing conditions of poverty, mar- ginalization, and rapid social change. Thrasher’s definition was strikingly open-ended as the quotation below demonstrates:

[a gang is] an interstitial group originally formed spontaneously and then integrated through conflict ... The result of this collective behavior is the development of tradition, unreflective internal structure, esprit de corps, sol- idarity, morale, group awareness, and attachment to a local territory.
(Thrasher, 1927: 46)

It is interesting to note that the only notion of transgression in this defi- nition is contained in the vague term ‘conflict’: this refers to physical and social conflict with other gang groups, and could also be taken to mean cul- tural conflict or tensions with the dominant values of the surrounding soci- ety. What is important to underscore, though, is that delinquency and what is often referred to as ‘law-violating behavior’ in criminological texts is missing from this definition. For Thrasher (see also Bursik and Grasmick, 1993), such behavior is an empirical 
question and emerges from a particu- lar trajectory of a gang as it responds to and is penetrated by a specific set of community conditions (see Hagedorn, 1988). Some four decades later, the prevailing definition of a gang shifts significantly. Based on studies of organized gang interventions by social workers in two different locales in Los Angeles, Klein developed a definition of a gang that is now probably the most influential one in contemporary use:
[a gang is] any identifiable group of youngsters who (a) are generally per- ceived as a distinct aggregation by others in their neighborhood, (b) recog- nize themselves as a denotable group (almost invariably with a group name), and (c) have been involved in a sufficient number of delinquent incidents to call forth a consistent negative response from neighborhood residents and/or law enforcement agencies.
(Klein, 1971: 13)

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The contrast between the two is striking with the latter definition placing greater emphasis on the following three points. One is how out- siders (the audience) view the gang; this is much in keeping with the label- ing discourse also developing in the early 1970s. The second is how group members recognize and define themselves, which reflects the character of transactional discourses at the time. The definition then ends with a patho- logical imputation for groups as, third, the gang is said to engage in trans- gressive practices that break our legal codes and inspire social control reactions from the community. But as Morash (1983) and many others have wondered (e.g. Horowitz, 1983), did criminology with this definition effectively embrace a tautology that has well served the criminal justice industry? Has ‘the gang’ become part of a criminological master narrative that feeds society’s hegemonic processes (Ewick and Sibley, 1995)? Although there was no such intention on Klein’s part, this latter definition has become a discursive marker in the social control paradigms that have governed anti-gang policy in the succeeding years and has helped to tag (Young, 1971) the gang with almost every conceivable human ill. In the contemporary period, the gang can be considered a ‘terrorist’ organization (Wood, 2004), a player in organized crime (Knox, 1996), a primary cause of school decay (Stephens, 1995; Trump, 2002), a lynch-pin in national drug networks (see in particular Skolnick, 1990; Curry and Decker, 2003), the highest risk for prison instability (see inter alia Carlson, 2001; Fleisher and Decker, 2001; Kassel, 2003), a gateway to evil for urban, suburban and transnational youth (see, for example, United States Department of Justice’s Project Safe Neighborhoods, 2006), and evidence of a new species, the ‘super predator’ (Bennett et al., 1996).
How have we moved from the benign conceptions of an ‘interstitial group originally formed spontaneously’ (Thrasher, 1927) to today’s urban primitives (Conquergood, 1992) whose existence federal legislation would virtually render illegal? How far indeed have we moved from the debate between Gouldner and Becker in the 1960s over the role of social science and the State, and the nowadays almost quaint-sounding question ‘whose side are we on?’

Thus, the opening purpose of this critical essay on gang theory is to clar- ify specifically which kinds of gangs are included in particular definitions that have come to circulate in extant social science literature. This is par- ticularly important since I have argued previously that there are empirical cases when use of the term ‘gang’ is problematic based on both of the def- initions above (see Brotherton, 2004; Brotherton and Barrios, 2004). By contrast another term—street organization1—may better reflect the chang- ing political and cultural nature of some groups.2 Despite these tensions over definition, this essay draws on work about gangs that have relied on some or all of the usages above. In particular, I wish to emphasize that in contemporary work based on both former usages of gangs, the concept of resistance has been largely overlooked in describing or interpreting gang- type social groups whatever their stage of development.

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In the following, then, I first discuss critically how gang definitions have changed over the past century reflecting, in part, the professionalization and specialization of social science and especially criminology. This is fol- lowed by a consideration of the analytical concept of resistance, its appear- ance in the study of gangs and youth subcultures, and its disappearance as a meaningful form of agency in the face of social reproduction-based para- digms. Finally, I turn to a set of critical issues in the broader realm of soci- ological and criminological theory, which support my argument that resistance needs to be seriously reintroduced into gang studies. Throughout, I draw on over 15 years of my own field work on gangs.

Gangs, subcultures and resistance

The street organization model raises the issue of resistance and places it at the forefront of gang studies. But what is resistance? Is it now being intro- duced into gang studies for the first time or does it have its own history? In a review of the resistance literature, Hollander and Einwohner (2004) found that its core conceptual elements were action, opposition, intent (by social actors) and recognition (by an audience). They also contended that, while the term is profoundly sociological and integral to ‘debates that are at the heart of the sociological perspective, including power and control, inequality and difference, and social context and interaction’, (2004: 551) any unified definition of the notion has been lacking. Despite this lack of clarity, the term appears to have become increasingly popular in recent soci- ological and anthropological research.

My understanding of gang resistances gives particular weight to actions inspired by the kind of agency that has been termed ‘projective’ (Emirbayer and Mische, 1998), that is, future-oriented. Such resistance begins with small oppositional gestures that are aimed at existing power relations as they have been conceived, broadly, in both the Foucauldian and Weberian traditions. Over time these gestures, however discrete, evolve into a set of actions that are transformative both in terms of the self and the life worlds of actors. At the more general level, we might also describe such agency/resistance as the conscious and/or unconscious opposition of individuals and groups to struc- tural constraints, be they in the form of institutional values and treatments or the micro–macro processes of cultural, physical, 
economic and social subju- gation. Of course, this is not to say that resistance cannot be absorbed as Hebdige (1988), Ortner (1995) and Brown (1996) have each observed. Nor is this to deny that the idea of ‘resistance’ can be romanticized (see Ortner, 1995). Indeed, I am mindful of the critiques of Ortner (1995) and Brown (1996) who wonder about the social scientific love fest with ‘resistance’, an ideological and cultural turn that seems to have completely bypassed the field of gang studies in recent years.

However, the outcome of such resistance is ambivalent and depends on the context and organizational setting, which gives it direction and shape

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(hence the type of gang milieu is critical). In the context of marginality, the resistant actor is the opposite of the passive one, and such actors are replete in the early work of Thrasher and those of much later criminologists in whose research gangs are described as having understandable reactions to poverty, social disorganization and/or deindustrialization.
In Thrasher’s study, there is nothing inherently pathological about the gang. In different social ecological circumstances, he muses, these self- organized lower-class youth would easily move into mainstream society, some of them becoming pillars of the establishment. For Thrasher, these youth are creative, innovative, willful, purposive and contradictory. They resist fatalism; they strive to be themselves, given their contexts; and they are not seen as toxic to their environment. If anything, it is the other way round. Further, society has an obligation to include them, reach out to them, understand them and to work for their meaningful reintegration. Thus Thrasher’s research project was not characterized by an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ approach so common in much state-sponsored gang criminology, but rather by a ‘soft’ social control perspective in which criminology leaves itself open to community issues and the possibilities of messy, somewhat reflexive and humanistic interventions.

Several decades later in gang studies, the concept of ‘resistance’ also became prominent. In the work of Albert Cohen (1955), for example, we read of lower-class gang ‘delinquents’ rejecting the middle-class imperatives of school; in Matza (1964), we are introduced at least theoretically to delinquents (presumably including gang members) who learn to become deviant by navigating the paradoxical worlds of adult/youth morality sys- tems. For Matza, such youth resist the hypocrisy of their elders, the double messages of teachers, parents, police officers and make their own way drift- ing and transgressing demarcated lines of behavior that constantly have to be redrawn. Similarly, in Cloward and Ohlin (1960), youth resolve their marginality through gang subcultures, some becoming ‘innovators’ in the Mertonian sense, refusing to settle for denial of their American Dream. Of course, we should note that Cloward himself was heavily involved in the ‘Mobilization for Youth’ campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s, and was opti- mistic about the ability of gang youth to ‘resist’ in multiple ways eventually finding meaningful roles in their respective communities.3

This relatively strong interest in resistance during the 1950s was taken up by the British, first by Downes (1966) and then by Young (1971), followed by the Birmingham School (see Hall and Jefferson, 1975; Willis, 1977; Hebdige, 1979; Brake, 1985). In the latter, the subject of youth resistance was analyzed through the prism of American criminology, particularly its con- centration on youth subcultures. The theoretical leap forward came when American notions of resistance and innovation melded with the insights of French semiotics, Gramscian Marxism and British social history and we emerge with the magical solutions of Cohen (1972), the bricollages of Hebdige (1979) and the penetrations and limitations of Willis (1977). The highest point of the Birmingham School was their analysis of mugging (Hall

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and Jefferson, 1975), showing how the ‘discovery’ of these anti-social youth by the corporate media and assorted moral entrepreneurs connected to the Thatcher government reflected a profound class realignment in British soci- ety. But what meanwhile was happening to resistance on American soil?

In fact, resistance was alive and well but it was more grounded in the prison support groups of Chicano gangs in the work of Moore (1978), in the alternative socialization processes of Vigil’s (1988) barrio boys, and in the class/ethnic/gender resistance of female gang members in Quicker’s (1983) work and in a more contradictory mode in Campbell’s (1984) work. In the latter’s treatment, although a strong tension between social pathol- ogy and individual/collective resistance is often present, there is still a great deal of appreciation and empathy for the scope of lower-class human agency and the innovative subcultures of meaning-making, ambivalence and self-organization that result.

Within a decade, though, these sentiments of hope, possibility, and resilience had virtually disappeared.4 Instead, one finds the hidden hand of social reproduction theory embraced along a continuum of treatments. In one version, resistance is but a pyrrhic victory as lower-class gang members embedded in factors of ‘multiple marginalization’ actively reject the main- stream only to reinforce their subordinate class location (Hagedorn, 1988; Vigil, 1988; Moore, 1991; see also Macleod, 1995; Bourgois, 2001 [1995]). A more conservative analysis5 invokes pathological assumptions of gang members who are constructed as willfully destroying their communities and neighborhoods, thus fueling the processes of social disorganization and calling forth repressive state responses (see Fleisher, 1998; Anderson, 1999; Scott, 2004). Finally, a more optimistic position sees such gangs as ration- ally organized actors in a post-industrial political economy, their entrepre- neurial spirit resulting in a reciprocal relationship with the community that tolerates the gang’s presence in return for material and social benefits (see Sullivan, 1989; Jankowski, 1991; Padilla, 1992; Venkatesh, 2000).6

Thus resistance is present but it goes nowhere in terms of social change. Rather it refers to a sociological process which, despite its inherent contra- dictoriness, enables social and ideological structures to be shored up either overtly or covertly through the witting or unwitting involvement of the gang actors themselves. This is resistance without ambiguity, ambivalence or edge. It is opposition without the possibility of any political or cultural transcendence, any meaningful link to larger movements of the marginal- ized, or any indigenous self-renewal, innovation or discovery in which con- sciousness is changed, agency is redefined and other worlds are imagined.

Bringing resistance back in

When Phillipe Bourgois, one of the chief architects of the social reproduction paradigm, revisited his research participants 10 years later in 2001, he made a startling discovery: many of the young men he studied had later become

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involved in regular full-time employment. Contrary to his assumption, they had moved on and were no longer engaged in illegal occupations. What may we infer from this? Have we become a kinder, gentler society broadening our opportunity structures for the dangerous classes? In this era of welfare state shrinkage and the market’s ideological hegemony, hardly would this seem to be the case. More likely is that the subjects of Bourgois’ narrative had entered a different stage of self-development as their local context has changed. One interpretation could be that they had resisted their own fatal- ism or perhaps resisted their own resistance and ‘adapted’ to the socio- economic demands/possibilities of the ‘mainstream’. This discovery is not insignificant because it points to levels of agency that are always present in inner-city ‘risk-prone’ subjects but are often subsumed under the benign and innocuous developmental concept of ‘maturing out’—a term which alludes to the highly complex process of consciousness (e.g. the decision to reject the criminal justice system’s revolving door), and/or to a positive cycle of the life course often made possible by a new partner and/or a new job.

Consequently, for these reasons, there may be no better time to revisit and extend the insights of resistance theory in its various manifestations into the gang field (Burawoy, 2003). This conclusion is supported by a number of recent debates and interventions in the domains of criminology and sociology, which touch directly on gang studies. These debates were inspired by the perceived need to criticize dominant paradigms and are characterized by calls for re-examining current research practices. Such cri- tiques allow us to re-imagine the field of gang research and to pursue alter- native analytical frameworks than those associated with more conventional and still dominant approaches.

First, gang studies have long been framed within a gender-biased para- digm, ignoring or at least under-appreciating the role of women’s partici- patory and supportive roles. Yet recent studies by Quicker (1983) and Campbell (1984) offer alternative theoretical approaches to understanding women’s participation; other researchers, too, have shown themselves much more aware of the importance of gender (see Joe and Chesney-Lind, 1995; Brotherton, 1996; Miller, 2001; Brotherton and Salazar-Atias, 2003; Nurge, 2003; Schalet et al., 2003, among others who have highlighted the experience of gang females as ‘agents ... constructing their life worlds’ (Daly and Maher, 1998: 4; see also Anderson, 2005)).

Second, the wooden, rational-choice criminological discourse in which gang subjects have long been embedded has been criticized by researchers who focus on the broader meaning systems of gangs and their capacities to absorb, mediate and produce culture at multiple levels of the community. Within this genre—which can be referred to as ‘cultural criminology’—can be found the work of Conquergood (1997), Ferrell (1997), Cintron (1998) and Young (2007). These authors consider the ‘edge work’ of urban deviants including gang members, seeing their actions and rituals as performance and young people’s linguistic codes as struggles for representation. In so doing, they call for new levels of verstehen and for critical, reflexive ethnography to
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counter the often one-sided, criminogenic and positivistic narratives of orthodox social science (see also Wacquant, 2004). A similar argument has been made in this context, too, by Ortner (1995), who has criticized left- leaning anthropologists for the ‘thinness’ of their resistance ethnography wherein the situated, lived politics of subjects has been replaced by an ana- lytical binary of oppressor versus oppressed, dominators versus dominated (see also Katz and Jackson-Jacobs, 2004).

Third, the contextual orbit of gangs has changed with gang cultures becoming global (Hagedorn, 2005, 2006) and transnational (Zilberg, 2004; Smith, 2005; Barrios et al., 2006; Canelles, 2006; Feixa et al., 2006) in a dystopic, post-industrial world. In this ‘new world’, youth and adults are pushed and pulled due to: deportation, the global capitalist demand for cheap labor, the heightened emiseration and social stratification occurring in developing nations, and the cultural diffusion of gang symbols and prac- tices via migration, the Internet, and global marketing (Sassen, 2006). As a result, more youth are drawn to the styles, imagery and messages of gang cultures, seeing in them individual and collective vehicles for identity, social solidarity, and place-making (Smith, 2001).

Fourth, during this period, the (sub)cultural has become more autonomous (see also Alexander and Smith, 2001) and social movements are rapidly emerging in a range of local and transnational guises as youth, in particular, chafe against the privatization of space and the corporatization of culture and time (see Melucci, 1996; Castells, 1997; Keyes, 2002; Hayward, 2004). A hallmark of this period is the emergence of ‘spaces of hope’ (Harvey, 2000) in which subjugated, wasted and displaced peoples (Bauman, 2004) struggle for a ‘dialectical utopianism’, ‘a community of action’ as might be seen in embryonic form in the array of ‘resistances’ reflected in the anti-globalization movements (see Notes from Nowhere, 2003).

Fifth, the work of the political scientist Scott (1977, 1990) on the ‘hidden transcripts’ in the everyday lives of marginalized populations has rarely been applied to gangs. Yet, such groups are replete with textual and corpo- real representations that mimic, disrupt and contest mainstream grids of dominance (Hebdige, 1979; Conquergood, 1997; Phillips, 1999). These representations and practices have long been associated with resistance to regimes of commodified labor, time and space (Spitzer, 1977; Corrigan, 1979; Stark, 1993) and are constitutive elements of street/youth subcultures that operate within (Brotherton, 2003), under and counter to superordinate value systems and expectations (Willis, 1977; Moore, 1978; Vigil, 1988). A useful way to theorize this turn among gangs and their memberships is through the notion of ‘third spaces’ as developed in studies of social geog- raphy (Soja, 1996) and post-colonial culture (Bhabha, 1994).

Sixth, there is a growing hybridization and interpenetration of street and prison cultures (Rose, 1994; Kitwana, 2002), especially in this period of mass incarceration for people of color, the working class and the poor. While most attention is paid to the transference of prison culture to the street (as if a seamless web of styles, statuses and postures are reproduced

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in a heavily racialized ‘gangsta’ form), little attention has been paid to the experience of prison on ex-inmates as an edifying and politicizing if trau- matic experience (Genet, 1988 [1943]; Jackson, 1969).7 In such cases can the prison–gang nexus be the site of a process of change other than hyper- ghettoization (Wacquant, 2002b)?

A reflexive journey

I would now like to reflect on 15 years of field experience with gangs in dif- ferent socio-geographic sites, the West and East Coasts of the United States, the Caribbean, and in Europe. My goal is to demonstrate the relationship between the theoretical shifts cited above and ‘the gang’ in its more multi- dimensional and often street organizational forms, although I am not claim- ing any universality about these renderings.
On the contrary, I aim to illustrate the partiality of gang ‘truths’ (Clifford, 1988) and the paucity of alternative perspectives brought to bear on ‘the data’. In the process of this discussion, I emphasize how incorpo- rating the now better defined concept of resistance can help to avoid the dead end of social reproductionist thinking that frequently characterizes gang research at present.

The situated resistance of women in gangs

As stated earlier, contemporary gang research has paid greater and needed attention to gender and to the participation of women in gangs. An impor- tant conclusion of this research is that women do not join gangs for the same reasons as men nor do they involve themselves in the same practices. Several questions are repeatedly asked in these studies, namely, what do women do within gang cultures? Why do they join? What effects do they have in male- dominated settings? In field work carried out in San Francisco during the early 1990s with women involved in different ethnic-based gangs, I found that the subjects played a range of major and minor economic, organiza- tional, and social roles. This defied earlier social scientific depiction of women as mere appendages to men within gangs. Rather, many women saw the gang as a resource while they strived both for increased autonomy and to fulfill traditional family obligations in economically stressed and cultur- ally marginalizing environments (Brotherton, 1996). This complex and con- tradictory form of gendered resistance was observed in both native-born (Lauderback et al., 1992) and immigrant subjects (Brotherton, 1996; see also Joe and Chensney-Lind, 1995).

In later field work with members of the Latin Queens (a subsection of the ‘street organization’ the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation) in New York City during the second half of the 1990s, a different though similar form of resistance was observed. I found that gang females (primarily from first and second generation Puerto Rican and Dominican families) took up
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questions of gender more explicitly, enabled by an organization that at the time was committed to radical collective action in the Latino community. The females in this instance connected their resistance to a broader struggle for ethno-racial identity and to an ideology of grassroots empowerment and community self-help against what they considered a history of neocolonial subordination. An important finding in this latter study was that females were a strong progressive influence on this quintessentially male-dominated group and were a major factor behind the success, however short-lived, of its reform program (Brotherton and Barrios, 2004). Theoretically, the case of the Latin Queens resonates with the literature on race, class and gender interrelationships—both in resistance studies and beyond—although this fertile area of analysis has rarely been applied in gang studies despite the increasing attention given to gang females in recent years.

For a ‘thickness’ in the study of street organizations and gangs

To listen to the collective cries of Latin Kings and Queens and Ñetas dur- ing their meetings, to watch the elaborate displays of body gestures between gang allies, to experience the intensity of gang baptisms, initia- tions, sacred rituals and conflicts, to feel pity and anger at the sorrow of untimely deaths, and to hear the deep-felt spiritual utterances of gang believers: all these modes of interacting within a gang milieu point to the importance of the existential, the emotional, and the cultural in gang research. It is precisely in these crevices of the social, where the back-stage dramas often contradict front-stage appearances, that we gain a glimpse of the gang’s holistic nature. Cultural criminology is characterized by an insistence on capturing precisely this kind of ethnographic ‘thickness’ (see inter alia Ferrell and Saunders, 1995; Presdee, 2001; Hayward and Young, 2004; Young, 2007). Attention is paid to gangs’ semiotic performances, aesthetic vitality (Conquergood, 1997; Garot, 2007) and internal politics and less to the value neutrality of the professional researcher armed with background factors and criminological social constructions (see Katz and Jackson-Jacobs, 2004).

During the last decade, my role as a chronicler of gang and community life has changed dramatically from being a neo-realist ethnographer (recording the patterns of social interaction from a negotiated yet safe distance) to one of entering the life worlds of gangs without checking for the exit. This tran- sition also describes what has happened for some of my closest collaborators who came into the field as already active players in the drama, unable and unwilling to extricate themselves from their own histories (see Barrios, 2006). Moreover, this relatively new approach has stemmed not only from my own scholarly growth but also from the changing nature of groups them- selves as they become more open, innovative, purposive and layered. It is as if in this moment some of the groups are saying ‘document us if you can’; this is another way of contributing from below to the crisis of representation from above (see Ortner, 1995).8

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When local and transnational gangs occupy socio-geographic spaces of resistance

In recent years the groups I have been closest to in my research (the ALKQN and the Ñetas) have gone global. My colleagues and I have fol- lowed the groups not only in New York City but in Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic), Quito (Ecuador), Genova (Italy), and Barcelona. We have also heard of groups like the Mara Salvatrucha moving out from Los Angeles to El Salvador and through much of the United States and Central America (Hayden, 2004). These extraordinary processes of gang globaliza- tion are the stuff of ‘moral panics’ and help to produce and reproduce the rationales for increased global cooperation among coercive social control networks and the ideologies of social exclusion, repression and cleansing.

Where does resistance fit into this trend? Essentially, we see the street organizations both generating and transforming their traditions as they respond to the specifics of their transnational marginality. As organizations, the emphases on dignity, identity, and self-renewal and the structure that provides them with roles and statuses are perfect for youth and adults look- ing to make sense of their transnational social and cultural locations. It is in this sense that these subcultures become self-sustaining and engage in their own historicity (Touraine, 1988).

Thus, in this life lived in the border zones of nation states, such groups are ideal to study efforts at place-making, establishing new contours of social solidarity, creating mediums to articulate collective concerns and breaking the shrouds of race and ethnic invisibility. At the same time, the political ori- entation of the State in these new locales is not the same as in the United States; in some cases, social democratic states may respond less punitively to ‘the other’ in their midst. For example, a number of European countries have eschewed the promotion of secondary deviance via a politics of fear and have chosen instead to pursue policies of social integration aided by community- based social scientists. Even more specifically, in both Barcelona and Genova, the Latin Kings/Queens and the Ñetas became legally recognized as ‘cultural associations’, a process that was realized with the direct help of local sociologists and anthropologists (see Sales, 2006; Tremlett, 2006).

Gangs as social movements and subcultures of hope

In moving from the West to the East Coast during the early 1990s, I observed gangs operating on a vastly different ideological terrain in which political talk and culture were embedded in the groups’ everyday lives. This was and is particularly apparent in the cases of the ALKQN and Ñetas. But it is also apparent in other local groups such as La Familia and Zulu Nation. This observation contradicts much of the literature wherein it is forcefully argued that gangs and any form of transcending, ‘progressive’ politics do not mix (see Short, 1967; Jacobs, 1977; Katz, 1988; Hughes and Short, 2004). To better indicate what can easily be deemed ‘political’ about these groups, I will briefly mention four areas of their practices.

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First, gang members have engaged in a range of political protests that include such issues as seeking to close US military outposts, attempts to free political prisoners, and actions centered on the issues of police brutality, racial and ethnic justice, AIDS, prison reform, the Iraqi war, voting rights, immigrant rights, the death penalty, Puerto Rican independence and edu- cational reform. Moreover, gang members participate in local and interna- tionally oriented political action committees; in some settings, they combine their street identities with roles in national social movements militantly opposed to the status quo (Brotherton, 2006).

Second, these groups disseminate concepts and ideas that openly critique current power relations. Within their texts and speeches, one reads critiques of imperialism and the corporate media, calls for redistributing social wealth, mobilizing the oppressed, ending racial and class segregation and dismantling the criminal justice system. Such narratives contribute to what McAdam (1982) calls processes of ‘cognitive liberation’, which are essential to any social 

Third, the self-organization of these groups reflects histories of commu- nity struggle and memory (Kelley, 1994). The structures of the groups, their attention to record-keeping, their role play, their endless meetings and dis- cussions on strategy, their attention to training, the seriousness with which membership is viewed, their rejection of turf, the development of specific subgroups such as youth and females, are all qualities that helped their social movement turn.
Fourth, the receptivity of these groups to the influence of community agents and organs that are avowedly oppositional produces a dynamic that allows for more self-reflection, auto-critique and the diverse flow of ideas among members. This dynamic between the group and the community fos- ters new subcultural settings in which social action, democratic challenge, dialogue and debate are the norm.

Hidden transcripts and third spaces of the gang and other communicative acts of contestation

As mentioned earlier, these groups have long histories of producing their own texts and extensive communications that contest the values and images of the dominant social and spiritual order. These texts are particularly important in the fields of literacy, recovery and religion where they instill in their subjects the possibility of renewal, overcoming, and self-control.

For example, the groups engage in struggles for self-edification that is similar to those advocated by critical pedagogists (see Freire, 1970; Giroux, 1983; McLaren, 1993; Macedo, 1994). To these groups, a member’s path- way to literacy is inseparable from understanding his or her place in the world. As they consistently state to their members, their aim is not merely to contemplate the world but to act upon it. Thus their notion of literacy is not limited to making their members more functional, for example to develop human capital to meet the changing demands of the labor market,

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68 Theoretical Criminology 12(1)
but to creatively discover the world by changing themselves. Consequently, education for these groups is an active, life-transforming endeavor in which the function of learning in all contexts (i.e. school, prison, college, etc.) is seen as a tool to break through barriers of socio-cultural exclusion.

This process of contestation and renegotiation is similarly present in the field of recovery. Whereas many group members have struggled in the past with drug addiction and abuse, it is only in this subculture of their peers that they feel the capacity to overcome or, at least, manage their ‘habit’. This is done through taking the recovery movement’s analysis and infor- mation on strategy and placing it in a politicized and collectivized context (see also hooks, 1993; Rapping, 1996). Out of both of these encounters with illiteracy and addiction, group members produce their own hidden and not so hidden transcripts, which are also counter-narratives (and counter- memories), similar to the processes in Scott’s (1990) seminal analysis on unconventional social movements.

Finally, we see clearly the presence of ‘third space’ cultural contestation in the groups’ religio-spiritual practices. For the ALKQN, ‘Kingism’ is seen as a syncretic, self-organized religion combining elements of Christianity, Santeria and other Caribbean and Latin American spiritual belief systems. The integration of this religion into their daily lives is a key to their resist- ance identity and gives them a different discursive, indeterminate space to rearticulate their colonized experience and positions. In their renegotiation of the colonizers’ spirituality and their own suppressed spiritual histories, the ALKQN do not produce a unified, ‘pure’ meaning system as in the con- structions of western cultural interpreters (Bhabha, 1994). Instead, some- thing occurs which is more fragmented, discontinuous and subversive, overlaid by their deconstruction of nationhood which is akin to Anderson’s (1983) notion of an ‘imagined community’.

In the final analysis, these varied written, oral, and representational accounts become authentic, alternative, self-generating scripts of commu- nity and subcultural life, forms of what Conquergood (1997) called ‘subju- gated knowledge’. Ultimately, they serve to reveal the species-being of the subjects in direct contrast to their subhuman categorization by outsiders.

Carceral experiences and civil life—gangs, post-prison life and re-entry

Currently, a great deal of energy is expended on the notion of re-entry, which refers to ex-inmates returning from prison gulags to civil society. In this epoch in which the USA boasts the highest number of inmates in its his- tory, it should be obvious why the specter of ex-inmates possibly moving next door is at the forefront of debates on the nature of crime, punishment and deterrence. But why should societal reintegration be considered an act of resistance? Surely the State must want ex-inmates to re-enter the so-called mainstream if only for both manifest and latent purposes of social control?

In contradistinction to assumptions of gang contagion in the literature, the ALKQN organically inserted itself into the everyday lives of its members to
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Brotherton—Beyond social reproduction 69

enable and empower them precisely because the State abandoned its most basic responsibilities to its own citizens. For many of the members, the State demonstratively tore up the social contract, nurturing the roots of their humiliation at every turn. This position of the group was in contrast to re-entry policies that seek to steer the ex-inmate away from the corrupting influences of his/her traditional social networks, that is, his/her peer group, family and fictive kin.

But there is an even more important issue of resistance (almost totally overlooked in the literature): returning ex-inmates are often radicalized sub- jects. In my experience, many ex-prisoners at first feel confusion followed by relief as they come back into groups that now have pro-social and even rad- ical agendas. This is particularly so for group members actively seeking to be deinstitutionalized and trying to avoid the recidivist syndrome. While it is true that some ex-inmates used their prison experience to impress younger members and to claim certain street privileges, others used this knowledge to warn youth not to live up to their race and class-based public images. These varied responses of ex-inmate populations call for a review of reintegration theory, which is often tied to normative versions of social control. We need to think through the roles of new subcultural movements that fill the reintegrationist void, paying particular attention to other avenues of social readjustment. In this mass movement of ex-inmates in and through gangs it is possible to discern the ‘third spaces’ referred to above or new zones of socio-spatial and cultural hybridity in the modern metropolis.9

Conclusion: rediscovering resistance in gang agency

I have argued that both individual and collective agency are extremely important aspects of membership. Respondents recount tangible benefits of group membership that include the enhancement of self-esteem, strength- ening of ethnic identity, and broadening of formal and informal knowledge bases (Brotherton and Barrios, 2004). This positive, mutually beneficial relationship between the group and the individual was apparent in the efforts of individuals to overcome psycho-social trauma or drug and/or alcohol addiction, educational deficiencies, and/or obstacles to rejoining civil society on being released from prison.

These resistance practices illustrate the extent to which some groups differ not only from conservative notions of the gang as pathological but also from more liberal conceptions of the gang as a site of social reproduction. Once we begin to recognize the existence, or at least the possibility, of such resistances we can better appreciate the growing range of street ‘gang’ subcultures that are emerging on the national and international scene. In making this leap, both theoretically and methodologically, we are able to connect more fruit- fully not only to our roots in the sociology of deviance but to an extraordi- narily rich and probing literature in the late modern politics of contes

tation that often lie outside the boundaries of an overly positivistic criminology.
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70 Theoretical Criminology 12(1)

The choice is ours: we do not have to be bound by the discourses of the past but rather we need to build on them, transcend them and take up the theoret- ical challenges that counter-intuitive data demand. If we limit ourselves to the narrow and often syndromatic versions of youth deviance, we obscure and sometimes completely misread the motives, styles, imaginations and organiza- tions of oppressed peoples as they make the everyday before our very eyes.

  1. I define gangs thus:
    a street organization is a group formed largely by youth and adults of a mar- ginalized social class which aims to provide its members with a resistant identity, an opportunity to be individually and collectively empowered, a voice to speak back to and challenge the dominant culture, a refuge from the stresses and strains of barrio or ghetto life and a spiritual enclave within which its own sacred rituals can be generated and practiced.
    (Brotherton and Barrios, 2004: 23)
  2. Martín Sanchez Jankowski (1991, 2003) has also made a similar argument that much more focus needs to be placed on the organizational capacities of gangs which he sees as flowing directly out of local social structures. For Jankowski, however, the gang is a purely adaptive phenomenon and can never be understood as a social change agent.
  3. During this earlier era of gang studies, the only leading gang academics who did not see a role for resistance were Miller (1958) and Yablonsky (1963). The former argued that the value system of gang members was more self-enclosed and apart and that such members basically adapted to their own traditions in a bounded lower-class milieu while the latter saw only psychologically patho- logical tendencies in would-be gang leaders who were incapable of acting rationally or participating in the most basic group formations.
  4. In a recent state-of-the-art review of the resistance literature (Hollander and Einwohner, 2004) not a single gang study was cited.
  5. By conservative analysis here I am mainly referring to the narrowness of its theoretical ambition although I am quite aware of the forceful political cri- tique of di Leonardo (1998) and others who describe this kind of scholarship as more ‘blame the victim’ treatises on the post-Fordist poor.
  6. I include Sullivan and Venkatesh here only insofar as resistance in their respective studies is not sufficiently theorized. I do not wish to impute that they are mired in a rational choice paradigm, rather their sensibilities toward the contingent in Sullivan and the historical in Venkatesh are refreshing in these types of studies.
  7. According to Hughes and Short (2004) little attention is paid to the re-entry of ex-prison gang members at all, which is remarkable given how much ‘culture of control’ (Garland, 2001) paradigms dominate funded criminal justice research.
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Brotherton—Beyond social reproduction 71
  1. It should be noted that when this author first sat down with the leader of the Latin Kings and Queens 10 years ago (November 1996) his questions to me were unequivocal: ‘Can you record our history? Can we trust you with our lives?’ Such questions immediately reversed the hierarchy in the usual research relationship as I entered a new pathway of discovery of the self and ‘other’, and was forced to confront my complicity (conscious or uncon- scious) in the rampant contemporary processes of urban orientalism.
  2. I am not suggesting that these sites are as yet fully realized, merely that some- thing other than the dichotomous integration/marginalization process of ex- inmates is underway and the role of politicized gangs in this unexplored ‘trialectical’ (Soja, 1996) process of space, culture and politics is and will be critical to study.
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DAVID C. BROTHERTON is Professor of Sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the City University of New York (CUNY), and a member of the PhD faculties in Criminal Justice, Sociology and Urban Education at the Graduate Center, CUNY.