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Identity and Youth Gang Culture: Essay

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In this essay, I will be exploring how urban youth cultures in today's society provide a sense of identity and belonging to many of its members. I will be sincerely analyzing how gang culture provides that sense of belonging, and there are both positive and negative outcomes of feeling like you have an identity from being a part of gang culture. The definition of a gang in some people's eyes means a group of organized criminals that engage in criminal activity regularly. However, for some people, they may just be seen as a group of friends hanging out for a bit of fun. Some children and youths are motivated to join a gang for a sense of belonging or to give themselves a definition of who they are. Others are motivated by peer pressure, a need to protect themselves and their family, or to make money. In younger generations, members of a ‘youth gangs’ form a gang name, identifiable leadership, a geographical territory, regular meetings, recognizable symbols, and a main characteristic that is illegal activities. If we look away from a youth's viewpoint and look at classic gangs, then sociological research will tell us that gangs find their roots in the work of the Chicago School in early 20th century America. The earliest academic definition of a gang was by Puffer, who in 1912 placed it as “one of three primary groups... the family, the neighborhood, and the playgroup” (Hobbs, 1997: 803). I will be deeply analyzing why all these different types of gangs give the urban youth culture a sense of belonging.

If we first look at the main reason why gangs can affect an individual personally and emotionally, it would be family. A lot of people that are involved in gangs are statistically shown to have family issues at home because they feel like they don’t belong, as their home is broken due to absence in the family. A study by Lingren (1996) shows that “50 to 85 percent of gang members come either from a single-parent home or one in which no parent resides. If the parent is not available to provide structure, supervision, support, and caring during this crucial time of adolescent development, teens may turn to gang participation to fulfill their needs”. Because children at such a young age have very little understanding, they will turn to the first person that they feel is showing them nothing but a sense of belonging. Also, because they are receiving the reassurance that they need, they feel like “the gang is organized for protection and a feeling of having a family” (Yablonsky, 1997). In other words, members of the gang are like a surrogate family, coming together and looking after one another. They give structure to a gang member's life, this would be from regular meetings, phone calls, and arrangements that would keep a person occupied from day to day. This then forms one's identity, as the activities they consume in a day will shape what kind of activity they consume in the future.

However, on the other hand, feeling like you have a secure surrogate family can lead to major downfalls in the future. This is because being in a gang more or less means every man for themselves. People in gangs live off survival mode; they live life on the edge. “They earn money through crime, particularly drugs, and are bound together by an imposed loyalty to an authoritarian gang leader. They have blighted life on their estates with gang-on-gang murders and unprovoked attacks on innocent bystanders” (Hallsworth, 2011). Gang-on-gang murders are one of the main reasons why an individual can feel like they have been isolated, and confused about where they stand in life. They will feel alone as they previously had full trust in members of their gang to have their back no matter what because that’s what families do, right? However, gangs can lead to major trust issues and can affect a person's identity as seeing their ‘surrogate family’ turn to violence, will brainwash them into thinking that this is the only way to go. This is how violence can be passed on because gang leaders are looked up to as role models, so therefore they can imprint their personality and traits onto others.

A reason why youths can turn to gangs is for social security. In today's society, many bad things happen that can make an individual feel unsafe such as bullying, family members that are in gangs, rough areas you live in, or just in general. Some children and adolescents that feel like their voice cant be heard, or want to feel like they can be identified as powerful, untouchable, and confident will turn to gangs as it will give them a feeling of high status. Anytime they are seen or even heard on the streets, there will be this natural scarce stigma against the person as they are in an untouchable gang. However, a theorist who believes that gang members can be a way to make the world a less fearful place is Walsh (2011). As he said, “If the elders in the gangs have been supported and steered into responsible adulthood and are able in turn to guide and contain the fiery energy of future, younger gang members, society will be a far richer, more connected and ultimately less fearful place”. This suggests that gangs have the possibility of making the world a safer place depending on which type of role model youths are looking up to. If the younger children had role models that made them understand that there are responsibilities when becoming an adult and helped to understand the basics of life, then gangs wouldn’t have such a negative stigma around them. This suggests that gangs have the possibility of making the world a safer place depending on which type of role model youths are looking up to. After all, Hallsworth (2011) did state that “gang identification is not an exact science”. Therefore, there is no written report that everyone in gangs teaches each other how to be violent and disrupt the world. There can be goodness in gangs, which will then shape a younger gang member's identity if the elders in gangs are supported correctly.

Moreover, if we look at how youths feel like they have a sense of security, there can also be a backlash to that. If we look at the reputation gangs have on society, “gang culture has its origin in the black community” (Brotherton, 2011). The reason why we know black ethnic minority people are associated with gangs the most is that surveys and research show that law enforcement agencies report a greater percentage of Hispanic/Latino and African-American black gang members compared with other races or ethnicities. The people believe that black culture is to blame because it gave birth to gang culture. This could majorly impact a big group of black people, as although they may not be involved with gangs or any type of criminal behavior, they could stereotypically be misunderstood as being affiliated with gang culture. One example is: “Given that gangs and non-gangs wear the same ubiquitous street uniform, it could be observed that distinguishing between gangs and non-gangs in the context of a riot is as difficult a task as it is distinguishing them on the street” (Hallsworth, 2011). This could severely impact a youth’s identity because they will be judged by the way they look, which could affect opportunities in life. Things such as job opportunities and school placements will be difficult, and appearance may not be a safeguard anymore. They will be seen as a danger to society, and this can affect a person’s thoughts of belonging to the world. A real-life example that can vouch for this stereotype is the case of Steven Lawrence (1993). 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence was set upon by a pack of white racist youths as he waited at a bus stop in south-east London. The reason for his death was purely because he was black. He was an innocent boy whose identity was taken from him because of the color of his skin. This is the reason why gang culture cannot be seen as a type of shield. It causes people to question their belonging in the world.

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Another reason why gang culture can make youth members feel like they belong and take a piece of identity from gangs is because of 'clout'. In the urban dictionary, the definition of clout is to be famous and to have an influence on people. This may be quite controversial to gangs as they do the opposite and try to stay hidden and not have a following. Being known for being in a gang will give a person confidence, as they will feel as if the community loves them because they have no choice. But if we look at gang leaders specifically, the leaders of the gang have the feeling of feeling superior and loved by their community. Gang members always have someone that leads the group whether that’s positively or negatively, “they provide a supportive social structure based on clearly defined roles and mutual obligations rooted within the community itself” (Whyte, 1943). This can help a person or persons by feeling like they belong to a community because the members will feel like they have a structure in their life and that they have a caring figure looking over their shoulders. And the leader or leaders will feel like they have people looking up to them, and that they are loved by their group. This can affect one's identity as their ego will be bigger and their overall confidence will skive through the roof.

Nonetheless, if we look at how gangs have this feeling of being superior and untouchable from people, there can also be repercussions to that as being in a gang means having rivalries and enemies. This can affect a person's belonging in the world as they may feel like they have to lay low at all times and hide from potential enemies. As theorist Brotherton (2011) says, “They have blighted life on their estate with gang-on-gang murders”, which would mean that gang members are constantly in a running rivalry. This can affect a person's belonging as depending on how much the enemies hate the opposing gang depends on how well they have to hide. Things such as changing their appearance and making no contact with anyone but their fellow gang members. This can also affect a person's identity because they will feel like they have to remove themselves from society or they will physically be removed. It is a matter of life or death, and it is something that they will always live with. It can affect a person’s mental well-being and lead them to act a certain way.

Belonging in the world is important as everyone has feelings and everyone needs a shoulder to lean on in certain situations. “One of the main reasons people join gangs is because Gang members often come from homes where they feel alienated or neglected. They may turn to gangs when their needs for love are not being met at home” (Lees et al., 1994). This is why when you look at a gang group, you will see that they all have each other’s back. They are united because they all come from similar circumstances. It’s nice to see that everyone is brought together as one. Feeling equal can mentally help a person’s identity, as they won’t feel disconnected from the world and they will feel like they are all the same. That’s why if they were to do any activities good or bad, it wouldn’t affect them as much because everyone around them is doing the same thing. There is a sense of unity that goes around because no one is treated differently and everyone is doing the same thing, they are all doing the same role.

Lastly, one of the main problems of gang members feeling like they are all equal is the amount of peer pressure that goes around. Because everyone in the gang is required to do whatever everyone else does, negative activities such as robberies, burglaries, murders, and being involved with the police become a norm. It can affect a person's belonging in the world as they will have a negative stigma against them and all the bad things that take place can affect future life changes. Everything will be stripped away from their life as they follow peer pressure from members of the gang. Although it makes them feel equal and fulfills a part of their identity, it can damage a person’s reputation permanently. Being judged by appearance is one thing, but Hallsworth (2011) said that “a group of 12-year-olds hanging around is not the same as the territorial group that is armed and systematically violent”. This suggests that whatever peer pressure a gang member is trapped into doing can affect a person’s identity massively and there is no going back.

To conclude, after exploring how urban youth culture in today's society provides a sense of identity and belonging to many of its members, I understood how gang culture provides that sense of belonging and that there are both positive and negative outcomes of feeling like you have an identity from being a part of gang culture. It was fair to say that the negatives points about being a part of a gang can out way the good reasons gangs can bring a sense of identity and belonging. However, it is how a person individually responds and reacts to gangs and how they let it affect their lives.

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Identity and Youth Gang Culture: Essay. (2023, November 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 2, 2024, from
“Identity and Youth Gang Culture: Essay.” Edubirdie, 21 Nov. 2023,
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