When people think of gangs,  progression usually doesn’t come to mind; simple thoughts of a group of young men that “enjoy” vandalizing, harassing and ultimately committing crime usually come to mind. The actual definition of ‘Gangs’ only recently changed due to the new studies and information that has been surfacing within the last several decades. In the beginning, criminologists believed wholeheartedly that “most street gangs were the urbanized equivalent of primitive tribes, recruited from broken families and disturbed psyches, pursuing essentially nihilistic objectives” (Mike Davis). However, gangs today are much further progressed than what we have once experience way back when. According to the newest study by John M. Hagedorn: neither War nor Peace, gangs have recently institutionalized themselves.

In the study, Hagedorn and his fellow colleagues traveled around the world in attempt to learn differences among gangs in different countries such as Cape Town, Chicago, Rio de Janeiro – as well as the underlying common factor they all have. Some of the many conclusions that they have found are as follows:

  • Migration + Cities + Poverty + Slums + Discrimination + Youth = Gangs
  • The world cannot support the rate of the urbanization of cities
  • “By 2020, the UN estimates, half of the world’s urban population will live in poverty”
  • Children of immigrant parents are not supported properly
  • Due to rapid urbanization, formal institutions (schools, church, family) are not strong enough to replace the traditional ones immigrants leave behind in their countries.

By the world’s growing urbanization and the lack of support of such growth, there is a “retreat of state”; more commonly known as “social disorganization”, youth come together as organization to fulfill their needs. The lack of the formal institutions lead to youth groups to emerge and “take care” of their ethnic groups in their new world. Eventually, these groups gain control of territories and provide for their people; they learn to take care of themselves without any set institutions in place – also becoming institutionalized along the way.

With the said factors in place, youth organizations cannot afford to falter under changes with society. If this was the case, then many impoverished groups that lived in the slums would die out quickly. Rather, gangs turn to institutionalization to remain stable and able to adapt to change. To do so, organizations, or gangs, “develop rituals and ceremonies… produce a formal… structure with rules and role expectations, its members identify with the organization” (Selznick/Hagedorn). By developing their own identity, loyalty of members is strengthened and “work” for the organization is completed. This mindset makes institutionalized gangs adaptable to any change. Therefore, certain gangs can last generations after generations.


Does this concept ring a bell? With the work at Homeboy and USC BEP, I have come to know that there are hundreds of different gangs – in Los Angeles alone. Some, we all know [Crips, Bloods, MS13], others, we have never heard of. I believe that this concept of institutionalization applies to these long-lasting, international gangs. Had it not been for their organization and structure, the Crips, Bloods, MS13 would not be as “successful” as they are now. Now, on the other hand, there are some gangs that will never see the light of celebrity. Is it because they’re not institutionalized? Maybe not violent enough? I wonder if the unknowns want to be known? … Maybe reading more of this book can help clarify some of these questions.



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