The wide-ranging societal influence of gangs and gang-related activity and the interdisciplinary nature of gang research often create a forum that can seem unfocused and contradictory. Editors Scott Cummings and Daniel Monti acknowledge this, and make no apologies for the definite lack of consensus among the group of sociological researchers, criminal justice workers, and policymakers they have assembled in Gangs: The Origin and Impact of Contemporary Youth Gangs in the United States. Rather, they and the contributing authors use the overlapping layers of economic factors, racial tensions, public schooling concerns, psychological needs, and public policy to fashion an intricate discussion around gangs that is illuminating in its breadth.
Gangs begins with a historical perspective on gang research, moves to a portrayal of the gang problem in the 1990s, and ends with a call for action. Although the first part of the book gives an overview of gang research in the United States and provides a foundation for understanding the research presented in subsequent chapters, Gangs quickly departs from its historical context to adopt uncritically the images of gangs commonly encountered in the mass media. Thus, the authors discuss gang activities, for example, in terms of "wilding," hoodlum youths in communities fraught with generations-old tensions, and drug trafficking. The sole nonpathological approach to studying gang activity is a contribution by Ray Hutchison, "Blazon Nouveau: Gang Graffiti in the Barrios of Los Angeles and Chicago," which explores the symbolism accompanying the gang subculture. In their call to action, the editors finally pose the question, "What can be done about gangs?" which is addressed in a series of chapters, including a case study of the weaknesses underlying California's legislative efforts to control gangs, fascinating questions regarding the constitutional rights of gang members, and sociologists' increasing involvement in forming public policy. A central theme does not emerge directly from the multi-faceted discussion in Gangs, but then, the reader is not set up to expect one.
Contributing authors Pat Jackson and Cary Rudman use the term "coalescence of presumed evils" (p. 260) to describe the public perception of the social ills embodied by gangs (e.g., the sale and distribution of drugs, use of violence, existence of extreme poverty). The research presented in Gangs can also be characterized as presuming evil. That is, although Daniel Monti points out that gang activity typically has been described either in terms of disordered behavior springing from a disrupted community, or as routines that contribute to the economic and political structure of a neighborhood (p. 22), Gangs' authors, in fact, elaborate primarily on the criminal aspects of gang-related activity. The potentially constructive roles gangs assume are left unexamined, and it is up to the reader to extrapolate them. For example, various authors allude to gangs' abilities to compensate for fragmented families, create avenues for building self-esteem, and provide environments that speak to members' ethnic and racial identities. Yet, these observations are obscured by the more inflammatory accounts of drugs and violence. With the aforementioned chapter on graffiti as the one exception, Gangs is strangely silent when it comes to representing concerted research around the notion of gangs as a positive force in the lives of young people, furthering the unidimensional presumption of gangs' evil nature. To understand the complex environment surrounding gangs and gang members, sociologists and public policymakers who read and contribute to edited volumes such as Gangs need to go beyond such over-familiar depictions of gang life.