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CHAPTER FOUR Discussion

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The focus of this chapter is to discuss the research findings of this study with reference to the literature discussed in Chapter One. This will be followed by suggestions as to how communities and other organizations can better accommodate the needs of young people at risk of joining youth gangs. The limitations of this study will then be highlighted. Finally, suggestions will be made for future research to promote an on-going interest and understanding of young people who participate in youth gangs.

Key Findings

The results presented in Chapter Three suggest that these participants experienced individual, familial and environmental difficulties which contributed to their desire for youth gang membership. In searching for a sense of belonging, the gang provided these young people with the emotional and financial support that they desired. Once accepted into a gang,

individuals had access to the respect and notoriety that was otherwise unavailable to them. The gang also ensured members had access to a reliable income which could be used to purchase drugs, alcohol and other tangible goods. The reliability of the gang to fulfil the needs of these

individuals meant they could withdraw from mainstream society. This included withdrawing from their education providers. As these young people began to withdraw from society, they perceived their teachers, family members and the general public to stereotype and judge them as being failures. This in turn reinforced their membership to a gang whose members supported and understood their needs.

86 Discussion of the findings

A comparison between the findings of the current study and the existing literature suggests that there are seemingly consistent factors which influence and maintain youth gang membership both in New Zealand and

internationally. By using the themes that were pertinent to this study, existing literature will be provided to either support or refute these findings. Initially, the literature on the ‘Influence of peers’ will be discussed in relation to the findings of this study. This will be followed by a discussion of the literature on

‘Antisocial behaviour’ and how it reflects the experiences of these young people. Following this will be a discussion on how ‘Access to money’,

‘Neighbourhood surroundings’ and ‘Negative Evaluation from others’ is discussed within the literature and whether it is consistent with the experiences of these participants.

Influence of Friends

The literature has readily discussed the influence that friends or peers have in increasing the desire for youth gang membership (Thornberry et al., 2003). In many instances, existing youth gang members are understood to promote substance abuse, sexual promiscuity and other delinquent behaviours (Dolcini et al., 2005). Less frequently acknowledged is the role that existing youth gang members have in accepting and nurturing young people who have often been rejected by both main stream society and their families (Maclure & Sotelo, 2004).

Many participants explained that they were initially attracted to youth gangs as they were considered to be the “cool” group to affiliate with. In being accepted into this group, participants explained that they were respected and noticed by others in their community. Participants also explained that the gang served as a substitute family, providing each member with the support and protection that was desired. Researchers have previously theorised that

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young people congregate together to strengthen their social identity and to achieve a greater sense of protection (Harper et al., 2008; White & Mason, 2006). The strength of the friendships within a group are said to be enhanced when young people originate from similar class, ethnic and religious

backgrounds (White & Mason, 2006). Participants in this study explained that their friends in the gang were situated in close proximity to their school and family home. They also explained that there was a commonality in many of their childhood experiences. Many of these young people perceived that their biological family members failed to provide them with the tangible goods and support that they desired. In becoming affiliated with a youth gang,

participants explained that they had access to the support, protection and provision of tangible goods from a group of friends who had similar

experiences. This finding was consistent with the New Zealand study on youth gang membership conducted by the Ministry of Social Development (2006). They found that friends in the gang provided young people with a proxy family unit, financial and material gain, the alleviation of boredom, protection and status. These protective mechanisms are less frequently reported in the international literature. It was, however, observed that the primary focus of many international studies was to identify how friend or peer groups influence delinquent behaviour (Farrington, 2005; Gatti et al., 2005;

Hill et al., 1999).

When reflecting on the influence that friends have on youth gang membership and delinquency, several studies have been conducted with varying results.

Lahey and Colleagues (1999) found that antisocial peers had the greatest influence on youth gang membership during early adolescence. Participants in this study explained that they began to seek acceptance from friends in a youth gang between the ages of nine and thirteen. This finding is significant when considering the development of early intervention programs to prevent youth gang membership. These young people explained that by early

adolescence, they were enmeshed in the youth gang lifestyle and could see

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few other alternatives to achieve the money, drugs, support and respect that they had available to them in the gang.

When considering the role those friends in the gang had in influencing

delinquency, it would appear that the enhancement model (Thornberry et al., 2003) best described the experiences of these young people. Participants explained that prior to joining a gang they had used illicit substances and had the opportunity to earn money illegally. As a result of these experiences, participants explained that they were seeking greater exposure to tangible goods like drugs and money. They were also searching for greater respect, status and power within the gang. These privileges within the gang meant there was an expectation that members partake in activities that would have previously been avoided. This included using substances like

methamphetamine to fit in with their friends in the gang. Participants also alluded to the increase in violent and aggressive behaviours that were expected once in a gang. This finding that the gang facilitates an increase in antisocial behaviours has been reliably observed in other studies (Esbensen et al., 2001; Thornberry et al., 2003).

It is therefore expected that friends in the gang served two primary functions.

Firstly, gangs provided participants with the support and protection that was not readily available in other domains of their life. Secondly, gang

membership facilitated interactions with like-minded peers who had similar interests and needs. For many, this included participation in antisocial behaviours like drug use and violence. In seeking these experiences, participants also explained that they were encouraged to participate in antisocial behaviours that would have previously been avoided.

89 Antisocial Behaviour

While the influence friends have in encouraging antisocial behaviours has previously been discussed, it is important to consider how these behaviours influenced and maintained youth gang membership more generally. The term

‘antisocial behaviour’ has been used to describe an individuals’ involvement in violence, theft, robbery, and drug use. Participants in this study explained that they had actively participated in these activities from a young age. This desire to be involved in antisocial activities from such a young age may be explained developmentally (Browning & Loeber, 1999) or may be indicative of a biological predisposition (Capsi, 2000; Farrington, 2005). The pursuit of antisocial activities may also be influenced by the modeling of antisocial behaviour from relatives during childhood.

Research has shown that parental involvement in criminal offending, gang membership and substance use is predictive of youth gang membership (Farrington, 2005; Loeber et al., 1995). The most influential antisocial relative is considered to be the child’s father; however the arrest of extended family members has also predicted delinquency in boys (Farrington, 2005). When participants reflected on their childhood experiences, they explained that their fathers, uncles or cousins were often absent as they had prior commitments to a gang or because they were incarcerated. Seldom did these participants mention the role of their female relatives in nurturing and supporting them during their childhood. In searching for a sense of belonging within a primarily male group, these young people found the gangs to provide them the support and protection they were perceivably missing. It also facilitated an opportunity to earn the respect and power they desired.

Establishing this respect and notoriety was seemingly significant for these young people. One way this could be achieved was by demonstrating a willingness to participate in violence and other antisocial behaviours. Once in

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the gang, the respect given by like-minded peers was contingent upon successful drug deals, fights, and other criminal behaviour. With the respect of others, participants could make the rules and no longer had to do the undesirable chores within the gang. White and Mason (2006) found that young people who joined gangs were motivated by the increase in status and reputation that was achieved by making money and acquiring drugs illegally.

They also found that participating in physical altercations served to increase the status of individual members within the gang (White & Mason, 2006). The participants in this study elaborated on these previous findings. They

explained that with respect being contingent on a willingness to participate in antisocial activities, they were able to gain notoriety from men of all ages.

This made it difficult for these young people to engage at school and within other community groups. They explained that their experiences within the gang enabled them to choose the activities that they participated in and

dictate the rules of those engagements. Furthermore, they explained that they seldom had other people telling them what to do once respect had been established.

For many of the participants in this study, the risk of partaking in antisocial activities was not significant enough to consider more pro-social alternatives.

This was exemplified when two participants spoke about their experiences in prison. As opposed to perceiving prison as a deterrent, they explained that the skills and knowledge that they had in the community were merely enhanced in jail. They also considered having gang affiliations to be

advantageous when imprisoned as it guaranteed protection and support in a volatile environment. This finding has been discussed in the international literature, suggesting that many young people who are processed through the criminal justice system are not discouraged from engaging in further antisocial activities (Browning & Huizinga, 1999).

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When participants further reflected on the consequences of antisocial

behaviours, some considered the world to be unpredictable and untrustworthy as a result of their involvement in antisocial activities. This realisation

seemingly reinforced the importance of friends in the gang to support and defend one another. It may have also served to reinforce their beliefs and attitudes about antisocial behaviours. One of the primary beliefs that were frequently discussed was that violence was necessary to overcome conflict or threat from others. To ensure they were adequately prepared to defend both their territory and friends in the gang, these young people would engage in different training regimes to enhance their strength and combat skills. They would also equip themselves with weapons which they were prepared to use at all times.

An involvement in antisocial behaviour was therefore considered to be significant in both influencing and maintaining youth gang membership. For many of the participants in this study, they were initially attracted to the gang due to previous experiences with drugs, fighting and obtaining money

illegally. Once accepted into the gang, involvement with these antisocial behaviours allowed for greater respect and notoriety amongst likeminded peers. This reinforced beliefs about the need to participate in such activities.

Furthermore, the benefits of engaging in such behaviours seemingly outweighed any potential legal consequences.

Access to Money

In addition to the importance of friends and an involvement in antisocial behaviours, it is also important to consider how the acquisition of money influenced youth gang membership for these young people. It has long been suggested that youth gang activity is more prevalent in economically

disadvantaged neighbourhoods (Bellamy, 2009; Dupéré et al., 2007; Hill et al, 1999). One hypothesis for this observation is that gangs provide young

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people with the opportunity for financial and material gain (Bellamy, 2009).

This hypothesis has however been critiqued by other authors. Andrews and Bonta (2006) suggest that personal, interpersonal, familial and cultural variables are significantly more reliable at predicting criminal involvement than economic disadvantage. The young people in this study perceived that their family’s financial situation was a significant motivator for acquiring money illegally. Many explained that they came from families that could not financially provide for all the needs and wants of their children. In searching for alternative ways to acquire their desired possessions, these young people were prepared to sell drugs and stolen goods from a young age. This

willingness to participate in antisocial behaviours was one way in which they were recognised by local gangs. Participants explained that by joining a gang they were provided with additional strategies to earn money.

The ease at which these young people could make money illegally impacted on other areas of their lives. Many explained that they had the means to purchase the clothes, food, drugs and alcohol that they desired. In having this independence, these young people often referred to the respect others would give them. Participants also explained that upon having money and respect within the gang, their desire to attend school diminished. Few participants recognised the advantages of having high school qualifications. Furthermore, they perceived that staying at school would have in fact been detrimental to the business opportunities within the gang. Previous researchers have identified that poor commitment to school and few educational goals are predictive of youth gang membership (Esbensen, Huizinga & Weiher, 1993;

White & Mason, 2006). The ability of the gang to serve as an alternative to education is not as frequently discussed within the literature. It is difficult to decipher whether poor school performance precedes youth gang membership or whether a commitment to the gang discouraged school attendance. It is likely that both of these explanations are true, to varying degrees, in individual cases. The young people in this study did however explain that the availability

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of money and respect from their friends in the gang gave them few good reasons to remain at school.

Neighbourhood Surroundings

The influence of each young person’s neighbourhood on youth gang membership will now be considered. Studies have found that youth gangs typically gather in the streets and parks within disadvantaged neighbourhoods (White & Mason, 2006). This observation has prompted researchers to

identify the risk factors for youth people within these neighbourhoods.

Subsequent studies have shown that risk factors include the availability of drugs, perception of safety by residents, high rates of arrest and

neighbourhood disorganization (Howell & Egley, 2005). For many of the young people in this study, they explained that youth gang membership was normalized within their neighbourhood. Not only were gangs highly visible and considered to be cool, but there were few barriers to joining. Many of the young people explained that family members had previously exposed them to gang membership and antisocial behaviours. When opportunities to join a gang were presented, participants explained that there were few adverse consequences to consider.

Investigations into how youth gangs continue to exist within some

neighbourhoods have been conducted internationally. Many authors have found that within disadvantaged neighbourhoods there is low collective efficacy due to high turnover of residents, less trust of neighbours and

increased parental stressors (Ingoldsby et al., 2006). As a consequence, it is hypothesised that community residents are less likely and able to monitor and respond to antisocial youth groupings or criminal activities (Sampson et al., 2002). Young people residing in these neighbourhoods are then at risk of frequently observing antisocial behaviours. This increases the likelihood that violent and delinquent acts are modeled to young people as successful and

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appropriate ways to socialize and solve problems (Hill et al. 1999). These findings were evident in this study. Many participants explained that they witnessed antisocial youth groupings participate in fights and commit crimes within their neighbourhood from a young age. This seemingly influenced youth gang membership in two ways. Firstly, youth grew up with antisocial activities modeled to them both by family members and by others in their community. Secondly, youth often felt unsafe existing as an individual both within their neighbourhood and at school. To avoid being bullied by other youth groupings, participants explained that they looked to a gang for support and protection.

Once the gang became established, participants explained that they

experienced a sense of ownership over their streets and neighbourhood. As part of this ownership, they perceived that their role was to protect their streets from unwanted threat. This desire to assume ownership over their territory has been detailed in previous studies (Nakhid, 2009). Further investigation has, however, suggested that the willingness for a gang to protect their neighbourhood relates only to keeping rival gangs out of their assumed territory (Nakhid, 2009). These findings are consistent with the reports from the young people in this study. If rival gangs were allowed to enter into their neighbourhood, participants explained that they may make money off their customers. They also alluded to the possibility that rival gangs could steal from or fight their members. The ability of each gang to

adequately protect their territory was also considered to be another way in which they could increase the notoriety and respect they had amongst like-minded peers.

Negative Evaluation from Others

The final theme to be considered when identifying some of the different variables that influence youth gang membership is the negative evaluation

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that perceivably occurs from others. Many young people in this study

explained that from a young age, they felt judged at school, by others in the community and by some family members. This finding is not frequently discussed within the literature. As discussed previously, many studies have found that the individual variables like antisocial attitudes are reliable

predictors of both youth gang membership and criminal offending (Andrews &

Bonta, 2006; Howell & Egley, 2005). While a discussion on the attitudes of these young people towards school has previously been covered, the origins of these antisocial attitudes have been less well articulated. For many of these young people, they explained that their attitudes and beliefs developed after being perceivably misunderstood by others.

For many of these young people, the most salient memories of being misunderstood were at primary and secondary school. Within this study, participants described two different experiences of negative evaluation from teachers. For one group, they explained that they enjoyed the learning experiences at school but perceived their teachers to have little faith in their abilities. This was distressing for these participants as they explained that they wanted to learn, but their potential was neither recognised nor developed by their teachers. Many participants perceived that their teacher’s lack of enthusiasm to encourage and facilitate learning was because they were young Māori boys. For the other group of participants, they explained that they had difficulties with the academic work expected of them at school. For this group, participants explained that they seldom received the support that they needed from their teachers to pass. Furthermore, they explained that they often did not find the academic curriculum interesting or stimulating.

Despite the different origins of these perceivable problems at school, both groups expressed resentment towards their teachers and had little motivation to return to their education providers. While there is little research on the origins of school refusal within the youth gang literature, there are significant findings to suggest that few educational goals and low attachment to school

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