SOLUTION: Factors Contributing to Gang Membership Article Discussion

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Journal of Criminal Justice 32 (2004) 95 – 111
Cumulative exposure to stressful life events
and male gang membership
David Eitlea,*, Steven Gunkelb, Karen Van Gundyc
School of Policy and Management, Florida International University, University Park Campus, 355A PCA,
Miami, FL 33199, USA
Department of Sociology, Doane College, Crete, NE 68333, USA
Department of Sociology, University of New Hampshire, Horton Social Science Center, Durham, NH 03824, USA
In this article, the authors examine risk factors that predict gang membership among a cohort of South Florida
boys. Using both prospective and retrospective data, the authors evaluated the role of early exposure to stressful
life events in predicting joining a gang, controlling for other risk factors. The analysis revealed that while
cumulative preteen stress exposure was not found to be a significant predictor of gang membership, the association
between such exposure and the dependent variable might be mediated through other factors. A subsequent
analysis of associations with gang members/gang-like behavior revealed a similar pattern—race, family financial
problems, and preteen cumulative exposure to stressful life events were each found to predict association/behavior
and involvement with gangs.
D 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Contemporary research on juvenile gangs yielded
little agreement among criminologists over the past
two decades. Major disagreements surround how juvenile gangs are defined (Howell, 1998; Kornhauser,
1978; Miller, 2001; Shelden, Tracy, & Brown, 2001),
the extent to which gangs are responsible for drug
trafficking (Howell, 1998; Klein & Maxson, 1990;
Skolnick, 1990), and even on the question of whether
juvenile gangs receive significant scholarly attention
or not (Covey, Menard, & Franzese, 1997; Howell,
2001; Miller, 2001). While the body of juvenile gang
research may be somewhat cacophonous, some particular findings are both well established and disturbing. For example, gang members were found to be
more likely to commit crimes, especially violent
* Corresponding author.
E-mail address: (D. Eitle).
behaviors, and use drugs than nongang members
(Battin, Hill, Abbott, Catalano, & Hawkins, 1998;
Esbensen & Huizinga, 1993; Fagan, 1989; Howell,
1998; Spergel, 1995; Thornberry, 1998; Vigil, 1988).
Whether or not juvenile gangs have received sufficient
scholarly attention, the need for developing an improved understanding of gangs is warranted given the
consequences of gang membership and the need for
coherent policy formation and implementation.
One such aspect of juvenile gangs that demands
further examination is the identification of risk factors
that predict gang membership. While generalist
explanations of crime and delinquency have been
applied to explain the presence of juvenile gangs,
identification of the factors that put children at risk
of gang membership are particularly important, given
gang members’ enhanced involvement in criminal
activity and drug use. Questions still exist concerning
the proper identification of such factors to predict gang
membership. First, much of the research into juvenile
0047-2352/$ – see front matter D 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
D. Eitle et al. / Journal of Criminal Justice 32 (2004) 95–111
gangs entailed the use of observational methods that
may not allow one to systematically identify the risk
factors that distinguish the adolescent who joins a gang
from a delinquent or other youth who does not. That is,
studies that examined juvenile gangs and their members were not designed to identify the factors that lead
to joining a gang, because the focus was on the gang
and its world, not the community of adolescents who
may (or may not) become gang members (e.g., see
Decker & Van Winkle, 1996). Second, as noted by
Hill, Howell, Hawkins, and Battin-Pearson (1999),
few studies that utilized survey methods to examine
gang participation collected prospective data. Clearly,
prospective data would be preferred to retrospective
data in order to identify the risk factors for gang
Additionally, most studies of gang membership
have not systematically assessed the role of stress
exposure as a risk factor, despite recent interest in the
association between stress exposure and crime. The
notion that differences in exposure to stressful life
events is associated with adolescent crime and delinquency has repeatedly been demonstrated (Agnew &
White, 1992; Brezina, 1996; Hoffman & Cerbone,
1999; Hoffman & Miller, 1998; Mazerolle, 1998;
Paternoster & Mazerolle, 1994), yet little systematic
work has been conducted to determine if such stress
exposure is predictive of gang membership. The
seminal work of such gang researchers as Cohen
(1955) and Cloward and Ohlin (1960), as well as
the recent insights of Agnew’s (1992) General Strain
Theory, warrants an investigation of whether stress
exposure is a risk factor for gang membership.
The purpose of this article is to assess whether
cumulative stress exposure (in the form of negative life
events) is an independent predictor of gang membership in the context of other predictors by using a
combination of prospective and retrospective data.
Using longitudinal data from a multi-ethnic community sample of young adult males, this relationship was
assessed using a comprehensive checklist of negative
and traumatic life events experienced before adolescence, and measures of family structure, family disruption, family financial difficulty, family drug use
problems, and family attachment. Additionally, these
relationships were examined controlling for important
predictors such as early deviant behavior and peer
deviancy. To properly situate this research, previous
scholarship exploring gang membership was first
Among the generalist explanations of crime (e.g.,
social control, social learning, and labeling theories)
that identify different mechanisms and processes that
lead an adolescent astray, most identify the vital role
of the family in explaining both deviance generally
and gang membership specifically (Covey et al.,
1997; Moore, 1991). One recurrent theme in the
juvenile gang literature is that adolescents are
attracted to gangs because one’s family fails to fulfill
the basic needs and demands that families typically
provide (Moore, 1991; Perkins, 1987; Vigil, 1997).
These ‘‘surrogate families’’ (Bynum & Thompson,
1996) are attractive to adolescents because they can
provide a sense of belonging (Reiner, 1992) as well
as material needs. Hence, adolescents who join
gangs are often assumed to have deficient or destructive family lives—whether the source of the
deficiency is poverty, family structure, poor parenting skills, lack of warmth, lack of supervision, poor
disciplinary practices, or parental criminality/substance use.
Studies that examined the role of the family in
explaining delinquency generally and gang membership specifically confirmed these theoretical notions
(see overview in Howell, 1998, pp. 5 – 8). While the
foci of such studies oscillated between an emphasis
on structural aspects of the family (the size and
organization of the family) and cultural aspects (the
behavioral-interaction patterns and styles of the
family), several family characteristics were found
to be associated with delinquency. Family factors
that were identified/theorized as being predictive of
delinquency include: coming from a broken home
(Glueck & Glueck, 1950; Gold, 1970; Hirschi, 1969;
Matsueda & Heimer, 1987; Wells & Rankin, 1991),
being a middle child in the birth order (Glueck &
Glueck, 1950; McCord, McCord, & Zola, 1959;
Nye, 1958), family size (Hirschi, 1969; Loeber &
Stouthamer-Loeber, 1986), criminal parents or other
family members (Farrington, 1979; Glueck &
Glueck, 1950), families with a high degree of
marital conflict (Amato & Keith, 1991; Glueck &
Glueck, 1950; Nye, 1958), lack of an affectionate
bond between parent and child (Glueck & Glueck,
1950; Hirschi, 1969; Laub & Sampson, 1988;
McCord, McCord, & Zola, 1959; Rosen, 1985;
Slocum & Stone, 1963), a lack of supervision
(Hirschi, 1969; Nye, 1958), and inconsistent and/or
overly strict disciplinary practices (Laub & Sampson, 1988; Loeber & Stouthamer-Loeber, 1986; Nye,
Many of these same family characteristics were
found to be predictive of gang membership (Adler,
Ovando, & Hocevar, 1984; Bowker & Klein, 1983;
Dukes, Martinez, & Stein, 1997; Fagan, 1989;
Fagan, Piper, & Moore, 1986; Friedman, Mann, &
Friedman, 1975; Hagedorn, 1988; Hill et al., 1999;
Lahey, Gordon, & Loeber, 1999; Maxson, Whitlock,
D. Eitle et al. / Journal of Criminal Justice 32 (2004) 95–111
& Klein, 1998; Moore, 1978, 1991). Among just
those studies that employed prospective data, the
relationship between family factors and gang membership was less straightforward. For instance, Bjerregaard and Smith (1993) found that family factors
such as attachment to parents and family supervision
were unrelated to later gang membership in their
study of males and females in Rochester, New York.
On the other hand, Esbensen and Huizinga (1993),
in their study of males and females in Denver, found
that gang members reported higher levels of normlessness in their families, while Hill et al. (1999)
found in their study of Seattle youth that family
structure (living with two parents or a step-parent
and natural parent versus other parental categories),
parental attitudes towards violence, sibling antisocial
behavior, and poor family management practices
were predictive of gang membership.
In addition to family factors, individual and
peer characteristics have also been found to be
predictive of gang membership, including physiological characteristics such as low autonomic
arousal, early antisocial and externalizing behaviors, pro-deviant values, and association with deviant peers (see Hill et al., 1999; Hill, Lui, &
Hawkins, 2001). As Hill et al. (2001) aptly pointed
out, the finding of multiple predictors [of gang
membership] suggested that there was no single
dominant factor that led to joining a gang. Hence,
research exploring the predictors of gang membership should account for multiple risk factors, if
Stress exposure and gang membership
While some of the pioneering efforts to explain
juvenile gangs argued that such stressful experiences
as negative evaluations and failed aspirations put
children at risk for gang membership (Cloward &
Ohlin, 1960; Cohen, 1955), recent theoretical advances in strain theory prompted more systematic
evaluations of the role of stress exposure in crime
and delinquency. Agnew’s (1992) General Strain
Theory (GST), as a reformulation and extension of
Merton’s (1938) structural strain theory of criminality, provided a social psychological variant on how
strain came to influence individual proclivities to
engage in deviant behavior. In expanding the conception of strain to include stressors that entailed the
removal (or threat of removal) of positively valued
stimuli and those that entailed exposure to noxious
stimuli, Agnew integrated stress theory as applied
by medical sociologists and psychologists to the
study of health and well-being, with traditional
strain theory’s central proposition—that the lack of
opportunity to achieve positively valued goals such
as financial success or occupational success would
be criminogenic. He argued that these sources of
stress (strain) produced negative emotional states
such as frustration, anxiety, and anger in the actor
and ultimately, if effective coping mechanisms were
not available, unwanted behavior. From this perspective, deviance is a mechanism for dealing with
stress, particularly if the actor does not have alternative coping mechanisms available.
Evaluations of the association between exposure
to stressors and delinquent behavior relied heavily
upon prior social research examining stress and its
consequences. This body of research focused on the
impact of two general forms of stressors: (a) life
events—a discrete event that can be identified as
occurring at one particular point in time; and (b)
chronic stressors—repeated strains that emerge insidiously, are more persistent, and then to be associated with the enactment of social roles and the
interpersonal relationships they include (Pearlin,
1999, p. 400). While there were both methodological and conceptual problems that were identified
with using life events as a measure of stress exposure (e.g., see Thoits, 1983), it was clear from the
stress literature that these negative life events, including traumatic (sudden, unscheduled, horrible
events) could serve as a major disruptive force in
people’s lives and produce several adverse consequences (Dohrenwend & Dohrenwend, 1974; Pearlin, 1999).
While recent research into the association between exposure to negative life events and delinquency generally supported the core elements of
General Strain Theory (Agnew & White, 1992;
Brezina, 1996; Hoffman & Cerbone, 1999; Hoffman
& Miller, 1998; Mazerolle, 1998; Paternoster &
Mazerolle, 1994), analyses that systematically measured exposure to negative life events and traumas
to evaluate their predictive utility for ganging had
not been conducted. Although prior work found that
many gang members shared a history of lives filled
with negative life events and other sources of stress
(e.g., Hill et al., 1999; Moore, 1991; Vigil, 1988),
this present study was the first to systematically
measure and evaluate the association between cumulative exposure to an array of stressful life events
and gang membership.1 This article examines cumulative exposure, rather than stress exposure proximal to gang membership for three reasons. First,
there exists compelling evidence that exposure to
stressful life events can have behavioral and mental
health consequences despite occurring years or even
decades earlier (Faravelli, Ambonetti, Pallanti, &
Pazzagli, 1986; Kessler & Magee, 1994; Lauer &
Lauer, 1991; Rutter, 1989; Turner & Lloyd, 1999).
D. Eitle et al. / Journal of Criminal Justice 32 (2004) 95–111
If such experiences can have long term consequences for behavior, coupled with considerable evidence that greater exposure to recent stressful
events is associated with involvement in delinquent
behavior (Agnew & White, 1992; Brezina, 1996;
Hoffman & Cerbone, 1999; Hoffman & Miller,
1998; Mazerolle, 1998; Paternoster & Mazerolle,
1994), it follows that an evaluation of the relationship between stressful life events and behavior
should consider cumulative exposure. Second, there
does exist evidence that cumulative exposure to
stressful events is associated with a variety of
behavioral and mental health consequences (Rutter
& Quinton, 1977; Turner & Lloyd, 1995)—the
present study simply extended the lessons garnered
from prior research. Third, the data available for the
present analysis did not allow for consideration of
the influence of exposure to stressful events proximal to joining a gang.
Another rationale for the present study was the
conceptual overlap between events and experiences
that were defined as stressful and the family characteristics that were linked to gang membership
(such as family disruption or family conflict)—the
question of whether other forms of stress exposure,
independent of family characteristics or events, were
risk factors for gang membership remained unresolved. No published study examined whether measures of stress exposure (e.g., counts of exposure to
stressful life events) predicted gang membership,
independent of other risk factors.2 Finally, while it
may be assumed that such exposure to stressful
events is predictive of gang membership given it
was established that it was predictive of delinquency, and it was argued that the paths to gang
membership and delinquency were not distinct
(Esbensen & Osgood, 1999), this study also examined whether cumulative stress exposure was predictive of association with or exhibiting gang
behavior. Examining the predictors of both gang
membership and association with gang members
allowed one to begin to assess whether stress exposure differences, or other differences, were predictive
of whether delinquency oriented youth became gang
members or not.
This study furthered prior scholarship by assessing whether cumulative exposure to stressful life
events predicted subsequent gang membership independent of the effects of family characteristics and
factors including family structure, family attachment,
family disruption, family economic status, the extent
to which one’s family was afforded basic necessities
(including food, clothing, and shelter), and reported
family drug use problems. Using both prospective
and retrospective data to examine the issue of gang
membership, the expectations (based on previous
findings) were that children exposed to more stressful events, in one-parent families, those from disrupted families (separation or divorce), who suffered
family financial stress, who reported experiencing
little warmth from their parents, and who came from
families in which drug use was identified as a
problem were more at risk for gang membership
than others. Additionally, this study controlled for
other important predictors of gang membership/adolescent juvenile delinquency such as pre-adolescent
delinquency involvement, pre-adolescent exposure to
delinquent peers, and self-derogation (Kaplan, 1984).
Controlling for these important predictors of gang
membership and adolescent malfeasance served to
further clarify the possible linkage between cumulative stress exposure and ganging among adolescent
Data and methods
In this study, data were analyzed from a fourwave stratified random sample of 1,286 South Florida young adults who attended Miami-Dade public
schools in the 1990s (see Turner & Gil, 2002).
Stratified by race/ethnicity, the present sample
reflected the rich racial/ethnic composition of Miami-Dade County’s school system. This fourth of
five scheduled data waves included self-reports from
young adult respondents based on face-to-face interviews conducted in 1998 – 2000. Study participants
were drawn from the total population of 9,763 male
students scheduled to enter sixth and seventh grades
in Miami-Dade’s forty-eight middle schools in 1990,
and 669 female students from six of those schools,
which approximated the racial/ethnic composition of
the school system (Appendix A illustrates the sampling framework). Follow-up questionnaires were
administered when respondents were in the seventh/eighth and eighth/ninth grades. A total of
7,386 questionnaires were obtained at Wave 1, for
which the consent rate was 70.8 percent. Attrition
rates for Waves 2 and 3 were 10.0 percent and 19.8
percent, respectively. Detailed analyses confirmed
that Wave 1 and Wave 3 participants were representative of the population from which they were drawn.
For inclusion in the current wave, 1,683 cases were
randomly selected from the originally interviewed
pool, from which 75.1 percent of males (n = 956)
and 80.5 percent of females (n = 330) were successfully interviewed.
Analyses suggested that, on most indicators,
current respondents did not differ significantly from
those who refused to be interviewed or were not
D. Eitle et al. / Journal of Criminal Justice 32 (2004) 95–111
located.3 Due to constraints in the data collection
strategies for the original boys’ and girls’ samples,
the present analysis was limited to male respondents.
In particular, concerns about insufficient statistical
power for analyses on the smaller female sample
which only had one reported gang membership,
warranted such a restriction. Thus, the present sample included 838 young men, of which about half
were Hispanic, 25 percent were African-American,
and 25 percent were non-Hispanic White. Ages
ranged from eighteen to twenty …
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