February 3, 2010

What is a gang?

A group of violent thugs? A social club? Troubled, homeless losers who are "hard to love"?

And what is gang membership? Is it a fixed identity, or something fluid, which urban youngsters claim or don't claim according to external circumstances and the flow of their lives?

How can we explain why, even in the roughest neighborhoods, at most 10 percent of youths belong to street gangs? Who are the other nine out of ten, and how do they negotiate survival without affiliation?

For answers to these complex questions, and more, I recommend a new book from New York University Press, Who You Claim, written by John Jay College of Criminal Justice sociology professor Robert Garot based on ethnographic researcher at a continuation school in Southern Calfornia.

Garot's nuanced analysis is a refreshing antidote to the kind of simplistic categorization that we see in corrections and in forensic practice, where young people being processed through the system are treated as if the label of gang member explains everything that we need to know about them.

His bottom-line message: Beware reifying gangs as fixed and essential components of identity, when even their members do not see them as such. As urban centers create increasingly fluid possibilities for identity -- exemplified by Polish-Brazilian and Mexican-Korean cuisines -- identity is becoming much more malleable and flexible than such a narrow and pejorative focus would lead us to believe.

My complete review, at Amazon, is HERE.

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