A World of Gangs: Armed Young Men and Gangsta Culture

By John M. Hagedorn (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2008); 200 pages; $24.95. Amazon.com

Reviewed by Hai H. Do

In A World of Gangs, John Hagedorn explores the international proliferation of urban gangs as a consequence of globalization.  Examining the impacts of urbanization, immigration, social marginalization, and even gangster-rap culture, Hagedorn arrives at three conclusions:

  1. Gangs are not a unique form but one of many kinds of armed groups that occupy the uncontrolled spaces of a “world of slums.”
  2. Gangs are shaped by racial and ethnic oppression, as well as poverty and slums, and are reactions of despair to persisting inequality.
  3. It is in this power of identity, including the more life-affirming currents within the hip-hop lifestyle, where we can nurture a cultural counterforce to youth’s nihilism, misogyny, and self-destructiveness.

In his foreword, Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums, praises Hagedorn for expanding the discourse on the gang problem, depicting inner-city people coping with life in postindustrial cities as rational actors and disenfranchised citizens instead of demons from the ‘hood’ or romanticized outlaws.  Davis adds his own insight into the phenomenon of gangs as well.  The global gang is part of the continuum of crime and revolt that defines the new horizons of geopolitics in the twenty-first century.  From the standpoint of the abandoned and betrayed youth in ghettos and favelas around the world, all urban poor inhabit “failed” states and there should be no surprise at the angry social combustion that accompanies the economic polarization of this new age.  For Davis, savage capitalism, the kind celebrated in the Wall Street Journal and gangster rap, is the decisive substratum, and street gangs simply mirror the ambition and greed of society’s trendsetters as they fight over scraps from the table of the international drug trade.