Gangs in the Global City: Alternatives to Traditional Criminology

Edited by John M. Hagedorn; (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2007); 368 pages; $28.00.

Reviewed by Hai H. Do

Gangs in the Global City contains a variety of essays by international scholars who offer diverse and critical perspectives on the problems of traditional criminology.  In the traditional approach, according to this volume, the criminology of gangs has been based on three key assumptions:

  1. Gangs are deviant and temporary adolescent departures from a progressive path towards modernization.
  2. Gangs are paradigmatically an American form, a byproduct of industrialization and urbanization.
  3. Gangs are mainly youthful products of social disorganization and are not primarily racist or ethnic organizations.

These views originate in the study of gang phenomena in an almost exclusively American context, classically constructed as “interstitial” peer groups—adaptations to immigration and urbanization in the industrial city—and generally considered to be the product of social disorganization, broken families, or street socialization.  The essays in this volume revisit commonly accepted understandings and provide evidence for alternative conclusions:

  1. While most gangs are unsupervised teenage peer groups, many others are institutionalized in ghettos, barrios, or favelas around the world.
  2. Gangs are found all over the world and regularly respond to the changing spaces of globalizing cities.
  3. Gangs are “social actors” whose identities are formed by ethnic, racial, and/or religious oppression, through participation in the underground economy, and through constructions of gender.

Hagedorn’s own work in the volume, “Gangs in Late Modernity,” argues that the key to understanding contemporary gangs is found in the operations of globalization: the redivision of space, the strengthening of traditional identities, and the workings of the underground economy.  Each of these processes receives attention from one or two authors who cite real-world examples to illustrate their points: Chapters 1 and 12 discuss the role of prisons in institutionalizing the formation of La Eme and the Vice Lords, while Chapter 8 looks at the emergence of skinheads in Berlin.  As James F. Short Jr. notes, however, in his concluding essay, there is a lack of cohesion and unevenness in the volume resulting from the variation in methodological and theoretical approaches utilized by the contributors, which range from ethnographically-based field studies to theoretical exegeses on the impacts of globalization.  Nonetheless, the essays in Gangs in the Global City put forth provocative ideas worthy of further study.