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Urban Street Gang

“The Urban Street Gang after 1970” (2003) is a review conducted by Coughlin and Venkatesh. With specific focus on the street gang activities after the 1960s, the review is a significant study on the conceptualization of the gang detached from the social-problems perspective. The authors acknowledge that the research on street gangs has changed dramatically over the past decades; it is in line with changes in sociological research and developments in economic sociology, gender studies as well as race and ethnic relations.

It is a known fact that the field of sociology is constantly changing. Consequently, over time, the theoretical and methodological approaches also shift as scholars in the field refine them to improve understanding of the discipline.

Coughlin and Venkatesh make a significant contribution to the field by indicating that earlier forms of street gang studies were deficient in a way. For instance, focusing on the earliest form of such studies, the authors point out that a study conducted by Thrasher (1927) was inadequate given that it did not pay attention to the issues of roles, race, and sex. In practice, such attributes are integral in shaping activities of gangs as well as neighborhoods. Thus, the researchers are credited for bringing out the element of neighborhood as being influential in the development of the subject.

In practice, comparing the historical development of the issue under study within a number of states is deemed necessary.

However, Coughlin and Venkatesh observed that a review of such nature would be too much for their study. Thus, they fail to carry out a comparative analysis which would have proved to be informative or more in-depth for students of sociology. The authors did not use a number of studies on deviance, delinquency, youth violence, and related issues, which are known to border on gang activities, albeit indirectly. Instead of consulting such studies to enrich the research, Coughlin and Venkatesh have decided to focus on the identification of important gang research trends. In particular, their research enlists only those studies that view gang activities as the express object under analysis.

While focusing on the business of gangs, Coughlin and Venkatesh pay full attention to the idea of gang and drug problem, which apparently became famous during the 1980s. To introduce the issue, the authors lay emphasis on how the media referred to it.

Although the media is a useful reference, matters of authenticity remain questionable. Hence, the extent to which such information is factual remains contestable. However, Coughlin and Venkatesh make a critical observation that previous research yielded contradictory findings on the issue. Thus, the authors contribute towards unmasking the reality about the topic instead of taking one of the sides. From the prevailing controversy, the researchers come up with the basic questions critical in guiding studies through the topic. In particular, the extent to which the urban gangs were motivated entrepreneurially is raised in the review.

Secondly, the effect of commerce on activities of gangs is also considered. In the pursuit of answers to the above questions, the two scholars found it necessary to benchmark their work on the study done by Thrasher (1927). In this regard, Coughlin and Venkatesh had to revisit the definition of the word gang. 

It should be noted that Coughlin and Venkatesh do a commendable job highlighting the role of the underground economy in street gang activities. Whereas, it is emphasized that gangs are rational groups. Such a position cannot be sustained since rationality extends beyond the pursuit of short-term gains, although their long-term gains cannot be guaranteed.


Under the issue of gangs and business, Coughlin and Venkatesh rightly point out that the entrepreneurial orientation and the effects of the shift remain hotly debated by researchers. The authors observe that in the previous thirty years, research into the topic has not achieved a consensus. However, Adamson (2000) has noted that considerable progress has been registered in localized contexts, e. g. within communities in cities. However, the researchers Coughlin and Venkatesh further indicate that a bigger percentage of previous studies have focused on inner and central regions within cities. While appreciating the contribution of the aforementioned researchers, they do not state how concentrating in the other areas would enrich the topic. For instance, Coughlin and Venkatesh could have argued that gang activities in other regions (apart from inner and central locations) would yield different results. However, the assertion that gangs migrate to other areas of the city might suffice to bridge the shortcoming.

Coughlin and Venkatesh also examine the issue of gendering in gangs. The researchers observe that the extension to include female participation in gangs is meant to address a historical injustice, which relates to the domination of males. The scholars seem to fall into the trap of acknowledging an existing gap in research (under entrepreneurial motivations, regional distinctions between girl and female gang participation are inadequately researched) but failing to provide an amicable answer to bridge the gap. Perhaps, the problem with the issue is connected with the approach (meta-analysis) that the researchers employed.

Without doubt, the scholars offer significant insight into gang research critical in enriching the understanding of the topic. However, as Coughlin and Venkatesh observe, the research on gangs has often been premised on misleading assumptions, such as members are locals or members do not migrate. The authors are commended for the insightful finding although they fail to uncover the reasons why past research has not brought out the aspect. In the same way, the researchers do not emphasize the point at which the supposed shift in trends occurs. Such a position is held in reference to the idea indicated by Coughlin and Venkatesh that gang members might move from one place to another. However, as the authors notice, their migration does not reduce the significance of studies on gang activities. Instead, some issues emerge that border on the level of participation in gang activities by locals and non-local members. Despite a failure to address such a development in the study, Coughlin and Venkatesh make a major contribution by calling for the expansion of units of analysis to incorporate community, neighborhood, and block.

Another significant highlight of the paper is found in the last part of the research where Coughlin and Venkatesh call for a transition in the way research on the topic is carried out. In particular, the scholars hold that shifting from location to institution bases would prove to be a timely methodological realignment. Indicating that in the past a research has limited itself, the scholars stressed that the adoption of an institutional approach to studying the phenomenon would develop a way to incorporate participants without ethnic, community, or location boundaries. Despite the usefulness of taking an institutional approach to studying the topic, concerns over capturing the conduct or behavior among the hardcore or mainstream gang members still remain (Adamson, 2000).

In practice, some gangs are typically made of hardened criminals who do fall within any institutional precincts. In light of the obtained information, the methodological shift would reduce the applicability of findings since an institutional approach might present the same problem regarding representation. In other words, an institutional approach poses a possibility of leaving out segments of gang members who are not part of publicly known institutions. In a bid to address such shortcomings, considering carrying out a comparative study where institutional samples are compared to non-institutional ones would be helpful.

As already indicated, the study “The Urban Street Gang after 1970” employs a meta-analytic method. Like any other research technique, the meta-analytic approach has some weaknesses, which often reflect on study outcomes. For example, the method is questioned on the basis of its sampling procedure, which is viewed to be biased as it shows preference on pre-determined or leading published studies. As a matter of practice, published studies demonstrate statistical significance. For this reason, a big possibility exists that a number of studies that might be useful are left out. In other words, the sample selection process is flawed because many studies are not included in the population pool. Hence, it is also arguable that researchers or scholars select samples from an incomplete study population. Overall, the effect poses a danger of undermining the accuracy of study results because, depending on published studies, attaining a biased outcome can be facilitated, which, in turn, might lead to overestimation of the association between or among variables. For that matter, if each study is included in meta-analytic researches, the outcome effect size will fall. Based on this account, the research “The Urban Street Gang after 1970” conducted by Coughlin and Venkatesh cannot be assumed as representative of studies on the topic. In particular, the researchers enlisted only those studies that view gang activities as the express object under analysis.

Without doubt, Coughlin and Venkatesh make a significant contribution towards the understanding of street gangs by exploring a number of studies. In particular, the authors assist in the conceptualization of the term gang and methodological shifts, presenting areas for future researches. Another important aspect that the scholars bring out is shifts in gang activities such as migration from one point to another, and its effect on the phenomenon of gang.

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