Adolescent Peer Culture

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Helen Vrailas Bateman

Dewey G. Cornell Daniel C. Murrie

parents' role
Helen Vrailas Bateman


The view that peers play a central role in adolescence is widely accepted as fact. In the popular image of adolescence, however, adolescent peer groups often play a negative role in adolescent development. Traditionally, the adolescent peer culture of modern society has been perceived as a primarily negative influence, separate from that of adults and often leading to problem behaviors. Alcohol abuse, drug use, truancy, and premarital pregnancy are attributed to a separate youth culture. There are, however, an increasing number of researchers who object to this negative image of adolescent culture and who argue for a more positive image of adolescent culture in modern society, its unique and important contributions, and its robust relationship with and similarities to adult culture. In the following section, these disparate points of view and the evidence for them are briefly examined.

What Is Meant by Peer Culture?

The term peer culture, as introduced in 1988 by William Corsaro, was derived through Corsaro's study of children in nursery settings and contains the following aspects of social interaction:

  1. Children in these settings appear to adhere to and behave according to a set of "social rules" and behavioral routines. If such rules and routines are breached, then comments and negotiations between children follow.
  2. Children in these settings share a mutual understanding of actions and norms for procedures. This shared framework of understanding enables children to systematically interpret novel situations.
  3. Children in these settings engage in activities that focus on themes that are repeated and that all members of the peer group recognize.

Corsaro also examined the relationship between the social systems shared by children and the culture of adults (namely, teachers and parents). Corsaro suggested that there was a dynamic interchange of elements between the two cultures, with elements that appeared in one culture reappearing in the other. In 1994 Corsaro and Donna Elder discussed how this interchange between cultures is particularly interesting in adolescence, during which the adolescent peer culture, while maintaining its own unique social system, introduces rules and systems that facilitate belonging in the adult society. Other researchers have shared this view of a distinct adolescent peer culture with its own structure. Support for this view of adolescent peer culture comes from a variety of sources.

Societal Factors Contributing to Adolescent Peer Culture

While contact between adolescents and their peers is a universal characteristic of all cultures, there is a great deal of variability in the nature and the degree of such contact. In American contemporary society, adolescents spend significantly more time with their peers than with younger children or adults. The pattern of age segregation in American society did not become the norm until the onset of the industrialized society. Changes in the workplace separated children from adults, with adults working and children attending school. The dramatic increase of mothers in the workplace has further contributed to the reduction in the amount of time adolescents spend with adults. School reform efforts during the nineteenth century, which resulted in age-segregated schools and grades, have reduced the amount of time adolescents spend with younger children. Finally, the changes in population are considered a factor that may have contributed to the emergence of adolescent peer culture. From 1955 to 1975, the proportion of the population that was adolescent (between the ages of fifteen and nineteen) increased dramatically, from 11 percent to 20.9 percent. This increase in the number of adolescents might be a contributing factor to the increase in adolescent peer culture both in terms of growth in size as well as in terms of its impact on society's other cultures (adults, younger children).

Research supports the view that adolescents spend a great deal of time with their peers. In 1977 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Reed Larson, and Suzanne Prescott examined adolescent's daily activities and found that they spend more time talking to their friends than engaging in any other activity. In a typical week, high school students will spend twice as much time with their peers as with adults. This gradual withdrawal from adults begins in early adolescence. In sixth grade, adults (excluding parents) account for only 25 percent of adolescent social networks. Another important characteristic of adolescent peer culture is its increasingly autonomous function. While childhood peer groups are conducted under the close supervision of parents, adolescent peer groups typically make an effort to escape adult supervision and usually succeed in doing so. (Note, importantly, that this is in reference to informal peer groups.)

Adolescent peer culture also differs from that of younger-age children in the patterns of relationships between peers. Adolescence is characterized by the emergence of crowds as an important social context of development. This is a departure from the peer culture of younger children, which is defined by dyadic (two-person) and small-group relationships. Another unique characteristic of adolescent peer culture is the increasing contact with peers of the opposite sex. Unlike younger children, who adhere to sex-segregated groups, adolescents steadily increase their levels of association with members of the opposite sex. Adolescence is marked by the increased need and ability for intimate relationships both in the form of friendships and in the form of romantic relationships such as dating.

Are Peer Relations Necessary for Development?

The question of the role that peer culture plays in adolescent development has to start with the issue of the necessity of peer relations in human development. Research using monkeys that were reared without peer monkeys showed that growing up peerless resulted in monkeys that were socially disadvantaged and depressed. Studies with humans suggest that lack of harmonious peer relations during adolescence is related to poor mental health later in life. Evidence from follow-back studies of adults consistently supports the view that psychological and educational maladjustment in adulthood is associated with histories of problematic childhood peer relationships. Longitudinal prospective studies also indicate that children who were identified as socially rejected by their peers in fifth grade were twice as likely to be delinquent as adolescents. Researchers found that children who had poor peer relationships at the age of nine were more likely to develop into adolescents who engaged in higher levels of sub-stance abuse, had more conduct problems such as aggression and attentional problems, and committed more delinquent offenses. In 1995 Virginia Burks, Kenneth Dodge, and Joseph Price reported that children who were rejected by their peers in middle childhood had higher rates of depression and loneliness six year later. A large body of research therefore indicates that peer relationships are a very important factor in human development.

The Nature of Adolescent Peer Culture

James Coleman's work on adolescent peer culture was extremely influential in shaping views on modern adolescent culture. In 1961 Coleman suggested that an adolescent subculture had emerged in industrialized societies that was distinct from that of more agrarian cultures (such as the Amish culture). According to Coleman, social and economic forces that encourage age segregation shape the socialization of adolescents in industrialized societies. In a rapidly changing society, parents' skills easily become obsolete. Parents therefore cannot transmit their accumulated knowledge to their children, and hence they have fewer opportunities for direct influence over their children's development. Education takes place in school settings, for longer periods, further reducing the influence that family-centered learning has on adolescents. The period of schooling required in modern societies is becoming lengthier, and even within schools, children are segregated according to age in separate grades. These age-segregation patterns, according to Coleman, precipitate the creation of a separate adolescent culture in which adolescents speak a "language" increasingly different from that of adults. Modern industrialized societies encourage this "separate adolescent culture" by creating specialized marketing that cultivates and targets the adolescents' unique taste in music, clothes, and entertainment.

Such isolation from adults, Coleman claimed, results in the creation of adolescent societal standards and behavioral norms that are far removed from those of adult society. Adolescents look to their peers rather than to their parents and teachers for guidance and approval, thereby diminishing the ability of adults to influence adolescents' development. Coleman suggested that because of the aforementioned conditions, examining adolescent culture within the schools, its compositions and characteristics, is the only way in industrialized societies to understand and influence contemporary adolescents and their development.

Coleman's influential study examined adolescents and their parents in ten schools. Coleman found that on the average high school students are not very interested in academic goals but rather tend to focus more on social and athletic goals. This lack of focus on academic achievement, coupled with the decreased influence that parents and teachers have on adolescents' decision-making processes, led Coleman to declare that the existing school climate and culture was inadequate in addressing adolescent needs in industrialized societies. Coleman suggested that changes in the school culture should include a schoolwide emphasis on scholastic achievement as being the most desired outcome for students (rather than the present emphasis and glorification of athletic accomplishments) as well as an educational system that enables adolescents to become "active" rather than "passive" learners. Coleman argued that by becoming active participants in their learning processes, adolescents can assume roles of responsibility and leadership that are more appropriate to their developmental needs and are therefore more likely to result in higher levels of engagement in academics and adherence to school norms. High school teachers should encourage creative, hands-on learning activities in high schools and engage in teaching practices that focus on intrinsic rather than on extrinsic motivation.

Subsequent research, for the most part, has supported Coleman's findings of the central role that peer culture plays in adolescent development. Some critics, however, object to the "oversimplification" of peer culture that is depicted by Coleman's work, calling into question his unidimensional description of adolescent culture. Instead, these critics argue that research supports the view that there are multiple adolescent cultures that can be very different from each other. For example, a 1968 study of Canadian adolescents conducted by David Friesen contradicted Coleman's work by finding that most students preferred to be remembered as outstanding scholars rather than as outstanding athletes or as popular students. Other studies suggest that there are significant differences in the importance adolescents place on grades, athletic ability, and appearance based on adolescents' gender and grade level. Critics also suggest that the nature of adolescent peer culture also changes over time, reflecting social, economical, and historical changes in society. Subsequent examination of the proposed lack of influence of parents on adolescent culture has also yielded mixed findings, with some studies suggesting that parental values remain very influential in shaping adolescent behavior such as the patterns of friendships adolescents have with their peers.

Adolescent Peer Crowds and Cliques

In 1990 Bradford Brown suggested that, rather than having a monolithic approach to adolescent culture that depicts it as primarily "deviant," it is more appropriate to examine and understand the multiplicity of adolescent peer cultures and the factors that influence such variability in values and aspirations.

When examining peer groups, a distinction should be made between cliques (small, highly inter-active groups) and crowds (large groups with more emphasis on reputation than on interaction). As noted earlier, peer groups and peer group membership change from childhood to adolescence. Some of the changes already mentioned are that adolescents spend more time interacting with their peers than younger children do, less time interacting with adults, and more time interacting with opposite-sex peers. Adolescents also seem to gravitate more toward group and crowd membership. Research supports the view of an adolescent culture comprising very different groups and cliques, each with a unique blend of behavioral norms and beliefs. In 1975 Leo Rigsby and Edward McDill proposed categorizing the various crowds along two orthogonal dimensions: the degree to which they are committed to the formal (adult-controlled) reward system of school and the degree to which they are committed to the informal (peer-controlled) status system. In 1998 Margaret Stone and Bradford Brown further developed this categorization axis and found that all adolescent groups could be categorized across the two orthogonal axes of academic engagement and peer status. Within these axes various groups were formed (the "rebels," the "jocks," the "populars," the "normals," the "brains," the "black crowd," and the "wannabe black crowd"). The broad range of crowds had well-differentiated norms, beliefs, and goals and lent support to an image of adolescent culture that is far from monolithic and static. Stone and Brown also cautioned against generalizing their findings across all settings. Cultural and socioeconomic conditions can alter the type of groups that comprise a given adolescent culture.

Reasons for such changes in peer relationships can be attributed to multiple aspects of adolescent development. The need to establish a unique and autonomous identity different from that of one's parents is one of the driving forces behind adolescents' need to reduce their psychological dependency on their parents as well as on other adults. An additional benefit to belonging in various crowds and cliques is the opportunity to explore different value systems and lifestyles in the process of forming one's identity. Adolescents' social-cognitive maturation enables them to seek groups that can meet their emerging social and cognitive needs as well as their emerging values and beliefs.

Biological changes also play an important role in adolescents' need to form relationships with the opposite sexboth friendships and dating relationships. Finding the "right" clique to belong to can provide adolescents with a very much needed emotional and social support that can help them successfully navigate the demands of adolescence. Finding the "wrong" clique, on the other hand, can lead to maladaptive consequences that can include deviant behavioral patterns. The question of the direction of peer group influence on adolescents, however, is not a simple one. The traditional way of thinking about peer influence is that it is unidirectional and direct; that is, the peer group exerts a direct and overt influence on the adolescent's behavior. Research indicates, however, that the influence is interactional. Adolescents tend to choose peer groups that share their own beliefs and norms. Conversely, peer groups tend to approach like-minded adolescents to join their group. While peer culture tends to influence adolescent behavior, it has become clear that peer culture accounts for only part of the variation in adolescent behavior. For example, adolescents' smoking and alcohol drinking patterns are attributed to peer pressure only 10 to 40 percent of the time. It is also important to note that peer culture influences are not limited to deviant behavior. As discussed above, many peer groups have positive influences on adolescents regarding academic achievement. When adolescents were asked to describe the degree and direction of peer pressure from their friends, the most commonly mentioned and strongest pressure adolescents reported was to stay in school and to finish high school. An interesting aspect of this bidirectional influence between cliques and individuals is the issue of the similarity between participants of adolescent cliques. Research indicates that cliques typically comprise adolescents who are similar in multiple dimensions, such as age, socioeconomic status, and race. Moreover, some research indicates that adolescents can be members of multiple groups and that there are similarities across group boundaries, reinforcing the image of adolescent cultureeven within a homogeneous group of adolescentsas a complex system of multiplicity of styles and relationships not unlike adult society.

Changes in Peer Culture during Adolescence

During adolescence, important changes take place in the structure of the groups and cliques that adolescents belong to. In early adolescence, adolescents tend to form cliques with same-sex individuals. The same-sex cliques evolve into mixed-sex cliques during middle adolescence. Finally, in late adolescence and early adulthood, these cliques gradually give way to dyadic dating relationships. This development parallels the increasing ability and need for intimacy that develops during adolescence. Even the nature and boundaries of the groups and cliques change during adolescence, with the groups becoming less important to adolescents' self-image and less insular by the end of high school. In 1994 Brown, Mory, and David Kinney presented evidence that outlines the developmental trajectory of adolescent crowds. In middle school, the crowd system consists of only two crowdsthe "trendies" (students who have high status) and the "dweebs" (lower-status students). The "dweebs" comprise the majority of the student body. The boundaries of these two middle school crowds are fairly rigid. As adolescents transition to high school a more elaborate social structure that is comprised of many different groups appears, thus enabling the majority of students (who had previously been classified as "dweebs") to seek membership in groups such as the "normals" or the "punkers." Status differences between the groups are fairly salient during the early years of high school. By the end of high school, however, the boundaries between some of these groups seem to disappear, and status differences seem to diminish. This study illustrates very well the dynamic and changing nature of peer groups and peer culture during adolescence.

Adolescent Peer Culture and School

Peer acceptance and membership in a clique is an important aspect of becoming an adolescent. Peer crowds and cliques can have a profound influence on how adolescents adjust to a school setting. As noted earlier, adolescents in school settings can become members of various cliques each with unique norms and beliefs. Laurence Steinberg, in his 1996 book Beyond the Classroom, reported the alarming results of studies that suggest that in today's schools, less than 5 percent of all students are members of a high-achieving crowd that sets high academic standards. Even more alarming is that in most schools there appears to be a great deal of pressure from the "prevailing" peer culture to underachieve in school. Steinberg reported that one out of six students deliberately hides her intelligence and interest in doing well in class out of the desire to be accepted by her peers. When adolescents were asked which group they would like to belong to, five times as many students selected the "populars" or the "jocks" as selected the "brains." Moreover, an additional indication that high-achieving students with aspirations to academic excellence are not popular in schools today came from the fact that, when asked, the "brains" were least happy with the group they belonged to (nearly half wished they could be in a different crowd). Longitudinal data confirms the fact that initial membership in a peer group that is academically oriented is correlated with higher grades, more time spent on homework, and more involvement in extracurricular activities. Beyond significantly lower academic achievement, adolescents whose friends in school were members of a "delinquent" crowd were more likely to exhibit more negative behaviors inside and outside the classroom (including conduct problems and drug and alcohol use).

The strong relationship between a positive and supportive peer culture in school and classroom settings and students' academic, emotional, and social adjustment is also evident in research that examines students' sense of belonging and sense of community in a school setting and their academic, social, and emotional adjustment. In 2002 Helen Bateman found that students define a supportive peer community as one that:

  1. Shares their values and educational goals.
  2. Actively supports their learning needs.
  3. Provides a safe and pro-social environment in which adolescents can learn.
  4. Values their contributions.

Students with a higher sense of community in the school and classroom have higher grades and higher academic self-esteem. Students with a higher sense of community also display higher levels of learning orientation and greater interest in complex problem-solving tasks. Finally, students with high sense of community also display higher levels of social skills and pro-social behavior.


It is clear that convergent evidence from many different areas of research suggest that peer culture has a very strong influence on students' adjustment to school during adolescence. Given the sensitivity of adolescents to peers, the effects of this informal social organization of the school community in crowds and cliques can surpass and counteract the effects of any formal school norms (such as regular attendance, the importance of academic achievement, and proper conduct). The issue of adolescents belonging to "positive" peer communities that encourage academic engagement and pro-social behavior should therefore become a central point of concern for parents and educators during the period of adolescence.

See also: Peer Relations and Learning.


Bateman, Helen Vrailas. 2002. "Sense of Community in the School: Listening to Students' Voices." In Psychological Sense of Community: Research, Applications, and Implications, ed. Adrian T. Fisher, Chris C. Sonn, and Bryant J. Bishop. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.

Brown, B. Bradford. 1990. "Peer Groups and Peer Cultures." In At the Threshold: The Developing Adolescent, ed. Shirley S. Feldman and Glen R. Elliott. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Brown, B. Bradford; Mory, Margaret S.; and Kinney, David A. 1994. "Casting Adolescent Crowds in a Relational Perspective: Caricature, Channel, and Context." In Personal Relationships during Adolescence, ed. Raymond Montemayor, Gerald R. Adams, and Thomas P. Gullotta. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Burks, Virginia S.; Dodge, Kenneth A.; and Price, Joseph M. 1995. "Models of Internalizing Outcomes of Early Rejection." Development and Psychopathology 7:683696.

Coleman, John S. 1961. The Adolescent Society. New York: Free Press of Glencoe.

Corsaro, William A. 1988. "Routines in the Peer Culture of American and Italian Nursery School Children." Sociology of Education 61 (1):114.

Corsaro, William A., and Elder, Donna. 1990. "Children's Peer Cultures." Annual Review of Sociology 16:197220.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly; Larson, Reed; and Prescott, Suzanne. 1977. "The Ecology of Adolescent Activity and Experience." Journal of Youth and Adolescence 6:281294.

Friesen, David. 1968. "Academic-Athletic-Popularity Syndrome in the Canadian High School Society." Adolescence 3:3952.

Rigsby, Leo C., and McDill, Edward L. 1975. "Value Orientations of High School Students." In The Sociology of Education: A Sourcebook, ed. Holger R. Stub. Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press.

Steinberg, Laurence. 1996. Beyond the Classroom: Why School Reform Has Failed and What Parents Need to Do. New York: Touchstone.

Stone, Margaret R., and Brown, B. Bradford. 1998. "In the Eyes of the Beholder: Adolescents' Perceptions of Peer Crowd Stereotypes." In Adolescent Behavior and Society: A Book of Readings, ed. Rolf E. Muuss and Harriet D. Porton. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. 1996. Statistical Abstract of the United States. Washington, DC: U.S. Bureau of the Census.

Helen Vrailas Bateman


Gangs pose a serious problem for many schools. Students at schools with gangs are more than twice as likely to be victims of violent crimes than students at schools without gangs, they report greater access to illegal drugs, and they are four times more likely to report seeing a student with a gun in school. Gangs generate an atmosphere of fear and intimidation that pervades the school environment. Schools with gangs are much more likely to employ security measures such as guards, metal detectors, and locker checks. Gangs are reported by nearly 40 percent of students in U.S. public schools, including 25 percent of students in rural areas and more than 50 percent of students in communities with more than 50,000 residents. Nearly two-thirds of Hispanic students, almost one-half of African-American students, and one-third of white students report gangs in their schools.

What is a gang ? Definitions vary widely, but usually refer to a self-formed group of individuals who identify themselves by a name and engage in recurrent criminal activity. Gangs typically have recognized leaders, membership requirements and initiation rituals, and an identified territory. Youth gangs contain adolescents, but often also include young adults (persons age eighteen or older). This definition distinguishes youth gangs from other types of groups, such as ideological groups, motorcycle gangs, and organized crime groups, that are primarily adult organizations.

Gangs are not new to the United States, and they have long been associated with unfavorable social and economic conditions experienced by immigrants in urban neighborhoods. Most historians agree that the economic difficulties and sociocultural stresses experienced by immigrant groups of many ethnic backgrounds have generated gang activity. Following a wave of Irish immigration in the 1820s, New York City was plagued by gangs such as the Bowery Boys, the Dead Rabbits, and the Plug Uglies, who marched brazenly through the streets in distinctive dress and confronted one another in armed combat. Mexican youth formed gangs when their families migrated to the southwestern United States in the early 1800s. More youth gangs followed waves of immigration to major industrial centers during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many gangs were on the payroll of politicians and union leadersor worked as junior confederates to organized crime. Frederic Thrasher's classic 1929 study of youth gangs in Chicago focused on the effects of poverty, immigration status, poor parental supervision, and lack of recreational opportunities among ethnic minorities, including Polish, Italian, Irish, Jewish, and other immigrant groups. Thrasher identified more than 1,300 youth gangs, although his definition emphasized allegiance among members and did not require criminal activity.

According to a national law enforcement survey, there were approximately 28,700 gangs and 780,200 gang members active in the United States in 1998. Gangs increased rapidly during the 1980s and early 1990s. There is considerable research and debate on reasons for the increase in youth gangs; among the most likely factors are the emergence of the crack cocaine market, an influx of Asian and Latin American immigrants who had few employment opportunities, the proliferation of gang federations and alliances, and a sustained, national surge of single-parent households. Gangs are most prevalent in the western United States and least prevalent in the Northeast. Youth gangs are most common in large cities, especially Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Houston. Ninety-four percent of U.S. cities with populations of more than 100,000 report youth gangs, though gangs are also present in smaller communities. Half of all suburban counties, one-third of all small cities, and one-fifth of rural counties report active youth gangs. Although gang membership declined nationwide from 1996 to 1998, the number of gang members in rural counties increased by 43 percent.

Gang Characteristics

In his studies of Detroit gang activity in the 1980s, Carl Taylor distinguished three types of gangs. Scavenger gangs are informal groups that come together periodically and commit opportunistic, impulsive crimes. They are not well organized, leadership is variable, and the existence of the gang may be short-lived. In contrast, territorial gangs have many of the features commonly associated with gangs: a well-defined territory or turf that they defend from outsiders, membership requirements and initiation rituals, leadership by an individual or core group of members, distinctive dress, and use of symbols or hand signs for covert communication. Taylor used the term corporate gang to characterize highly organized and profit-oriented gangs engaged in extensive, well-defined criminal enterprises, such as drug dealing and extortion. Such gangs display a corporate-like structure in the differentiated assignment of roles and responsibilities to members, who may be involved in marketing, sales, or distribution, or in more specifically criminal activities such as enforcement.

Although media accounts sometimes refer to "gang migration" from larger to smaller cities, research suggests that organized migration is rare. When it does occur, it is generally the result of families moving from one city to the next for mundane reasons. In some cases, a youth who moves to a new city may claim membership in a well-known home-town gang in order to bolster his or her status in the new community. Most small-town and rural gangs are homegrown independent groups, and some may take on the name of nationally known gangs in an effort to gain prestige and status. Many gangs are poorly organized and short-lived, and such a gang's reputation may generate unwarranted public fear and concern.

Although gangs are often referred to as youth gangs, law enforcement estimates in 1998 suggested that 60 percent of gang members were adults (over age seventeen). Youth gangs have often been ethnically or racially homogeneous, although during the 1990s more than one-third of gangs were reported to have a racially mixed membership. Nationally, in 1998, 46 percent of gang members were Hispanic, 34 percent were African American, 12 percent were white, and 6 percent were Asian.

Most studies report that fewer than 10 percent of gang members are girls, although some studies have found rates as high as 30 percent, perhaps suggesting a trend toward greater female involvement in gangs. Early studies suggested girls formed auxiliary groups to male gangs, but in the 1990s many gangs had mixed gender membership, and 1 to 2 percent of gangs had more than 50 percent female membership. Gender studies indicate that girl gang members commit more crimes than girls who are not in gangs, but fewer crimes than boy gang members.

Gangs and Crime

Gang membership substantially increases a youth's involvement in criminal activities, even though youths who join gangs tend to be predisposed to delinquency and often have previous arrest records. Youths who join gangs engage in more crime than youths with similar backgrounds, even if those youths do associate with delinquent peers. Association with gang members is linked to greater involvement in delinquent activity than association with delinquent nongang peers.

Gang members commit a disproportionate share of juvenile crime, especially serious crime. In some studies, gang members were found to commit crimes at twice the rate of other arrested youths. Gang crimes vary over time and across gangs, but most frequently involve weapons offenses, drug sales, assault, and auto theft. Shootings, particularly drive-by shootings, are strongly associated with gang conflicts. Violent gang crime is more common in large cities, while gang involvement in breaking and entering and other property crimes is relatively more common in rural and suburban areas.

Although many youths join gangs for protection, studies show that gang membership greatly increases the risk of violent injury or death. Gang members are more likely than other youths to carry concealed weapons, and gang rivalries often lead to violent feuds and turf battles. Informal codes of honor in many gangs demand that members respond aggressively to perceived acts of disrespect so as to protect and bolster their reputation. Acts of aggression often stimulate vengeful counter-attacks, followed by further retaliation in an escalating pattern.

Drug trafficking is commonly associated with gangs, and economic rivalries over drug markets, as well as disputes over drug deals and sales, can lead to violence. Many authorities believe that the development of lucrative crack cocaine markets in the 1980s stimulated the growth of gangs and led to a dramatic increase in violent crimes, particularly firearm-related homicides in large cities. Law enforcement surveys indicate that approximately one-third of youth gangs are specifically organized for drug trafficking, although members of other gangs frequently participate in drug sales in a less systematic manner. Gang involvement in drug sales is common in rural and suburban areas as well as major cities. Nevertheless, the role of drug sales in homicides has proven to be smaller than expected, with substantial numbers of gang-related homicides associated with interpersonal conflicts and gang disputes over status and territory.

Why Do Young People Join Gangs?

Historically, sociologists have contended that gang involvement is associated with membership in an underclassthat youths who join gangs tend to be members of racial or ethnic minorities from economically deprived and socially disadvantaged areas. Indeed, young gang members are often poor, minority youth from disorganized neighborhoods. However, membership in the underclass is not a sufficient explanation for gang involvement, since the majority of such youths do not join gangs. Likewise, youths from less disadvantaged backgrounds also join gangs.

Ask a young gang member why he joined a gang, and the most frequent answer will be that his friends are in the gang. Friendship patterns are powerful influences on gang membership, as is the excitement of involvement in delinquent activity. Gangs grow and spread largely through individual contacts between gang members and prospective members. The appeal of belonging to a powerful, seemingly prestigious group is strong in adolescence, and young teens may aspire for acceptance into a group led by older teens and young adults. Many young teens are characterized as gang "wannabes," and researchers recognize a continuum of gang membership ranging from nonmembers to hardcore members. Although some gangs report lifelong membership, even devoted gang members usually cease active involvement in their gangs during their twenties. Longitudinal studies have found that more than 50 percent of gang members drop out of their gangs within a year of joining.

Gangs are appealing because they offer a sense of identity and social recognition to adolescents who feel marginalized in society and regard their future as bleak or uncertain. Conventional opportunities through education and employment may seem remote or unattainable to minority youth living in impoverished communities. Gangs offer opportunities for excitement, feelings of power and status, and defiance of conventional authority. Gangs also provide a well-defined, reliable peer group for recreation and affiliation, which is a compelling concern during the teenage years. On a more practical level, gang involvement may provide financial opportunities through drug dealing and other criminal endeavors. In many neighborhoods gang membership offers protection from bullying or assault, and some youths may feel pressured to join a gang simply because they reside within the gang's territory.

Though it may be tempting to speculate about the psychological profile of a gang member, there is no simple explanation. Gangs offer a variety of roles and opportunities: one youth may aspire to lead others or serve as protector to his or her neighborhood; another may seek financial gain through crime, while still another may be drawn into the pattern of violence and neighborhood warfare that characterizes some gangs.

Family factors such as parental absence or inadequate supervision play a role in some cases, but in other cases parents may encourage gang involvement because of their own history of criminal activity or gang membership. Some large, well-established gangs claim generations of gang members within families. Popular culture may also encourage gang membership by promoting positive images of gangssuch as the Jets and Sharks of the Broadway musical West Side Story or movies that glamorize gang feuds similar to that between the Crips and Bloods, gangs that originated in Los Angeles. Many celebrities in music and professional sports proudly display their gang affiliation through tattoos, dress, and gestures.

Prevention and Intervention

The risk factors for gang membership are generally the same as for delinquency, and gang members are usually delinquent before they join gangs, suggesting that prevention efforts aimed at delinquency are relevant to preventing gang involvement as well. Although several strategies have been found to prevent or reduce general delinquency, programs aimed specifically at gangs have not met with much success. On an individual level, parental supervision and an emphasis on keeping youths from associating with delinquent peers is critically important.

One of the oldest gang prevention strategies attempts to alter the socioenvironmental factors presumed to produce gangs through community interventions such as increased recreational activities, neighborhood improvement campaigns, and direct assistance to gang members in seeking employment, vocational training, health care, and other services. Despite the best of intentions, however, such programs have not demonstrated evidence of reducing gang activity. On the contrary, some critics have reported that such programs tend to increase gang cohesiveness.

In 1991 the Phoenix Police Department introduced the school-based Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT) program, modeled on the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program and subsequently supported by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. The GREAT curriculum consists of nine weekly lessons taught to middle school students by law enforcement officers. The GREAT curriculum is used in schools in all fifty states, but has not been extensively evaluated. Two studies suggest that the program has modest short-term effects in improving student attitudes and reducing self-reported delinquency, but long-term, rigorously controlled outcome studies are needed.

Some demonstrable success in the war against gangs has come through law enforcement efforts leading to the long-term incarceration of gang leaders. Gang intelligence, intensive investigation, and well-planned prosecution have disrupted, and in some cases eliminated, gangs. However, high-profile, intensive policing efforts to suppress gang activity by saturating a neighborhood with law enforcement officers and generating numerous arrests on minor charges have not been successful.

See also: Juvenile Justice System.


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Esbensen, Finn-Aage, and Osgood, D. Wayne. 1997. National Evaluation of GREAT. Washington DC: National Institute of Justice.

Howell, James C. 1998. "Youth Gangs: An Overview." Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Bulletin August, 1998. Washington DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Howell, James C., and Lynch, James P. 2000. "Youth Gangs in Schools." Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Bulletin August 2000. Washington DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Huff, C. Ronald, ed. 1996. Gangs in America, 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Miller, Walter B. 2001. The Growth of Youth Gang Problems in the United States: 19701998. Washington DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Moore, Joan, and Hagedorn, John. 2001. "Female Gangs: A Focus on Research." Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Bulletin March 2001. Washington DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

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Dewey G. Cornell

Daniel C. Murrie


The pivotal role that parents play in a child's development is undisputed. Researchers have shown that differences in parenting practices can have profound and lasting effects on all aspects of developmentcognitive, social, physical, and emotional. Differences in parenting styles translate to differences in a myriad of outcomes, such as academic achievement, self-esteem, deviant behavior, autonomy, emotional maturity, and leadership ability, to name just a few. It would be safe to say that while poor parenting practices can lead to adolescents who are experiencing multiple problems, good parenting practices can lead to well-adjusted and successful adolescents. But what are the mechanisms through which parents can positively impact adolescent development? And what is the degree to which parents can remain influential in the face of the increasing influence of peers in adolescence?

Different Types of Parenting Styles

Due to the well-documented importance of parenting practices on children's development, much re-search has been conducted in the area. In 1978 Diana Baumrind introduced one of the most influential theories of parenting styles. Baumrind suggested that parenting styles can be classified under four general patterns that differ along two dimensions: parental responsiveness and parental demandingness. Parental responsiveness entails the ability to respond to a child's evolving needs in a warm and flexible manner. Parental demandingness entails the ability to set rules and standards that a child has to respect and follow. Parents who are both demanding and responsive are characterized as authoritative. Parents who are demanding and directive but not responsive are characterized as authoritarian. Parents who are responsive but not demanding are characterized as permissive. Finally, parents who are neither responsive nor demanding are characterized as rejectingneglecting.

The relationship between parenting styles and developmental outcomes has been well documented by Baumrind and many other researchers. Overall, adolescents whose parents are authoritative have the most positive outcomesnamely, higher levels of autonomy, confidence, maturity, social skills, and academic achievement. They are also more able to successfully adapt to life's challenges. Children of authoritarian parents tend to become more timid, less socially competent, and more dependent as they grow up. However, under certain circumstances, such as those of African-American families living in poor, high-crime areas, the authoritarian parenting style seems to be most beneficial. Children of permissive parents tend to become adolescents that are lacking in maturity, self-discipline, leadership skills, and in the ability to stand up to bad peer influences. Finally, children of rejecting-neglecting parents seem to suffer the most serious problemsnamely, poor academic skills, more deviant behavior (including drug and alcohol abuse), and an inability to control impulsive behavior.

Differences in parenting styles translate to different family environments with different family dynamics. Families in which there is an ongoing dialogue, good conflict-resolution practices, mutual respect, and flexibility are families in which adolescents seem to have more positive outcomes. Beyond parenting styles, the modeling of parental behavior inside and outside the family and the type of relationship between the parents is another factor that can influence adolescent development.

Peer Influence and Parents

During adolescence, peers become increasingly importantadolescents spend more time with their peers then with any other group. Given the important role that peer culture plays in adolescents' lives (primarily in the form of groups and cliques), the degree to which parents can remain influential during this period is, and has been, an issue of scientific inquiry and debate.

Patricia Noller suggests that adolescents who are able to talk to their parents about issues that are important to them and who get emotional support from their parents are less likely to rely on peers for advice on important issues. They are less likely to succumb to peer pressure as it relates to using alcohol and drugs as means of coping with the pressure of adolescence. This leads to the conclusion that adolescents who already have, and can maintain, an open, positive, honest, flexible, and emotionally supportive relationship with their parents are more likely to take their parents' advice under serious consideration, and to better withstand pressure to participate in undesirable behaviors. On the other hand, adolescents that already have problematic relationships with their parentscharacterized by lack of communicationare likely to become more dependent on their peers for advice and for emotional support.

Bradford Brown and colleagues suggest that rather than assuming that parental influence will be reduced during adolescence due to the increasing influence of peer groups and cliques, the specific environmental conditions that might facilitate and/or hamper parental influence should be examined. They report that specific parenting practices are significantly related to specific adolescent behaviors, and that they are also associated with specific patterns of group or clique membership. However, this relationship is mediated (in most cases) by adolescent behavior. Brown and colleagues suggest that it is unlikely that peer groups and cliques are going to counteract parental norms. Adolescents tend to select peer groups that have goals, behavioral patterns, and value norms that are similar to their own (and which parental behavior has helped shape). Parents directly influence adolescents' behaviors and value systems, and thus are able to exercise a significant but indirect effect on peer group and clique influence and membership.

The selection of an appropriate environment (schools and neighborhood) is another way that parents can exert an indirect influence on adolescents' peer affiliations. The composition of cliques and groups, as well as their relative influence, can vary greatly from school to school and from neighbor-hood to neighborhood. In some high schools, students who aspire academic excellence are ridiculed and isolated from the predominant peer culture in the school, which may value truancy, alcohol and drug use, early sexual activity, and a lack of academic engagement. Conversely, there are schools in which academic excellence is valued by the peer culture.

Parents should try to place their children in schools in which positive peer groups and cliques are influential in the community culture of the school, while avoiding schools in which negative peer groups that advocate deviant behaviors are predominant. The degree to which an adolescent will continue to be influenced by parents is directly related to the type of group or clique he or she belongs to. If the adolescent is a member of groups in which parents and their advice are considered valuable resources, then a parent will continue to be very influential during adolescence. If, however, the adolescent becomes a member of a group that promotes deviant behavior, then the ability of the parents to exert influence on the adolescent's behavior is greatly diminished.

See also: Parental Involvement in Education; Parenting.


Baumrind, Diana. 1978. "Parental Disciplinary Patterns and Social Competence in Children." Youth and Society 9:239276.

Baumrind, Diana. 1991. "The Influence of Parenting Style on Adolescent Competence and Substance Abuse." Journal of Early Adolescence 11:5695.

Brown, B. Bradford, and Huang, Bih-Hui. 1995. "Examining Parenting Practices in Different Peer Contexts: Implications for Adolescent Trajectories." In Pathways through Adolescence, ed. Lisa J. Crockett and Ann C. Crouter. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Brown, B. Bradford; Mounts, Nina; Lamborn, Susie D.; and Steinberg, Lawrence D. 1993. "Parenting Practices and Peer Group Affiliation in Adolescence." Child Development 64:467482.

Noller, Patricia. 1994. "Relationships with Parents in Adolescence: Process and Outcome." In Personal Relationships during Adolescence, ed. Raymond Montemayor, Gerald R. Adams, and Thomas P. Gullotta. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Steinberg, Lawrence D. 1996. Beyond the Classroom: Why School Reform has Failed and What Parents Need to Do. New York: Touchstone.

Helen Vrailas Bateman

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