Violence and the city: A view from the ganglands

Image from flickr: Il Fatto Quotidiano


by Dennis Rodgers, Senior Research Fellow, Brooks World Poverty Institute.


Although there has long existed a concern that urbanisation amplifies violence, there is sense in which cities are increasingly being put forward as key sites of violence in the contemporary world. The fact that much recent conflict, terrorism and civil disorder has occurred in cities such as Baghdad, Beirut, or Nairobi, or that the world’s highest homicide rates afflict cities in Central America, Colombia, or South Africa, has become ever more noted, and has clearly added to the ubiquitous notion that cities and violence are intimately related. It is striking, however, that the city as a particular type of space rarely reflected upon directly in such debates.

An important exception in this regard is the gang literature, which has consistently sustained that in order to truly get to grips with gangs, it is critical to understand the context within which they emerge. Certainly, two major insights of gang research are that they are on the one hand are fundamentally epiphenomenal social formations, and on the other, that they are inherently urban in nature. For example, in his pioneering study of gangs, The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago (Chicago University Press, 1927), sociologist Frederic Thrasher paradigmatically suggested that “the gang and its problems constitute …one of many symptoms of the more or less general disorganization incident to …the rapid growth of cities and all the internal process of kaleidoscopic movement and rearrangement which this growth has entailed” (page 487).

Indeed, Thrasher argued that “the beginnings of the gang can best be studied in the slums of the city where an inordinately large number of children are crowded into a limited area. …Such a crowded environment is full of opportunities for conflict”, which “coupled with deterioration in housing, sanitation, and other conditions of life in the slum, give the impression of general disorganization and decay” (pages (26 & 37-38). In a manner clearly reminiscent of Louis Wirth’s famous analysis of “urbanism as a way of life”, Thrasher contended that such conditions of anomie and impersonal social relations led to the emergence of “an inevitable repertoire of predatory activities and a universe of discourse reflecting the disorganized social environment”, most obviously manifest in the existence of gangs.

At the same time, however, Thrasher’s research simultaneously undermines the notion that there exists an inherent relationship between urban contexts and gang violence. The ethnic nature of the gangs that he highlights in his study for example clearly contradicts the idea that violence emerges as a result of the superficiality and anonymity of urban social relations, insofar as it suggests that gangs can be based on elementary forms of social connection. Thrasher attempts to explain this paradox by suggesting that the actions of social agents cannot go beyond their individual experiences, and that gangs therefore had to have their “beginning[s] in acquaintanceship and intimate relations which have already developed on the basis of some common interest” (page 30). In addition to ethnicity, he thus also lists kinship and feelings of local neighbourhood belonging as basic vectors for gang formation.

In many ways this is not surprising, however. Anthropologists have provided us with a plethora of studies of neighbourhoods, barrios, or quartiers in cities around the world that describe how urbanites effectively reproduce small-scale community forms of living within urban contexts by interacting repeatedly with relatively small numbers of individuals, moreover within a normally localised territory. Social life is not a mass phenomenon, but something that generally occurs in small groups, and therefore any generalizations about social life in the city must inevitably draw on the study of these smaller universes rather than on abstract statements about the city as a whole. While this makes eminent sense, it also suggests that it is important to examine the underlying nature of gang violence more closely in order to truly understand the way that the phenomenon articulates with urban life in general, and the city in particular.

Thrasher justifies specifically focusing on slums in cities – which he likens to frontier zones – by arguing that they constitute “geographically …interstitial area[s] in the city”, and that just as “in nature foreign matter tends to collect and cake in every crack, crevice, and cranny”, so “life, rough and untamed” materialises in the interstitial areas that constitute “fissures and breaks in the structure of social organization” (pages 22-23). Gangs, from this perspective, are “rich in elemental social processes significant to the student of society and human nature” (page 3), because they represent an unmediated form of life, a primordial reflection of the violence that inherently bubbles under the surface of things and inevitably erupts at points where the social fabric is weak.

Such a perception of violence manifesting itself when social order breaks down clearly constitutes the phenomenon as something that exists outside of the social order. Although this kind of thinking is part of a long tradition, which perhaps finds its most obvious expression in Thomas Hobbes’ classic argument that violence is an incipient facet of being human in a state of nature that is held in check by the establishment of an encompassing social order, it is a viewpoint that also naturalises violence by projecting it as an autonomously pre-existing phenomenon that comes to the fore organically and automatically as a result of the existence or absence of certain objective conditions. For Hobbes, this was the absence of the Leviathan, but in relation to Thrasher’s framework, it was the existence of cities, or at least of the particular social relations that he associated with the spatial characteristics of cities as anomic, disorganized social spaces.

When seen from this perspective, it could be argued that urban space is not necessarily violent per se, but rather constitutes a particular type of territorial space with intrinsic characteristics that naturally unleash the violence inherent to being human. The notion of space is not only concerned with the territorial environment, however, but is also fundamentally about social relations. The gang literature once again provides us with an interesting window onto this, including for example Philippe Bourgois’ modern classic In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio (Cambridge University Press, 1995), which offers a detailed ethnographic study of drug-dealing gangs inEast Harlem. This presents a nuanced and multifaceted analysis that balances economic motivations and individual choices with structural constraints, showing how the Puerto Rican gangs that he studied could be understood in terms of a mixture of local resource distribution, local cultural identity, and implicit political resistance.

Bourgois describes in great detail how gang violence was an instrumental means to protect markets, enforce contracts, and ensure that the local drug economy ran smoothly in order to provide for neighbourhood inhabitants in a context of limited resources, and how it built on local cultural norms and networks. But he also links the emergence of gangs to the way in which the wider urban labour market effectively condemned the inhabitants of poor neighbourhoods such as the one he studied to dead-end jobs, which thus made joining drug-dealing gangs a logical aspiration, particularly for youth rejecting the low-grade options on offer to them. In doing so, Bourgois highlights how gangs in East Harlememerged not just as instrumental adaptations to a context of limited resources, but also very much as responses to a broader context of limited access to resources within a broader city context characterised by extreme socio-economic marginalization.

Bourgois thereby suggests that gangs are not a natural ecological feature of a city’s spatial form, but rather epiphenomena of very specific wider socio-political circumstances. As such he is drawing on a very different epistemological tradition to the Chicago School sociologists, and assuming that questions pertaining to the distribution, allocation, and use of resources are the fundamental organising vectors of society, with violence not a natural phenomenon that is unleashed by social breakdown but a means through which control over resources, or access to them, is achieved instrumentally. Indeed, this is something that Bourgois underlines starkly when he discusses East Harlem in terms of “institutional violence” and “urban apartheid”, emphasising the active and purposeful process of segregation that occurs between the inner city and the rest of New York in the form of particular patterns of Police patrolling and the targeting of particular racial profiles, oppressive architecture and technologies of surveillance, the provision of deficient social services, and cultural stigmatisation.

At the same time, however, Bourgois also comments how if inner city neighbourhoods such as East Harlem represent “the United States’ greatest domestic failing, hanging like a Damocles sword over the larger society”, “ironically, the only force preventing this suspended sword from falling is that drug dealers, addicts, and street criminals internalize their rage and desperation”, and “direct their brutality against themselves and their immediate community rather than against their structural oppressors” (page 318). The reasons for this are a complex “mesh of political-economic structural forces, historical legacies, cultural imperatives, and individual actions”, but in the final analysis reflect the fact that gangs are desperate forms of social mobilisation, whether viewed from a micro or a macro perspective. Locally, their natures as limited institutions means that they can only benefit a minority within the ghetto, while at the macro level they simply do not have the strength to challenge the city-wide system of oppression, which is backed by an extensive apparatus of power and control. Seen from this perspective, it can be argued that it is this latter form of structural subjugation that is ultimately the most devastating type of urban violence that can afflict cities. In other words, what the view from the gangland suggests is that understand violence in the city requires understanding the political economy of the city first and foremost.

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