A large number of criminological theories have been advanced to provide examination of the causes of adolescent delinquency. Such criminological theories like Strain Theory, Social Learning Theory, Frederic Thrasher, Bloch and Niederhoffer, Cloward and Ohlin’s studies of gang delinquency best describe the cause for adolescent involvement in criminal street gangs. In these researches, theorists attempt to describe not only the causes of crime, but also interdependence of social institutions and delinquency, which desists with age. Hence, the society plays an important role in adolescent involvement in crime and conformity. At the same time, some of the criminological theories are sophisticated, whereas others are based on rather basic influence of the environment on youngsters. The wide spread of youth gangs has greatly influenced society since the 1980s: it has caused, in particular, the public’s fear and raised certain misapprehensions about youth gangs. Therefore, it is of utmost priority to compare and contrast criminological theories indicated above in order to find out why the youth join street gangs and what role a community plays in this issue.
Frederic Thrasher’s theory was the pioneering study among other researches about criminal gangs. Although the scholar started to study street gangs almost a century ago, it became a classic example of criminological theory. Thrasher stated that street gangs began initially as a social group of young people with similar interests. These young men and women hanged out to perform pranks and small delinquent acts. Nevertheless, little street gangs transformed into a well-organized and stable family-like group with certain normative systems and goals. Thrasher named the following causes for adolescent involvement in criminal street gangs: economic depression, community decline, school or college failure, lack of role models, poor living conditions, and devastation of social norms. Therefore, crime became a way of life for young men and women, as well as a marker of their gang identity.
Bloch and Niederhoffer’s theory provides a similar view on criminal street gangs to the one given in the Thrasher’s study. Bloch and Niederhoffer argue that criminal gangs exist to provide young men and women with social, as well as psychological support that their families have failed to give. Compared to the Thrasher’s study, criminal gang, resembling youth’s family ties, becomes a real family to its members that support and provide socio-economic sustenance to each other. In this respect, the ability to be involved in a social institution akin to a family becomes the cause why adolescents are involved in criminal street gangs. Thus, uncertainties of adolescents force them to join gangs that become a sort of a ritualistic organization for them. In order to overcome difficulties faced in the childhood or deal with poorly outlined expectations, young men and women refer to methods of overcoming their disillusionments that oppose the society’s traditional ones. While in traditional societies adolescents’ roles and responsibilities are defined, in the modern society adolescents see themselves as adults when the society states that they are still children. Thereby, this difference in comprehension breaks the link between the society and the youth and forces the latter to seek alternative ways of socialization.
There is also another criminological theory that examines criminal street gangs and adolescent involvement in them. The Strain Theory is mainly based on the appearance of a certain strain that prevents young people from adopting particular socio-economical norms through legitimate means. In order to obtain a middle class status, young men and women turn to illegitimate means and get involved in criminal behavior. Robert Merton was the first scholar who employed the Strain Theory in America. Merton argues that strain becomes obvious when there is a concrete division between cultural purposes characteristic of the middle class and the ways of achieving them that lower classes cannot legitimately afford. To understand the cause of criminal adolescent gangs, the Strain Theory examines purposes they are formed for. Merton singles out monetary success as a reason why young people join a gang. Thus, young men and women become bonded together in order to commit crimes relating to drugs, burglaries, and robberies. Thereby, the youth join street gangs for their personal profit: to use drugs or alcohol, while rejecting legitimate means to achieve goals of the social group.
At the same time, Robert Merton was not the one who applied the Strain Theory to adolescent street gangs. Unlike Merton, Albert Cohen observed appearance of the strain in the ability to obtain status rather than in the ability to gain material success. According to Cohen, male youth from the class with lower socio-economic standards underwent influence of standards of the middle class, which caused status deprivation. Hence, a particular challenge to the society was the reason why young men joined street gangs. Youngsters who became a part of street gangs behave in such way to express their opposite views and neglect toward standards of the middle class. Thus, adolescents from street gangs committed crimes not to gain monetary success, but to convey their protest against the society. Adolescent involvement in criminal street gangs was a peculiar reaction or response to status deprivations they experienced. Thereby, young people from street gangs violated the public order by drawing graffiti on the walls of public buildings in order to obtain respect and status among their criminal fellows. The Strain Theory regained its popularity in the 1980s, mainly focusing on such strains as individualism, achievement, monetary success, and universalism.
In contrast to the Strain Theory, the Social Learning Theory poorly explains reasons of adolescent delinquency within criminal street gangs. According to the Social Learning Theory, young people join street criminal gangs because of adopting the role model of their like-minded individuals. Nevertheless, it becomes obvious that a motive for the crime is absent within the scope of the Social Learning Theory. The Social Learning Theory states that young men and women join criminal street gangs because their methods or ways to obtain desired socio-economical purposes are blocked. Thus, Social Learning Theory claims that youngsters learn criminal behavior from delinquents they associate themselves with. Furthermore, the Social Learning Theory explains causes for adolescent delinquency based on positive and neutralizing definitions. According to Akers, Krohn, Lanza-Kaduce, and Radosevich, positive definition illuminates criminal behavior in a positive light. While positive definition makes even inappropriate behavior look like the right one, neutralizing definition rationalizes such behavior. Therefore, the Social Learning Theory emphasizes a personal view of young people who consider their deeds as right and appropriate. Hence, the Strain Theory sees criminal behavior of adolescent delinquents engaged in criminal street gangs as the only way to accomplish their aims.
In addition, the concept of imitation relates to the Social Learning Theory. Thus, young people see offenders engaged in criminal behavior, which forces them to repeat that kind of conduct. In the context of adolescent involvement in criminal street gangs, imitation may force an individual to follow norms of a delinquent subculture. Individual members of a criminal gang will imitate behavior of their leaders in order to achieve goals of the group. Nevertheless, it is pretty complicated for imitation to address the starting point of the criminal behavior of young people. In comparison, both Thrasher’s study and the Strain Theory argue that socio-economic impact, especially poor housing and the lack of role models, make young people join criminal street gangs in order to satisfy their social and economic needs and desires. These young delinquents do not see any other solution how to get rid of their poor socio-economic status and, thus, they resort to criminal activities. Hence, it should be stated that imitation is rather a derivative phenomenon than a cause for adolescent delinquency.
At the same time, Cloward and Ohlin singled out three principal delinquent gangs (the criminal gang subculture, the retreatist gang subculture, and the conflict gang subculture) distinguished through presence or absence of legitimate and illegitimate choices for young people. For the youth, several opportunities to participate in different types of behavior are always available. Thus, young men and women have a right to choose whether or not be engaged in criminal or delinquent behavior. Cloward and Ohlin stated that some young people had a higher chance of being involved in illegitimate acts. Nevertheless, those opportunities might not be obtainable for other young people even if they were willing to participate in certain illegal acts. The criminological theory of these scholars is known as the Differential Opportunity Theory because every young man and woman can choose whether to be or not to be engaged in criminal behavior. Cloward and Ohlin claimed that the cause for adolescent involvement in criminal street gangs could consist in fulfilling their economic goals. The two scholars believed that a crime was seen by street gangs as a way of life. Hence, if members of a gang regard criminal deeds as a legitimate way to achieve success, they will sooner or later become serious offenders.
According to the Differential Opportunity Theory, young members of criminal street gangs are in conflict with the society, particularly with its norms and values that do not meet norms and values of young criminals. Cloward and Ohlin stated that young men and women might not necessarily be involved in gang activities, but if they were facing the choice to participate in a criminal street gang, they would do so. Compared to Thrasher’ and Bloch and Niederhoffer’ studies, as well as the Strain and Social Learning Theories, Cloward and Ohlin’s criminological theory argued that young gang members immersed themselves in different types of illegal activities in order to gain monetary success. However, the Differential Opportunity Theory differs from the Thrasher’s theory because it does not consider a street gang to be a family-like institution. At the same time, it becomes obvious that, according to both theories, the society has a great impact on the youth involved into criminal street gangs.
Adolescent delinquency is a serious issue of the contemporary society that has to be solved. While the growth of youth gangs started in the 1980s, the answer for the question why young people are engaged in illegal acts remains the same, i.e. the society has a great impact on those young men and women, which determines their future. Several criminological theories, in particular the Strain Theory, the Social Learning Theory, as well as studies of Frederic Thrasher, Bloch and Niederhoffer, Cloward and Ohlin, share one similar feature, which is the fact that the cause for adolescent involvement in criminal street gangs is youths’ inability to fulfill socio-economic standards of the society. At the same time, the above theories single out the following causes for involvement of young men and women in criminal street gangs: poor housing, economic discontent, studying failure, absence of role models, and the lack of psychological and social support.