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Convention Versus Deviance: Moral Agency in Adolescent Gang Members' Decision Making. Subst Use Misuse 2017 Apr 16;52(5):562-573



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Pubmed Central ID




Scopus ID

2-s2.0-85007228633   2 Citations


BACKGROUND: Adolescent gang members are a source of concern due to their involvement in criminal activity, violence, substance use, and high-risk sexual behaviors. Adolescent gang theories hypothesize that social institutions, including the family and school, fail to meet the needs of adolescents who therefore feel less attachment to these institutions and find an unconventional institution (i.e. the gang) to meet these needs through the gang.

OBJECTIVES: In this paper, we will examine the extent to which social disorganization and social control theories, in particular the rejection of conventional norms and aspirations, match adolescents' subjective reasons for their decisions and their future aspirations.

METHODS: Between 2012 and 2013, we conducted in-depth interviews with 58 gang members between the ages of 14 to 19. Interviews were coded for key themes using the constant comparison method.

RESULTS: Social disorganization and social control theories have both value and limitations in explaining reasons why adolescents join gangs and engage in criminal behaviors. Participants saw many of their aspirations blocked by negative school experiences and limited economic opportunities. Gangs provided a social organization in which to sell drugs. However, gang members did not reject conventional norms and aspirations. Rather, they view themselves as making decisions to survive in the present while recognizing that these strategies will not continue to work in the future.

CONCLUSIONS: Gang members value education and aspire to obtain legal employment. Thus, interventions to help adolescent gang members with the immediate financial pressures that lead them to sell drugs may be particularly effective.

Author List

Dickson-Gomez J, Pacella M, Broaddus MR, Quinn K, Galletly C, Rivas J


Michelle R. Broaddus PhD Associate Professor in the Psychiatry department at Medical College of Wisconsin
Julia Dickson-Gomez PhD Professor in the Institute for Health and Equity department at Medical College of Wisconsin
Carol L. Galletly JD, PhD Associate Professor in the Psychiatry department at Medical College of Wisconsin
Katherine Quinn PhD Associate Professor in the Psychiatry department at Medical College of Wisconsin

MESH terms used to index this publication - Major topics in bold

Decision Making
Interviews as Topic
Juvenile Delinquency
Social Control, Formal
Young Adult