The Evolution of Women's Gangs in an Impoverished African American Community in Champaign, Illinois

Mark S. Fleisher, Illinois State University
Jessie Krienert, Illinois State University
Svetlana Shinkareva, University of Illinois

This paper argues that in the socio-cultural context of an African American community defined by long-term persistent poverty, women's gangs are a cultural mechanism to structurally block social ties that link males and females to survival resources. Social network data show that women's gangs are distributed (v. hierarchical) networks comprised of intersecting structurally equivalent ego networks containing local-level resources necessary to network members (housing, food, protection, social and emotional support). A distributed network is less likely to be destabilized (and therefore threaten gang members' access to resources) by the removal of a "leader" or "central" figure than a hierarchical network. Redundant ego networks provide a safety net of food, housing, protection, and social and emotional support, and ensure that if an individual/s are removed, other members will not suffer significant resource losses. Strong ties in ego-gang distributed networks rely on trusted prior contacts among gang members developed in school, the neighborhood, and/or natal and extended family. Such social contact is likely to be established well before women report an affiliation to a gang group. Women gain primary access to gang networks and network resources through family ties (father, uncles, aunts, elder brothers or sisters, sister's boyfriends, stepparent/s). Women's ego-gang network ties are more covert than men's and may appear weak or dormant until being activated by need. This paper offers an analysis of multidimensional sociological data and a social network analysis gathered in a field study in Champaign, Illinois, funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

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Updated 05/20/2006