James Densley, “Street Gang Recruitment: Signaling, Screening, and Selection,” Social Problems, September 2012

What Stringer Bell Can Teach Us about Gangs

Just over a year ago, the UK was rocked by five days of rioting and looting that spanned across London and forty-six other local areas. Denouncing the violence as evidence of uncontrolled mobs, Prime Minister David Cameron and Tory politicians declared an “all-out war on gangs and gang culture.” Yet the prevailing stereotype of chaotic, irrationally violent gangs has meant that the ensuing government policies have largely failed. Some have even backfired.

In this recent research (Social Problems, September 2012), Oxford’s James Densley outlines the real operation of gang violence. Examining gang recruitment in London, Densley argues that gangs actually place a premium on a potential recruit’s established reputation for using effective, yet “disciplined violence.” By recruiting talented but discerning fighters, a gang increases its own collective reputation for violence, thus limiting the actual amount of violence in which its members will need to engage. Fear over fists, if you will. Furthermore, Densley refers to instances in which gangs have actually “taken out” their members with reputations for indiscriminate violence—these unpredictable members were more of a liability than an asset to the group.

A far cry from the image of riotous youth, the portrait that Densley paints of the “ideal” gang recruit most closely hews to “The Wire’s” Stringer Bell, who ran his gang’s meetings with Roberts’ Rules of Order, than the “feral underclass” that politicians and pundits love to villainize.

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