Participants were approached on the street in their neighborhoods, while "hanging out" in front of their homes, in parks, and in a number of similar sites. They were asked the series of questions on the formal questionnaire below. They were then interviewed informally. To qualify for participation in the study, they had to meet the criteria of being:
(a) acknowledged members of a gang
(b) between the ages of 14 and 24

or they had to be

(c) non-gang affiliated youths
(d) in the same age range and
(e) from the same neighborhood.

Post-questionnaire conversations and idle chit-chat comments were recorded at the bottom of the questionnaire when relevant. Teachers, school administrators, parents and extended family members (when available) were also drawn into these conversations.

Gang membership was verified by other participants who were usually quick to tell if an interviewee was "hard core," or "putting you on" or just a friend of the gang --an associate of sorts, or "wanna be." This method is consistent with Moore (l978) and Vigil (l988) and Padilla (1992)--three researchers, all of whom attempted to explore gang membership by directly recruiting subjects on the streets in their own environs.


First Name or Nickname___________________________

Grade in now / or Last Grade Completed _______________

l. What do you remember about elementary school? (For example, friends? teachers? it was fun? it was boring? aides?)

2. Did you enjoy going to elementary school? Why/why not?

3. Do you remember any of teacher's names? If so, what do you remember about Mr/Ms____________________?

4. Did your friends get in trouble in grades K-6? If so, for what reasons?

5. Did you ever get in trouble at home for not doing your homework? If so, give details and tell what punishment you received. (or No punishment)

6. Did your parents ever receive a complaint, a note, or a phone call from a teacher when you were in grade K through 6? If so, tell what happened.
7. How was/is your relationship with your Mom?

8. How was/is your relationship with your Dad?

9. Is there anyone else whom you feel really cares about you or whom you do not want to disappoint--aunt, uncle, grandmother, older brother or sister, etc? Tell who and why you feel this way.

10. Were you treated fairly at home? _______________Did other brothers or sisters get better or worse treatment than you? If so, tell why you think so or give an example.

11. Why joined/ not joined?

12. Why dropped out? Why continued education?

13. Do you have any relatives that have done time (or are currently incarcerated)? If so, who --what relative:

Notations and other interview outcomes:



Methodological difficulties abound in investigating gangs. Members do not, as a rule, talk to researchers, anthropologists, sociologists, etc. Other studies concur (Thompson and Jason 1988:325).

Similar field interviews were conducted with 35 gang members regarding their views on various topics in 1992 (Barron and Tindall 1992). Self report, the method in which participants are asked questions about their behavior, is generally considered a rather poor way of observing behavior in the social sciences especially in this type of in-depth investigation (Nettler, l978:107). Most of us have an ideal self and a real self; the two usually become confused in disclosing information about ourselves.

Therefore, after each interview it was important to engage in chit-chat as it were, not only to observe behavior in a more naturalistic conversation, but because during those times, friends often came by and confirmed or corrected data reported on the questionnaires. They also confirmed gang affiliation or non affiliation, and provided further subjects since most also met the criteria for participation in the experimental design.

Gang affiliated youths interviewed 350
Non-Gang affiliated youths interviewed 375
Parents of gang affiliated youths interviewed 85
Extended Family members of gang youths 68
Parents of non-gang affiliated youths 94
Extended Family members of non-gang youths 87

To begin an interview, a likely participant was approached and asked to fill out the survey form with the researcher reading the questions enabling the interviewer to actually walk the participant through the form assuring more complete responses. This also eliminated embarrassing the participant whose reading skills were often severely limited.

Code-switching from English to Spanish was used and unquestionably created a more comfortable and casual speech register. Some participants were monolingual, usually English monolingual, in which case the participant was, of course, interviewed in a single language with no code-switching. A great many of those approached were completely unwilling to be interviewed; some participated only after peers had filled out the questionnaire. Others simply declined no matter how much coaxing.

Another methodological problem lies in accurately identifying youth who are truly gang affiliated. However, in order to investigate why some youngsters come out of these same environments fairly unscathed, this project also required the participation of non-gang affiliated youths from these neighborhoods. Thus, any cooperative youth was approached and eliminated later based on the independent variables that became evident.

Verification of gang affiliation was extremely important and often petitioned from other youths both gang-affiliated and non-gang. Within the neighborhoods, most young people clearly know who is and who is not affiliated.

Among some gang members, cooperating with this research was perceived as a form of "snitching" although they were assured that nothing they said would be turned into law enforcement agencies or in any way used against them or their group.

The project was repeatedly defined as purely academic and for the purpose of early intervention with "pee-wees." Strangely enough, most gang members approved of this objective and did not recommend their lifestyle for the little ones. At cross purposes, however, is the fact that "peewees" are allowed to "hang out" with the gang. Many are younger siblings, cousins, and nephews of the members. Sadly, in these neighborhoods even toddlers are often dressed in gang attire by their siblings and/or mothers as though they were being groomed to join the gangs later.
Carbas: "It's a very individual thing. If you got no other place to go, then --o.k., but for the little chamaquitos, they're better off trying to make it in school if they can or with their parents if they got some. This ain't no good for them" (Carbas-- nickname for Carbajal surname, Age 24.)

Peewees in this study were between the ages of 8 to 12 and were not formally interviewed, but did participate in the post interview conversations.

Thus far, 124 of the gang-affiliated were in youth incarceration facilities in Los Angeles County. These young people were interviewed by graduate assistants who are teachers in these facilities.Further interviews are currently underway through the CYA as well as on the streets.

All interviewing assistants followed the same methodological procedures and had to be over 40 years of age. They were frequently accompanied by the principal investigator. A field assistant, age 25, occasionally accompanied the principal investigator to help carry recording equipment, pencils, questionnaire forms, etc. Permission to record was not easily obtained; thus, very few interviews were taped.

Parents who were available and willing were also questioned. Some aunts, uncles, and other members of extended family occasionally volunteered as well. These subjects were merely asked:

(a) Is your son/daughter/niece/nephew etc.--in a gang?
If the answer was "no" --why/or what do you think has kept him/her out?

(b) Were you ever in a street gang yourself?

(c) What do you want for this child now and in the future?

When interviews were conducted near a school (a favorite hang out for gang-bangers), teachers and a few administrators were occasionally drawn into conversation. Educators views would have certainly been pertinent, but were beyond the scope of this research.

Other frequently used techniques in this type of urban ethnography include field-based snowball sampling methods (Decker & Van Winkle l994) which work similarly to the sampling approach used here.

Research is accruing rapidly on the social conditions and neighborhoods that promote violence. Harsh experiences and dysfunctional upbringing spiral into an intergenerational legacy of gang membership and brutality.

Return to Table of Contents