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Social network position of gang members in schools: Implications for recruitment and gang prevention

Gallupe, Owen & Gravel, Jason (2018). Social network position of gang members in schools: Implications for recruitment and gang prevention. Justice Quarterly, 35(3). 505-525.

Published onMay 19, 2017
Social network position of gang members in schools: Implications for recruitment and gang prevention


Schools are venues in which gang and non-gang involved youth converge. It is therefore a likely venue for gang recruitment. The extent to which this occurs depends upon the ability of gang members to connect with non-gang members. In this study, we compare the social network positions of high social status gang members who are well integrated into school networks with low status members who are not. Using network data from the Add Health study (n=1822), we find that not only are high status gang members strongly embedded within school networks, but that this status is driven by their ability to connect with non-gang members rather than other gang members (indicated by the high number of friendship nominations they receive from non-gang members). These gang members are potentially in optimal positions to influence others to join gangs. The implications of these results for school-based gang prevention programs are discussed.

Funding acknowledgement

This research was supported by a University of Waterloo Faculty of Arts Starter Grant.


This research uses data from Add Health, a program project directed by Kathleen Mullan Harris and designed by J. Richard Udry, Peter S. Bearman, and Kathleen Mullan Harris at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and funded by grant P01-HD31921 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, with cooperative funding from 23 other federal agencies and foundations. Special acknowledgment is due Ronald R. Rindfuss and Barbara Entwisle for assistance in the original design. Information on how to obtain the Add Health data files is available on the Add Health website ( No direct support was received from grant P01-HD31921 for this analysis.


Gang; social networks; schools; recruitment; treatment effects

The study of school peer networks has taught us much about peer influences on delinquency. Social network data in particular has allowed researchers to examine how certain structural positions in these networks moderate the peer-delinquency relationship. For instance, Haynie (2001) found that peer delinquency has a greater influence on adolescents’ own delinquency when the adolescent occupies a central position, in a dense network, and when they are popular (i.e., nominated as friends by many others). Visibility and popularity in networks grants people in these positions significant power over their peers (e.g., Adler & Adler, 1998). Researchers have found that affiliation with adolescents perceived to be popular by their peers is significantly associated with the adoption of aggressive and antisocial norms and behavior (Cohen & Prinstein, 2006; Rose, Swenson, & Waller, 2004). Adolescents are more likely to espouse deviant attitudes and engage in delinquent behavior when they believe that high-status peers endorse such attitudes and behaviors (Cohen & Prinstein, 2006).

Extending this line of research on the importance of network position to the study of gangs, the premise for the present study is that the social organization of school peer networks makes schools an ideal setting for youths to become exposed to, and recruited1 into, youth gangs. We base this assumption on two empirical observations. First, research has shown that youths join gangs on average between 11 and 15 years old (e.g., Pyrooz, 2014a), a time when much of their lives are spent in a classroom. Although schools are often thought of as environments where pupils learn to internalize prosocial attitudes, Garot (2010) points out that they are also important settings where gang members can perform their gang identities. Second, although little research has specifically examined gang recruitment strategies, Densley's (2012) work suggests that gang recruitment occurs in a context where gang “recruiters” and prospective members share a similar social environment. Pyrooz and Densley (2016) point out that recruitment is a negotiated process by which prospective members are likely to approach the gang, and the gang ultimately evaluates the suitability of the member by identifying signals of trustworthiness. The exchanges necessary for the identification of these signals require at least some overlap between the gang's social circle and the social circles of prospective members. Although Densley's (2012) research points to the importance of neighborhoods as settings for such exchanges, we posit that school networks can potentially play an important role in the recruitment process as well.

The current study seeks to examine whether gang members occupy positions of influence in school peer networks that could potentially make them effective recruiters. We are not specifically testing whether gang members recruit others through school networks, but rather we are interested in examining whether gang members are at a disadvantage in prosocial peer networks. As we explain below, on the one hand there are many reasons to believe that gang members would be less likely to attain high social status in a school network. On the other hand, gang members, like most youths, do attend school, and given the association between popularity and other measures of delinquency, it is not inconceivable that some gang members could occupy central and visible positions in school networks. To the extent that gang members enjoy high social status and this status is not simply derived from their connections to fellow gang members at the school, we may hypothesize that these gang members could be in unique positions of influence, and thus, potentially effective recruiters.

Gang members' presence in school networks

Past research on gangs suggests that many factors would make it difficult for members to attain positions of influence in school networks. For one, gang members are more likely to be dropouts, diminishing their possible influence in schools (e.g., Pyrooz, 2014b). Moreover, in recent years, schools have adopted increasingly punitive zero-tolerance policies to respond to perceived threats of violence (e.g., Gerlinger & Wo, 2016), many specifically targeting gang behaviors (Arciaga, Sakamoto, & Jones, 2010). Such policies often lead to suspensions and expulsions, which would further reduce gang members’ presence in schools.

Even if they are present in schools, most theoretical frameworks suggest that gang members would be only peripheral members to the school's social life. Subcultural theories (e.g., Cloward & Ohlin, 1960; Cohen, 1955; Miller, 1958), life-course theories (e.g., Pyrooz & Sweeten, 2015), control theories (e.g., Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990; Hirschi, 1969), and interactional theories (e.g., Thornberry, 1987) all suggest that the behaviors, attitudes, and values of gang members would lead them to become outsiders in prosocial networks. Furthermore, researchers have often found gang members to exhibit traits and behavior that characterize a general pattern of social disability (Short & Strodtbeck, 1965). Sanchez Jankowski (1991) argued that gang members tended to exhibit “defiant individualism” (p. 23) which is associated with a general sense of mistrust in others and social isolation. More recently, Vasquez, Osman, and Wood (2012) found that gang members were more likely to ruminate about adverse situations and redirect aggression towards innocent others. These findings are consistent with Hirschi's (1969) and Gottfredson and Hirschi's (1990) general argument that delinquents are likely to alienate others and therefore possess low levels of social status.

However, empirical research has presented evidence showing that delinquents tend to possess reasonable levels of social skills (Baerveldt, Van Rossem, Vermande, & Weerman, 2004; Giordano, Cernkovich, & Pugh, 1986; Houtzager & Baerveldt, 1999; Smångs, 2010). Furthermore, although gang members may be drawn to the delinquent, anti-social network that is their gang, it does not preclude them from participating in other networks. Decker and Van Winkle (1996) found that although gang members' association with most legal social institutions (e.g., recreation, church, job market, neighborhood clubs) dramatically decreased after joining, a substantial proportion of their sample remained in school often far beyond the time when youth were legally obligated to attend. Given that most ties to social circles outside the gang are severed upon joining, school, for many gang involved youth, is one of the only settings where they interact with non-gang youth (Decker & Van Winkle, 1996). Furthermore, Decker and Van Winkle (1996, p. 204) observed that the structure and schedule of school life “restrict gang members' tendency exclusively to relate to fellow gang members.”

Participation in networks that are not saturated with gang members is likely crucial to ensuring the resiliency of gangs. Researchers have consistently found that most gang members remain affiliated with the gang between 1 and 3 years (Esbensen & Huizinga, 1993; Gordon et al., 2004; Hill, Howell, Hawkins, & Battin-Pearson, 1999; Melde, Diem, & Drake, 2012; Pyrooz, 2014a; Pyrooz, Sweeten, & Piquero, 2013; Thornberry, Krohn, Lizotte, Smith, & Tobin, 2003). Yet, gangs often survive for decades despite high membership turnover. Such resiliency is in part possible because of a constant influx of new members. Gang members who are embedded in school networks may play a key role in connecting potential recruits to the gang. Yet, very little research has provided any in-depth examination of gang members in school settings. This is somewhat surprising given that schools are an important area for gang prevention and intervention (Esbensen & Osgood, 1999; Wong, Gravel, Bouchard, Descormiers, & Morselli, 2016).

Even if recruitment does not occur on school grounds or even when prospective gang members become members after they have left school, the relationships individuals maintain during this time are likely to be an important factor in facilitating gang joining. As Thrasher (1927) pointed out almost a century ago, gangs emerge from “spontaneous play-groups” (p. 25) and sometimes arise when individuals “are brought together by some interested agency” where a “conventional form of organization is imposed, and activities are directed and supervised” (p. 28). Although Thrasher (1927) spoke specifically about “clubs” such as dance clubs and sports teams, schools play the same basic role as these conventional organizations in bringing together youths who otherwise may have never known one another.

Network position, influence, and gang joining

The structure of ties among network members has implications for the influence that individuals hold relative to others. Powerful network members tend to be those who are highly connected (Freeman, 1978), have ties with others who are well connected (Bonacich, 1987)2, and who act as a link between otherwise disconnected groups (Burt, 1992). These people hold desirable positions within the network as they receive more attention than others (Vaughn & Waters, 1981) and play a key role in determining the actions and attitudes that are considered to be acceptable and unacceptable (Brown, 2004). Others seeking to enhance their own social status are likely to emulate those possessing social power. This dynamic is present in Sutherland’s differential association theory (Sutherland & Cressey, 1978, p. 81) in which he notes the importance of “the prestige of the source of a criminal or anticriminal pattern” in determining the criminogenic impact of associations. Criminological (or related) studies have highlighted the fact that people with high social status exert a greater influence than others on the deviant behavior of peers (Cohen & Prinstein, 2006; Haynie, 2001).

In the context of school-based gang recruitment, then, we would expect that gang members who occupy positions of high social status3 in the school are likely to make gang membership seem more appealing to people outside the gang who see high status gang members enjoying social benefits. This is likely to operate even in the absence of any active recruiting efforts. That is, the mere sight of gang members receiving social attention may be enough to make gang membership a more appealing option than it otherwise would be. Similar dynamics have been investigated in other contexts. For example, Gallupe (2016) found that schools with a greater proportion of students who were both highly delinquent and highly popular tended to have higher levels of offending regardless of whether a direct connection existed between network members. He attributed this to a modeling effect whereby the delinquency of high status others was conflated with their popularity making delinquency more attractive to others due to its perceived link to popularity. Other research has supported the behavioral importance of this type of indirect network connection on delinquency (Payne & Cornwell, 2007), drinking (Kreager & Haynie, 2011), and sexual activity (Warner, Giordano, Manning, & Longmore, 2011).

In this paper, then, our goal is to investigate two research questions: 1) Can gang members achieve high levels of social status in a school-based network?, and 2) If so, is this status driven by their connections to other gang members? The social disability hypothesis suggests that gang members would be peripheral in prosocial networks and have a tendency to gravitate towards other gang members. Under these circumstances, gang members are unlikely to have significant enough influence to persuade others to join gangs. Conversely, research examining the relationship between status in peer networks and delinquency suggests that some delinquents are indeed able to garner popularity and therefore can be found in positions where they can exert significant influence on the behavior of their peers. If gang members do indeed occupy such positions in school networks and this status is driven by connecting to people outside the gang, it would be reasonable to believe that these members could influence peers to join a gang or at the very least possess favorable views of the gang simply by making the gang more attractive by virtue of their high social status.



The data used in this study were from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health) ( Add Health is a large, representative school-based sample of American youth in the seventh through twelfth grades at the first wave of collection (1994-5). There have been four waves of data collection with a fifth wave being collected in 2016-2018. We focused on the second wave (1996) and limited our analysis to the two large high schools in the “saturation sample.” There are a number of reasons for this. The first reason is that there was no gang membership item collected at wave 1. The second reason is that our interests in social network position necessitated the use of full network sociometric data, something that was only collected for 16 schools (the saturation sample) at wave 2. The saturation sample consisted of 14 small schools (mean=67 students per school at wave 2) and two large schools ( in which an effort was made to sample the whole network longitudinally. One of the large schools (n=635; gang n=22) was from a mid-sized, predominantly white city; the other (n=1187; gang n=101) was from an ethnically heterogeneous metropolitan area (total n=1834).4 Four of the small saturation schools had no gang members and the small saturation school with the largest number of gang members had only six. The average small saturation school had 2.4 gang members in it. Given such low prevalence rates, we decided against including students from these schools in the analysis. The implication of using schools from the saturation sample is that this study is not representative of all adolescents who were in American schools in the mid-1990s.


Gang membership was defined by a question asking if the participant had “been initiated into a named gang” (yes/no). Although a measure of current membership would likely be more precise than a measure that captures whether a youth was ever a gang member, past research has found such measures to be robust and reliable indicators of gang membership (Esbensen, Winfree, He, & Taylor, 2001). Prior research using Add Health found the same measure to be associated with a greater involvement in group fights, “an activity typical to gang members” (Suh, Brashears, & Genkin, 2016, p. 284). In the subset of the data we used, we examined the relationship between the gang membership item and group fighting in the past 12 months and found them to be strongly related. Among those not reporting having been initiated into a gang, 17% indicated that they participated in a group fight in the last year compared to 64% of those reporting gang membership (p<.05). This lends support to the idea that the majority of people reporting gang membership were current (or at least recent) gang members. It is possible, however, that some of the people reporting that they had been initiated into a gang had left the gang by the time they participated in the survey. Potential implications of this are discussed in the Limitations section.

Sociometric data were collected by asking participants to nominate up to five male and five female friends in the school (“tell me the name of your 5 best male/female friends”). The following variables measure network position within the school. In-degree is a count of the number of friendship nominations received from others. This is also divided into the number of friendship nominations received from other gang members (# gang friends – in-network) and people from outside of the gang (# non-gang friends – in-network). We also created a measure of the proportion of gang alters by dividing the number of nominations received from gang members by the total number of nominations received. Bonacich centrality combines elements of connectivity with the connectivity of peers with the idea that a person who scores highly on this measure has many friends who are highly connected themselves (beta=0.1) (Bonacich, 1987). Reach in three steps is the number of others a person can connect to within three ties. The measures listed above were created using the receive-network (incoming ties only). Effective size (Burt, 1992) is a measure of the redundancy in the network. Those whose networks exhibit greater effective size are connected to a greater number of unconnected groups. Large effective network size is thought to bring informational benefits (since people within the same group are subject to the same set of knowledge) while facilitating the spread of influence to those various groups.

We also accounted for the tendency of individuals to send friendship nominations to others. Activity (out-degree) is a count of the number of friendship nominations sent to others. This is divided into the number of gang members that a person nominates as a friend (# gang friends – out-network) and the number of nominations of non-gang members (# non-gang friends – out-network).

The distinction between high and low status gang members was determined using in-degree, a common measure of popularity. Gang members who scored greater than one standard deviation above the gang member mean on in-degree were considered to possess high social status (106 low status gang members; 17 high status gang members).5


We used treatment effects analysis (e.g., Loughran & Mulvey, 2010; Morgan & Harding, 2006; Morgan & Winship, 2007) to estimate group differences between a) gang and non-gang members and b) high status and low status gang members. More specifically, we used inverse-probability-weighted regression adjustment (IPWRA) to generate the potential outcome means, average treatment effects (ATE), and significance tests as IPWRA is doubly robust (i.e., even if only one of the treatment model or outcome model is properly specified, the estimates will be accurate) (Wooldridge, 2007, 2010).

The treatment and outcomes were modeled using a variety of sociodemographic characteristics as well as variables that previous research has found to be theoretically or empirically related to gang membership and delinquency more broadly. These include age (in years), delinquency, peer delinquency, gender (0=female, 1=male), race6 (0=not white, 1=white), socioeconomic status (SES), alcohol use (past 12 months; 0=never to 6=every day/almost every day), cannabis use (“Since [previous wave - ~1 year], have you tried or used marijuana?”; 0=no, 1=yes), attachment to school, friends, and parents, and grades. Following the work of Haynie (2001, 2002), the delinquency measure was a summation of 14 dichotomous indicators of offending behavior in the past year (0=no involvement, 1=at least once). Peer delinquency was the average score on the delinquency measure of the people who nominated each individual as a friend (in-network). The SES variable was created by combining items measuring parents’ occupation and education (see Bearman, Moody, & Stovel, 2004; Young, 2011).7 Attachment to school was measured by taking the average of three items asking participants to rate their agreement with the following statements: “You feel close to people at your school”; “You feel like you are a part of your school”; and “You are happy to be at your school” (all coded 1=strongly disagree to 5=strongly agree). Attachment to friends was measured by the following question: “How much do you feel that your friends care about you?” (1=not at all to 5=very much). Attachment to parents was the average of four items: “How close do you feel to your [mom/dad]?” (1=not close at all to 5=extremely close) and “How much do you think she/he cares about you?” (1=not at all to 5=very much) (separate items for mothers and fathers). For those with a single parent, the two-item average was taken. Grades was the average of their most recent grades across mathematics, English, science, and history/social sciences (for the courses that they took) (1=D or lower to 4=A). Descriptive statistics for all variables are displayed in table 1.

Table 1. Descriptive statistics.





Gang member (=1)










Bonacich (in-network)





Reach in 3 steps (in-network)





Effective size





# gang friends (in-network)





# non-gang friends (in-network)





Proportion gang alters (in-network)





Activity (out-degree)





# gang friends (out-network)





# non-gang friends (out-network)















Peer delinquency





Male (=1)





White (=1)










Alcohol use





Cannabis use (=1)





Attachment to school





Attachment to friends





Attachment to parents











Figure 1 shows the full network for one of the schools. The important thing to notice is that gang members were not separated into cliques in any obvious way. Instead they were linked to both gang and non-gang affiliated adolescents. Like those not in gangs, some gang members were central while others were peripheral.

Figure 1. Full network for one school.

Isolates removed.

Circles=non-gang members

Triangles=gang members

Figure 2 provides an example of the connectivity between gang and non-gang members. It includes alters within two ties of the focal gang member (ego). It shows that this gang member had ties to other gang members but was also highly connected and central in a network that consisted predominantly of adolescents not in a gang.

Figure 2. Example network subsection – alters within two ties of ego.

Square=Ego (gang member)

Circles=non-gang members

Triangles=gang members

In table 2, we can see that, for the most part, social status was statistically equivalent for gang and non-gang members (p>.05). Gang members received the same number of friendship nominations from others (mean in-degree=1.76) as non-gang members (mean=2.02). There were also no differences in terms of possessing connections to more highly connected alters between gang members (mean Bonacich centrality=3.18) and non-gang members (mean=3.08). Similarly, there were no differences in the size of the broader network surrounding gang members (mean reach in three steps=14.85) compared to non-gang members (mean=13.20). However, gang members were slightly less adept at bridging between groups (mean effective size=2.35) compared to non-gang members (mean=2.76). For the most part, these results suggest that gang members are neither privileged nor disadvantaged in their standing in networks comprised predominantly of non-gang members. Further, there appears to be little evidence for age differences between gang (mean=17.38) and non-gang members (mean=17.24).

Table 2. Network characteristics of non-gang members versus gang members (IPWRA models).

Potential outcome means










Bonacich (in-network)





Reach in 3 steps (in-network)





Effective size













Weighted n



* p<.05


Test of covariate balance: Chi-square=14.23, p>.05

aAge not included as a control variable.

bAverage treatment effect: gang versus non-gang.

When shifting our focus to the group of high status gang members, we start to see how they occupy positions that could be advantageous for purposes of recruiting. Unsurprisingly given that status is defined using in-degree centrality, high status gang members received more friendship nominations (mean in-degree=2.87) than low status gang members (mean=0.76). The results reported in Table 3 highlight the fact that with high status comes the increased ability to navigate social networks. Compared to those with low status, high status gang members were also tied to more highly connected others (Bonacich p<.05), occupied stronger brokerage positions between groups (effective size p<.05), and could reach a greater number of alters within three ties (reach in three steps; though despite the substantial difference in potential outcome means, at p=.107 it did not reach statistical significance).

Table 3. Network characteristics of low status gang members versus high status gang members (IPWRA models).

Potential outcome means

Low status

High status








Bonacich (in-network)





Reach in 3 steps (in-network)





Effective size





# gang friends (in-network)





# non-gang friends (in-network)





Proportion gang alters (in-network)





Activity (out-degree)





# gang friends (out-network)





# non-gang friends (out-network)


















Weighted n



* p<.05, ** p<.01


Test of covariate balance: Chi-square=1.31, p>.05

aAge not included as a control variable.

bAverage treatment effect: high status gang members versus low status gang members.

However, in-degree, Bonacich centrality, reach in three steps, and effective size reflect patterns of ties to anyone in the network regardless of gang membership status. When focusing on network characteristics relevant to recruiting, it is informative to specifically examine gang versus non-gang ties. There was no difference between low status (mean=0.22) and high status gang involved youths (mean=0.34) in the raw number of friendship nominations received from other gang members. Similarly, there was no difference in the proportion of friends who were in gangs for low status (mean=0.11) and high status gang members (mean=0.07). Where we see significant differences between high and low status gang members is in the level of connectivity to alters who were not involved with gangs. On average, low status gang members received less than one friendship nomination from someone who was not a gang member (mean=0.53) compared to high status gang members who received over two friendship nominations from non-gang alters (mean=2.52). Since these measures were derived from nominations of the individual by others, the popularity of these gang members among non-gang youths was not driven by their nominating of others as friends. Not surprisingly, however, high status gang members were more active in nominating others as friends (activity p<.05), particularly non-gang members (out-network: non-gang p<.05). There was no difference between high and low status gang members in their tendency to nominate other gang members as friends (out-network: gang p>.05). These results present a picture of high status gang members as both appealing to non-gang members as friends and who find non-gang members appealing as friends. There were no age differences between high status (mean=17.30) and low status gang members (mean=17.23).

We argue that the position of high status gang members in the school network places them in optimal positions for recruiting others into the gang. However, we must acknowledge the alternative hypothesis that gang members who hold peripheral positions in the school network (i.e., low status members) may actually be more effective at recruiting others to join the gang, even if their pool of potential recruits is more limited. Since individuals have finite resources of time and energy to devote to each of the social circles they frequent, spending substantial effort to maintain relationships in one network, as high status gang members appear to be doing in school, may in fact weaken one's embeddedness in another network (e.g., Granovetter, 1985). In other words, central gang members in the school network may be peripheral members of their gang. If that were the case, their peripheral position in the gang would likely restrict their ability to vouch for new members. In fact, one could argue that peripheral members of the school network are individuals who are withdrawn from the prosocial network and more likely to spend more time with delinquent gang members outside of school. As Pyrooz et al. (2013, p. 257) point out, “[e]fforts devoted to maintaining a social connection to the gang will preclude growth in social and human capital in other important social realms, such as education and employment.”

Since we have no information about connections outside of the school, it is difficult to assess whether high or low status gang members are more embedded in their gang’s network. However, when we compared the delinquency of high (mean= 3.14) and low status gang members (mean=5.30) we found that low status members were significantly more delinquent which may reflect a greater embeddedness in the gang since embeddedness in criminal networks is associated with increased offending (e.g., Hagan, 1993). The implication is that gang members who have high status in school networks may have less influence within the gang. It may be best, then, to think of these high status gang members as points of contact (weak ties) with the gang through which the recruitment process operates.


Our results suggest that some gang members may actually be important players in the school social world. We have shown that some gang members receive many friendship nominations, mostly from non-gang members. These high status gang members tended to have many friends (high in-degree), were socially prominent (high Bonacich centrality), and had the ability to bridge different social groups (high effective size). Importantly, gang members regardless of their status were not found in cliques of gang members. This finding might suggest that gang members can act as bridges between the gang and the broader school network.

Given that the network data we used does not include relationships outside of the school, we do not know how well these individuals are connected to their respective gangs. What our analyses suggest, though, is that when in school, gang members were no more likely to befriend other gang members than non-gang members were. It is likely that gang members have many more friends who are also gang members, but these people do not appear in the school network. Gang members in school networks could potentially act as “weak ties” between non-gang members and their gang. Weak ties are crucial to diffusion processes in social networks as they allow information and behaviors to spread to otherwise disconnected regions of the network (e.g., Centola, 2010; Granovetter, 1973). In other words, schools appear to be an important context where gang members and non-gang members interact and therefore a potentially important social conduit to street gangs.

The ability of gang members to act as bridges between the school and the gang would be greatly reduced if gang members limited their school friendships to other gang members, but also if they were isolated actors within the school social world. Gang members are often described as antisocial and violent individuals with weak bonds to prosocial institutions (e.g., Thornberry, 1987). Prior research has also shown that once youths join a gang, most of their activities occur with other gang members and relationships outside the gang tend to fall apart (Decker & Van Winkle, 1996; Pyrooz et al., 2013; Thornberry et al., 2003). Although we find a group of gang members that are not particularly well integrated into school friendship networks, others are actually rather popular students at school. These high-status gang members occupy positions that allow them to potentially influence many others. Their positions certainly would make them effective recruiters for the gang. Even if they do not engage explicitly in recruitment, high status gang members are visible actors at the school and others may be seduced by the prospect of joining a gang given the social standing these members enjoy.

These findings have important implications for gang membership prevention and intervention. Many researchers have argued that better targeting of at-risk youths is necessary to increase the effectiveness of current prevention and intervention strategies (Gravel, Bouchard, Descormiers, Wong, & Morselli, 2013; Klein & Maxson, 2006; Wong et al., 2016). Social network analysis has been used as a targeting tool in other types of gang control strategies (e.g., McGloin, 2005; Papachristos & Kirk, 2015), and our study suggests that it could provide an important tool for school-based programs as well. It is apparent that schools act as “double-edged swords” (to quote an anonymous reviewer). They are a location in which students can connect to prosocial peers, teachers, and programs which tend to exert protective influences against offending (Hirschi, 1969). They are also a setting where students can access antisocial influences. Therefore, the effect of schools on individual outcomes depends upon how individuals navigate the various countervailing influences. For those not strongly committed to or against gang membership, maximizing prosocial influences by increasing exposure to gang prevention programs (e.g., Esbensen, Peterson, Taylor, & Osgood, 2012) may be enough to dissuade a portion of students from joining. Prior studies have shown the structure of, and position in, school peer networks can influence involvement in delinquency (Burt & Rees, 2015; Gallupe, 2016; Haynie, 2001; McGloin & Shermer, 2009; McGloin, Sullivan, & Thomas, 2014). Related to the fact that schools provide a venue for students to connect with prosocial influences, an important focus for future research would be to examine social network influences on gang desistance.

More research is needed in order to understand how status, brokerage, and network reach may influence gang joining. However, we know from research in other settings that individuals with strong network positions have a greater ability than others to influence behavior (e.g., Burt, 1992; 2004; Lin, 2001). High status gang members in our study occupy such positions, and it could be argued that non-gang members nominating these individuals are at a greater risk to join a gang then those connected with low-status gang members. In other words, the ability of gang members to influence others in the school network may be dependent on their position within the network. Much like community-based gang intervention programs that target highly connected gang members to deliver their deterrent message (e.g., Braga, Hureau, & Papachristos, 2014; Papachristos & Kirk, 2015), school-based programs could potentially increase their effectiveness by targeting high status gang members.

Our study also supports calls for more research about gang members in school settings. Prior work on gang recruitment processes has highlighted the fact that gang joining is more accurately viewed as a two-way process where both parties (i.e., the prospective member and the gang) exchange signals (e.g., Densley, 2012; Pyrooz & Densley, 2016). Although Densley's work focused on the neighborhood as the locale for these exchanges, we argue that the school offers an important setting as well. Garot (2010) provided a rare in-depth investigation of gang life in the school context, which highlighted the many ways in which youths could perform gang identity in this setting by, for example, challenging the dress code and other policies and through resistance in the classroom.


The purpose of this study was to examine the social network characteristics of gang members who are thought to play a key role in recruiting. However, the link to recruitment is entirely implicit. The social network position of gang members with high status puts them in what would appear to be an optimal position to recruit others by virtue of their visibility and connectedness both to the gang and to people outside of the gang. But we have no data on actual attempts to get others to join or in some way contribute to gang activities. It would be very useful for studies to combine the sort of network focus employed here with information on the actual recruiting behavior of gang members to see if high status gang members actively attempt to get others involved in the gang or whether gang members who achieve high levels of social status are allowed to do so because they do not push gang involvement on others. Given work on the social benefits of offending (Gallupe & Bouchard, 2015), this opposing interpretation seems unlikely but it must remain an empirical question until research addresses it.

Furthermore, it is likely that there are substantial numbers of ex-gang members in the sample given that: (a) the average age of the sample (~17) was older than the average age at which people first join a gang (11-15; Pyrooz, 2014a); (b) the measure of gang membership indicated ever having been a member; and (c) gang membership is often not an extended affair. It is unclear what the network position of these ex-members would be or what influence they might have on recruitment. Speculatively, it seems likely that former gang members would tend to have lower levels of social status than current gang members. Where we have shown in this study that gang members commonly connect with both gang and non-gang members (see Figure 1), it is possible that current gang members would be less likely to nominate former members as friends since they have essentially turned their back on the gang. If this is the case, former gang members will be limited to connections predominantly outside of the gang while current gang members draw friends from both within and outside the gang. In the aggregate, this would lead to lower levels of social status for former as compared to current gang members. The implication for the present study is that our estimates of gang member social status are conservative and yet we still identified a group of high status gang members who appear to be ideally located to act as recruiters. Given the speculative nature of this explanation, it is in need of further examination in future research.

The final limitation that we will discuss is the fact that the analysis was cross-sectional. While Add Health is longitudinal, it is not well suited to longitudinal studies of school network influences on gang membership because the gang item was not collected at wave 1 and wave 3 data were collected ~5 years later, when most participants were between 18 and 26 years old and were no longer in school as participants generally would have left school between waves 2 and 3 (the time points when gang membership was measured). Longitudinal sociometric data covering the middle and high school years that includes measures of gang membership would allow for an examination of school network position on both gang joining and desistance processes that was not possible here.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.


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Biographical notes

Owen Gallupe is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of Waterloo. His research focuses on peer influence and offending, social networks, and drug markets. His work has been published in venues such as Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, Journal of Criminal Justice, and Crime and Delinquency.

Jason Gravel is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Criminology, Law, and Society at the University of California, Irvine. His current research interests include social network analysis, street gangs, crime prevention and intervention and co-offending. His recent work has been published in Criminology and Public Policy, Journal of Quantitative Criminology, Journal of Criminal Justice, and Criminal Justice and Behavior.

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