Criminological Theories of Street Gang Formation and Membership

The existence and persistent functioning of street gangs have been addressed by criminologists by various theoretical approaches aimed at explaining the logic of the process of gangs’ formation and the reason to offend. Multiple factors have been addressed in research to explain the motivation for people to join gangs and commit crimes. In particular, these factors include biological, psychological, cultural, and social. The identification and proper addressing of these factors within corresponding theoretical frameworks allow for explaining the driving forces behind the formation of street gangs, and their members tend to manifest delinquent behaviors. This paper will address key approaches used in criminology to theorize street gangs.

From a biological and psychological perspective, the issues of human development are primarily considered to explain delinquency in general and gang membership in particular. Indeed, from a merely biological perspective, criminologists assert that a particular biological condition might be a factor of predisposition to criminal behavior. Psychological development, in this regard, is a decisive element since people at different stages of their personality formation and overall psychological advancement experience different changes that might contribute to the likelihood of gang formation. Indeed, according to Griffith and Howell (2016), a number of developmental theories apply to explain street gangs’ formation and functioning as criminal settings.

One such developmental theory is the life-course developmental theory which asserts that at different stages of life, people have a different levels of a tendency to engage in gangs. Indeed, since affiliation with a group and bonding plays a significant role in the life of teenagers, this population engages in street gang life. Such membership becomes a turning point of involvement in criminal life, causing a vicious circle of delinquency (Griffith & Howell, 2016). Another development-related theory that similarly addresses the vicious circle of criminal behavior in a gang is the interactional theory. It is associated with the decisive role of interacting domains, such as family, neighborhood, or school, which predetermine the formation of gangs and individuals’ participation in them (Griffith & Howell, 2016). Notably, the multiple marginality theory explains street gang existence and criminality as a result of the marginalization of individuals within “social, cultural, ecological, and economical” domains (Griffith & Howell, 2016, p. 98). Groups of such marginalized youth have a high level of likelihood of organizing in gangs and committing crimes.

Apart from developmental theories, cultural and social factors play an essential role in street gang formation. In particular, the social learning theory, which is currently one of the leading approaches to gang research, deals with the interaction between an individual and society. According to Stodolska et al. (2019), the social learning theory asserts that “criminal values are learned by association and outlines the mechanisms by which the learning occurs” (pp. 280-281). The combination of the social structure, interaction between individuals, and the conditions that are validating conformity to deviant behavior reinforce criminal activity and gang membership as the result of social learning.

In conclusion, the presented review of theories behind the formation and criminal behavior in street gangs allows for determining several decisive factors. They include biological, psychological, cultural, and social ones, which ultimately contribute to the theorization of gangs and crime. Developmental theories incorporating biological and psychological processes assert that people at different stages in life are more predisposed to gang membership and delinquency. From a cultural and social perspective, marginalization and neighborhood culture, as well as social learning opportunities, play a pivotal role in the formation of street gangs. The discussion of these theories contributes to the understanding of the gangs and the means for their prevention.


Griffith, E., & Howell, J. C. (2016). Gangs in America’s communities. SAGE Publications.

Stodolska, M., Berdychevsky, L., & Shinew, K. J. (2019). Gangs and deviant leisure. Leisure Sciences, 41(4), 278-293.

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