How do we get out from culture?

A reader sends this dilemma regarding the use of “gang culture”:

Dear Jason,
I am an anthropologist now working as an appellate court public defender. It’s crucial to challenge the lazy use of the concept of culture in gang cases where prosecutors purport to prove (“beyond a reasonable doubt”) that an individual gang member had a “specific intent” (a particular mental state) based on “gang culture and habits,” that is “what gang members do.”

I have been unsuccessfully looking back through my anthropology books for a good quote (a paragraph even) that makes the general point that individuals are not cultural automatons, but interact with “culture” instrumentally such that any particular individual in a particular situation could act against (or, better, not in accord with) a valid cultural stereotype. For example, even if it’s a valid generalization that gang members present in the background at a gang crime provide “backup” for the principal actors, the fact that a specific gang member was present at a specific gang crime does not “prove” the gang member was acting as backup (in accord with the valid generalization), as opposed to just standing there (maybe even wishing the crime wasn’t happening!).

This dilemma captures the essence of what I am trying to teach in Cultural Anthropology. What do we do when the anthropological concept of culture–launched as an anti-deterministic, anti-racist, and anti-hierarchizing device–is used to precisely justify prosecution and imprisonment?

Gang Culture: The Paper Topic

I made this an option for a paper topic on “gang culture” in two parts:

Part 1: How did we get here? Is the idea of “gang culture,” now used as an aid in attempts to prosecute and convict people who have not committed a crime, already inherent as a possible reading of Ruth Benedict’s ideas about culture? To what degree is this a misreading?

Part 2: How do we get out? Are there passages from Benedict or Trouillot which might help us navigate this dilemma? Would they be convincing in the courtroom? How can an anthropologist effectively argue against the idea of “gang culture”?

Can Pierre Bourdieu help on Gang Culture?

For better or worse, I keep thinking about Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice. But the only passage that jumps to mind is:

Because the habitus is an endless capacity to engender products–thoughts, perceptions, expressions, actions–whose limits are set by the historically and socially situated conditions of its production, the conditioned and conditional freedom it secures is as remote from a creation of unpredictable novelty as it is from a simple mechanical reproduction of the initial conditionings. (1977:95)

That is just not going to fly in the courtroom. Maybe there’s something better in the film about Pierre Bourdieu, Sociology is a Martial Art: “I often say sociology is a martial art, a means of self-defense. Basically, you use it to defend yourself, without having the right to use if for unfair attacks.”

Updates on Gang Culture

  • 2017: I am saddened to hear of the passing of a great practicing anthropologist, Michael Agar (1945-2017).
    Agar had a lot to say about these practical issues. With reference to the issues here, I am particularly intrigued by this line in the Anthropology News memoriam: Agar “left behind a manuscript that shifts the problem of ‘culture’ to ‘Culture’ as a solution.” This manuscript, titled “Culture: How to Make It Work In A World Of Hybrids” is currently available at Ethknoworks – Michael Agar in the upper-left column.
  • This post has a lot of great reflections in the Disqus comment stream below. Feel free to browse and add! One particular recommendation is a book by Alex A.G. Taub Working With High Risk Youth: The Case of Curtis Jones. And check Taub’s comment below.

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2013. “Gang Culture, Courtroom Anthropology: How do we get out from culture?” Living Anthropologically website, First posted 26 September 2013. Revised 22 September 2017.

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  • Carmen

    I was just thinking about this the other day, sort of. I don’t know much about “gang culture,” but I’ve been reading a lot about plural legal systems and I was thinking about how criminal organizations like gangs are often represented in popular culture as having hierarchical authoritative structures. It made me wonder if there might be a value to thinking about criminal organizations as creating plural legal systems (and more specifically to your reader’s question, if the useful paragraph might be somewhere in the lit. on law rather than the lit. on culture). Then we could consider whether/how people who live in areas where the criminal system has a great deal of reach (perhaps more than the legitimate legal system?) find themselves in multiple subject-positions. People might find themselves having to make choices about how to navigate the conflicting requirements and norms of two opposing systems which both have significant coercive power to enforce their “laws.”

    The thought came from reading “The Politics of Law” by J. A. Barnes, publishing in “Man in Africa” (eds Mary Douglas and Phyllis M. Kaberry, 1969). The key points that related to this thought were:

    pg 100-101: “What happens if in a community there are two or more centres of authority, or at least of power, which do not form part of a single integrated system?”

    pg 102: “It would be possible to regard legality as merely a relative term and to argue that there is no contradiction involved in an action being legal in one system and illegal in another. If this view is taken, we can no longer speak of the legal system of a society, but only of the various legal systems that are possibly found within it. We have moreover then to drop any notion that legality depends ultimately on social recognition by the whole community, or upon a consensus of opinion. Each subculture provides its own set of legal norms, and within a plural society the norms of one segment may conflict with those of another. The important characteristic of plural societies, is, however, not the mere diversity of legal norms and other aspects of culture. Characteristically, one segment imposes, or endeavours to impose, its norms on other segments that do no accept them but are coerced into partial conformity.”

    He goes on from here to point to criminal activities in Western societies, suggesting that “Whyte has shown empirically that a fairly stable system of rights and obligations can be established among racketeers whose activities are, in terms of the law of the land, quite illegal” The full reference to Whyte is: Whyte, W.F. 1943 “Street Corner Society” Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Basically, the argument from the plural legalist perspective is, I think, primarily a structural one. If you take the position that a “culture” includes structures of membership and incurs obligation, then you have a position to compare the presence of the gang member to the presence of a child at school, a person on jury duty, or a driver obeying the laws of the road: they are all participating in structures of expectation and obligation, but their participation does not really imply anything about their state of mind or their acceptance of the validity of this claim on them. All we can really infer from their participation is that they understand that the consequence of failing to participate is censure from legitimate authorities invested with the power to make their lives difficult.

    In the context of an illegal authoritative system within a legal one, all choices become risky from the perspective of the individual, but we can assume that the system with the most immediate and most effective coercive power will probably present the more compelling set of obligations. If the state does not have a strong ability to enforce its laws OR the rights it defines for its citizens, then the risk of obeying the state law in defiance of a well-developed authoritative system with effective coercive power becomes very high. The person in this situation is caught between the proverbial rock and hard place, knowing that they belong in an abstract way to a polity that defines their actions as illegal, but that they belong in a much more concrete and immediate way to one which requires this action of them. Thus, it is not some “cultural mentality” that gets internalized by gang members (and which, I’m guessing, renders them irredeemably illegal?), but rather that competing authoritative structures define the field of possibility in which they can act. Because they have the right to hang around in gang territory, and because crimes happen there, and because of the effective structures of gang authority and coercive power, a person who is a member of a gang is virtually guaranteed to witness crimes that they do not intend to participate in, which they have no power to stop, and which pose enormous risk should they report.

    Anyway, I’m starting to meander so I’ll stop. I hope these thoughts are of some interest and even help. I’m looking forward to seeing where the discussion goes.

    • John McCreery

      Were I in a courtroom, I would stress the idea that culture resembles law, in that both are webs of significance. They don’t determine what people do, but rather what behavior means to members of a group. The law doesn’t determine that individuals are law-abiding or criminals or criminal in what degree. It determines only the significance of what they actually do, which involves other considerations.

      • Hi John, this sounds like a very important tack, thank you for your input here!

      • r.a.

        I think that’s a pretty good analogy, especially since law has its ideal aspects…and then how things actually play out in everyday life. I like the idea of thinking about culture in terms of explaining/ordering meaning and significance, rather than something that determines behavior (which is how the concept of culture is often understood in mass media, etc). The other part of this is that culture–like language–is in a constant state of change, even if those changes are small, moment to moment, and hard to see at times. The whole “gang culture” idea doesn’t make much room for this, and is probably more about finding an easy way to implicate and convict (I think Daniel Lende said something along these lines) than try to accurately use or understand how culture really works. So this would be another case in which one of anthropology’s key concepts has been turned against us.

        Thanks for this post, Jason–this is just the kind of thing we anthros need to be doing more of.

        • Hi Ryan, thank you for your comments. Reading through some of these, I’ve been tempted to say that the best approach is to yell out “I’m an anthropologist and culture doesn’t work that way!” But then, as I noted in a follow-up on Fetishizing Fieldwork it would be to little effect: “We keep telling all sides: You’ve got it wrong. But a lot of it they got from us–not only through our epiphany of culture but also through our clinging to a space where we feel conceptually safe. If some Afrocentrists today believe that an inner-city Chicago kid is culturally closer to a Kalahari bushman than to her white counterpart on the North Side of town, and if the inequalities between the two are ascribed to culture, however misdefined, anthropology has to take part of the blame” (Trouillot 2003:113-114).

    • Hi Carmen, thank you for this–a quite interesting answer that might become its own blog-post or article! You may be very correct that the answer lies not so much in anthropology generally but in the anthropology of law. My own brief take here is that often the idea of “plural legal systems” while originally a great counterpoint to the idea that there was one legal system against which everyone else was just deficient, could eventually lead to exactly the same kinds of problems as when the abstract notion of Culture becomes a plural form of cultures.

  • dropkicknic

    Culture consists of shared ideas and meanings. However, it is the abstraction of shared
    and learned traits of those who exhibit certain commonalities, not a summation of each of the individualized pieces constituting the whole. Culture is an ideational system that is manifest in individual minds, but cultural meanings are public and transcend their realization in individual minds. There is a distinct and common code that allows individuals to understand and coexist with each other, but no two individuals share the same human experience. Although culture is an abstraction of the learned and shared traits exhibited by a distinct society, it is not ritualistic conformity, but options individuals may choose to adopt or ignore, conform to or resist. It is neither concrete, nor causative, but exists in both the inner reconstruction of reality of an individual, and the interactions between the individuals of the society exhibiting the abstraction of their distinct cultural traits. I have always liked how Robert Thomas Anderson sees culture – as a toolkit of stories, symbols, rituals, and worldviews which people may use in variations to solve different problems.

    • Thank you for a great summary statement and recommendation. My feeling is that this would not be so far from what Ruth Benedict espouses in her general overview of the concept of culture. However, the problem always seems to be getting from there to every time someone talks about culture or cultures, when abstractions turn concrete.

  • Brad

    Here, I’m reminded of Marilyn Strathern’s famous quote that, “The nice thing about culture is that everyone has it.” If you’re not part of one culture, you’re part of another, even if it’s a subculture within a larger one.

    Culture does not necessarily however, supercede on states of mind, but can influence it. And even then, states of mind do not necessarily determine behavior. (e.g. A person genuinely believes that smoking is not good for them, yet they do it). The lawyer will need to establish that neither culture nor states of mind are deterministic beyond a reasonable doubt (but start with culture).

    Just as in the broader general society, individuals don’t always follow society’s cultural norms, they don’t always follow gang cultural norms. A lawyer would need to cite examples from other case law where gang members did not blindly follow the group. Perhaps they refused to go along with a hazing ritual, or refused to kill someone, or left the gang, or snitched to cops, or agreed to act as informants, etc.
    Personally I think “culture” is a reification of our gaze upon society. It’s not quite real but it serves us with a workable meaning in a rough and ready way. I once asked Tim Ingold in 2001 what he thought about “culture”. He said cultures are like clouds: always forming, integrating, drifting and dispersing.
    Good luck to the person who sent this question to Jason. I hope he reports back.

    • Hi Brad, thank you for this. Indeed, these broader statements from Strathern and Ingold are great reminders. Like my invoking Bourdieu, I’d have to think about how they might translate into the courtroom. Now that some responses have rolled in, I’ll invite back the person who sent the question!

    • r.a.

      “He said cultures are like clouds: always forming, integrating, drifting and dispersing.”

      That’s a good way of putting it.

  • Jackie

    So sad that professional anthropologists have to refute stupid concepts like “The gangster did it for racial reasons” which is the implicit message from those people in the court room.

    • Hi Jackie, indeed. As you can see from the official brief, the prosecution was indeed talking about “instincts” and apparently at one point said “like pack animals.” So yes, this is basically culture-as-race or culture-as-racism.

      • r.a.

        ya, that’s it right there. when culture is used outside anthropology, it’s used as a cover for race, and often racist thinking.

    • No Racist Anthropology

      Even more sad when professional anthropologists are NOT refuting these ideas, but are actually using them to advance their anthropology careers.

      At present there is a graduate of the Berkeley Anthropology program continuing to falsely accuse an innocent Black woman he publicly cyberbullied, via the department’s graduate student listserve, of being a violent ghetto criminal who assaulted him, so as to cover up his cyberbullying from potential employers so as to get teaching jobs. The woman this anthropologist is claiming to be from the ghetto–so as to dupe people into believing that she is violent, simply by assuming that is one is a dark-skinned Black person who is supposed to be ‘from the ghetto’ and therefore have a ‘ghetto culture’ then one must be violent and criminally-inclined–is actually a Yale grad from small-town CT.

      So I think that anthropologists need to remember that ‘we’ are ‘them’, too. Anthropologists often share the very racial biases reduced to or articulated as ‘culture’ that non-anthropologists due, especially in relation to assumptions of who has a proclivity for violence and criminality, or who is and is not a sociopath, or who is and is not an innocent and sympathetic ‘victim’.

      • Hi, this is certainly an important point to remember, as I am certainly prone to draw lines along the ideas that “we anthropologists have it correct about race and culture” and how others do not. I referenced here in the follow-up post on Fetishizing Fieldwork, drawing out a Trouillot footnote:

        Shanklin (2000) seems surprised at the negative views of anthropology she discovered in her study of public opinion. Yet the whiteness of the discipline (extreme among the human sciences and made more blatant by anthropology’s favorite objects of study), the conservative and essentialist deployments of culture, and the near-total disconnect between anthropology as a theoretical practice and the public deployments of concepts and images together beg for a public relations disaster. The wonder is that the image is not worse. (2003:153)

  • John Thiels

    While it is true that culture doesn’t determine action, we could also ask how cultural norms are enforced; to what extent are these norms highly regimented or not? If we don’t ask this question, we risk not understanding the costs actors might be facing if they buck norms at particular moments. Last year at the community college, we had a student who was in a white-supremacist gang and who had spent a fair amount of time in prison. He had made friends with at least one student of color and was re-evaulating his path with his advisor in my office. However, he had one tear-shaped tattoo not filled in and was supposed to make at least one more kill, which he did not want to do. He was able to take advantage of the pluraity of systems facing him and entered into witness protection. The scenario was confirmed by local law enforcement. The sanctions for not adhering to norms was high, whereas in other situations it may not have been. The freedom to act can both be existentially absolute and situationally relative. Even in a situation of plurality within the gang, certain norms were highly regimented and their breach highly sanctioned whereas we can imagine that others were not. Certainly the “culture” of the gang might go on as a collection of stories and ways of facing situations, but the agent may or may not risk having their story and agency coopted by others (perhaps more permanently) at determinate moments.

    • Hi John, thanks! I completely agree that it’s important to pay careful attention to the specificity of norms and mechanisms of enforcement. However, I’m not sure how different this situation is to thinking about behavior in organizations–what are the rules and how are they enforced?–and I don’t think adding in the idea of culture gets us into a better place. In fact, it often seems that talking about “corporate culture” or “institutional culture” clouds the issues at hand.

      I’m reminded here, back to Bourdieu, of what he called the “fallacies of the rule”–that there are certain elements which may indeed be rules and enforced, but often in any social situation people can draw on several different cultural ideals to justify or explain a particular action.

  • Daniel Lende

    Great post/question, Jason. I quite like what John McCreery said, and would likely supplement that by asserting that this of “gang culture” lets prosecutors, judges, jurors, and the like to easily play the “blame game.” It lets us blame them, and thus make them easier to judge and convict. It’s a play on power, not something cultural. So I’d avoid saying anything like it’s a “valid generalization” – that’s all they will hear.

    I’ve really moved away from the idea of “sub-culture” or “gang culture” or “drug culture.” We don’t need that short-hand to still engage in cultural analysis, and the pernicious side effects of continuing to use that sort of language are obvious through exactly this sort of example.

    So webs of significance, like a legal code, might be a good metaphor here. Or my play towards a power/inequality analysis in my opening paragraph. But there’s also a theoretical/empirical problem that is important here – the concept of “sub-culture” assumes a homogeneity that just isn’t there. The same way the culture concept got critiqued for positing timeless, bounded groups, so too sub-cultures. So we need to rework our approach here.

    The article that most influenced me on this point is David Moore’s really excellent 2004 article, Beyond subculture in the ethnography of illicit drug use. He argues for focusing on the places where drug use happens, and the differing pathways people take to get to that place. In other words, he is trying to ground “culture” in actual social dynamics, rather than make it into this bounded, homogeneous, and erroneous characterization of what is actually happening.

    Here’s the link to the article:

    And there’s a pdf floating around out there too:

    • Hi Daniel, thank you for the perceptive comment and references. I’m really happy you bring up the idea of subculture. In a previous version of the course, I did briefly discuss Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style, and one of my colleagues teaches this book. What I think happened here is that in its original formulation, Hebdige’s idea of subculture was precisely made to counter some of the weaknesses in the idea of culture–to point to subgroups, to be sure, but always in relationship to a dominant pattern, and as a set of ever-shifting stances and relations. However, what quickly happens is that subculture comes to mean “culture in miniature” and becomes a reification at a smaller scale–another bounded, homogeneous subgrouping, once again shearing connections.

  • Art

    I was Jason’s original quote-seeker. I had to turn in the brief a few weeks ago, but I see this as a long-term issue and reading people’s thoughts is inspiring and will help me sharpen my spear for the next windmill I come upon. Like Jason, I was thinking something from Bourdieu might make the point I was looking for, but I was limited to my own collection and couldn’t find anything that worked. I went with a passage from a textbook I used years ago (Humanity, by Peoples and Bailey) and, in a footnote, a long David Schneider quote (from Notes Toward a Theory of Culture, in Meaning in Anthropology (K. Basso & H. Selby, eds.). They weren’t perfect, but I think helped make the point. That point is not made with particular sophistication, but experience has taught me keeping points simple is the best way to get a panel of California Court of Appeal judges to actually deal with them. (That’s one reason I went all in on the somewhat uncomfortable assertion that “backup” is a “valid cultural generalization” [although it can be, right?] – that is how the judges will see it and you have to try to intersect with their point of view as you try to move them toward yours. [I agree with your points about power and inequality, Daniel, but at this point that kind of argument isn’t going to sway law and order judges (they are the power!) – although, realistically, neither is mine; in California, appeals from criminal convictions are successful less than 10% of the time].) Below are the last few paragraphs of the “culture” part of the argument (if anyone is interested I could post a link to the whole brief [a relatively short one at 9000 words]). Critiques and suggestions for how to sharpen, improve, bolster, etc. the argument in the future appreciated.

    from the argument:
    Put another way, culturally-patterned norms do not “exhaust” an individual’s reaction to a given situation. Cultural systems never provide *all* the material with which an actual
    individual understands and acts in an actual moment in time; there is also always a particular human being, with an individual history, life experiences, and “psychobiological states” that cannot be reduced to cultural patterns. (Schneider, Notes Toward a Theory of Culture, pp. 205-206.) This means cultural generalizations, without more individual specifics, cannot reasonably *prove* an individual acted in accord with the generalization in a specific instance.

    Culture provides a basis for a generalized expectation, an inference on the order of “more likely than not.” And in everyday life these kinds of inferences are often “reasonable.” But in the context of a due process-according criminal prosecution, which
    requires evidence capable of proving a specific mental state beyond a reasonable doubt, the inference falls short of what counts as reasonable. As a generalization, there is necessarily a doubt based in reason that an individual conforms to the generalization in a specific instance. And closing that gap requires conjecture, speculation, prejudice.

    The proved fact (based on his own testimony) that Juan Calderon did in fact act according to the norms of Santa Ana Hispanic gang culture, acting as backup “by instinct” when he woke up at the intersection of Flower and Pomona, is not substantial evidence that Guillermo Brambila, in that same exact situation, also acted according to the normative expectations of his group. Without more specific evidence, the existence of a norm cannot prove a specific individual acted in accord with the norm. Sitting in a truck, looking, is not specific enough evidence to prove a specific gang member had the specific intent to act according to the norms of his group, act as backup, and is therefore guilty of murder.

    The point is clarified by a cultural hypothetical outside the highly-charged gang context. In the Presbyterian Church, there is a normative guideline and expectation that a person sitting in church on Sunday listens to the preacher’s sermon and considers the lessons it contains. But if an observer walked into a Presbyterian church on some Sunday morning and saw a particular man sitting in a pew looking at the pastor giving the sermon, the observer could not infer *beyond a reasonable doubt* that the man was listening to the sermon and considering the lessons it contains. Even though the cultural norm would suggest that is *likely*, more specific information would be required to sustain the kind of “beyond likely and actually proved” inference that can support a criminal conviction. Maybe the parishioner is thinking about a football game starting on the East Coast – how could the observer tell based on the evidence of the man sitting there looking? The inherent gap between cultural norms and specific individual action – a gap that is part of what it means to be human – compels a doubt based on reason. Even when the human in question is a gang member. Gang members are no more cultural automatons than Presbyterians or any other humans. Sometimes they act in accord with cultural norms, sometimes they don’t. The existence of a norm does not prove a human acted in accord with the norm.

    In this case, the proved evidence – Brambila sitting in the middle of the back seat looking at what was going on – could not sustain a reasonable inference that Brambila had the specific intent to act as backup for the murder. Using gang culture generalizations to prove a defendant committed a crime is akin to propensity evidence, but even less reasonable. Propensity evidence is at least based on generalizations about a particular individual. The culture-based inference required by the prosecutor’s case – ‘Brambila was acting as backup because that’s what gang members do’ – de-humanizes individual human beings into cultural automatons, lowers the government’s burden of proof, and is not in accord with the due process requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

    • Hi Art, many thanks for returning here and for filling us in with more detail. Sorry we didn’t get on this case earlier, but I agree this is a long-term issue, and will look forward to more interaction.

      • Art

        Thank you, Jason. I really appreciate your interest in and help with taking on this unfortunate turn in our “criminal justice” system.

    • Carmen

      Hi Art, I think the brief is really well laid out and convincing. As an aside, it made me think that one could almost argue that the existence of norms is in fact proof that there are people who, in that situation, do not follow the norm. Things that are always done, without fail, do not require norms.

      I was reflecting on this problem and now that you are saying that you are looking at a long-term project, I thought I might share an idea I had. I was hesitant because I’m not entirely sure how fruitful it might turn out, but here it is:

      In my PhD program at the University of Toronto, I took a class from a woman named Kris Sieciehowicz. She did not publish (hence my hesitation to recommend her here), but she spoke strongly against the way in which culture is used as a restrictive and reifying tool of power to erase the agency of subjugated people. She did research on First Nations peoples of Canada, and her work can be found in testimonies on land-claims and treaty cases. They are quite extensive (Toronto allowed her to use them in lieu of publication for tenure and promotion), but I haven’t read them so I don’t know if they contain what you need. Although she was engaged in a different legal situation, I wonder if her thoughts on culture might be articulated in a way that would be useful to you. One benefit might be that they were articulated for a court audience rather than an academic one.

      • Art

        Thanks Carmen — that sounds like really interesting testimony! When I have time, I’ll see if I can track it down.

        A professor at my former university (New Mexico) suggested I might find something helpful in his review of Elana Zilberg’s book Space of Detention (Journal of Anthropological Research 68:4 (2012)), but in my current semi-rural locale I don’t have access to JAR and didn’t have time to get the local library to do an interlibrary loan.

  • Alex A G Taub

    As someone who works and published on Anthropology and “gang culture,” I can see the dilemma you are asking about. In Criminal Justice and Sociology studies of “gang culture” they are debating if youth gangs are just social street level groups or part of a larger criminal institution. So arguing that this is a misuse of the anthropological term “culture” may not get very far in court since it is now used by many different disciplines.

    Given that this creates a my sources verses your sources argument on this dilemma, maybe your best approach would be to point out that the prosecutor is using a “guilt by association” argument and then attack this fallacy. For example:

    1) Was there any evidence in the trial about the nature of this “gang” and their discussions or plans?

    2) Was their any proof entered in trial that the primary purpose of this “gang” was criminal or was this specific behavior abnormal for this group of youths.

    As I wrote in “Working with High Risk Youth: The Case of Curtis Jones” the only difference between a youth gang and a church youth group is appropriate adult supervision (Taub 2011).

    • Art

      Hi Alex — in California, the Penal Code (section 186.22 (f)) has a specific definition of “criminal street gang” that includes, among other elements, that one of the group’s “primary activities” is the commission of crimes from a list included in the statute. Prosecutors generally “prove” a group meets the definition through the testimony of “gang experts” who are usually local police detectives in the gang unit who track gangs and maintain an institutional history of the big ones. They also (they say) go out and talk to gang members. In this case (and in many), the defense attorney stipulated that the gang qualified as a criminal street gang in order to keep the gang detective from testifying to a series of crimes proving the gang’s “primary activities” and “pattern of criminal gang activity” (another element). Sometimes the evidence that a gang is a “criminal street gang” is weak and can be attacked (I did that a few cases ago), but not in this case.
      Also in this case, the primary evidence of the crime was the testimony of a former member of the gang who was present and subsequently turned “rat” in exchange for a sentence of 13 years (as opposed to life without the possibility of parole, which is what my client got).

      If you’re interested in more detail, here is a PDF of the brief, which includes a Statement of Facts that (at the end) relates some of the law enforcement gang expert’s testimony: (Note that this is not an academic piece, but an attempt to persuade a skeptical trio of law-and-order appellate judges that there has been a miscarriage of justice. Part of that includes not soft-pedaling bad facts. That can work in a trial with a jury, but on appeal, we can’t usually debate the facts, we have to make our arguments within the universe defined by the facts presented to the jury.)

    • Hi Alex, this is great and so happy to see an expert join the conversation. Your book on Working With High Risk Youth: The Case of Curtis Jones is a valuable resource.

      Your point that “gang culture” springs more from sociology and criminal justice is well-taken. I referenced this in a follow-up post on culture and fieldwork, drawing on Trouillot:

      Anthropology’s monopoly on both the word and the concept of culture obtained only when the use of either was restricted to the Savage slot. When it came to black savages in the cities, white immigrants, or the majority population, other social scientists, such as political scientists or sociologists–notably of the Chicago school–took the lead. (2003:109-110)

      • Alex A G Taub

        Thank you for the compliment on my work and your observations. Anthropology works great with these kids, because our field work method assumes we do not know what it best so we are required to listen to all of those with whom we are working. I do not claim to be an expert on working with these kids, but I did listen to what they told me and gave them a chance to review the book prior to publication.

        • Hi Alex, that’s great! Thank you again for an exemplary example of engaged fieldwork.

          • Alex A G Taub

            You are welcome. If you would be so kind, it would be wonderful if you could write a review of my book on I realize you are very busy, but it would be very helpful. Thanks.

          • Hi Alex, thank you. I know Amazon is definitely one of the go-to places for reviews. I’m putting it in the hopper, but things a bit crazy at the moment!

          • Alex A G Taub

            Thank you for thinking about it and I hope you may be able to get to things later.

  • Helga Vierich

    I think we need to look seriously at there idea of young people being “high risk”. There are cognitive and emotional consequences to high stress levels, whether these are toxins like lead, malnutrition, neglect, psychological or physical abuse or just plain shame about being very poor. SO the emergence of kind of sub-culture of drug-taking, of aggressive, hierarchical gangs, and of gang violence needs to be understood within a context of young people in a great deal of emotional turmoil, often battling depression and even suicidal thoughts. And this will manifest differently in different places. It is not just a question of “culture” – that is not the CAUSE of this stuff, it is The collective cognitive niche in which the reaction to varying kinds of environmentally induced risks and stresses plays out.

    • Hi Helga, thank you for joining this thread. I think your comments move us more toward taking a biocultural perspective on these issues. I’ve discussed this a bit using Gravlee’s How Race Becomes Biology. But as you know, this is always tricky terrain.