An Ecological Study of the Location of Gang “Set Space”

Tita, G. E., Cohen, J., & Engberg, J.

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Tita, G. E., Cohen, J., & Engberg, J. (2005). An ecological study of the location of gang “set space.” Social Problems, 52(2), 272–299.

Crime , gang location , gangs , informal social control , underclass , youth , youth gangs

Previous gang research has focused primarily on the attributes of individuals who join gangs. This ecological study of violent urban youth gangs examines the social, economic, and physical organization of places where gangs locate. Our goal is to understand those features of communities that either facilitate the formation of gangs or insulate an area from gang formation. By interviewing gang members and having them map places where they came together as a sociological group to “hang out,” we study what we label as the “set space” of gangs. Our study is analogous to criminological studies of where criminal acts occur rather than of the factors that lead an individual to commit criminal acts. This study indicates that gang set space is usually a very small geographic area, much smaller than neighborhoods or even census tracts. A probability (logit) model estimates the influence of various local area attributes on the presence of violent youth gangs in census block groups. Diminished social control—in the absence of capable guardians and physical abandonment of place—and underclass features increase the likelihood of observing violent youth gangs hanging out in a particular area.

Main finding
Diminished capacity for informal social control is the most consistent factor in setting set spaces of violent youth street gangs in a census block group. Proxies measuring social control for abandonment and guardianship are significant predictors. The percent of vacant and boarded housing and population density had a strong positive association with set spaces, consistent with theories of indicated diminished surveillance and crowding reducing social control. Characteristics of an urban underclass, measured by the presence of concentrated poverty, and an index of neighborhood attributes such as labor force attachment, family structure and education, are associated with the presence of set spaces. None of the measures for an area’s economic health are significant once other factors are controlled, which may be due to the multicollinearity of all four economic measures. Simultaneity bias was avoided by studying an emerging gang city like Pittsburgh, with violent gangs only becoming part of the social fabric in the early 1990s, confirming that neighborhood characteristics predict gang set spaces and not the other way around.

Description of method used in the article
This article uses various methods to map and analyze the set spaces within neighborhoods frequented by violent urban youth gangs in Pittsburgh . Researchers met with local police officers, community-workers, and gang mediators from 1993 to 1997. Members of violent street gangs were identified through three sources: police homicide files, “street” workers, and gang members. Initial maps of violent gang sets were made by consulting the homicide files, street workers, and reviewing police reports. Researchers identified fifty gang members and ten non-gang men who lived in areas where gangs were consulted to locate spaces in question. Participants drew on detailed street maps of their neighborhoods to identify their gangs’ set spaces and any other gangs in the neighborhood. Those maps were brought to 75 gang members, who filtered the initial list of 46 gangs to 37 truly violent gangs active from 1991 to 1995, thus completing the census. For quantitative analysis, independent variables are created using the 1990 census block group data to predict a set space in a block group. The independent variables measured social control, social disorganization, economic health, underclass neighborhood characteristics, and poverty concentration. The difference in size between block groups and the block group’s racial composition were controlled for in the study.

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