Journal of Quantitative Criminology

, Volume 30, Issue 4, pp 577–598 | Cite as

Validating Self-Nomination in Gang Research: Assessing Differences in Gang Embeddedness Across Non-, Current, and Former Gang Members

  • Scott H. DeckerEmail author
  • David C. Pyrooz
  • Gary Sweeten
  • Richard K. MouleJr.
Original Paper



The study of gang members is closely linked to the self-nomination method. It is timely to revisit the criterion validity of self-nomination, as recent theoretical and empirical advancements in gang disengagement necessitate further differentiating current from former gang members. This study assessed differences in gang embeddedness—a construct that taps individual immersion within deviant social networks—across three groups: current gang members, former gang members, and those individuals who have never joined a gang.


Data gathered in 2011 from a high-risk sample of 621 individuals in five cities were used to assess the validity of the self-nomination method. Standardized differences in a mixed graded response model of gang embeddedness were evaluated across the three statuses of gang membership.


Self-nomination was strongly related to embeddedness in gangs, even after controlling for demographic, theoretical, and gang-related factors. The strongest predictor of gang embeddedness was self-nomination as a current or a former gang member, although current gang members maintained levels of gang embeddedness about one standard deviation greater than former gang members. Self-nomination was also the primary determinant of gang embeddedness for males, females, whites, blacks, and Hispanics.


The results of this study provide strong evidence in support of the use of self-nomination to differentiate between non-gang and gang members as well as current and former gang members, adding to a body of research demonstrating that self-nomination is a valid measure of gang membership.


Gang membership Self-report Item response theory Embeddedness 



Funding from Google Ideas supported this project. We are grateful for their support. The content of this paper, however, is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of Google.


  1. Anderson E (1999) Code of the street: decency, violence, and the moral life of the inner city. W. W. Norton, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  2. Ball RA, Curry GD (1995) The logic of definition in criminology: purposes and methods for defining “gangs”. Criminology 33:225–245CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Barrows J, Huff RC (2009) Gangs and public policy. Criminol Public Policy 8:675–703CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bjerk D (2009) How much can we trust causal interpretations of fixed-effects estimators in the context of criminality? J Quant Criminol 25:391–417CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bjerregaard B (2002) Self-definitions of gang membership and involvement in delinquent activities. Youth Soc 34:31–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bloch H, Niederhoffer A (1958) The gang: a study in adolescent behavior. Philos Libr, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  7. Cai L, Thissen D, du Toit SHC (2011) IRTPRO 2.1 for windows. Scientific Software International, Chicago, ILGoogle Scholar
  8. Carson DC, Peterson D, Esbensen F-A (2013) Youth gang desistance: an examination of the effect of different operational definitions of desistance on the motivations, methods, and consequences associated with leaving the gang. Criminal Justice Rev 38:510–534CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Craig WM, Vitaro F, Gagnon C, Tremblay RE (2002) The road to gang membership: characteristics of male gang and nongang members from ages 10 to 14. Soc Dev 11:53–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cronbach LJ, Meehl PE (1955) Construct validity in psychological tests. Psychol Bull 52:281–302CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Curry GD (2000) Self-reported gang involvement and officially recorded delinquency. Criminology 38:1253–1274CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Decker SH, Lauritsen J (2002) Leaving the gang. In: Ronald Huff C (ed) Gangs in America, 3rd edn. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CAGoogle Scholar
  13. Decker SH, Pyrooz DC (2010) On the validity and reliability of gang homicide: a comparison of disparate sources. Homicide Stud 14:359–376CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Decker SH, Pyrooz DC (2013) Gangs: another form of organized crime? In: Paoli L (ed) Oxford handbook of organized crime. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  15. Decker SH, Van Winkle B (1996) Life in the gang. Cambridge University Press, New YorkCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Decker SH, Katz CM, Webb VJ (2008) Understanding the black box of gang organization: implications for involvement in violent crime, drug sales, and violent victimization. Crime Delinq 54:153–172CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Decker SH, Melde C, Pyrooz DC (2013) What do we know about gangs and gang members and where to we go from here? Justice Q 30:369–402CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Decker SH, Pyrooz DC, Moule Jr RK (2014) Gang disengagement as role transitions. J Res Adoles. Online First. doi: 10.1111/jora.12074
  19. Densley J (2013) How gangs work: an ethnography of youth violence. Palgrave, LondonCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Esbensen F-A, Huizinga D (1993) Gangs, drugs, and delinquency in a survey of urban youth. Criminology 31:565–590CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Esbensen F-A, Peterson D, Taylor TJ, Freng A (2010) Youth violence: sex and race differences in offending, victimization, and gang membership. Temple University Press, PhiladelphiaGoogle Scholar
  22. Esbensen F-A, Winfree LT Jr, Ne H, Taylor TJ (2001) Youth gangs and definitional issues: when is a gang a gang, and why does it matter? Crime Delinq 47:105–130CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Fagan J (1990) Social process of delinquency and drug use among urban gangs. In: Ron Huff C (ed) Gangs in America. Sage, Newbury Park, CA, pp 183–219Google Scholar
  24. Glueck S, Glueck ET (1943) Criminal careers in retrospect. The Commonwealth Fund, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  25. Gordon RA, Lahey BB, Kawai E, Loeber R, Stouthamer-Loeber M, Farrington DP (2004) Antisocial behavior and youth gang membership: selection and socialization. Criminology 42:55–88CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Gottfredson MR, Hirschi T (1990) A general theory of crime. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CAGoogle Scholar
  27. Hagan J (1993) The social embeddedness of crime and unemployment. Criminology 31:465–491CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Hallsworth S, Young T (2008) Gang talk and gang talkers. Crime Media Cult 4:175–195CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Harding DJ (2010) Living the drama: community, conflict, and culture among inner-city boys. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hindelang MJ, Hirschi T, Weis JG (1981) Measuring delinquency. Sage, Beverly HillsGoogle Scholar
  31. Holtfreter K, Reisig MD, Piquero NL, Piquero AR (2010) Low self-control and fraud: offending, victimization, and their overlap. Criminal Justice Behav 37:188–203CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Horowitz R (1983) Honor and the American dream. Rutgers University Press, New BrunswickGoogle Scholar
  33. Jensen GF, Thibodeaux J (2012) The gang problem: fabricated panics or real temporal patterns? Homicide Stud. doi: 10.1177/1088767912460664 Google Scholar
  34. Katz CM (2001) The establishment of a police gang unit: an examination of organizational and environmental factors. Criminology 39:37–74CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Katz CM, Fox AM, Britt C, Stevenson P (2012) Understanding police gang data at the aggregate level: an examination of the reliability of the national youth gang survey data. Justice Res Policy 14(2):103–128Google Scholar
  36. Katz J, Jackson-Jacobs C (2004) The criminologists’ gang. In: Sumner C (ed) Blackwell companion to criminology. Blackwell, London, pp 91–124Google Scholar
  37. Kissner J, Pyrooz DC (2009) Self-control, differential association, and gang membership: a theoretical and empirical extension of the literature. J Criminal Justice 37:478–487CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Klein MW (1971) Street gangs and street workers. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJGoogle Scholar
  39. Krohn MD, Thornberry TP, Gibson CL, Baldwin JM (2010) The development and impact of self-report measures of crime and delinquency. J Quant Criminol 26:509–525CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Laub JH, Sampson RJ (2003) Shared beginnings, divergent lives: delinquent boys to age 70. Harvard University Press, BostonGoogle Scholar
  41. Lemert E (1967) Human deviance, social problems and social control. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJGoogle Scholar
  42. Matsuda KN, Melde C, Taylor TJ, Freng A, Esbensen F-A (2013) Gang membership and adherence to the “code of the street”. Justice Q 30:440–468CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. McCorkle TD, Miethe RC (2001) Panic: the social construction of the street gang problem. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJGoogle Scholar
  44. Meehan AJ (2000) The organizational career of gang statistics: the politics of policing gangs. Sociol Q 41:337–370CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Melde C, Esbensen F-A (2011) Gang membership as a turning point in the life course. Criminology 49:513–552CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Melde C, Esbensen F-A (2013) Gangs and violence: disentangling the impact of gang membership on the level and nature of offending. J Quant Criminol 29:143–166CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Moloney M, MacKenzie K, Hunt G, Joe-Laidler K (2009) The path and promise of fatherhood for gang members. Br J Criminol 49:305–325CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Monti DJ (1991) The practice of gang research. Sociol Pract Rev 2:29–39Google Scholar
  49. Monti DJ (1992) On the risks and rewards of ‘going native’. Qual Sociol 15:325–332CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Moule RK Jr, Decker SH, Pyrooz DC (2013) Social capital, the life-course, and gangs. In: Melde CL, Krohn Marvin D (eds) Handbook of life-course criminology. Springer, New York, NY, pp 143–158CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Nye FI, Short JF Jr (1957) Scaling delinquent behavior. Am Sociol Rev 22:326–331CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Osgood DW, Anderson AL (2004) Unstructured socializing and rates of delinquency. Criminology 42:519–550CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Osgood DW, Wilson JK, O’Malley PM, Bachman JG, Johnston LD (1996) Routine activities and individual deviant behavior. Am Sociol Rev 61:635–655CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Papachristos AV, Hureau DM, Braga AA (2013) The corner and the crew: the influence of geography and social networks on gang violence. Am Sociol Rev 78:417–447Google Scholar
  55. Piquero AR, MacIntosh R, Hickman M (2002) The validity of a self-reported delinquency scale: comparisons across gender, age, race, and place of residence. Sociol Methods Res 30:492–529CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Piquero AR, Farrington DP, Blumstein A (2003) The criminal career paradigm: Background and recent developments. In: Tonry M (ed) Crime and justice: a review of research, vol 30. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp 359–506Google Scholar
  57. Porterfield AL (1943) Delinquency and outcome in court and college. Am J Sociol 49:199–208CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Porterfield AL (1946) Youth in trouble. Leo Potishman Foundation, Fort WorthGoogle Scholar
  59. Pyrooz DC (2013a) “From your first cigarette to your last dyin’ day”: the patterning of gang membership in the life-course. J Quant Criminol. Online First. doi: 10.1007/s10940-013-9206-1
  60. Pyrooz DC (2013b) Gangs, criminal offending, and an inconvenient truth: considerations for gang prevention and intervention in the lives of youth. Criminol Public Policy 12:427–436CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Pyrooz DC, Decker SH (2011) Motives and methods for leaving the gang: understanding the process of gang desistance. J Criminal Justice 39:417–425CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Pyrooz DC, Decker SH, Webb VJ (2010) The ties that bind: desistance from gangs. Crime Delinq. Online First. doi: 10.1177/0011128710372191
  63. Pyrooz DC, Decker SH, Moule Jr. RK (2013a) Criminal and routine activities in online settings: Gangs, offenders, and the internet. Justice Q. Online First. doi: 10.1080/07418825.2013.778326
  64. Pyrooz DC, Sweeten G, Piquero AR (2013b) Continuity and change in gang membership and gang embeddedness. J Res Crime Delinq 50:239–271CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Rabe-Hesketh S, Skrondal A (2008) Multilevel and longitudinal modeling using Stata, 2nd edn. Stata Press, College Station, TXGoogle Scholar
  66. Samejima F (1969) Estimation of latent ability using a response pattern of graded scores. Psychom Monogr Suppl 17:100–114Google Scholar
  67. Samejima F (1997) Graded response model. In: Van Der Linden Wim J, Hambleton Ronald K (eds) Handbook of modern item response theory. Springer, New York, pp 85–100CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Short JF Jr, Nye FI (1957) Reported behavior as a criterion of deviant behavior. Soc Probl 5:207–213CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Short JF Jr, Nye FI (1958) Extent of unrecorded juvenile delinquency: tENTATIVE conclusions. J Criminal Law Criminol 49:296–302CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Smithson H, Armitage R, Monchuk L (2012) Gang member: who says? The process of defining the gang. In: Esbensen F-A, Maxson C (eds) Youth gangs in international perspective. Springer, London, pp 53–69CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Smithson H, Ralphs R, Williams P (2013) Used and abused: the problematic usage of gang terminology in United Kingdom and its implication for ethnic minority use. Br J Criminol 53:113–128CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Spano R, Freilich JD, Bolland J (2008) Gang membership, gun carrying, and employment: applying routine activities theory to explain violent victimization among inner city, minority youth living in extreme poverty. Justice Q 25:381–410CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Stewart EA, Simons RL (2010) Race, code of the street, and violent delinquency: a multilevel investigation of neighborhood street culture and individual norms of violence. Criminology 48:569–605Google Scholar
  74. Sullivan M (2005) Maybe we shouldn’t study ‘‘gangs’’: does reification obscure youth violence? J Contemp Criminal Justice 21:170–190CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Sullivan M (2006) Are “gang” studies dangerous? Youth violence, local context and the problem of reification. In: Short James F, Hughes LA Jr (eds) Studying youth gangs. AltaMira Press, Lanham, MD, pp 15–36Google Scholar
  76. Sweeten G (2012) Scaling criminal offending. J Quant Criminol 28:533–557CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Sweeten G, Pyrooz DC, Piquero AR (2013) Disengaging from gangs and desistance from crime. Justice Q 30:469–500CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Tangney JP, Baumeister RF, Boone AL (2004) High self-control predicts good adjustment, less pathology, better grades, and interpersonal success. J Pers 72:271–322CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Taylor TJ, Freng A, Esbensen F-A, Peterson D (2008) Youth gang membership and serious violent victimization: the importance of lifestyle/routine activities. J Interpers Violence 10:1–24Google Scholar
  80. Thornberry TP, Krohn MD (2000) The self-report method for measuring delinquency and crime. In: Duffee D (ed) Measurement and analysis of crime and justice. National Institute of Justice, Washington, DC, pp 33–84Google Scholar
  81. Thornberry TP, Krohn MD, Lizotte AJ, Chard-Wierschem D (1993) The role of juvenile gangs in facilitating delinquent behavior. J Res Crime Delinq 30:55–87Google Scholar
  82. Thornberry TP, Krohn MD, Lizotte AJ, Smith CA, Tobin K (2003) Gangs and delinquency in developmental perspective. Cambridge, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  83. Thrasher FM (1927) The gang: a study of 1,313 gangs in Chicago. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  84. Vigil JD (1988) Barrio gangs: street life and identity in Southern California. University of Texas Press, AustinGoogle Scholar
  85. Wallerstein JS, Wyle CJ (1947) Our law-abiding law-breakers. Probation 25:107–112Google Scholar
  86. Webb VJ, Katz CM, Decker SH (2006) Assessing the validity of self-reports by gang members: results from the Arrestee Drug-Abuse Monitoring Program. Crime Delinq 52:232–252CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Whyte WF (1943) Street corner society: the social structure of an Italian slum. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  88. Winfree LT, Fuller K, Vigil T, Mays GL (1992) The definition and measurement of ‘gang status’: policy implications for juvenile justice. Juv Fam Court J 43:29–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Yablonsky L (1962) The violent gang. Macmillan, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  90. Zatz M (1987) Chicano youth gangs and crime: the creation of a moral panic. Contemp Crisis 11:129–158CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Scott H. Decker
    • 1
    Email author
  • David C. Pyrooz
    • 2
  • Gary Sweeten
    • 1
  • Richard K. MouleJr.
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Criminology and Criminal JusticeArizona State UniversityPhoenixUSA
  2. 2.Department of Criminal Justice and CriminologySam Houston State UniversityHuntsvilleUSA

Personalised recommendations