Based on a multitude of studies, scholars note that youth may be “pulled” and/or “pushed” into gang membership. Pulls are features that attract youth, such as the perception of increased reputation and social status, the desire to be with friends and/or family who are already gang-involved, the promise of money, drugs, and/or excitement, and cultural pride and identification with one’s neighborhood. In contrast, because of the high levels of neighborhood crime and violence, some youth perceive gangs as providing protection and/or are fearful of the consequences if they do not join.
It is important to note that the pushes and pulls of gang membership are not necessarily mutually exclusive, in that they may simultaneously impact a youth’s decision to join a gang. However, by and large, numerous studies have found that youth themselves are more likely to report being “pulled” into the gang. This is especially evident in widespread accounts of youth who report joining the gang based on the social desire to be around gang-involved friends and/or family. In comparison, youth less frequently report being coerced or actively recruited to join the gang. This finding is important to note, since the latter is commonly (though erroneously) believed to be the primary reason youth join gangs, with many states developing legislation to criminalize and punish active recruitment.
Finally, it is also important to point out that the process of joining a gang is a gradual one. Youth may begin at a “gang-marginal status” by hanging around other gang members or having older family members in the gang, leading some to join later and others to remain in a marginal status or to disassociate entirely. For those who join, some may become increasingly embedded within the gang life, while others remain at the periphery. That is, gang membership patterns are dynamic and multilayered and are not reliably reducible to a simple gang-versus-nongang perspective.