With many sources that attempt to explain why youth join gangs, studies based on empirical research are optimal to reveal the critical factors. This paper will focus on combining these sources that are based on empirical methodologies with Robert Merton's strain theory to explain why youth join gangs from an analytical perspective. The empirical studies reveal a trend that youth join gangs because of a troublesome economy and coming from a low-socioeconomic status, creating a strong connection with Merton's strain theory.
It is not uncommon that in today's world, there are societal expectations and standards of the ideal lifestyle. In the US, the 'American Dream' constitutes the ideal life that is based on achieving wealth, status, and fame in a successful manner. Merton's strain theory explains how the mainstream promotes the American Dream while disregarding the fact that not all communities have equal opportunities to achieve it in a legitimate fashion (Parnaby and Sacco 2004). Essentially, people can conform to this universal standard, but when they realize that they are severely limited the result is anomie because there is too much emphasis on becoming prosperous, while the socio-economic imbalance is ignored.
This leads to Merton's various forms of adaptations: innovation, where the person accepts the goals, but rejects the means; retreating, where the person rejects both the goals and the means; ritualism, where the person rejects the goals, but accepts the means and; rebellion, where the person creates alternative goals via alternative means. Merton basically suggests that when a person is limited to achieve the mainstream goal, they adapt via alternative structures that can consequently be illegitimate, hence the reason people become deviant (Lilly et al. 2011, and Parnaby and Sacco 2004).
Relative to youth joining gangs, Merton argues that when there is a clash between the mainstream's goals and means with the society's lack of means to achieve the goals, people are to become deviant because they will cultivate illegitimate means (Merton 1957 and Sumner 1994 as cited in Parnaby and Sacco 2004). This argument can be supported by the analogy of the socio-economic ladder, where members of society who come from a low status to begin will experience greater difficulty to climb up the ladder than those who come from a middle-or-upper-class background. In addition, the authors of the empirical study articles reveal the critical factor that explains the reason youth join gangs is having a low socio-economic status to begin with (Johnstone 1983, Maclure and Sotelo 2004, Yoder et al. 2003). Hence, the act of joining gangs leads to performing illegitimate means to become wealthy, such as selling drugs. Similarly, Pfohl (1985 as cited in Lilly et al. 2011) reveals that Merton had first-hand experience of a slum neighbourhood that experienced the limitation to grow. This context fits the aforementioned description of innovation...