Murder by Structure: Dominance Relations and the Social Structure of Gang Homicide in Chicago
American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 115, No. 1, pp. 74-128, 2009
76 Pages Posted: 28 Nov 2005 Last revised: 29 Oct 2010
Date Written: December 1, 2007
Most sociological theories consider murder an outcome of the differential distribution of individual, neighborhood, or social characteristics. And while such studies explain variation in aggregate homicide rates, they do not explain the social order of murder - i.e., who kills whom, when, where, and for what reason. This paper argues that gang murder is best understood not by searching for its individual determinants but by examining the social networks of action and reaction that create it. Gang murder occurs through an epidemic-like process of social contagion as competing groups jockey for positions of dominance. In short, the social structure of gang murder is defined by the manner in which social networks are constructed and by people's placement in them. I use a network approach and incident level homicide records to recreate and analyze the structure of gang murders in Chicago. Descriptive, non-parametric, and multivariate analyses demonstrate that individual murders between gangs create an institutionalized network of group conflict, net of any individual's participation or motive. Within this network, murders spread as gangs evaluate the highly visible actions of others in their local networks and negotiate dominance considerations that arise during violent incidents. Gangs must constantly (re)establish the social order through reciprocal violence which, in turn, merely strengthens these murder networks.
Keywords: homicide, street gangs, gangs, networks, social network analysis, Chicago
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