Volume:4, Issue: 1

Apr. 1, 2012

Adolescent Female Involvement in Gang Activity: Delinquency and Identity Formation
Inna A. Semikasheva [about]

DESCRIPTORS: all-female gangs, female crimes,  major factors for growing female delinquency, change in gender stereotypes, identity formation mechanisms,  halfuctured interviews, role models.

SYNOPSIS: The article presents the results of the research of the female identity formation process. The study clearly shows that identity formation in delinquent girls has certain peculiarities which tend to influence their personal development unfavorably.

A new phenomenon has arisen within the juvenile-delinquent subculture recently. All-girl gangs have come into prominence among adolescents engaging in anti-social, criminal activities.

Criminologists point out that the past decade witnessed an unprecedented surge in female crime and overall delinquency. Female crime is marked by the same negative tendencies as observed in the entire criminal world: a rise in juvenile crime rates, a growing number of violent crimes and an increase in organized, crime activities. Criminologists’ gravest concerns are focused on the increase in juvenile, female, gang involvement. This increase indicates a change in gender stereotypes. Many researchers believe that female crime and female, deviant activities are all the more dangerous because of their direct influence on adolescents. Not only does female crime promote adolescent criminal involvement, but it is, first and foremost, a decisive factor in teen, role identification. It is widely known, for instance, that teenage smoking is rarely connected with paternal smoking but is often linked with maternal smoking. (Kurek, 1996)  

Adolescent female and teenage engagement in youth gangs stands apart from other types of criminal activity. Our research has revealed a recent drastic change in the character of young, female, gang involvement, i.e. in the roles they assume, in their motivation, in the way girls influence other members’ criminal activity, etc. Such a change aggravates the negative influence of gang involvement on the participating girls’ personal development and socialization.

According to Salagaev and Shashkin’s 2001-2003 study centered on Kazan, Russia, female involvement in gangs was limited to those “girls shared by the gang” or “general-use girls” and  those girls who “belonged” to “shot-callers” and other high-ranking gang members and were “private-use girls.” None of the respondents confirmed that girls could be engaged in male, gang activity. The authors attribute this fact to the wide-spread internalization of prison, subculture norms and values among gang members. In prisons, the homogeneity of male inmate population helps to preserve a gender regime. (Salagaev and Shashkin, 2004)

However, Pirozhkov emphasizes that mixed and all-female juvenile gangs are treated too leniently by law enforcement agencies, social workers, and teachers because female criminal activity is often viewed as uncommon and accidental. Therefore, the study of interpersonal interaction in mixed and all-female gangs is a highly relevant issue. (Pirozhkov, 1998)

Our research findings confirm Pirozhkov’s conclusions. Interviewing girls who are engaged in anti-social, criminal groups has shown that attempts at studying this phenomenon are complicated by the ongoing transformation of the juvenile, criminal subculture. Alongside purely male gangs driven by the idea of ‘hegemonic masculinity,’ as described by Salagaev and Shashkin, there appear to be mixed gangs where female participation is not just limited to the role of sexual partner and purely female groups which are no less, and in some cases even more, violent and aggressive than all male gangs. Sometimes such groups originate as ‘branches’ of male gangs. They are often formed by girls who are partners of male gang members. Girls gather together in their ‘spare time’ when the young men are busy with criminal huddles or are actively engaged in a criminal enterprise. These girls copy male style and behavior and their criminal activity differs little from that of the boys. Victims are chosen among inoffensive peers usually from the same neighborhood. Often the girl gangs are after money, mobile phones, jewelry, or clothes, but revenge and jealousy may also be motives. Girls are more often violent offenders than their male counterparts, and their victims usually suffer serious injuries.

The following excerpt was taken from an interview with 16 year old, Anna S., who was questioned at the Family Center for Social and Psychological Assistance in Ulyanovsk: “I think girls shouldn’t take a back seat. I’m no worse than some guy from the gang. I can organize everyone. Sometimes we got up to things and guys envied us. Like, once we beat up a tramp. No reason. Tramps are just nasty. They lie around and stink. In my neighborhood, everyone knows me. Nobody messes with me. We don’t fight with guys. They stay out of our business, and we aren’t interested in their showdowns. We scare the local girls. That’s enough for us.”

The latest studies associate the increase in female delinquency over the last five years with two major factors connected with the socio-economic situation in the society. Firstly, the growing social unrest, social conflicts, unemployment, and other problems of contemporary, Russian society affect females harder. They are the more socially vulnerable part of the population. Secondly, gender stereotypes are currently changing which influences girls’ identity and the acquisition of their gender role. Frequently, women copy male “dominance” behavior which leads to changes in behavioral patterns including criminal behavior. (Ageeva, 2001)

We believe that the factors which trigger juvenile, female, delinquent behavior and gang involvement cannot be studied without understanding identity formation mechanisms since identity formation is a core component of personal development at this age. Identity of delinquent girls is currently studied in the context of age/gender issues and is linked with self-esteem and other emotional components. (Simonchik 2006; Khlopkov 2006) At the same time, there are a number of identity issues which influence delinquent behavior but are not given enough consideration. These are: identity status, identity-building mechanisms, choice of role models, psychological factors linked to status variations, and others.
Our research was based on James Marcia’s ideas of identity formation. (Marcia, 1993; Adams et al., 2005) Marcia defines identity as an internal dynamic organization of drives, beliefs, and individual history. The level of organization depends on the degree of awareness of one’s own integrity; of one’s abilities; as well as points of likeness and difference between oneself and other people. This degree of awareness determines the system of fundamental choices made as one integrates into society, from career choices to answering existential questions. The mode or style of identity formation is defined by Marcia as identity status. Identity statuses are diagnosed by two constructs: reevaluation of choices (as a sign of going through a crisis) and commitment (determination to carry through the choices made.) Marcia’s statuses are: identity achievement (an adolescent has gone through an identity crisis and made a commitment to a sense of identity); identity moratorium (an adolescent is currently in a crisis and has made no commitments to any choices); identity foreclosure (a commitment was made without previously going through a crisis); and identity diffusion (no evaluation of choices, no attempts to make a commitment.) Identity formation is currently viewed as a transition from lower level statuses (identity diffusion and identity foreclosure) to higher level statuses (moratorium and identity achievement.) (Marcia, 1993; Adams et al., 2005)

Our starting assumption was that adolescent girls, engaged in associative criminal groups, generally have lower, identity statuses. We expected that the prevailing identity status among this group of teenagers would be identity diffusion which presupposes confusion of gender roles and behavioral patterns as well as a non-differentiated attitude to self and others. To study identity peculiarities, we employed the role model measuring procedure developed by Kronik and Chichkevich in 1981. Teenage girls were asked to complete sentences, comparing themselves to objects of their choice. The incomplete sentences suggested comparison (“I’m like…”); self-criticism (“I’m worse than…”); and self-praise (“I’m better than…”.) We also suggested parameters for comparison: good looks, intellect, courage, and fairness of judgment, mixing abilities, and an open choice question where the girls could use their own criterion.

The method we employed to study identity statuses was the halfuctured interview. The questionnaire was modeled on Marcia’s Identity Status Interview. (Marcia, 1993) To recruit the experimental group, we contacted counselors, police, school authorities, and consulting psychologists who deal with juvenile females engaged in gang activity. Eventually, we selected 22 seventeen year old girls who were all students of various educational institutions in the city of Ulyanovsk and the Ulyanovsk Region. The control group included 25 girls of the same age and social status as the girls in the experimental group. The girls in the control group were all doing vocational training and demonstrated pro-social behavior.

Our preliminary study results indicate that in the experimental group, the majority of interviewees have shown identity diffusion status in two spheres: religion (60%) and politics (85%). In the sphere of career choices, the prevailing status is “delayed” (55%). In the control group, the girls have also demonstrated identity diffusion as far as politics is concerned (80%). However, in the spheres of career choices and religion, the control group results differ from those of the experimental group. In the sphere of career, the prevalent status among control group participants is identity achievement (85%), while identity foreclosure prevails in the sphere of religion (50%). The prevalence of higher level identity statuses in the sphere of career choices in both groups was quite unexpected for us and may be explained by the currently increasing value of education and career. Girls from both groups view vocational training as a step towards financial independence. (The girls indicated this motive as a highly important factor in choosing a career.) It is likely that our data supports the assumption we made above: modern females strive for independence and fulfillment, mainly in the financial sense.

We also looked at mechanisms of self-description and role model types. The results have shown that identification with a model (comparison) was favored by the majority of girls in both groups (40% in the experimental group and 50% in the control group.) The next popular type of describing self was self-praise in the experimental group (32%) and self-criticism in the control group (38%). As for role models, they were very similar in both groups. Most girls chose to compare themselves with specific people: mother, father, sibling, or friend (59.5% in the experimental group and 45% in the control group.)  Groups of people identified as “others, girls of my age, people I know” were a less popular object for comparison (32% and 42% respectively.) Only 13% of girls in the control group chose comic characters as objects for comparison. Pop-stars were chosen by 8% of girls in the experimental group. Choosing specific people as role models is considered to be a positive factor in identity formation.

We would like to make two general conclusions. The study results clearly show that identity formation in delinquent and “deviant” girls has certain peculiarities which tend to influence their personal development unfavorably. However, these negative tendencies are less explicit in females than in males of the same age. Such a comparison was not the object of our study, but we can’t help observing that even gang membership does not cause such serious deviations in the personal development of girls as it does with teenage boys.


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1 Semikasheva, Inna Alexeevna, [In Russian: Инна Алексеевна Семикашева], PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, Ylyanovsk State Pedagogical University.

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