Interactional Theory

By: Megan Ortiz


The Interactional Theory was developed by Terrence P. Thornberry in 1987. This theory  suggests that “gang membership results from a reciprocal relationship between the individual and peer groups, social structures (i.e. poor neighborhood, school and family environments), weakened social bonds, and a learning environment that fosters and reinforces delinquency.” The theory is a combination of the Social Control Theory and the Social Learning Theory in that it emphasizes  a weak societal bond and learning that encourages deviant behavior. This theory is meant to examine all of the influential factors an individual may experience throughout his/her life.

This theory is more of a developmental theory which suggests that societal, learning, and delinquency factors all contribute to an individuals involvement in organized crime. The theory further states that individuals with weak social bonds will form other bonds with other delinquents who share the same poor values.

Emma C. Alleyne and Jane L. Wood did a study which applied Thornberry’s theory to Gang membership in which they studied a group of 798 high school students. Of these students, 59 were identified as gang members, 75 as peripheral youth (almost gang members) and 664 as nongang youth. The study involved a multiple questionnaires including questions on demographics, gang membership, and delinquency.

The aim of the study was to examine different levels of gang involvement, and to assess psychological factors of gang members vs non gang youth. By examining the non gang youth vs the peripheral and gang youth Alleyene and Wood could determine unique or shared characteristics of gang membership. Also, by attempting to determine factors common amongst gang youth they wanted to create a more comprehensive theory to gang development.

The study found that Gang members committed more overall crime and minor offense than non-gang youth. The study also found that gang members valued social status more than non gang youth suggesting that this could be the motivation in youth gang involvement. It was also found that gang members held more anti authority attitudes and moral disengagement than non gang youth, suggesting that previous experience with authoritative figures has been poor, which also may motivate individuals to join a gang. The study also found that individuals in gangs do not try to justify or make up for their behavior, but they instead embrace it fully. This is for the purpose of maintaining respect and their part in the gang.

From this study we see how individuals participate in organized crime to increase their status. The motivation to join the gang and justification for participating in illegal activities comes from their weakened bonds to society and learned behavior, but their desire to remain in the gang and continue to participate in crinimal acts is due to the desire to maintain adequate status within the group.




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