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Much debate exists on what causes human behavior. As a result, there could be two sides of the divide. They are split on whether human behavior, with specific reference to violence, is an innate thing in human nature or is acquired as human beings develop and grow. In the early days of this debate, there were always extreme sides of the divide. Moreover, as time went by, scholars have come to appreciate the role played by both biology and culture in shaping an individual as a member of the society. In a special way, ‘social psychology’ is devoted to understanding the interrelationship between social life and the workings of the human mind. In this regard, gang violence is explored from both perspectives. Moreover, it should be noted that other social sciences, such as Sociology and Anthropology, have played a central role in shaping the understanding of the subject matter. The two disciplines offer theoretical perspectives into the role of individual or individuals in society. It will be shown that gang violence is as a result of both biological and cultural factors, with more emphasis on the latter.

This paper seeks to discuss gang violence in detail. To do so, it begins by defining the major terms as far as the debate is concerned. This is followed by a situation analysis of the question of historical and contemporary violence. This will be achieved by having a glimpse at the statistics or data on gang violence. Thereafter, the observed data will be explained by exploring the origins of human behavior. This cannot be effectively done without recourse to theories of the mind and the society. A detailed exploration of nature-nurture debate is done. In order to intensify the analysis, a third component is introduced. This will entail the issue of how different sexes express violent behavior. Lastly, a synthesis of both nature and nurture perspectives is done and a moderate ground proposed. The ultimate goal is to determine whether behavior is inherited or acquired.

Definition of Terms

Gang violence is seen as the aggression perpetrated by a group of people towards other people or group. This may involve physical injury of the subject or even other forms of bodily or psychological harm. Conceptually, this may also encompass a situation in which an individual instills fear to a group of people. It has been argued that the action of such people is either innate or acquired later in life.

The nature aspect of the debate entails the innate qualities. These may include the person’s psychological processes, emotional make up, physiological predispositions, hormonal and genetic characteristics of individuals. In other words, nature has to do with biological make up of a person. This explains why terms like ‘nativism’ and ‘innatism’ have been used to describe human nature and predisposition to violence. One side of the debate proposes that this aspect is the sole determinant of violence and other forms of human behavior. Although nature contributes to human actions, the environment, or nurture, also plays a central role in determining whether an individual is violent or not.

The nurture of a person entails his or her experiences as he or she grows in society. Such terms as ‘behaviorism’ and ‘empiricism’ have been used to describe what nurture is all about. According to Samaha (81), it means that the environment that a person or child grows in determines his or her behavior with regard to violence. One of the most important processes in nurture is socialization. It has to do with teaching the child the ways of the society in which he or she is brought up in. Thus if the society is violent, she or he is bound to be so. The opposite is also true; that if the society is not violent, they are not likely to be violent. It means that culture nurtures the individual.

Data and Information on Gang Violence

Gang violence has been a point of focus for the security apparatus since the dawn of the 2000’s. Although after the 2001 attacks more emphasis has been laid on terrorism, there is no doubt that security departments have simultaneously beefed up surveillance for criminal gangs. However, in spite of their efforts, violent gangs have continued to increase over the years. Although the essay later focuses on whether this could be attributed to nature or nurture, there is a need to realize that unemployment has become a world wide problem. Therefore, there is no doubt that people who grow up in such environments are likely to resort to violence.

The National Gang Intelligence Centre (NGIC) was developed ‘2005 to provide a mechanism for local, state, and federal law enforcement to share gang data across jurisdictions and to identify trends related to violent gang activity and migration’. The Federal Bureau Investigation website continues to report that ‘We established the MS-13 National Gang Task Force in 2004 to coordinate the investigative efforts of federal, state, and local agencies against MS-13 gang targets. MS-13 members and associates have been identified in 42 states and have a significant presence in Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington, D.C.’.

In a general sense, violence is found almost everywhere. According to Spagnoli, ‘Worldwide, an estimated 1,6 million people lose their lives to violence each year. That’s a rate of almost 30 people per 100,000…Violence is among the leading causes of death for people aged 15–44 years worldwide, accounting for 14% of deaths among males and 7% of deaths among females. And lethal violence is only one of many types of violence’. He observes that although statistics may show a declining number of violence victims, ‘I have to stress the uncertainty in many of these numbers, especially the numbers about pre-modern times. If you see how difficult it is to establish more or less correct and uncontroversial data on rape or on the casualty rate in the Iraq war for instance, you can imagine the error margin for periods without crime reporting, surveys, Wiki leaks, satellite images, peer review, official documents, and the internet’.

This is a clear indication that there are not very good records on gang violence. Most of such records should ideally exist within government statistical departments. Since governments do not wish to be accused laxity leading to human rights violations, the figures are likely to be very conservative. Moreover, for this purpose, the origin of violent behavior is the most important thing to focus on.

Explaining the Results: Origins of Behavior

Social Psychology represents an intersection of biology and culture. By extension, it represents a locus where nature and nurture meet. This is because strictly speaking, psychology has to do with mental processes which purely biological. On the other hand, the social component entails the role of culture in influencing thought patterns and perhaps violent behavior. This section seeks to explore where each of the components of the discipline comes from. Moreover, at this point in time, it is imperative to assess the quality of data on gang violence.

Although security has rapidly improved, there is an increasing number of gangs that spread indirect violence on people. Statistics may sometimes show reduction in such gangs but the fact that information technology is a reality simply means that they have changed modes of operation. This reality may then add more weight to the nurture side of debate that behavior is determined by environment.

The Nature Explanation

There is no doubt that biology plays an important role in shaping a person. The nature side of the debate propounds that biology determines behavior. Put in other terms, nature proposes that biology is to blame for human propensity to be violent. In this view, gangs perpetuate violence because they have capacities of aggression ingrained in their bodies. One of the major points in nature debate is that genes determine behavior. This is because they are responsible for the formation of hormones and enzymes that could lead to happiness or aggression. These genes are inheritable thus meaning that violence can be passed from parents to children.

In this category, there are ‘nativists’. They posit that persons have ‘wired codes’ that determine their actions. These are as a result of a long evolutionary inscription of unique characteristics in people’s make up. Therefore, if one does not have a code to be violent, it is not possible for that person to be so. Additionally, studies in personality have provided valuable information regarding the role of biology in behavior determination. It was found out that personality could be inherited up to 50% (Flannery). Although personality traits could also be adopted on the basis of social interaction between the child and the caregiver, studies showed that personality inheritance is possible. In cases where parents are rough, outgoing and able to fall out easily with other people, then there is also a possibility that their violent personality attributes could be passed on to their children.

Dr. Terrie Moffitt of the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College in London and her colleagues did experiments on a gene that is believed to be responsible for violence.  The Economist reports that ‘…MAOA, the gene for a protein called monoamine oxidase-A… Monoamine oxidase-A is an enzyme that breaks down members of an important group of neurotransmitters, the molecules that carry signals between nerve cells. These neurotransmitters include dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine, all of which help to regulate a person's mood’.

The Economist also observes that ‘there is abundant evidence that a reduced level of monoamine oxidase-A (and therefore an elevated level of these neurotransmitters) results in violent behavior. There is also evidence that chronically low levels early in life result in an individual who is more than averagely predisposed to react violently to any given situation in adulthood, regardless of monoamine-oxidase levels at the time’. Against this background, biological determinists argue that violence has a biological basis but not a social basis. Moreover, other proponents of the nature view do not necessarily opposed the nurture viewpoint but insist on a biological basis of violence that is modified by social factors.

Some nature theorists posit that each and every person has the capacity to be violent. This is perhaps based on the fact that all human beings have testosterone, the hormone believed to cause aggressive feelings. However, since women have it in lower amounts than men, they are less likely to participate in gang violence. In the same way, women who have high levels of this hormone are likely to be participants in gang violence or another form of violence, such as domestic violence, because they have the potential to be violent. However, this explanation is not always reliable in explaining the strong case of nature against nurture.

The most candid premise of the nature argument is that violence is part of human nature. Citing Furlow et al., Strickland writes that ‘Within a population, certain traits may make particular subsections more violent. In a study of aggressive behaviors within a college community, researchers discovered that males with low levels of fluctuating asymmetry (FA) admitted to being in fights more than those with high FA. Fluctuating asymmetry is a deviation from perfect bilateral symmetry, and is the product of environmental and developmental stresses. The study suggests males who have greater symmetry -and presumably fewer mutations than those with less symmetry - are more violent’.

The Nurture Explanation

This divide of the argument propounds that the environment that a person grows in is the key determinant of his or her behavior. Contrary to the above view, nurture literally blames culture or the environment for human violence. In other words, people are violent because they are brought up in violent environments. Proponents of nurture deny the possibility of exclusive heredity of certain genes citing the role played by hormones and other factors. For instance, although an individual may inherit genes for tallness, if proper nutrition is not accorded, they may not attain the genetically coded tallness. Therefore, according to Meldzian, on this basis, nurture, not nature, determines behavior. Moreover, it is agreed that the interaction between environment and genes has not fully been understood.

So as to support the nurture perspective, environmentalists and empiricists provide that at birth, the mind of a child is blank and that it has to be filled or nurtured with the necessary attributes. This makes behaviorism a key sub-set of nurture side of the bargain. Further, from a linguistic approach, Noam Chomsky insisted on the importance of a mother to continually teach her child language so as to acquire it. The language acquisition device is equated, in this case, with acquisition of violent mentality or device that would render the children violent in future.

In further support of the nurture side of bargain, studies in Intelligence Quotient have been conducted in psychology. It has been proven beyond reasonable doubt that a supportive family environment enables a child perform better in school. This is an indication that attributes of violence in the family can also be adopted by the child in his or her future habits. According to McLeod, ‘For many environmentalists there is a barely disguised right wing agenda behind the work of the behavioral geneticists.  In their view part of the difference in the I.Q. scores of different ethnic groups is due to inbuilt biases in the methods of testing.  More fundamentally they believe that differences in intellectual ability are a product of social inequalities in access to material resources and opportunities.  To put it simply children brought up in the ghetto tend to score lower on tests because they are denied the same life chances as more privileged members of society’.

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In explaining how violence can be traced form nurture as opposed to nature, social determinists cite not only societal factors but also family, religion, peers, aggression among others. There are at least three explanations to the nurture origin of violence. These include the Lorenz’s Hydraulic Model of Motivation, the Social Learning Theory and the Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis.

According to the social learning theory, human beings are not innately aggressive. They also posit that frustration does not always lead to aggression. On the contrary, social learning theorists clarify that aggression or violence is either leant or entrenched into the minds of the gangs through ‘payoffs’. The latter denotes whether violent people are prosecuted by law or are instead praised. In this light, violent behavior entirely belongs to nurture but not nature. In the second model of motivation, emphasis is on the aggressor. Unless human beings are provoked, they are not likely to be violent. Although this theory argues that human energy is always accumulated until it is released, this does not make it a nature theory. In most cases, the aggressors are usually social things but rarely biological. Related to this theory, nurture argument is supported by the Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis.

Simply put, it means that human beings become violent if they are frustrated. This frustration could be in terms of unemployment or lack of essential amenities. This explanation and the second one are somewhat opposite each other. While the latter is based on an indirect provocation in the name of frustration, the second is based on a deliberate move to make bitter the members of a gang or a population. In the latter case, organization into gangs is a psycho-social response to avenge themselves.

Differential Violence across Sexes

The debate on nurture and nature with regard to violence could also be approached from a different angle; by looking at sex differences in violence manifestation. It appears that there are more men than women engaging in violent gangs. This brings out a major question that could perhaps give more insights into the debate. Is men’s participation in gang violence attributable to nurture or nature? From a biological perspective, men are known to have more testosterone, a hormone that is responsible for aggression, a prerequisite for violence. From this view, it could be argued that nature contributes to more men participating in gang violence than women. However, it is also important to explore the other possibility.

It should also be recalled that most societies present men as the superior sex that is endowed with outdoor responsibilities while the female gender is relegated to the kitchen. This could have contributed to more men participating in violence than women. Therefore, it is also true that nurture contributes to the differential participation of genders in violence. This is because they are born in already patriarchal societies and systems where men are expected to be tougher than women: violence happens to be one of the may ways of being tough.

A Synthesis of Nature-Nurture Debate

McLeod notes that ‘Now we can see why the nature-nurture debate has become such a hotly contested issue.  What begins as an attempt to understand the causes of behavioral differences often develops into a politically motivated dispute about distributive justice and power in society.  What is more this does not only apply to the debate over I.Q.  It is equally relevant to the psychology of sex and gender where the question of how much of the (alleged) differences in male and female behavior is due to biology and how much to culture is just as controversial’. This is a clear indication that some aspects of behavior are attributable to nature while others to nurture. It appears that a strict stance on the debate may lead to biased and subjective view of behavior with specific focus on violence.


As a matter of conclusion, gang violence is an intersection of two broad bodies of knowledge. These bodies of knowledge have been polarized for a long period of time. Moreover, with the increasing inter-disciplinary cooperation has led to increased awareness that both nature and nurture can explain gang violence. However, the two extremes of the debate can only explain particular aspects of gang violence. The genetic, hormonal and psychological aspects are some of the strong points of the nature explanations. On the other hand, nurture explanations are based on the societal dynamics, socialization process, family issues among others. The nurture explanations are also further explained by, for instance, the frustration-aggression hypothesis, a social phenomenon. Although both sides present strong arguments about the origin of violence, there is a need to have a blended outlook into the specific cases of gang violence and apply the principles proposed in both sides as situations require. In the final analysis, gang violence is a topic under social psychology that can only be fully understood only if both biological and cultural models are applied.

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