Recruitment through Rule Breaking: Establishing Social Ties with Gang Members

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<jats:p>Many contemporary violence prevention programs direct concentrated law enforcement, social service, or educational attention toward individuals engaged in violence, and yet, this population is often avoiding this precise attention. Drawing on 18 months of ethnographic data, this case study asks: How do street outreach workers form social ties with active gang members? This study identifies three key mechanisms of social tie formation that break organizational rules, but account for how new social relations are formed with street savvy gang youth: (1) Network Targeting: identifying, entering, and extending services to the package of preexisting social ties beyond the eligible gang member; (2) Gift Giving: navigating those social ties when transferring out of pocket gifts to the target to elicit trust and demonstrate genuine investment; and (3) Transportation Brokerage: expanding clients’ social networks by literally driving them to prosocial influences and activities. Discussion of the value and limitations of each mechanism offers insights to urban sociologists interested in the origins of social ties in disadvantaged communities, as well as policymakers designing social interventions for hard to reach populations.</jats:p>






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Cheng, T (2018). Recruitment through Rule Breaking: Establishing Social Ties with Gang Members. City & Community, 17(1). pp. 150–169. 10.1111/cico.12272 Retrieved from

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Tony Cheng

Assistant Professor of Sociology

I study how the way state power is legitimized shapes inequalities within communities. My book “The Policing Machine: Enforcement, Endorsements, & the Illusion of Public Input” (2024, University of Chicago Press) is about how police resist institutional reforms by cultivating political capital from the community constituents they empower.

My research has appeared in journals like the American Journal of Sociology, Criminology, Law & Society Review, and Social Problems. It has won awards from the American Sociological Association, American Society of Criminology, and Law & Society Association, and has been supported by the Russell Sage Foundation and an NSF CAREER Award. I have a Sociology PhD from Yale University and a J.D. from NYU Law School.

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