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Social rituals of pain: the socio-symbolic meaning of violence in gang initiations

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Much of criminological scholarship on street gangs focuses on the deviant and delinquent aspects of gang violence. Although the research tradition acknowledges that violence is central to the life in a gang, it often labels this form of violence as an “anti-social” behaviour. This article challenges this conceptualisation of gang violence and proposes instead that gang violence is a social performance. By using the example of gang initiation rites, this article suggests that violence in such rites possesses a socio-symbolic and performative function that informs about the social status of gang members. This article draws on Jeffrey Stevenson Murer’s theory of the performative and communicative function of violence as well as on Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts of social field, habitus and social capital in order to demonstrate that violence during gang initiation rites is an inherently social act that reinforces and strengthens the social ties and bonds among the members of a gang. The aim of this piece is to broaden scholarship on gangs towards a more critical theorisation of the performative and communicative functions of gang violence. We suggest that a stronger engagement with critical social theory on collective identity, violence and social capital can contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the socio-symbolic and cultural processes that underlie gang membership.


Original languageEnglish
Number of pages16
JournalInternational Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society
VolumeFirst Online
Early online date23 Oct 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 23 Oct 2020

    Research areas

  • Gangs, Violence, Initiation rites, Social capital, Performativity

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