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Chicano fellow to probe why many youths resist gang membership

STANFORD -- The role of youth gangs in local Chicano communities will be explored this spring by Stanford students working under the direction of Fernando Soriano, a visiting professor in psychology brought to campus by the Chicano Fellows Program.

Soriano, a social psychologist on the faculty of the University of Missouri, is a member of two national advisory bodies on policy related to teenage delinquency, violence and gangs. He has studied cultural differences and similarities among youthful felons in Miami. He will focus his own research here on understanding Chicano youth who fit the psycho- social profile of gang members but do not become involved in crime or even join youth gangs.

He also is teaching an overview course this quarter on "Social Psychology of Social Problems: A Focus on Chicanos," which requires Stanford students to compare perceptions and theories on social problems in academic literature to perceptions they find in local Chicano communities.

Youth gangs often are portrayed in the media and movies as the cause of rising homicide and other forms of violence among young people, Soriano said. On the other hand, studies that have been done on youth gangs in East Los Angeles indicate the vast majority of youth do not participate in gangs, most who do only participate for a relatively short time, and they are on the periphery of membership, he said.

While gangs are associated with violence, he said, they also can have positive benefits for some youth.

"In inner city schools, there is often a lot of fear for your own safety, and youth gangs provide a sense of protection," he said. "Also, with a lot of dysfunctional families as a result of the stresses on them, gangs sometimes also serve the role of family, which can be very important for Latino youth. The gang offers a sense of belonging and of control over your life."

One of the "information gaps" in research on gangs and delinquency is understanding the personal, familial or cultural "resilience factors" that keep most youth who have the same socioeconomic characteristics as gang members from becoming active in gangs, he said. That is what he hopes to study at Stanford, testing social psychological theories developed by Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura and others.

"We often think of family structure - single parenthood, specifically - as a high risk factor for youth. However, in the studies we did in Miami of youth who had committed at least 100 felonies, the majority of the Latino youth were still living in intact families," Soriano said.

"There was a higher prevalence of single-parent families among African American offenders, but you cannot say single parenthood is a causal variable given these differences in patterns."

Soriano began teasing out cultural factors in social psychology as a doctoral student at the University of Colorado, and later as a researcher of military families for the U.S. Navy. More recently, he has been a consultant to Project Choice and Project Early, two projects funded by the Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City to reduce drop-out rates and improve opportunities for poor urban youth. He is a member of the American Psychological Association's Commission on Violence and Youth, which has hosted several conferences as part of a two-year project to draft a major report with policy recommendations by this summer. He is also a member of the advisory panel on youth gang and drug prevention programs of the U.S. Family and Youth Services Bureau of the Department of Health and Human Services.

When Soriano speaks of cultural differences in psychology, he said he means gender and geographical differences as well as ethnic differences.

"I think one of the limitations on our research has been the tendency to think of the white or Anglo group as acultural. There is no such thing as a person devoid of culture."

Latino culture varies greatly across the country but so does Anglo culture, he said he has noticed while living and traveling around the country.

"There is more a sense of community and family orientation in the South, for instance, as in the Midwest," he said. "People see the coasts - especially the West Coast - as being too individualistic. We all have a sense of this

being part of the diversity equation, but we often choose to ignore it."

Soriano's courses at Stanford require students to have contact with the communities most affected by the social problems being studied, he said, "because I believe you learn only half as much if you have no direct contact with affected people. You can write interesting papers about a population without contact, but they may not match with the perceptions of the residents themselves."

The university's Haas Public Service Center and the Ravenswood City School District in East Palo Alto are helping to find opportunities for students to volunteer in local community settings, he said.



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