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Sociohistorical and Identity Factors in Predicting Cambodian American Gang Involvement

Fri, March 22, 7:45 to 9:15am, Baltimore Convention Center, Floor: Level 1, Exhibit Hall B

Integrative Statement

Developmental science has tended to neglect Asian Americans (Tseng et al., 2016), and few studies have focused exclusively on Cambodian Americans, an Asian sub-group that is extremely at risk due largely to their pre- and post-migration contexts (Choi et al., 2007). For example, compared to other Asian Americans, Cambodian Americans rank substantially higher in youth violence and problem behavior (Le & Stockdale, 2008), and prior quantitative work shows that Cambodian Americans express higher peer delinquency compared to their Chinese, Lao, and Vietnamese counterparts (Choi, He, & Harachi, 2007; Go & Le, 2005; Le & Stockdale, 2008).

This poster will make a meaningful and important contribution by providing a better understanding of the sociocultural environments of these understudied Cambodian American youth. Specifically, we provide insight on the cultural and migration-related reasons for why and how these individuals exhibit such high risk for developing externalizing and gang-related behaviors. Given that most existing work has simply examined correlates of externalizing behaviors, our comprehensive, qualitative approach will explore the personal perspectives and individual stories of those who were gang-involved. Data from in-depth interviews allow us to gain insight on how relationships with families and peers, as well as sociohistorical contexts, led these adolescents to gang involvement, and how developmental turning points – incarceration, parenthood, financial responsibility, etc. –influenced their decisions to become less gang-active.

Qualitative interviews were conducted with six former gang members from Cambodian American backgrounds. Participants, all of whom were men, reflected on their personal motivations to join a gang, engage in dangerous behavior, and ultimately leave gang life. Using Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory as a framework, focusing on the micro- and chrono-systems as well as concepts of person-process-context-time, interview responses were used to answer the following research questions:

1. What role does the family play in contributing to youth gang involvement?
2. What are contextual reasons or benefits for continued gang involvement?
3. What developmental turning points contribute to decisions to leave gang life?

Preliminary results suggest that Cambodian Americans reach out to gangs for social and familial support. For example, all six participants stated that their gang involvement provided a sense of family and brotherhood while their parents were absent or working. Four out of six participants reported living without a father figure in their life, and they sought guidance and role models from older peers in gangs. Half of the participants stated that they also received support and protection against discrimination from other ethnic groups through gang involvement. Examples of excerpts from interviews are listed in Table 1.

More detailed analyses and interpretation will contribute to basic knowledge on why Cambodian Americans might engage in risky behaviors and underachieve in academic contexts. Results and discussion will provide helpful information regarding the complexity of social and cultural factors that shape Cambodian American youth development. Wider implications of our work will reach researchers and scholars as well as clinicians, teachers, and other practitioners who work directly with at-risk youth to help mitigate unhealthy outcomes and promote more positive youth development.

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