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James densley and signalling theory

James A Densley was born on April 3rd 1982, he was a British-American sociologist and associate professor of Criminal justice at Metropolitan State University. Densley was described as “among the most accomplished rising leaders of modern gang research in criminology” (Piquero, Alex R. (2018-05-10). “Linking Race-Based Perceptions of Gangs to Criminals and Athletes”. Society. 55 (3): 237–242).

Signalling theory has been applied to selection scenarios that occur in a range of disciplines, including anthropology, management, marketing for businesses, political science, sociology and biology. Most famously, Spence’s (1973) work on information economics, for which he received a Nobel Prize for modelling the signalling function of higher education in labour markets. In contrast to human capital models, which focus on education as a means to increase worker productivity, signalling model argued that candidates obtained education solely to communicate their underlying quality and reduce the information asymmetry in hiring. Spence characterized hiring as “investment under uncertainty” (p. 356) because potential employers may lack information about the quality of job candidates they might eventually invest in. Education can be costly to get the education and also the effort and time put into it, thus a reliable signal of quality—lower quality candidates simply cannot absorb the associated costs, they cannot afford the signal. The signal, in turn, sorts high-quality candidates from their low-quality counterparts.

The way to look at it would be that someone who sells a good knows more about the quality of the good then the buyer would because it their good. People who observe and study gangs know far more about their characteristics and behavioural intentions than the gang does, and the gang knows far more about its wants and needs than the people observing the gang. By this logic it has been thought that individuals do not stumble into gangs probabilistically, rather selection becomes the exchange, people choose to be a part of gangs as well as gangs selecting people. To achieve membership status, high-quality gang prospects take actions to distinguish themselves from their low-quality counterparts. Such actions will also influence the well-documented relationship between gang membership and offending (Thornberry et al. 1993) because they extend beyond a gang member’s initial entry into the gang. Which shows participation, trust, and community in their gang.

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The first thing James A. Densley wanted us to try and understand is “why, in any given pool of individuals with similar sociological profiles and motivations, do only some gain entry into gangs?” (James A. Densley, street gang Recruitment: Signalling, screening and selection, Metropolitan State University). James states that his study done on gangs was based on two years of ethnographic fieldwork with gang members in London where he argues that gangs face twos types of “trust dilemmas” in their searching for good gang recruits. The first dilemma that is faced is called ‘primary trust dilemma’ this is looking for others with observable signs correlated with the properties the gang already has, in some gangs this could mean tattoos, scaring or other identifiable traits such as the same neighbourhoods, the second trust dilemma is called ‘secondary trust dilemma’ in their reliability of these individuals and trust, such as making sure their new recruits aren’t police informants, rival gang members or adventure seekers.

Street gangs, organized criminals, and radical and extremist groups might differ in their aims, structures, size, and local constraints (Decker and Pyrooz 2011), but they all share the same organizational problem which is the need to find trustworthy, loyal, and competent members under the conditions of illegality, the use of violence, and risk of infiltration (Hamill 2010; Pizzini-Gambetta and Hamill 2011).

James Densely used a theory called signalling theory to try and make sense of how and why youth join gangs, he believes that prospective gang members signal their potential value to the gang by engaging in dangerous and violent crimes that most individuals would never do. Densely continued to explore gangs and he developed an influential model of gang evolution where he tries to explain the relationship between gangs and organised crimes, based on fieldwork with gangs and interviews with gang members in London Densley illustrated hoe recreation, crime, enterprise and governance represent ‘sequential actualisation stages’ in the evolutionary cycle of street gangs.

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He strongly believed gangs were heavily evolved from adolescence peer groups that had features of street life in their neighbourhoods, external threats to these groups make them more aware of their surroundings and prepare them to become fighters when messed with. The financial commitments that they need to meet would promote the need to rob and steal from others so that they gain not only goods but respect from other gangs and gang members. From this the likelihood of them entering in to the drug-distribution enterprises rises, in some cases gangs then acquire the necessary special resources of violence and territory which further leads to secrecy and intelligence that will enable them to successfully regulate and control the production and distribution of drugs. “Most youngers are employed by their elders to work what was known colloquially as the ‘drugs line”,’ although some are sent out ‘on assignment’ to explore ‘new markets’ in areas where they are unknown to police; notably commuter cities with vibrant night-time economies” (Densley, J. (2014). It’s gang life, but not as we know it: The evolution of gang business. Crime & Delinquency, 60(4), 517–546)

In 2017 Densley launched ‘The Violence Project’ with a psychologist named Jillian Peterson from Hamline University. The Violence Project focuses on reducing “cyber violence”,” (Peterson, Jillian; Densley, James (2017). “Cyber violence: What do we know and where do we go from here?”. Aggression and Violent Behaviour. 34: 193–200)

gun violence, and police violence as they both felt strongly about this issue. Densley and Peterson built a database of all public mass shooters since 1966 and coded it according to 50 different variables. They also partnered with the Minnetonka Police Department to develop a new mental illness crisis intervention training.

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In 2012 Densley’s original signalling study was called “criminal credentials” witch he based on behaviours from prison, public displays of criminality, and disciplined use of violence to support gang-related activity were not observable risk factors, but rather signals of previously unobserved membership quality, displayed and manipulated by all individuals not in gangs but observing them. From this, gangs looked for clusters of smaller signals that, if pointing in the same direction, together come close to discriminating between what people thought was right and wrong. Densley argued that these signals hold together as a latent construct that we now refer to as a signalling scale. Our signalling scale bears some resemblance to cumulative risk and multiple marginality but is different because the theoretical onus is on the communicative exchange between the sender (the gang prospect) and the receiver (the gang) of signals, not simply the “risky” individual.

Densley also argued signalling does not end with selection into gangs, but rather extends throughout gang membership as individuals continue to communicate their reputations as gang members. It is likely those who fail to signal their quality over time remain to be viewed as weak and will continue to seem like they are less susceptible to the group processes that facilitate criminal offending. Gang members typically co-offend with individuals they trust and offenders in general have been shown to rationally weigh the attractiveness of potential co-offenders based in part on shared social status. Prospective members of higher quality—as indicated by signalling—should therefore exhibit the greatest increases in criminal behaviour.

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