Le délinquant affilié: La sous-culture des gangs de rue haïtiens de Montréal.

Par Tremblay, Pierre, Mathieu Charest, Yanick Charrette, March Tremblay-Faulkner
Montréal : Liber. 2016.

The work of Pierre Tremblay, Mathieu Charest, Yanick Charette and Marc Tremblay-Faulkner in Le délinquant affilié: La sous-culture des gangs de rue haïtiens de Montréal is one of the most complete, in-depth analyses of street gangs published in the last few decades. In this book, the authors go back to the roots of gang research and dive into subcultural explanations of gang delinquency. In particular, they set out to test several propositions derived from Cohen’s (1955) main thesis that disadvantaged individuals often turn to delinquent subcultures to acquire status otherwise unavailable to them through legitimate means. To do so, the authors examine the emergence of Haitian street gangs in Montréal in the mid-1980s and follow the evolution of the subculture in which these gangs were embedded. Tremblay et al. bring together old, largely unexamined theories, and novel, sophisticated, and underutilized methodology to an area of study that desperately needs new directions.

Before diving into the analysis, the authors take great care in historically situating the emergence of the Haitian street gang subculture. The first chapter traces the history of Montréal’s Haitian gangs back to immigration waves that began in the early 1970s and the adaptation of the younger generations to the demands of the Québec school system and experiences of racism and social exclusion. An interesting suggestion arising from this chapter is that first generation immigrants who were particularly more prone to be high school dropouts were the first carrier of the subculture, and the strength of the subculture relied on a “critical mass” of newly arrived immigrants who shared similar stories of social exclusion.

The second chapter is extremely ambitious. The main objective of this chapter is to define the important components of the subculture, a task curiously evaded by many subcultural theorists. In the first half of the chapter alone, the authors set out to examine the social transmission of the Haitian gang subculture. They do so by reconstructing the genealogy of Haitian street gangs in Montréal between 1984 and 2011, examining the social networks of their members as well as the geographical distribution of their activities. One could argue that each of these topics would merit its own book. At times, the dense nature of this chapter simply leaves the reader wanting more, which is a good thing. At other times though, some ideas and assumptions are left unexamined and despite the apparent wealth of data available to the researchers, readers may feel like they have to take the authors words for it. Perhaps the best example of this is in the construction of the genealogy of the subculture. Tremblay et al. argue that Haitian street gangs, consistent with prior research, are organized according to their neighborhoods of origin and age-graded cohorts. However, the explanation about how these groups evolve over time is somewhat shrouded in mystery. We are left in the dark as to why new affiliation groups would begin to appear like clockwork every four years, and it seems puzzling that such a process would occur somewhat homogenously for most “bloodlines” of Haitian gangs in Montréal. Given the importance of the intergenerational transmission of the subculture for the authors’ thesis, one would expect a better discussion of why that is the case, or how such a pattern was determined.

One of the book greatest strengths is perhaps its treatment of the main driving force thought to generate delinquent subcultures: status-seeking behavior. An important assumption behind subcultural theories of crime is that individuals become members of a delinquent subculture when they perceive that it will provide them with better opportunities to achieve status and prestige than the mainstream culture. Tremblay et al. explicitly test this assumption by borrowing from Cloward and Ohlin’s (1960) opportunity structure theory and from research on criminal achievement and social capital to define how status is accessed (or not) within the subculture. The authors’ main argument is that status is not gained simply by being a member of a subculture. Stated in these terms, such a statement may sound obvious[1], but previous research has often made the assumption that being a member of a delinquent subculture— often reduced to being a member of a gang— de facto enhances one’s status. According to Tremblay et al., the subculture merely provides a setting for individuals to access different opportunities for status-enhancement, but these opportunities must be seized.

The authors convincingly show that the Haitian gang subculture offers their members a variety of opportunities to gain status and prestige. The authors show that different members of the subculture value different skills, many of which parallel those valued in the traditional mainstream culture such as economic and political leadership, but some that are uniquely adapted to the special demands of the criminal subculture in which Haitian gang members operate, such as “warrior combativeness” (“combativité guerrière”,p.59). Drawing from Pierre Tremblay’s prior work on criminal achievement, as well as Carlo Morselli’s work on criminal networks and research on social network analysis more broadly, the authors show how variations in the amount, quality, and diversity of the social capital among members of the subculture lead to diverse trajectories of success and failures.

Some members of the Haitian gang subculture were actually quite successful compared to others in their respective quests for status. Leaders and success stories are found in most groups, bloodlines, and age-graded cohorts, thereby reinforcing the authors’ claims that the subculture did in fact constitute an attractive avenue to obtain status, which in turn explains the resiliency of the Haitian gang subculture over time. Furthermore, the authors find distinct paths to achievement varying by the different types of status available (economic, political and combativeness). The primary predictor of their status attainment is through the composition and structure of the social capital available to the members of the subculture. Contrary to the overwhelming majority of past research, Tremblay et al. find that violent involvement is not the primary means to attain status within the gang. While the results of the regression analyses are not presented in their entirety within the book, the authors have made most of these analyses (and others) on the website dedicated to the book at www.montrealgangs.com.

In chapter 4, Tremblay et al. focus on conflicts between gang members. One of the main arguments the authors put forward is that, unlike what would be predicted by proponents of social disorganization theory, involvement in violence in Haitian street gangs 1) is “relatively rare” (p.78) and 2) suggests that “the notion of subculture provides street gangs with order and mechanisms of social control” (p.131). There are several important theoretical and empirical issues with the authors’ claims in this chapter. From a theoretical standpoint, it is curious that the authors oppose subcultural and social disorganization theories given that they have so much in common. First, it is important to note that “disorganization” in social disorganization theory refers to the inability of pro-social actors to regulate the activities of delinquent elements in a community (e.g. Kornhauser, 1978). Secondly, social disorganization theory is primarily a community-level analysis, and given that the authors clearly show that the subculture they study is not confined to specific areas of Montréal, the authors do not have data that would allow them to test elements of the theory.

While they are correct in pointing out that past research has probably overstated the importance of violence as the “principal talent that those seeking status need to cultivate” (p.77), they argue that this perspective assumes that gangs come from disorganized and unregulated environments which leads to a “configuration of conflicts between delinquent affiliates that mirrors the absence of social structure of their milieu” (pp.77-78). In other words, the authors seem to equate violent environments with disorganized environments: “It is possible that the relative rarity of retaliatory violence among Haitian gang member in Montréal is a result of the vitality of social control mechanisms at play” (p.78). Yet, Tremblay et al. cite the work of Papachristos (2009), Decker (1996), and Hugues and Short (2005?), all of whom have made important theoretical contribution to gang research by showing how violent encounters create enduring social structures and organize relationships within and between gangs.

This angle of attack leads them into the questionable path of trying to show how the Haitian gang subculture survives because 1) violence is not necessarily common in the Haitian subculture and, 2) when it does occur it is more likely to occur with members outside of the subculture. First, the authors state the following: “Papachristos [2009] reports that for Chicago the annual frequency of homicides between gang affiliates (African American gangs) is of approximately 200 between 1994 and 2002. It so happens that the cumulative number of Haitian gang affiliates who were victims of homicides over an 18-year period (from 1993 to 2010) is of only 36″ (p.78). There is no denying that this number pales in comparison, though the comparison is highly misleading given the staggering differences in the number of individuals involved in gangs in both cities. Block and Block (1993) report that between 1987 and 1990, the four largest street gangs in Chicago—the Black Gangster Disciples Nation, Latin Disciples, Latin Kings, and Vice Lords—are estimated to have a combined 19,000 members and combined for 145 homicides between 1987 and 1990—a yearly rate of 1.9 homicides per 1000 gang members. The annual rate for the 3498 Haitian gang members included in this study is 0.6 per 1000[2]. It is true that compared to Chicago gangs in the late 1980s—a period marked by the city’s record high peak in homicide rates (see Papachristos, 2013)—Haitian gang members are less violent (though, surprisingly, not incredibly much more so), but this is the only evidence we are given of the relative importance of violence. Suffice to say that this evidence is not very convincing especially considering the obvious differences in firearm availability between the American and Canadian city.

Second, Tremblay et al. set out to show the reader that violence is constrained by important social control mechanisms by examining the propensity of conflicts to be internal versus external to the subculture. Generally the authors find that most conflicts tend to occur between rather than within the subculture. This result is somewhat consistent with research on intra and inter-gang violence (e.g. Descormiers & Morselli, 2011; Papachristos, 2009). Furthermore, external attacks are much more likely to originate from a member of the Haitian subculture than from a member of an external subculture. Finally, conflicts are much more likely to involve individuals rather than groups. Since we know very little about the world outside of the Haitian gang subculture, it is difficult to interpret how important these differences are given what would be expected by chance.

The authors interpret these findings as evidence of strong internal mechanisms of control with the subculture. However, as the authors themselves point out, “an important characteristic of the Haitian gang subculture is its polarization into antagonistic groups” (p.33). Yet, their analyses classify conflicts between rival groups within the subculture as internal conflicts. Given the known Crips/Blood dichotomy of Haitian gangs in Montreal in later cohorts (Descormiers and Morselli, 2011), and the variation in sizes between groups within the subculture, it would have been interesting to know how these aspects affect the results. Furthermore, they argue that the fact that most gang conflicts involve individual rather than groups is a result of “affiliates carefully dos[ing] their involvement in collective conflicts given the associated risks of retaliation or escalation”(p.82), an alternative explanation could be simply that collective action is more difficult to coordinate, or the nature of the data (i.e. arrest data) inflates the number of individual conflicts (and/or deflates the observation of collective conflicts).

Despite these issues, the authors do hit on one of the major weaknesses of social disorganization theory: disorganization in the pro-social elements of a community does not necessarily imply disorganization in all elements of that community. That social organization is described as a luxury of pro-social communities is likely more a by-product of the moralistic era from which the theory emerged, than a reflection of empirical reality. Not that the general link between social organization and informal control is incorrect—quite the contrary! The elephant in the room here is that gangs are forms of social organization whose natural habitat are those very areas that are deemed “disorganized”. Are those forms of social organization incapable of informal social control? What are delinquent subcultures if not systems of behavioral expectations shared by most members joining them? It is logically inconsistent to claim that delinquent subcultures arise in areas of social disorganization, unless we are willing to admit that what emerges from pro-social disorganization is an alternative form of organization, one that organizes the elements of an emerging subculture. It seems that Tremblay et al. agree—at least implicitly—with the logic above, and contribute many pieces to complete this puzzle.


As the authors themselves point out, the concept of a delinquent subculture has traditionally been “difficult to grasp and falsify because it requires a corpus of complete data on a population of affiliates, a point of view that goes beyond the affiliation group and connects it to the collective movement in which it is embedded and the place it holds in a much larger network of social relations” (p.55). Part of what Tremblay et al. try to do in this book is to address what James Short (1985) has once called “the level of explanation problem in criminology”, by examining how macro-sociological forces, micro-sociological behavior, and the networks of relationships found in between, interact to produce a delinquent subculture. This is the holy grail of sociological research and it should not be surprising that such multilevel analyses have rarely been combined into one study. Tremblay et al. come very close to achieving this daunting task. At times though, Le délinquant affilié is victim of its own genius; it opens many more doors than it can possible close within its 160-something pages. For the most part, we are able to appreciate the analyses for what they are, but more importantly, for the future research directions they suggest. In some portions of the book though, most notably in the chapter on conflicts, the authors oversimplify past theoretical work, and provide too limited information about the analyses, which makes it difficult to critically assess their findings and undermines their potential contribution.

At the end of the day, this book spoils the reader with novel perspectives and clever analyses on many different aspects of street gangs and delinquent subcultures. Given the anemic literature on street gangs in Canada, it is undoubtedly unfair to criticize Tremblay et al. for attempting to do so much with so little space, and so little prior Canadian research to work with. I suspect that we have not heard the last of what Tremblay et al.’s data can contribute to the scholarship on gangs. And just like that, Le délinquant affilié gives researchers across the country an example to strive for, or at the very least a starting point, not just in terms of the theories, concepts and methodology outlined in the book. Police departments across the country should also pay attention: the Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal should be lauded for their willingness to share such rich data with academic researchers. The collaboration between the SPVM and the Université de Montréal should be seen as a model for police departments dealing with street gangs but where a strong tradition of academic research has yet to take hold (e.g. Vancouver, Surrey, Toronto, etc.).

Lastly, I believe Tremblay et al.’s Le délinquant affilié constitutes a major contribution to the fields of gang research and criminological theories more broadly, and thus would urge the publishers to consider translating the book in English to reach a broader audience. Otherwise, this is as good a reason as any to learn French.

University of California, Irvine

[1] Though, as Duncan Watts (2011) recently reminded consumers of research in his cleverly entitled book, “Everything is Obvious—Once you know the answer”.

[2] 36/18=2. (2/3498)*1000=0.57


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Cohen, Albert K. 1955. Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.

Decker, Scott H. 1996. Collective and normative features of gang violence. Justice Quarterly, 13(2): 243-264.

Descormiers, Karine, and Carlo Morselli 2011. Alliances, Conflicts, and Contradictions in Montreal’s Street Gang Landscape. International Criminal Justice Review, 21(3): 297-314.

Hughes, Lorine A., and James F. Short. 2005. Disputes Involving Youth Street Gang Members: Micro‐Social Contexts. Criminology, 43(1): 43-76.

Kornhauser, Ruth R. 1978. Social Sources of Delinquency: An Appraisal of Analytic Models. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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Papachristos, Andrew V. 2013. 48 Years of Crime in Chicago: A Descriptive Analysis of Serious Crime Trends from 1965 to 2013. New Haven, CT: Yale Institution for Social and Policy Studies Working Paper 13-023.

Short, James F. 1985. The Level of Explanation Problem in Criminology. In Theoretical Methods in Criminology, ed. Robert F. Meier 51-72, Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.