Fifty years ago James F. Short Jr., a young sociologist at Washington State University, was asked to lead a study of Chicago gangs.

In smoky pool halls on Roosevelt Road, the baseball fields of Douglas Park, and the windy street corners of Lawndale, Short and a team of youth workers and sociologists spent three years trying to figure out if boys with monikers like Smack Daddy, Duke, and Commando were so very different from their counterparts in wealthier parts of the city.

Jim Short with a zip gun
Jim Short with a zip gun, a rare souvenir from his gang study. (Photo Robert Hubner)

The resulting groundbreaking analysis opened a window into the everyday experience of the Vice Lords, the Egyptian Cobras, the Imperial Chaplains, and the Blackstone Rangers and set the stage for gang research for years to come.

Though it’s true that the gang members’ confrontations were much more likely to escalate into violence, complete with knives and chains and the occasional zip gun, it’s also true that the majority of their time was spent on non-criminal activities. More than that, the gang boys reported valuing such establishment virtues as studying hard for good grades, reading good books, and saving for a rainy day in exactly the same measure as their middle-class counterparts.

In 1965, Short and his University of Chicago colleague Fred Strodtbeck published their findings and more in the now classic Group Process and Gang Delinquency. Ten years later they followed up with two of the gangs, the Vice Lords and the Nobles, and discovered that about one in five of the boys in the first study had died. There’s no way to know how many are still alive, but that three-year project lives on and is informing new research today.

No one is more surprised by that than Short, who joined the WSU faculty in 1951, and still has an office on campus. It’s an unassuming space, so crowded with books and papers and filing cabinets that a visitor must enter and shut the door before she can find a place to sit. But it’s in a building that bears his name, Wilson-Short Hall.

“I just find it fascinating,” Short says, “here I am, more than half a century after these data were collected, (still) enjoying analyzing (them).” On this day in December Short is looking at a computer screen showing a map of where gang members lived during the Chicago Project. The map was sent to him by Lorine Hughes ’03 PhD, a former graduate student and the person he credits with breathing new life into his old data. “She dazzled me with her statistical legerdemain,” he laughs.

What jumps out at Short from the map is that black gang members were much more tightly clustered—suggesting their activities were more constrained—than the white gang members. Does that have something to do with why black gangs were involved in more fights than white gangs? It’s something Short and Hughes, now a sociologist at the University of Nebraska, are trying to determine.

The data might be old, but in the subsequent 50 years there hasn’t been another gang research project that approaches it. Time, money, and access are three obstacles to such studies.

It’s also true that the availability of guns has made the streets deadlier and the interest in embedding a researcher with the gangs less pronounced. Now the gangs have AK-47s or something like that, says Short. Then they used a variety of weapons including, on rare occasion, crude homemade firearms called zip guns. “I have a couple zip guns here,” says Short, digging into his desk drawer, past the paper clips and office supplies, to pull out two absurdly lightweight weapons, now unusable. “What they do was put in a harder metal or steel barrel so it wouldn’t explode on them,” he said. That, and put tape around the barrel.

“These kids weren’t stupid,” he said, smiling. “They wanted to make sure it wouldn’t blow up on them.”

While weapons and other particulars of gang life are constantly changing, Short and Hughes believe there are constants that govern group processes, whether that group is made up of unsupervised youths (Short’s own definition of a gang), university faculty, or the local PTA. “If you think you are tapping into basic human processes, then those should be invariant over time,” says Hughes. “Not everybody agrees with that, but I do.”

Her statistical data are helping build that case. The original findings were compiled into 47 black binders totaling 17,000 pages of interviews, self-reports, observations, and assessments which, after eight years of work, Hughes is still in the process of coding and entering into a database. Her first focus, the one she pursued for her doctoral dissertation, was violent disputes. When did they happen, why did they happen and what were the circumstances when violence was averted?

Back in 1963 Short had his hunches about what triggered the violence, but in 2003 Hughes confirmed them. Most fights were a result of perceived status threats and oftentimes violence was averted because someone intervened, usually a detached worker, in a way that allowed those involved to save face.

When Short started his work, the YMCA had plans to send youth workers into the streets to work directly with gang members in their own neighborhoods, and it wanted a research component to evaluate the effectiveness of the program. Short, who earned his doctoral degree at the University of Chicago, took a leave from WSU to direct the project, but he had a few conditions. He wanted the time and resources to do a thorough study.

“The idea was that it was going to be like a Kinsey Report on gang behavior,” Short says. The public’s interest in gang behavior tends to wax and wane, unlike interest in sex, but the data yielded an impressive number of articles, book chapters, and graduate theses during the 1960s.

“What can be said is that virtually all major ideas about delinquent subcultures and gangs that could be tested received attention in the Chicago Project,” wrote Short’s colleague Robert Meier in In Social Inquiry in 1988. Short’s book effectively became a textbook for others wanting to study gang behavior.

Meier speculates that subsequent gang research may have lost steam because other scholars believed Short and Strodtbeck had said everything there was to say.

When Short returned to Pullman in the early 1960s, he set out trying to find a way to get a read on public opinion without the time-consuming legwork of face-to-face interviews. With the backing of President Glenn Terrell, he and Professor Donald Dillman started the Social Research Center, the first telephone survey research unit in the country. Short remained its director until 1985, but in the mid-1980’s he began to focus more on the sociology of risk. It wasn’t until Hughes showed up at his office door in 2001, nearly five years into his retirement, that he decided to open up those old black binders once again.

“I love what I do,” says Short. “Human behavior is so complex, and just trying to understand it is a fascinating thing.”



On the Web

Short’s expertise serves, inspires WSU for 50+ years :: WSU Today, Aug. 28, 2009