Published: Dec. 3, 2015 By

For this work, David Pyrooz of CU-Boulder wins Early Career Award from the American Society of Criminology

A University of Colorado Boulder sociologist who is advancing the study of terrorism by applying research on criminal gangs has won recognition for his work from the American Society of Criminology.

David Pyrooz

David Pyrooz

David Pyrooz, assistant professor of sociology at CU-Boulder, has won the 2015 Early Career Award from the society’s Division of Developmental and Life Course Criminology.

The award recognizes an individual who is within four years of receiving a Ph.D. degree and who has made a “significant contribution to scholarly knowledge on developmental and life-course criminology in their early career.”

Pyrooz graduated with his doctorate in criminology and criminal justice from Arizona State University in 2012. He joined CU-Boulder’s faculty this year.

Pyrooz notes that scholarly study of terrorism has grown in the last 15 years, whereas widespread research on criminal gangs has spanned nearly a century.

In the United States, Pyrooz notes, people have been in gangs since the 1920s, “and along the way, we’ve learned a lot of lessons.” The scholarly study of terrorism in the United States “went mainstream” after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Pyrooz notes.

Pyrooz collaborates with researchers from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland. Pyrooz and colleagues are performing a comparative study between people who engage in violent extremism in the United States and gang members in the United States.

It pulls them away from church. It pulls them away from families. It pulls them away from pro-social mentors, including teachers, coaches and extracurricular groups.”

The aim is to determine if policies and practices applied to gangs might have “applicability to extremist groups.” This study is funded by the National Institute of Justice.

Much of Pyrooz’s previously published work contributes to social scientists’ understanding of criminal gangs. But a study published this year, and co-authored by Pyrooz, was titled, “’I’m down for a Jihad’: How 100 years of gang research can inform the study of terrorism, radicalization and extremism.”

In that paper, the researchers “make some recommendations to those who study extremism and terrorism based on what a mountain of research has revealed about gangs, including both promising and challenging approaches.”

Gang membership functions as a turning point for kids, Pyrooz notes. “They might not be on the best life-course trajectory to begin with, but once they get involved in gangs, there are numerous processes that ensnare kids—their peer groups change, their routine activities become riskier, they adhere to more violent cultural scripts, and they are more likely to engage in delinquent behavior and get processed in the criminal justice system.”

Gangs employ a “social suction” that brings kids into the group and then isolates them from other social institutions. “It pulls them away from church. It pulls them away from families. It pulls them away from pro-social mentors, including teachers, coaches and extracurricular groups.”

As a result, kids are unable to accumulate the “right kinds of social capital.” Instead, they are gathering “street-level capital, a criminal capital, if you will, where they’re becoming more versed in criminal-related activities.”

In such cases, kids are learning how to commit crimes, “how to steal, rob people without getting caught, sell drugs, acquire weapons, and so on.”

When these experiences occur during the critical developmental period of the teenage years, it could mean “the difference between going to college and getting an education or just dropping out of high school, which in turn has long-term effects.”

Kids who are “statistically identical” will have different lives depending on whether they join gangs. Those who join gangs will not only get less education on average, but they will also have more difficulty forming stable families and have higher rates of adult arrests, he notes.

There are also financial implications. “By the time they’re 25 years old, getting involved in gangs costs them about $14,000 in (cumulative) earnings, and it only worsens over time.”

This risky lifestyle “snowballs and cascades into many different areas” in life.

Pyrooz accepted the Early Career Award at the American Society of Criminology’s annual meeting last month in Washington, D.C. He expressed gratitude not only for the recognition but also for his colleagues:

“I’ve been fortunate to work with really good, motivated people who, like me, really enjoy what they do and want to make a contribution to our knowledge.”

Clint Talbott is director of communications and external relations for the College of Arts and Sciences and editor of the College of Arts and Sciences Magazine.