What is it about a bunch of adolescents that can make for trouble? Get a group of them together, throw in a little peer pressure and it seems that normally obedient kids can turn from docile to delinquent.

This phenomenon first intrigued Cheryl Maxson as an undergraduate sociology major at Occidental College. Today, with advanced degrees in sociology from USC and two decades of research to her credit, Maxson is still searching for answers.

An assistant professor in UCI’s Department of Criminology, Law and Society, Maxson has devoted her career to studying youth crime, violence, delinquency and – in particular – gangs. She began her pursuit at USC, where she collaborated with professor emeritus Malcolm Klein, the world’s foremost gang investigator, and continues it now at UCI alongside other well-known gang studies researchers in the UCI School of Social Ecology. Led by Dean Ronald Huff, the school ranks as one of the nation’s two leading centers for gang research (along with the University of Missouri – St. Louis), according to John Moore, director of the Florida-based National Youth Gang Center, which tracks gang research nationwide.

Maxson’s research has broad implications for how society responds to gangs. Her finding on gang migration, for example, debunked a common theory formed in the early 1990s when gang activity spread throughout the nation to smaller cities and rural suburban towns. Law enforcement officials attributed the growth to gangs moving into these areas from big urban centers to sell drugs. “We discovered, instead, that gang emergence was indigenous to the area, causing law enforcement and policymakers to look at the local environment, social structure and neighborhood deficits,” Maxson says.

Maxson strives to identify effective intervention and prevention strategies that reduce gangs by supporting programs that succeed – not strategies that are generated by fear or promoted for political reasons, such as sending gang offenders to prison. “Long periods of incarceration don’t destroy gangs,” she says.

So what does work? One of Maxson’s current projects looks at why some likely candidates don’t join gangs. For the past two years, she has followed 400 youths in high-risk neighborhoods to identify those who are gang-resistent and determine why. “We’re looking at school experience, home life and violence prevention programs,” Maxson says. “We’re trying to identify the common factors of resilient youth.”

Maxson obtained her first grant from the National Institute of Justice during the 1980s, when drug-connected gang violence increased nationwide and firearms were more accessible. She has since received more than 26 grants, published 53 journal articles and technical research papers and co-authored three books.

Using this accumulation of knowledge and research to effect public policy is Maxson’s goal, but it’s not easily accomplished. “Law enforcement and the courts are not receptive to academic research,” says gang expert Klein, who, though retired, remains active as a consultant and court witness. “Cheryl has as much determination as anyone I know in the field, and she works well with people. But it is a constant battle to get law enforcement officials to listen and to cooperate on projects.”

Maxson wants people to understand more about youth crime and violence than can be gleaned from popular movies such as “Boyz N the Hood.” For example, she discovered that, for most street gangs, selling drugs is just one of the varied criminal activities members commonly commit, along with auto theft and burglary. Most of these crimes are not violent; in fact, she found that gang violence tends to revolve around neighborhood territorial or affiliation issues rather than drug disputes. And when kids join gangs, their violent and non-violent criminal activity significantly increases, even though the main activity they engage in could be described as simply “hanging out.”

Internationally, Maxson is involved in Eurogangs, a collaboration between U.S. and European researchers to study the scope and nature of street gangs in 12 European countries. The Eurogang Paradox, a book edited by Maxson, Klein and two other experts from Europe, explains the tendency of European policymakers, practitioners and even scholars to question or deny the existence of street gangs because European youth groups rarely conform to the perceived “real gangs” in America. The paradox is that American street gangs don’t usually fit this media-driven stereotype either.

Maxson still can’t explain exactly what happens in groups of kids that encourages them to form gangs and commit crimes. But this much is clear: During adolescence, kids shift from identifying with their family to identifying with their peers. And there’s something about the identification certain kids gain when joining a gang – the drawing of status, the cultural identity, how they operate as a group – that entices them.

“Gangs are qualitatively different than delinquent peers,” says Maxson. “Understanding this is probably the secret to developing effective intervention.”