Social Works’ Aspholm examines local gang violence

Robert Aspholm, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Social Work, has been awarded a STEP grant to research street gangs and violence in the St. Louis Area. Specifically, he is a co-PI on a federal grant with a community group to do violence prevention in East St. Louis beginning this spring.

Street gangs and violence are often considered among our most serious and intractable social issues. Yet most people have little or no direct experience or knowledge of these issues, and public perceptions of them are largely shaped by media representations and the perspectives of law enforcement and criminal justice officials.

“Our social policies reflect this dynamic, as we continue to rely almost exclusively on policing and incarceration to address gangs and violence, despite limited empirical support for their efficacy. Unfortunately, much of the current research on these issues fails to question the logic of these dynamics or explore beyond statistical correlations between gang membership and criminal behavior,” says Aspholm.

Dr. Aspholm’s research interests involve examining the dynamics of street gangs, urban violence, and violence reduction qualitatively at the street level. His previous research with gang members in Chicago, for example, explored the shattering and reorganization of the historic black street gangs on the city’s South Side and how that dynamic reshaped the nature of violence in the city, and how these realities might inform efforts to address this violence.

With this STEP project, along with the Community-Based Crime Reduction project in East St. Louis, Dr. Aspholm will be looking at the nature of gangs and violence in the greater St. Louis area and exploring how that knowledge can be translated into effective community practice. This is especially important given that St. Louis has one of the highest rates of homicide of any major city in the country, and East St. Louis carrying the nation’s highest homicide rate.

Dr. Aspholm hopes this research will inform his teaching in a very direct way here at SIUE.

“I am currently teaching a course on street gangs, but the dearth of research on gangs and violence in St. Louis means that I have not been able to include local information that might be most helpful to our students in the course. Thus, I will be able to use my research to make our curriculum more relevant and responsive to students’ needs as future social work practitioners in the region,” adds Aspholm.

Further, he aims to pursue the way social workers view the structures in which they current structures and societies they live in.

“One of the things I emphasize throughout my teaching is the ways that social structures and institutions shape people’s lives in ways that are fundamentally unjust and that result in unnecessary hardship and suffering. Culturally, we are taught to think about people’s circumstances as a reflection of their worth as people. Yet, when we live in a society in which the top one-tenth of 1% (0.1%) owns as much wealth as the bottom 90% of the population, we have to begin to look at these realities with a broader lens. Doing so helps inform us that it is not just that people need help; it is that society needs transformation. So as social workers, we should not just want to help people adjust to injustice; we need to work with them to challenge those injustices and change society.” Says Aspholm.

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