Irving Spergel, leading scholar on gangs, 1924-2010

Irving Spergel, a professor at the University of Chicago and one of the nation’s leading experts on gangs, died Friday at his home in Chicago. Spergel, 86, was the George Herbert Jones Professor Emeritus in the University’s School of Social Service Administration.

Spergel wrote seven books and wrote, co-authored and edited more than 100 articles, reports, chapters and monographs on street gang intervention, including works on community mobilization and gang problem-solving.

His interest in research on gangs began while working with gang youth from 1952 to 1960 as part of the New York City Youth Board, an agency he joined after doing social work in Wilmington, Del. and New York City. “It seemed to me that the typical methods of dealing with gangs weren’t working,” he said. “Social organizations were pulling out of helping with the issue, and the police were becoming more involved, but the gangs still existed, even after individuals were caught and jailed.”

His initial experiences led to the publication of Racketville, Slumtown, Haulburg: An Exploratory Study of Delinquent Subcultures (1964), a groundbreaking book based on his Ph.D. dissertation. He was also the author of The Youth Gang Problem: A Community Approach (1995), a seminal work that described a model — now commonly referred to as the Spergel model — for intervention that has been adopted by the U.S. Department of Justice to combat gang violence around the country.

Spergel said of the model: “This project goes beyond traditional programs, because it facilitates communication and coordinates efforts by all the groups who want to reach out to youth who are seriously at risk of joining gangs or who are violent gang members. It provides opportunities for both adolescents and young adults in gangs to change their lives. All gang kids are not the same, and this model recognizes that and provides different solutions for different problems.”

The model calls for a coordinated effort against gangs characterized by community organization and neighborhood mobilization; social intervention, including jobs, job training and education; suppression, including arrest, incarceration and supervision; and organizational development and change.

The U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention demonstrated and evaluated the model in Bloomington, Ill.; Mesa and Tucson, Ariz.; Riverside, Calif.; and San Antonio, Texas from 1992 to 1999, proving through quasi-experimental evaluations that the model was successful when correctly implemented.

In the years since, the model has been successfully implemented at five additional test sites and has been adopted by more than 20 cities around the country. The model is the central component of the National Gang Center, an OJJDP program that disseminates research on gangs and offers training and assistance to law enforcement, social workers and communities. It was later renamed the OJJDP Comprehensive Gang Model.

A test of the model in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago, described in Spergel’s book Reducing Youth Gang Violence (2007), demonstrated a 40 percent reduction in serious violence for 200 program youth, compared to an equivalent sample of non-served gang youth from the same gangs over a five-year period.

Spergel recently contributed a chapter to Youth Gangs and Community Intervention: Research, Practice and Evidence, edited by Robert Chaskin, associate professor at SSA. The book, published this year, was created from a series of papers by leading colleagues and gang researchers that were presented at a 2006 conference honoring Spergel’s retirement.

At SSA, Spergel helped build the school’s group work program with Mary Lou Somers, Professor Emeritus, and Paul Gitlin, Associate Professor Emeritus at SSA. He also revitalized its community organizing program by linking theory and practice through examples drawn from his grassroots activism and ongoing research in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood.

Though retired from the faculty, Spergel continued to do research and lecture, and he was available to faculty, researchers and students until his passing. Most importantly, Spergel wanted to be known and remembered, first and foremost, as a social worker.

“Over the course of his career, Spergel has played many roles—youth worker, scholar, teacher, program designer, evaluator, mediator, activist,” Chaskin said. “He embodied a particular orientation to scholarship in the world, and a particular drive to build knowledge that has a real and practical effect on critical social problems of the day.

 “He embodied the commitment to bridge scholarship and action, and was remarkably successful in concretely translating his research findings and theoretical arguments into policy and practice that could be empirically tested,” Chaskin added.

After serving in the U.S. Army in Europe in World War II, Spergel studied at City College of New York and received a B.A. in social sciences in 1946. He went on to earn an M.A. in social work in 1952 from the University of Illinois and a Ph.D. in social work in 1960 from Columbia University. Spergel joined the University faculty in 1960 and was named the George Herbert Jones Professor in 1993. He also held the position of research associate (professor) in the Department of Sociology. He became an emeritus faculty member in 2002.

He is survived by his wife, Annot; sons Barry, Mark and Daniel, from his first marriage to Bertha Jampel Spergel (who died in 1989); brothers Philip and Martin; and granddaughters Elizabeth and Sarah.

A memorial service will be held at a later date.