Posted: November 27th, 2013







The issue of positioning ethnographic study is very debatable. The issue is mainly concerned with whether the researcher operates as either an “insider” or “outsider” within an enclosed research study. The debate usually raises the postulation on dualism that the strategic position of a researcher is that of an “insider” position. The assumption is that the “insider” position enables one to achieve empathy and understanding of the research subject. This is because one can delve into the research issue in question. In reality, this means that one gains the necessary knowledge of the practices, the past, events, language and memoirs of the topic of research. However, in realistic research, the positions “insider” or “outsider” are not static, rigid and fixed but are mainly mobile, varying and open to changes during the research process. This duality is achieved when the researcher gains an in-depth appreciation of the realistic lived experiences of the people or topic of study within a social context. This is founded on the idea that the researcher needs to have actually “been there” and made the necessary observations, with at times taking part in the social activities. When this is done, the researcher then thinks of the research by retracting back to his or her own lived context.


On the ethnographic research, on Homegirls: Language and Cultural Practice among

Latina Youth Gangs, Norma Mendoza-Denton mainly takes the position of an “insider”. She is considered an insider by the reader because she also hails from the Latino community who mainly comprise of the criminal gangs that she studies. This highly supports her research efforts, as she can blend in easily and gain the much-needed trust with most of her informants. This form of “insider” positioning also helps her to understand and gain empathy of the communities that she is researching. It is a known fact that in order to have an informative and consequential discussion between the researcher and the informant, the researcher needs to have acquired the familiarity with the social characteristics, history, proceedings, language and memoirs of the community that one is researching on.

On the second chapter, the author engages the reader with a discussion on how her roots as a Latina have exposed her to stereotypes and stigmatization similar to those experienced by Latina gang communities on which she researches. This enhances her empathy and understanding of the gang members and the reasons behind their actions. The author indicates in the second chapter that this has led to other academics interpreting that her research work is an auto-ethnography, and that she was once a gang member from East Los Angeles. This tends to work for her research because it enables her research to gain acceptance among the audience. The audience and other researchers take that the author was well informed on the subject, was not stereotypic and thus is bound to have detailed the actual reality on the research work.

The author offers a brief history in the second chapter of her life up to the time she started to work on the research work. She details her methodology in research on how she created good rapport with informants from both the conflicting Sureñas and Norteñas. She indicates how she was able to befriend the girls in her study, who gave her invaluable support while conducting the research. It can be deduced that her “insider” position as a Latina enabled her to gain the acceptance of the conflicting groups of the Sureñas and Norteñas.

She continues to provide an incisive sketch of the evident disparity between the Sureñas and Norteñas. She provides detailed information on the ideological differences and importance on the symbolic marketers of the clothing color (red versus blue), the dissimilarity in the language patterns (English versus Spanish) the significance of the numbers fourteen and thirteen. She indicates that the significance of the numbers is based on the alphabetic order of the letters M and N on the alphabet. She also goes on to illustrate the differences in their hair make up and their connection to the geographic regions of the Norte and Sur.

The author’s experiences with stereotypes and racial profiling have enabled her to attain success in researching and illustrating on the scholarly and theoretical background of the criminal gangs. This sets her in an “insider” position where she has the ability to argue for the concentration on gang life as opposed to the conventional focus on crime when researching on gang life. The author provides a concise review of journalism on the prevailing developments of the gangs with particular interest on the Chicano gang. The author continues to illustrate on the various perspectives towards gangs based on the communities’ perception, the law enforcement officers’ and the government. She argues for a change on the current focus on crime and discusses more on the daily lives of the gang members while at the same time taking into account the stereotypes and the racial profiling. Instead of focusing on crime, the author shifts focus to localism and territoriality. It is in the third chapter where she introduces the aspect of ‘hemispheric localism’. This is taken as the outstanding connection between the local gangs and the larger political developments across the border between the nations of Mexico and the United States of America. The ‘hemispheric localism’ is evidenced in the similarities in the language patterns, ideologies, and the established economic positions that are mainly used by the youth who belong to the Norte and Sur. This is taken into account in the evaluation of potential affiliation and identifying how the communication and meaning systems are established and upheld within these gangs.

However, we find that the author cannot be considered to be in a complete “insider” position. This is because although she identifies with the Latina community, the author is not a member of these gangs and thus does not have all the information or is not conversant with all aspects and habits of the gangs. Due to this, she mainly relies on informants in the acquisition of information regarding the gangs. The informants view the author as an “outsider” because she is not very conversant with most of the gangs’ way of life and has to rely on their information. This is mainly brought about by the fact that although she is Mexican, she was largely educated abroad and thus was not inducted to most of the ways of the Mexicans living in America.

This aspect greatly hinders her research because her naivety and ignorance leads her into loosing audience with some of the gang members. In one instance, the author attempts to make a conversation with an overly tattooed ex-prisoner. This attempt is met with callous as she introduces herself with the wrong phonology by pronouncing her name in an accent that is unacceptable to the ex-prisoner. She then proceeds to question him about the tattoos leading to the man exiting the discussion because he felt deeply insulted.


In conclusion, we find that the “insider” position is very crucial in conducting an incisive and informative ethnological research. The author takes on the “insider” positioning and thus is successful in her research. We later find that when she takes on an “outsider” positioning, she fails miserably as she ends up eliciting scorn leading to the respondent’s departure.




In every society, there are those expectations or standards that every individual or group is expected to uphold and maintain. The deviation from some of these norms often leads to different kinds of repercussions ranging from being punished to being ostracized. Norma Mendoza-Denton has authored an excellent ethnographic research on gangs known as, “Homegirls: Language and Cultural Practice among Latina Youth Gangs”. In the novel, the author discusses how Latina women of Sor Juana High School in a neighborhood in Northern California intentionally go against the gender and societal norms. These transgressions are often met with stringent consequences some of which are justified while others are not.


One of the ways in which the “Homegirls” transgress the gender and societal norms in  Sor Juana High School is through the way they adorn the “chola aesthetics”. The Latina gang members of Sor Juana High School usually adorn thin, arched eyebrows while others flash mean-looking tattoos. Some of these girls also adorn red lip liner and nose piercing and dress in loose or tight fitting clothes depending on their gang affiliation. Normally the society expects the girls to dress appropriately and decently. However, the “homegirls” choose to transgress these gender and societal norms. This character trait is mainly based on the need to conform to the requirements and demands of the various gangs. This leads to most of them being ostracized from the community. This is unfair because the girls are trying to find identity and a sense of belonging something that the society has failed to provide to them.

Another society norm that the “homegirls’ have transgressed is the variation of the normal linguistic pattern. The author notes that the “homegirls’ often use non-standard linguistic practices which serve as a form of identification. This is taken as a symbol of superiority as opposed to the societal norm of it being seen as inferior. In the first chapter, the author discusses of how some girls refrain from using the Standard English language and thus end up being retained in the classes for those taking English as a second language. This consequence is not justified because it leads to a loss of time and resources. These classes are meant for students who are poor in English but some of the students who are good in speaking and writing the English language end up taking these classes.

The third way in which the “girlfriends” tend to deviate from the gender and society norms is their apparent loss in their feminism and taking up more masculine roles. This is mainly evidenced in their lifestyles. The “girlfriends” tend to be more dependent bold and hardcore as opposed to the societal norms where girls are supposed to be humble, soft and meek. This mainly leads to most of them loosing respect and end up being intimidating rather than attractive. These consequences are unjustified because one of the “girlfriends” defends their feminism by saying that being “macha” is not supposed to mean that one is masculine nor feminine. She says that being “macha” is about defending your own, being independent and responsible.

The fourth way in which the “girlfriends” tend to deviate from the gender and society norms is their apparent promotion of the stereotypes regarding sexualized Latinas. In one instance, the author tells of how some of the “homegirls” opted to confront and flirt with a hapless white boy that they had picked from the drizzling weather. The consequences to actions like this lead to the creation or confirmation of the underlying stereotype that Latinas girls are mainly sexualized. Although the consequence could be considered, legitimate, it leads to innocent Latinas being unfairly grouped in the same bandwagon of being sexualized Latinas (Norma, 178).


In conclusion, we find that there are many instances that he “homegirls” in Sor Juana High School in a neighborhood in Northern California intentionally go against the gender and societal norms. Such actions often include deviating from the normal dressing lifestyles, depicting a variation from the normal linguistic patterns, loosing their feminism and the creation or confirmation of the underlying stereotype that Latinas girls are mainly sexualized. These transgressions are often met with stringent consequences some of which are justified while others are not.


Works cited:

Norma Mendoza-Denton. Homegirls: Language and Cultural Practice among Latina Youth Gangs. New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons, 2008. Print.


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