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Problems in Analyzing and Defining Gangs

Popular perceptions of gang activity are often based on sensationalized images created in the media.  They vary from dramatic reports of “gangland” shootings to images of young men terrorizing the local neighborhood.  Indeed, there are elements of gang culture that are criminal and threatening for the local population; however, gang culture is so complex that a single definition has yet to be agreed upon by social scientists.  The primary issue of controversy is whether criminality is a central and causal. 

Thrasher’s (1927) pioneering study was the first to look at group processes and psychology of gang life.  Through his study of 1,313 Chicago gangs, he concluded gangs are part of the psychological and group process of teenagers in economically deprived communities.  He believed gangs are:

"group(s) originally formed spontaneously, and then integrated through conflict….characterized by the following types of behavior: meeting face to face, milling, movement through space as a unit, conflict, and planning. The result….is the development of tradition, unreflective internal structure, esprit de corps, solidarity, morale, group awareness, and attachment to a local territory."  (pg 46)

By the ‘50s and ‘60s, the popular view changed – the perception of gangs became one of fear and threat..  Miller (1975) and Klein (1971) published papers defining gangs as innately criminal.  Miller’s pessimistic perspective is apparent in his classification of gangs as:

“a group of recurrently associating individuals with identifiable leadership and internal organization, identifying with or claiming control over territory in the community, and engaging either individually or collectively in violent or other forms of illegal behavior” (pg 9).

Miller was echoed by Klein (1971), who defined gangs as:

 “any denotable group of youngsters who…..recognize themselves as a notable group…. (and) have been involved in a sufficient number of delinquent incidents to call forth a consistent negative response from…..residents and/or law enforcement agencies”
(pg 13)

This theme was taken up by law enforcement agencies, and the idea of the gang as a part of the moral order of the community was subsequently gone. The sociological definition of gang was replaced by terms mainly useful to law enforcement, which are still used to this day.  Brantley and DiRosa of the FBI (1994) describe gangs as groups of  “individuals…..who associate on a continual basis for the purpose of committing criminal acts”.

But other researchers maintain the Thrasher group process hypothesis. Moore argues against Miller and Klein's definitions, as she believes they are circular: the definitions include the very behaviour i.e. crime that they are trying to understand. Thrasher and Moore's definitions differ significantly from Klein and Miller's.  Moore (1998) believes criminality is not inherent to gangs and views them instead as “unsupervised peer groups…socialized by the streets rather than by conventional institutions.”  The debate continues, and the lack of agreement regarding the defining features of  gangs has made consistent findings and generalizations problematic. Criminal activity remains a pivotal issue in the debate; the criminality of gangs waxes and wanes, and to use criminality to distinguish a group from a gangs is a misleading and unhelpful process.

The Phenomenon “Gang” in the UK and USA Discuss.

Anywhere in the world were there are unsettled neighborhoods or a transient population, there are likely to be gangs of youths, coming together to seek the security, sense of belonging and structure they lack in their communities.  Traditionally, UK interventions to curtail gang activity have been based largely on the US model, where gang conflict has a long and complex history.  However research into why youths join gangs in the UK found important differences between British gangs and their US counterparts, which has lead to a change in the British governments approach. 

British gangs tend to be gentler than those in America, which are more likely to generate distinct identities, rigid structures and be involved in criminal acts (Klein, 1995). UK gangs lack the American-style initiation ceremonies and specific styles of clothing.   In the USA large portions of the population exist on the edge of communities, creating breading grounds for criminal street gangs.  In certain urban ghettos men rejoice when they reach 25 years of age because gangland fighting kills more young people than illness or accidents (Community Cares, 1994).  Often these areas will be economically deprived.  The longstanding social security system in the UK has prevented the same situation occurring.  The USA takes a different approach and makes frequent cuts in its social program, investing instead in its penal system.

In 2003 the British government proposed to revamp youth services, in an effort to reverse the 18% decrease in youth services since the 1980’s.  The new legislation places a requirement upon all local authorities to meet certain standards by 2005, and expects them to critically assessment the youth service provision within their area.  Councils were asked to make a promise to youths to provide not only the usual meeting places for personal and social development, (i.e. youth clubs and activities), but also programmes related to peer education and ways of ensuring their views are heard. The government pledged £83m to the programme. 

However, the British government are also taking a stronger stance against “antisocial behavior”, which frequently involves gangs of adolescents.  Although the new anti-social behavior legislation is not aimed specifically at gangs, its purpose is to reduce feelings of intimidation within communities, which is often concurrent with gang formation.   Once an Anti-Social Behavior Order (ASBO) is issued, the accused must abide by the stipulations in the ASBO or potentially face criminal proceedings.  The US was similarly preoccupied with anti-social behavior in the 1990’s, when task forces such as Operation Weed and Seed, and the Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services anti-gang drive, had at it’s core the desire curb or contain street gangs. New legislation was passed and many states enacted statutes to assist law enforcers.  In both the US and UK, this was a response to a concerned electorate, made anxious by the tabloid media.

There must be a move in the US towards interventions that do not criminalize young people.  The question that should be asked is why are young people joining gangs.  The answer is well researched; the need for structure, nurturing, a sense of belonging and perceived economic opportunity create breeding grounds for gangs.  If goverments adopt adequate social security programs to meet these basic needs, gangs will not evolve – they ultimatly reflect the society that has shaped them.

References

Brantley, A. C., DiRosa, A. (1994)  Gangs: A National Perspective.  The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. New York

Klein, M. W. (1995)  The American Street Gang.  Oxford University Press. New York.

Koutos, L., Brotherton, D., & Barrios, L. (2003)  Gangs and Society: Alternative Perspectives.  Columbia University Press. 

Miller, W. (1975)  Violence by Youth Gangs and Youth Groups as a Crime problem in Major American Cities.  Washington Department of Justice.  Washington.

Moore, J. W. 1998. “Understanding Youth Street Gangs: Economic Restructuring and the Urban Underclass.” In M. W. Watts (Ed.), Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Youth and Violence (pp. 65-78), Stamford, CT: JAI.

Thrasher, F. M. (1927)  The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago.   Chicago III.  University of Chicago Press.  USA

(1994) Community Cares (1994).  Socialist review, 179.  Retrieved February 10, 2006, from http://pubs.socialist reviewindex.org.uk/sr179/msmith.htm


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