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Societal depictions of gang crime perhaps tell us more about society than they do about gangs. The word 'gang' has always been associated with negative connotations. Typically a gang is seen as a group of young working class males who participate in criminal activities. The British idea of gangs has been around for as long as most people can remember and as long as there are "streets and feckless young men to gather in them" (Alexander 2008) their will be gangs. Researchers in the past have found the subject of gangs difficult to define as it is seen a fluid matter. There has been much debate around where gangs began and how what they have changed into in today's society. Looking at researchers such as Thrasher, Miller and Cohen it is easy to see why society has such a negative image of gangs. However, looking at said researchers and many different theories it is hoped to explain why gangs have such bad press.
According to Alexander there are five different types of gang. These five types of gang can are classed as the 'classic gang', 'modern gang', 'criminal gang', 'mythical gang' and 'transatlantic gang'. She took this to be the definitions of what gangs were in history and what gangs are today. The 'classic gang' takes its roots from the early 20th century in America. It was seen as an organised group that came about from urbanisation and had organised roles and defined leaders. The 'modern gang' is seen as having criminal activity as its driving force. The modern gang is also thought to be a problem of the underclass and is more cultural than the classic gang. Although modern gangs are seen to have underlying criminal tendencies, there was previously a category that explained better the growing involvement of crime and gang activity. Since the 1970s there have been copious amounts of research done on the 'criminal gang'. It was through examining this group that it was brought to the attention of researchers that gangs tend to engage in criminal activities due to drugs. Most gangs during this time, and in modern times, have a strong connection to drugs. Many gang leaders will define themselves in an area based on how well they prepare and sell drugs and how much money and power is gained from doing so. The 'mythical gang' refers to peoples perceptions of gangs. The media has created an idea of gangs that is seen to be exciting and dangerous. Musicals such as 'West Side Story' and movies such as 'The Warriors' portray the idea of being in a gang as a thrilling experience that young people may want to be a part of. The final type of gang Alexander spoke of was the 'transatlantic gang'. Media again has played a part in scaring people into thinking the historic American type gangs are now a part of everyday life in the United Kingdom. However, it is not all a complete fabrication. There have been many well documented gangs that started off long before the idea of gangs was made popular. Media has always had a big effect on how gangs are perceived and how society will look at those who are in gangs in light of this.
As far back as 1862 types of gangs have had an influence on British Society. Garrotters, Scuttlers and Hooligans are some of the oldest known gangs to cause problems on the streets of the United Kingdom.
The garrotters were one of Britain's first moral panics. The garrotters would strangle their victims as a means of stealing from them. Newspapers reported the events at the time and told citizens of London that it was not safe to walk the streets at night as they risked the "danger of being throttled, robbed, and if not actually murdered, at least kicked and pommelled within an inch of his life" (Sindall 1987). A law was then implemented to make sure that those who were accused of garrotting were punished more harshly than in previous years.
Scuttlers were best known around the late 19th and early 20th century. They were mainly situated in Manchester, London and Glasgow. They dressed in a certain way which was very easy to identify. They were boys usually aged between 14 and 19 who would be part of gang. Two opposing gangs would fight each other with the use of weapons (Davies 1998). These gangs were not just the unprivileged youths, some came from poor backgrounds but others were also found to be formed in some of the more affluent working class areas. The gangs were formed on the basis of the areas they inhabited; ethnicity or religion did not really play a part in the formation of the gang. The areas the gangs were formed in were of great importance to the boys. There were strong affiliations to the area you were from and the gangs would name themselves after their specific areas. One gang in particular, the lime street gang, faced charges after they knifed 3 opposing gang members.
The term hooligan came about in 1896. It was first used to describe groups of unruly youths. It has been thought that the term derived from the Houlihan family who were linked with crime. It has since then been used as a term to describe gangs of unruly youths. This term was made more prominent during August of 1896 when it became headline news. The bank holiday had turned into a downward spiral of hooliganism. Many were brought to face the judge after countless arrests made for "disorderly behaviour, drunkenness, assaults on police, street robberies and fighting" (Pearson 1983). Those charged on these offences received savage punishments. The term is now used to describe adolescents who challenge their parents and are involved in crime. It is however, as with most types of gangs, associated with working class males as it was in 1896. Pearson also understood that the term hooligan was also occasionally associated with females. However it is only associated with girls who were said to not have sufficient moral protection. The girls would most likely live away from home and have questionable sexuality. In cases of hooliganism women were often punished more harshly than men because it was not expected of women to partake in such acts. These types of women were often seen as more masculine and also their mental health dubious. The girls who took part in hooliganism could be said to be just as violent as the males who did. Pearson's study of hooliganism showed that young girls were known to get in quite vicious fights where they would pull each others hair out or scar faces using door keys. Some of these girls may not necessarily have been violent but due to the stereotypes placed on them by society it may have felt necessary for them to act in such a way.
An increasingly common depiction of gangs is that they are always out to hurt people and will always carry some form of weapon. Young, FitzGerald, Hallsworth and Joseph said that the term gang is often misunderstood and therefore misused. Gangs may exist, and they may use violence and criminal activities as part of that group but that in does not mean that it is their sole reason for existing. Most groups will be formed out of boredom and as a useful resource for dealing with their emotional and social needs. Those categorised by society as a gang may just be a group of friends who have nothing better to do but hang around on the streets. By today's standards this would probably categorise them as a gang even if they do not see themselves that way. Media reports claim that British citizens should be wary of all young people in a gang as they will be carrying a concealed weapon. Although some do carry weapons, knives are far more likely than a gun. The young people who do carry knives said they do it for their own protection and never for the purpose of using them. They are likely to carry knives to protect themselves because they have been victim to crime in the past so feel the need to defend themselves if it was to happen again (Young, FitzGerald, Hallsworth and Joseph 2007).
From the young males surveyed by Young et al it was clear they thought being in a gang and gang violence was just something that happened. Many of their family members had been in gangs and they felt a strong attachment to the area. For the most part they were not very academically minded and most had bad track records for attending school and therefore bad grades. The result of joining a gang was fairly gradual and due to having family members as part of a gang they were slowly introduced to it from a young age. They may feel as if it's the right thing to do and that due to their poor academic status they have no other options. According to the media it is also a widely known fact that those who partake in gang violence also are included in some from of drug dealing or at the very least drug use. It could explain why some youths in gangs are so violent but according to the Young, FitzGerald, Hallsworth and Joseph study, most of the young males they interviews were not common drug users. Young females were also asked their perspective on youth gangs and drugs. Many of the young women interviewed declared that they were not in fact part of a gang, they however also just gathered in public spaces due to the fact that there was not much else they could do to spend their time and be social with their friends. Many of these girls had been kicked out of their houses or forced to leave because of abuse. The gangs they were a part of served as both their source of friendship and loyalty as well as their source of protection. Some of the girls did tend to use drugs but most spent their time binge drinking, which of course most of the time was their reason for being aggressive and causing crime. In regards to weapons many of the girls did not carry knives. A lot of them had been victim to gun or knife crime and some had even lost a loved one due to this type of crime. The fact that this had happened to quite a few of them led them to believe that carrying a weapon made someone weak and the would try and persuade their male and female friends who carried a weapon to get rid of it. This goes to show that, not only is society's depiction that all youths in gangs carry weapons quite untrue but many of them campaign among their friends who do still use weapons to give it up.
In regards to gangs being a social aspect of certain peoples lives Thrasher was one of the first sociologists to research this. Thrasher was one of the most celebrated members of the Chicago School in the 1920s. Thrashers influence on the work of gangs has led to numerous amounts of research in later years. One of Thrashers main points cited by the University of Illinois at Chicago was that gangs were often formed impulsively and then were integrated through conflict. Certain types of behaviour were used to categorise someone as being part of a gang. The types of behaviour were "meeting face to face, milling, movement through space as a unit, conflict, and planning" (Definition of Gangs n.d.) and they led the gang to experience a feeling of unity, attachment and a deep protective feeling towards their particular area. The idea behind these feelings was that it gave a sense of structure, loyalty and identity in times of immense social and personal change. The gangs formed as a reaction to society's way of seeing them so sooner or later they gave in to temptation and pursued delinquent roles in the community.
Another sociologist who looked into the aspect of gangs was Miller in 1958. Miller argued that the reason many working class males decided to join gangs was out of an anxiety of losing their feeling of masculinity in a female headed household (Hagedorn 2003). Much of Millers research focused on the working class male. To him the working class had entirely different concerns to the rest of the classes. Some of the concerns for a working class male may be toughness, street smarts and fate, what will be will be so they might as well just do it anyway. Many of the individuals in gangs that Miller researched were from a single parent family that was headed by the mother. As mentioned earlier taking advice or rules from their mother was seen as a threat to their masculinity and so they looked to their gang leader instead as their new mean of guidance. Miller thought that by going back to traditional values would be a way of ridding the world of gangs and gang violence. However, it should be noted that this again if purely a societal problem. If the individuals that joined the gangs had a fully functioning family with both parents they may not have even joined the gang in the first place. It can not be looked at that gangs are at the root of all of society's problems but perhaps the other way around.
A third and prominent sociologist who researched gangs was Stanley Cohen. Cohen created the term moral panics with the most famous being the mods and rockers. The media had a huge impact on how the public perceived the actions of the mods and rockers. For as long as forms of media have existed information has reprocessed by the media and fed to society and so "information has been subject to alternative definitions of what constitutes 'news' and how it should be gathered and presented" (Cohen 1972). The general public will believe pretty much whatever the media tells them. During the moral panic of the mods and rockers, who had problems with each other because of beliefs, music taste and clothes, there obviously was some fighting, vandalism and some other criminal aspects that took place. However, society needing a scapegoat decided to focus on this specific case. What had happened was not exactly the peaceful day out at the beach most people had hoped for but the media distorted the events and really exaggerated some aspects of the events that took place. Phrases such as 'riot', 'orgy of destruction' and 'siege' left individuals who had not actually witnessed the happenings to believe that all that was left of the seaside town was a horror scene with the people enjoying the beach running for their lives (Cohen 1972). It was not as bad as the newspapers and television programmes reported, although it added to the fear society had of youth gangs. It is true that they were disruptive and violent but they did not hurt any bystanders and were only there to focus on the fight between the two groups. Some researchers have criticised the fact that certain youth subcultures are mislabelled as gangs. Moral panics have taken over society and someone needs to be blamed. There has always been violence in society but due to the increasing use of television and internet to report stories, youth subcultures have come under attack. The more opportunity there is for reporting shootings and stabbings by youths the more likely it is that every group of young people will be labelled as a gang.
Thrasher, Miller and Cohen have come under some criticism with their work. Mainly it was too male orientated, the focus of the research was on male gangs and it female based gangs were never considered in this research. There was also too much focus on the lower classes. Gangs can come from all backgrounds and it is not necessarily just the working class that has gang culture. If you are looking for something or someone to blame then you are bound to find it eventually and looking at the lower classes it can be seen there are more reasons they would be in a gang situation that those who are from the upper classes.
There are many theories that look at how gangs to come about. Some of the main ones are, strain theory, the labelling theory and the idea of collective identity. The strain theory was first conceived by Emile Durkheim. It basically states that social structures in our society can force a person to commit a crime. Robert Agnew in 1992 (Nash and Anderson 2002) focused more on the individual stresses of life that may lead a person towards committing delinquent and criminal acts. The negative emotions and limitations a person may feel in their life can, when strained, push a person into criminal activities to alleviate their anger. There are many social pressures put on adolescents. They have to live up to standards to achieve good grades in school, possibility go to university and finally get a job in the real world. For some the pressure can be too much and they resort to delinquent or criminal acts. It says a lot about our society, that there should be a certain stereotype you must live up to in order to be an individual whose life is fulfilled. Most gang related activity is youths acting out against societies pressures. Possibly, if society did not pressure children from such a young age to decide on important life decisions there may not be so much gang related activity.
Labelling theory is also a prominent aspect of why individuals are so reluctant to do the social norm. Howard Becker (1963) who introduced the idea of the labelling theory "views deviance as the creation of social groups and not the quality of some act or behaviour" (Howard Becker's Labelling Theory n.d.). Becker believes that those who are prone to misbehaving see themselves as outsiders and therefore are not part of society so why should they act like it?
The last theory to look at is that of the collective identity. Collective identity is often what is seen to draw gangs together. They all feel like outcasts in society or have common ground and therefore find it easy to form the groups that they do. In certain areas of California, gangs have been banned from associating with each other in certain areas. This could be seen as a step in the right direction to disbanding gangs. However, it has been seen that instead it strengthens the group and their collective identity as they are all fighting against the same cause (American Society of Criminology 2007).
In a case study looking at gangs, sectarianism and social capital it was found that "the combined social forces associated with territoriality and intense football rivalry limit the young people's potential for maximising social capital" (Deuchar and Holligan 2010). The case study looked at the ways in which gangs are formed in deprived areas of Glasgow. It was conducted using 40 young people aged 16-18. Its basic thoughts were that the young people just wanted to make social connections with friends or new people. The territorial feelings were based on the long standing football rivalry between Rangers and Celtic. The rivalry usually stemmed from the young peoples parents. They just went along with what was said about the opposing team and its supporters because that is what they were brought up with. The housing schemes were divided into Rangers and Celtic fans. They younger generation did however sometimes come together in friendship. Some of the youths in the case study admitted to being active gang members while other denied it. The ones who admitted to it explained that they got a lot of excitement from the fighting aspect and a lot had fallen into the gangs as a cure for their boredom. The basic idea of the gangs was to protect their housing estate. Alcohol was a prominent feature in the gangs' activities which could indicate some of the reason why they acted violent. The gang again as stated previously acted as a sort of family for those who did not have a particularly good home life. The internet, which is a focal point in many young people's lives, was used as a method of provoking other gangs into fights. Overall, many parents had tried to keep their children out of trouble and away from gangs. They helped pursue interests in sports and other activities. Most of the youths in the gangs did not actually know what their gang stood for other than friendship and a feeling of collective identity. Most knew that in the past the gangs stood for the conflict between the opposing football teams, however the youths that were part of the gangs now did not really seem to have much interest in that aspect and it was basically just a territorial battle. The idea of a gang just seemed like something fun and this is down to society and the media perceptions of gangs portrayed in music, video games and movies.
In conclusion, most gangs in history and present day can not really be seen as gangs at all. The term gang seems to be used as a way of describing any group that appears to be making trouble. The mislabelling of youth subcultures has led to groups of youths being victimised when all they are doing is expressing themselves. The social pressures put on youths today is another factor that influences why some may go off the rails and take part in criminal activity. Due to many of the so called gangs being in the lower classes of society, it is assumed that they or their parents do not have very much disposable income. In reference to this, it would possibly be helpful is there was more for the youths to do that did not cost a lot of money and then maybe they would not spend so much of their time on the streets or committing crimes. Media plays a big part in the depiction of youth gangs. Video games, music and movies are possible to blame for introducing young people to what seems like an exciting world. Overall most of the people who are in gangs feel as if they might as well be because society will not let them escape from their lower class situation that they were born into.