Most young people join some type of social group. These groups help youths develop social skills, fulfill many of their emotional needs, offer an environment in which they are valued, provide them with goals, and give direction and structure to their lives. Some youths join groups that society considers prosocial, or are of benefit to society, such as Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, Little League, or fraternities and sororities. Others will join groups that are considered antisocial, such as gangs.
I. What Is a Gang?
II. Gang Organization
III. Joining a Gang
A. Bonding and Control Theory
B. Opportunity and Strain Theory
C. Labeling Theory
D. Cultural Conflict or Subcultural Theory
E. Social Disorganization Theory
F. Radical Theory
IV. Social Factors
V. Racial/Ethnic Gangs
A. Hispanic Gangs
B. African American Gangs
C. Asian Gangs
D. White Gangs
E. Native American Gangs
F. Hybrid Gangs
VI. Gang Alliances
VII. Females and Gangs
VIII. Gang Migration
IX. Gangs and Violence
X. Why Youths Leave Gangs
XI. Positive Function of Gangs
What Is a Gang?
One of the first problems encountered by those who study gangs and gang behavior is how to define a gang. Is it just a group of people who hang around with each other? Can adults in a group be defined as a gang? Do the people in the group have to engage in some type of criminal behavior? From youths roaming the streets in Los Angeles following the riots in 1992 to youths rioting in Tonga in 2006 following demonstrations over a democratic government, news organizations refer to these groups as “gangs of youths” or “youth gangs.” Defining gangs is often a highly political issue that reflects the interests and agendas of the various individuals and agencies involved, including law enforcement personnel, politicians, advocates, social workers, the media, and researchers.
Despite these conflicting views, several major elements can be found in most current definitions of gangs: a group of people, some type of organization, identifiable leadership, identifiable territory, use of symbols, a specific purpose, continual association and existence, and participation in some type of illegal activity. Most gangs today have other behaviors in common: they use graffiti to mark their territory and communicate with other gangs; they dress alike, often adopting a particular color as a gang color (for example, red for the Bloods, blue for the Crips); they often tattoo themselves with gang names or symbols; they abide by a specific code of conduct; they have their own specific language; and they have their own set of hand signs that help them recognize other members of their gang.
Gangs are organized in a variety of ways, depending on their primary purpose, their level of structure, and the degree of control that the gang leaders have. Taylor (1990) categorized gangs as scavenger gangs, territorial or turf gangs, and instrumental or corporate gangs. Scavenger gangs are loosely organized and provide their members with a purpose for their lives. Many members are low achievers or school dropouts and are likely to exhibit violent behavior. Their crimes are usually not serious and are spontaneous. Territorial gangs may claim blocks, neighborhoods, specific buildings, or even schools as their home turf. These gangs are highly organized and have elaborate initiation rites as well as rules and regulations for controlling members’ behavior. Members usually wear gang colors. Instrumental or corporate gangs usually have a clearly defined leader and a fi nely defined hierarchy of leadership, often a military-type structure. Crimes are committed for a specific purpose, usually profit of some sort, and not just for fun. Gangs may start off as scavenger gangs and, over time, become instrumental or corporate gangs.
Gangs are also made up of a variety of member types. “Wannabes” are usually younger people who want to become gang members or are seen as potential recruits by current members. Core members and leaders are more likely to be involved in the major activities of the gang. Veterans or “O.G.” (for “old gangsters” or “original gangsters”) are usually older youths or adults who are not actively involved in gang activity, have the respect and admiration of younger gang members, and work with gang leaders to help them achieve their goals.
Joining a Gang
Many theories attempt to explain why juveniles join gangs. Several of these theories are sociological in nature, focusing on structural and dynamic variables as causes of gang formation and behavior. Some of these variables include social environment, family, and economic conditions and opportunity. Most of the theories fall into one of six categories: bonding and control theory, opportunity and strain theory, labeling theory, subcultural or cultural conflict theory, social disorganization theory, and radical or sociopolitical theory.
Bonding and Control Theory
Family processes and interaction play a particularly important role in developing social bonds that may prevent young people from committing delinquent or criminal acts. Families of delinquents may spend little time together and provide less support and affection than families of well-behaved youths; parents may provide little or no supervision for their children. Bonding theory suggests that children who miss out on multiple opportunities to learn socially appropriate behavior may be more likely to join gangs.
Opportunity and Strain Theory
If young people do not believe that they have an equal opportunity to achieve the American dream of success, power, and money, they may grow up frustrated and may develop a sense of hopelessness, believing that they will not receive the same things from society as other people. The resulting depression or anger can lead to delinquent behavior. Prothrow-Stith (1991) believes that juveniles join gangs, including violent gangs, only when they believe that their future opportunities for success are limited.
According to sociologist George Herbert Mead (1934), an individual’s self-concept is derived from how others define that individual. This concept provides the basis for labeling theory, which some have called self-fulfilling prophecy. Several theorists have applied this theory to juvenile delinquency. Goldstein (1991) believes the initial act of delinquent behavior (primary deviance) is not important in labeling theory; the subsequent delinquent acts perpetrated in reaction to society’s response to the initial act (secondary deviance) are relevant.
Cultural Conflict or Subcultural Theory
Some researchers believe that delinquent behavior results from an individual conforming to the current norms of the subculture in which he or she grows up, even though these norms vary from those of the larger society (Thornton and Voight 1992). Youngsters who grow up in areas that have high crime and delinquency rates may come to believe that crime and delinquency are normal aspects of everyday life and therefore do not think that they are doing anything wrong when they misbehave or commit a crime.
Social Disorganization Theory
Thrasher (1927) was one of the first to propose social disorganization theory to explain why youths find gangs so compelling: youth join gangs because they do not feel connected to the existing social institutions. Thrasher believed these youth joined gangs because, to them, the gang was their own society, one that provided all of the gang member’s needs. According to this theory, the formation of gangs is not abnormal, but rather a normal response to an abnormal situation (Spergel 1995). High rates of delinquency in an area indicate that social problems are present and may lead to gang formation (Delaney 2006).
In the late 1970s, several researchers developed a sociopolitical perspective on crime and delinquency known as radical theory or the “new criminology.” Believing that laws in the United States are developed by and for the ruling elite, radical theorists hold that these laws are used to hold down the poor, minorities, and the powerless (Bohm 2001).
As can be seen from the many theories concerning the existence and growth of gangs, many factors interact to lead youth to join gangs. Growing up in U.S. society today can be a challenge. When young people have little structure in their lives, when they have no purpose or can see no reason to excel in school, they may be more likely to join gangs. The gang gives their lives structure, makes them feel important and useful, protects them from a violent environment, and provides some sense of safety in numbers. Gang members are loyal to each other and to the gang, their group gets special attention in the community, and their association may provide financial rewards if the gang is selling drugs or involved in other criminal activities. Excitement is a part of gang life; members can get an adrenaline rush from some of their activities, and they may feel empowered by the backing and respect of other gang members.
Gangs frequently are composed of members from the same race or ethnic group, although a growing number of gangs are referred to as hybrid gangs. Whites usually join white gangs, Hispanics usually join Hispanic gangs, and African Americans usually join African American gangs. Researchers have found that these racial/ethnic gangs have several characteristics that are specific to their gangs.
Hispanic or Latino gangs generally have four levels of membership: peripheral, general, active, and hard core. Peripheral members identify with the gang but do not actively participate in the gang, especially in the criminal activities. General members readily identify themselves with the gang but are still working to gain respect. Finally, the hard-core members are active participants in the gang’s criminal activity; in fact, these members are the ones who are in leadership positions. Hispanic gang members often set themselves apart from other gangs by using a slang language that is a combination of English and Spanish.
African American Gangs
According to several researchers, African American gang members stay in their gangs longer than gang members from other racial/ethnic groups. This can be explained in part by the lack of economic opportunities available to these youths. Spergel (1995) believes legitimate opportunities for African American youth to participate in viable economic activities are more limited than in any other community.
Asian youth may join gangs for many of the same reasons youth from other cultures join them. Asian youth whose parents are fairly new to the United States may feel alienated, overwhelmed, and out of place. The language barrier and other obstacles may encourage these youth to band together for protection and support. Asian gangs are usually organized for economic reasons, and members rarely commit crimes against other cultural or racial groups.
White gangs have the longest history among all racial/ethnic gangs; they were especially prominent in the late 1800s and early 1900s as many Europeans immigrated to the United States. In addition to the typical youth gang, white groups identified as gangs include stoners, heavy metal groups, satanic worshipers, bikers, and skinheads. White supremacist groups are popular gangs in many areas of the United States. They believe in the doctrines of Adolf Hitler and may be tied in with the Ku Klux Klan and the neo- Nazi movement. They dislike African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, Jews, gays, lesbians, Catholics, and any other group that they do not consider part of the white Aryan race.
Native American Gangs
Gang activity on Native American reservations is difficult to measure, in large part because reservations vary greatly in size and include both rural and urban areas. Research has indicated that gang activity on reservations primarily consists of unstructured and informal associations among youth (Major and Egley 2002). Native youth who have moved off the reservation and then return to the reservation may bring their gang associations with them and attempt to recruit new members. Some researchers believe that there is a direct causal relationship between the loss of cultural identity among the Native American children and their families and the problems of substance abuse and gangs on the reservation (Kilman 2006).
Hybrid gangs may have members from more than one ethnic group or race, members who participate in more than one gang or use symbols or colors from more than one gang, or rival gangs that cooperate in certain, often criminal, activities (Starbuck, Howell, and Lindquist 2001). Communities throughout the United States are seeing an increase in the number of hybrid gangs, especially communities that had little or no gang activity prior to the 1980s or 1990s. Hybrid gangs may pose a serious problem to local law enforcement agencies because they do not mimic traditional gang characteristics or behavior; local law enforcement agencies may be lulled into a false sense of security, believing that their community does not have any gang activity.
Beginning in the 1960s, gangs began to adopt a variation of a common gang name, in essence, becoming a branch of another gang. For example, in Chicago, local gangs included the War Lords, California Lords, and Fifth Avenue Lords, all claiming to be related to and part of the Vice Lord Nation (Miller 2001).
The 1980s saw the expansion of gang alliances. Each alliance had its own set of symbols and other means of identifying and separating it from other gangs and gang alliances. Examples of these alliances include the People Nation (composed of Bloods [West Coast], Latin Kings, Vice Lords, El Rukn, Bishops, and Gaylords) and the Folk Nation (composed of Crips, Black Gangster Disciples, Black Disciples, Latin Disciples, and La Raza). Incentives for forming these alliances include the power associated with being part of a larger and more powerful organization and the coverage by the news media of these alliances, which creates publicity for these alliances.
Females and Gangs
Early studies of gangs usually did not consider females associated with gangs as gang members. They were seen, if at all, as girlfriends of gang members with only a superficial interest in gang activities. More recently, the role of the female has expanded to include a secondary role in gang activities. Females often are seen as providing help and support to male gang members by carrying weapons, offering alibis, and gathering information on rival gang members. Some female gangs are allied with a particular male gang, while others are totally autonomous. African American and Hispanic females are the most likely to participate in gang activities, although white and Asian females are forming and joining gangs in increasing numbers.
Researchers are beginning to study gang migration—the movement of gang members from one area to another and the subsequent development of gangs in those new locations. In communities that are seeing the appearance of gangs in recent years, authorities believe that migratory gang members are moving into the area and recruiting local youth to establish a new branch of a gang. These migratory gang members may be seeking new sources of revenue through the development of drug distribution or other money-making criminal activities. Known as the importation model, this strategy involves attempts by gang members to encourage the growth of their gang in new cities and is often used to establish new money-making criminal enterprises (Decker and Van Winkle 1996). Knox and his colleagues (1996) refer to this as gang franchising, while Quinn and his colleagues refer to it as gang colonization (Quinn, Tobolowsky, and Downs 1994).
Gangs and Violence
Most experts agree that gang activity increased significantly during the 1980s and 1990s and continues to spread throughout the country today. Law enforcement, community organizations, and the news media offer many gang members the recognition that they crave. Stories about gang activities and gang violence are a concrete example to gang members that their gangs and their actions are important. In fact, some researchers believe that the news media influence the general public’s view of gangs and creates the impression that gangs are more widespread and violent than they actually are. Prothrow-Stith (1991) explains that some inner-city youths believe the only way they can get any attention or recognition is to join a gang and participate in some type of criminal activity.
Researchers believe that a variety of factors have led to increasingly violent behavior on the part of gang members. The major factors are guns, territory, and drugs. Guns have become the weapon of choice for gang members, who are more likely to carry and to use guns than other juveniles. Gang members are able to obtain guns through both legal and illegal means. Gang members believe carrying a gun gives them increased power and masculinity, and they assume that their rivals are carrying a weapon, which justifies their possession of a weapon (Delaney 2006).
As the distribution and sale of drugs became more popular and profitable for gangs, the amount of territory that a gang controls became more important. Territory played a critical part in the life of many gangs as they built their power and influence. However, today that focus on territory may be changing. According to the National Youth Gang Center (2000), modern youth gangs are less focused on maintaining a certain territory than gangs in earlier years.
Even though a gang member sells drugs, it does not necessarily follow that he or she also uses drugs. In fact, some gangs involved in the distribution of drugs do not allow members to become users. For example, Ko-Lin Chin (1990) found that, while many of the early Chinese gangs in New York City distributed heroin, most of these gangs refused to use heroin themselves. Some researchers believe that gang structure is not conducive to organized drug dealing—gangs are too unorganized, unfocused, and unable to effectively operate a serious drug organization, and the gang-drug connection has been overstated (Klein, Maxson, and Cunningham 1988; Spergel 1995).
Why Youths Leave Gangs
Some individuals are able to walk away from gang activity on their own, without the help of outside intervention. As a youth gets older, he may lose interest in the gang, viewing the gang as a dead end (literally or figuratively). Or she may find other activities or interests that become more important than the gang. Others decide that they do not like or support violent activities. Some youth may discover that gang life does not meet their expectations. Finally, some gang members may discover that they are being used or exploited by the leadership and decide that they want to be needed, not used. In some cases, the home environment may improve, reducing the need for a youth to join a gang to feel part of a family. Some youths may realize that the benefits of being in a gang are not worth the increased likelihood of being incarcerated for gang activity.
Positive Function of Gangs
For the most part, young people are hurt by gang membership: they may get shot or killed, they may commit criminal acts, and they may end up in jail or prison. However, Klein (1995) found that there are positive aspects to gangs and gang life. For example, many young people who join gangs gain a measure of self-confidence and self-respect, and, in some cases, these young people will eventually see that gangs cannot give them what they want in life and will leave their gangs. In some cases, the skills that gang members learn, such as cooperation, organization, and teamwork, can be used to improve their neighborhoods and their futures, if applied in the right way. Finally, gangs may have a stabilizing effect on the communities in which they are found, by uniting communities against them and providing activities for the children and a focus on keeping the next generation out of gangs.
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