Street Gangs

Gangs are part of ongoing processes played out in the lives of young people, but heavily influenced by the world around them. Insight into these processes has been slow to develop, but decades of hard work have brought them into much clearer focus. More hard work is needed, however, to bridge levels of explanation and existing gaps in knowledge. Problems of youth violence and troublesome youth groups (including street gangs), and what to do about them, will always be present. The least that can be done is to try to better understand them.


I. Introduction

II. Definitional Issues

III. The Chicago School of Urban Sociology

IV. The Variables Paradigm

V. Bringing Context Back In

VI. Global Contexts

VII. Gang Control

VIII. Conclusion and Bibliography

I. Introduction

After some time out of the media spotlight, youth street gangs have made their way back. News coverage of drive-bys and crimes committed by persons with “possible gang ties” appear regularly alongside Gangland documentaries chronicling the rise and fall of notorious gangs and their leaders. Occasionally, these stories tell of successful law enforcement efforts to dismantle the gang by “cutting the head off the snake,” as anonymous informants reveal coveted gang secrets and boast of their role in bringing down those who had somehow betrayed or disrespected them. Joining the usual suspects in Chicago and Los Angeles at the center of public scrutiny and fear are gangs and gang nations such as the United Blood Nation and Double II’s on the East Coast, Nortenos and Surenos in the Southwest, and MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha) everywhere in the United States.

By contrast, with few exceptions, recent scholarly attention to gangs has become stagnant, lacking fresh insights and the intellectual spirit out of which it was born. Not everyone will agree with this assessment, noting that more than two decades passed between Frederic Thrasher’s (1927) landmark study and the pioneering work of Albert Cohen (1955),Walter Miller (1958), Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin (1960), Irving Spergel (1964), James Short and Fred Strodtbeck (1965), Gerald Suttles (1968), and Malcolm Klein (1969, 1971). Attention to gangs has followed a sometimes cyclical and faddish course, and important research occurred in the United States and elsewhere during the 1980s and 1990s. However, movement forward requires greater recognition of the problematic nature of gangs, better integration of empirical research concerning the efficacy of gang control efforts, and new research tools that are both theoretically and empirically reliable and valid. Roughly a decade into the 21st century, it is time to take stock and to assess the relevance of gangs to criminology and vice versa.

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