Street Gangs

II. Definitional Issues

Definitional issues distort and confound understanding of what gangs are, why they behave as they do, and what to do about them. Disagreements exist in law, and among and between law enforcement agencies, social agencies, schools, media portrayals, the general public, and academic researchers. One knowledgeable observer likens the process of “deciphering and doing something about modern street gangs” to “interpreting inkblots” (Papachristos, 2005).

Despite such ambiguity, a great deal is known about the history of gangs and the forms they take in modern societies. In addition, it is universally agreed that gangs contribute substantially to such social problems as juvenile delinquency, crime, and racial/ethnic and community tensions. In extreme form, they may also be involved in ethnic wars and terrorism. More will be said about each of these problems below, but first the definitional issues are addressed.

The main concern in this research paper is with a particular type of gang, namely, the youth street gang. All definitions of youth street gangs include the following elements: They are unsupervised groups of young people that meet together with some regularity and are self-determining with respect to membership criteria; organizational structure; and the sorts of behavior that are considered acceptable and, in some cases, necessary for belonging. Rather than being products of adult sponsorship (such as church-, social agency-, or school-sponsored groups), they form and develop out of interactions and decisions among young people on their own terms.

For most young people in most societies, “hanging out” with one’s friends is an important part of growing up, and for many, “that old gang of mine” is a normal part of making the transition from childhood to adulthood. Gangs become problematic when they engage in crime or delinquency; conflict with each other; or otherwise disrupt families, schools, and other institutions. Perhaps because most of the gangs studied by social scientists are involved in delinquent or criminal behavior, many social scientists include law breaking in their definitions of gangs. Others do not, preferring to avoid the logical problem of including in their definitions the very behavior they wish to explain.

The most systematic attempt to overcome this problem has been made by the Eurogang Research Program (ERP), an international effort to understand gangs and other troublesome youth groups in European nations. Although the primary goal of the ERP is to study groups involved in crime and delinquency (which is included in the ERP definition of gangs),1 the opportunity exists to study other collectivities, and to follow changes in their membership, structure, behavior, and other characteristics helpful in explaining their differences from gangs.

A commonly adopted solution is to be as specific as possible about the group(s) being studied: why they are of interest (because they have been identified as problematic by the police, by a social agency, or by observation, for example), their members and criteria for membership, behavior and organizational structure, cultural style and symbolic markers (often including speech, group colors, tattoos and scars, clothing, and jewelry), and location in social space—that is, how they relate to each other and to their communities.

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