There is an increasing concern over the issue of youth gang culture in various parts of the UK. While there are no specific figures over the increase, according to research, the level of people who are in gangs with less than 15 years of age has doubled within the last four years.
The existence of such gangs differs with every region. For example, in Manchester it is estimated that youngsters are initially joining gangs within the age of 12 and 14 and many are becoming involved as young as 9 or 10. There are even generations of gang members wherein there are children of earlier gang members joining the same gangs and following the gang culture. Such an increasing growth of youth joining the gangs has created issues like gang culture impacting upon schools.
The definition of a gang has been quite subjective so far in the literature reviewed, however one can draw the conclusion that gangs are not a singular phenomenon. This definition gets more complex due to the social lives of young people who form groups in their schools. An example of this could be a gang of youths wherein they have a name for the group like ‘Fire Rangers’, wear similar clothes, listen to common songs and have their own slang with a common hangout place (Anderson, 1994).
Whilst not all violence between youths may stem from gang culture, most of the recorded conflicts are due to gang fights. At the same time it is not feasible to create a demarcation within violent behavior either descriptively or analytically since violence may have elements of other behaviour as well. Also, common group and other characteristics occur in gangs which lead to gang formation, identity, and behavior.
Historically, gangs have dominated most debates and generated an interest among various researchers ever since the beginning of the twentieth century. Generally, most fights between two or more groups are studied because this is attributed as a key, if not defining, trait of gangs. According to Frederic Thrasher, the first social scientist to investigate gang culture systematically, gangs are “an interstitial group originally formed spontaneously, and then integrated through conflict” (Thrasher, 1927). There have been many other investigations which confirm the significance of conflict within gang culture; particularly with regard to the formation of gangs and their identity. Violent conflict is also significant with regards to the lives of the members of gangs.
In a research by Malcolm Klein, he focused on “the versatile behavior repertoire of street gangs,” and added “commitment to a criminal orientation” within the study’s central criteria. Klein tried defining the issue by paying particular attention towards “the tipping point beyond which we say, aha—that sure sounds like a street gang to me” (Klein, 1995). This angle suggests that “play groups” are not gangs. However, what is confirmed is that “quite ordinary play groups often become delinquent and thus acquire the gang appellation” (Klein, 1995).
This is evident in the current literature review that shows a fair display of aggression in male adolescent gangs including gangs that are supervised or sponsored by adults. One of the key factors in such gangs is the status symbol related to fighting ability especially in males coming from families living on benefits. In a research by Walter Miller on gangs, he discovered “7 out of 10 aggressive acts committed by members of the Junior Outlaws were directed at others within the gang” (Miller,Geertz & Cutter, 1961). About 90% of violent acts which were observed were actually verbal acts, rather than physical.
This also showed that most of the gang members reflected upon these gang attitudes and behaviors which often led to a developed sense of group solidarity and cohesion. Moreover, this has helped in the facilitation of collective acts, and secured group relations between members. Ultimately, it is ensuring reciprocity in intergroup relations, and “displaying personal qualities that served as criteria of group acceptance” and “prestige conferral” (Miller, Geertz, & Cutter, 1961).
Studies have shown that graffiti is a significant aspect in forming group or gang identity. It is often seen as a symbolism for a respective gang, or conflict (Klein, 1995). The terms “taggers” and “tagger groups” are associated with conflict-oriented gangs because of disputes regarding graffiti. Ray Hutchison and Charles Kyle (1993) studied the features and functions of gang graffiti in the areas of Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and Chicago in America. The role of graffiti served to identify certain gangs or to mark out a gang territory, or expand a gang’s “image” (Yablonsky, 1962). Also, graffiti can be used as a weapon to slander or deface another gang. However, some graffiti advertises the activity and presence of the gang in the wider society.
“Ethnic antagonism” has been observed as forming the basis for much of the disputes that arise between a community and the gangs within it (Schwartz, 1987). Street gangs generally comprise of male youths of a similar race or ethnicity. However, there have been exceptions observed by researchers, such as Sanchez-Jankowski (1991) who found that 24% of the gangs were made up of both black and Latino youths. “Black gangs”, as classified by Schwartz, generally comprised young African-Americans or Jamaicans; whereas “Latino gangs” included “Chicanos (Mexican-Americans and Mexicans), Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Salvadorans, and Nicaraguans” (Schwartz, 1987).
It is important to note the different types of street gang violence. There has been an increase in violent acts being committed by “wilding groups” (Decker, 1993). “Conflict gangs” generally are akin to Street Gangs in that they earn a reputation through violence, fighting and criminal acts (Decker, 1993). However, in actual fact these groups do not spend much time in engaging in fights with rival gangs. Wilding Groups have been shown to have little-to-no preexisting structures. They generally comprise of adolescents with a vast majority of their aggressive acts that seem to be the “spur of the moment” events, which target an opportunity (Cummings & Monti, 1993).
Scott Cummings & Monti (1993) observed “that wilding may not be compatible with the protection of turf, the maintenance of group honor and reputation, or the monopolization of the drug marketplace.” These are all popular street gang behaviors. Whilst these observations imply similarities between wilding and street gangs, these remain a subcategory of gangs. Howard Pinderhughes (1993) engaged in a study of young people living in New York at a time when racially and gang motivated crime increased (1980-1990). Pinderhughes observed the gang culture within the two districts that had experienced the most severe levels of gang activity attributed to it.
Pinderhughes study presented an issue with racially motivated antagonism that was founded in a deficit of economic opportunity, fears of “black power”, as well as the perception that minorities were criminals. Whilst the majority of young people who committed ethnically motivated aggression were exiles of their own respective communities, feelings of antagonism were still directed at people who “did not belong” in this area. This became the justifying rationale for “group missions” in which strangers were assaulted at random. Pinderhughes described this situation as “bias-related crimes.”
Whereas drug taking and distribution are so central to the popular image of gang culture, it is necessary to recognize the difference between street gangs and diminutive groups of individuals who operate only to sell drugs or partake in drug-related activities. It is also common for much bigger-scale groups and syndicates to partake in drug-related crime within particular cities or regions. It has been observed that these forms of syndicate “are more entrepreneurial than street gangs and otherwise more instrumental in their behavior” (Klein, 1995). Aggression and violence is at the heart of these syndicates and their drug monopoly, which is similar to street gangs, despite their difference in the manners of etiology and control.
The direct contrast of members of gangs, with young people who are not in gangs, is not often carried out. Thus, investigation into the individual personalities and traits of gang members are not consistent and tend to vary “wildly.” For example, one study depicts gang members as socially adept and intelligent, whilst another shows them to be “emotionally handicapped” or driven by the lust for “sneaky thrills” (Katz, 1988). Lewis Yablonsky (1962) led one of the very first studies into gang culture and characterized the members as “impulsive, unable to distinguish right from wrong or to empathize with others”, and “violently aggressive when their immediate needs were not satisfied.”
Sanchez-Jankowski also rejected the argument that gangs are exiled from society, and subverted the “social disorganization thesis” by showing gangs to be “a formal element” functioning “on an independent and equal basis with all the other organizations active in the low-income community” (Sanchez-Jankowski, 1991). Sanchez-Jankowski observed a number of community services that are offered by gangs, and the services on offer for them. The gangs provide a wide variety of services such as the sustaining of “gang-community traditions” as well as “psychological identification” within the gang culture. For example, offering escorts for old people or disabled people, as well as defense against any possible threat provided by strangers in the community (Elliott, 1994). The services that are offered to gangs from a community can be: “provision of safe havens from which gangs can operate in the facilitation and recruitment of new gang members and provision of information that is vital to the gang” (Sanchez-Jankowski, 1991).
Various races have moved to the United Kingdom and now live in big inner-city districts. The racially motivated acts of aggression in these areas have been seen to be an indication of the racial and social classes which populate the inner-city areas. For example, Black gangs in Acton town, Korean gangs that exist in New Malden, or Bangladeshi gangs who function in places like Bricklane (Bursik & Grasmick, 1993).
Investigations into gang culture and activities do not necessarily use the phrase “social capital”, because almost every study into this area has observed that “traditional forms of social capital produced by conventional intergenerational relationships in families and communities have changed dramatically” (Coleman, 1988). James Coleman (1988) noted that “social capital reflects the quality of personal relationships in individual’s lives and in the lives of communities.” “Social capital”, like physical capital and human capital, has been described as “a personal and a community resource” (Hagan, 1993). There is a vast potential for the economic and human capital to develop amongst youths, especially for people who are disadvantaged by their economic status or level of education. For example, the human capital of parents “is employed exclusively at work or elsewhere outside the home.”
As already mentioned, significant inroads have been made into understanding the way that gangs have been formed, act, and the nature of macro- level forces. The distribution of gang culture amongst youths and an increasing growing underclass are paramount. More than ever, youths are being targeted by business and commercial exploitation which is detached from mainstream adult roles. Thus they confront the economic problems which they cannot influence. Other factors include economic decline, severe unemployment, and the unavailability of “good jobs.” This is widely attributed to street gangs as well as their change into “economic gangs”. This is where class and racial identities become tied together. These are the same factors that drive the intergang relations amongst youths in gangs and the community.
What is evident, therefore, is that the unsupervised groups of young people are more likely to deviate towards criminality or violence. Thus, adult supervision is crucial: as young people require people to give them attention and care. This permits youths to increase their personal independence. Adult intervention within violence-producing or threatening situations can be effective in many situations.
1. Anderson, E. (1994, May). The code of the streets. Atlantic Monthly, pp. 81-83, 86-94.
2. Bursik, R., & Grasmick, H. (1993). Neighborhoods and crime: The dimensions of effective
community control. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
3. Cummings, S., & Monti, D.J. (Eds.). (1993). Gangs: The origin and impact of contemporary youth gangs in the United States. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
4. Coleman, James S. (1988). “Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital”, American Journal of Sociology.
5. Decker, S. H. (1993), The family gang connection: Windows on prevention. School Intervention, Report 6(Spring):3,6–9.
6. Elliott, D.S. (1994). Serious violent offenders: Onset, developmental course, and termination. Criminology, 32 – 44.
7. Hagan, J. (1993). The social embeddedness of crime and unemployment. Criminology, 31, 465-491.
8. Hutchison and Charles Kyle (1993), The gang initiation rite as a motif in contemporary crime discourse, Justice Quarterly, (13):383–404
9. Katz, C. M. (1988), Issues in the production and dissemination of gang statistics: An ethnographic study of a large Midwestern police gang unit, Crime & Delinquency, 49, 485-516.
10. Klein, M. (1971). Street gangs and street workers. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
11. Miller, W.B., Geertz, H., & Cutter, H. (1961). Aggression in a boys? street-corner group. Psychiatry, 24, 266-270.
12. Pinderhughes, Howard. (1993), The Anatomy Of Racially Motivated Violence in New York City: A Case Study of Youth In Southern Brooklyn, Social Problems 40:478-492
13. Sanchez-Jankowski, M.S. 1991. Islands in the Street: Gangs and American Urban Society. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
14. Schwartz (1987), Beyond conformity or rebellion: youth and authority in America, Chicago, University of Chicago press
15. Thrasher, F. M. (1927), The gang: A study of 1,313 gangs in Chicago, Chicago, University of Chicago Press
16. Yablonsky, L. (1962). The Violent Gang. The Macmillan Co.: New York
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