Analyzing and Defining Gangs

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Popular perceptions of gang activity are often based on sensationalized images created in the media.  They vary from dramatic reports of “gangland” shootings to images of young men terrorizing the local neighborhood.  Indeed, there are elements of gang culture that are criminal and threatening for the local population; however, gang culture is so complex that a single definition has yet to be agreed upon by social scientists.  The primary issue of controversy is whether criminality is a central and causal. 

Thrasher’s (1927) pioneering study was the first to look at group processes and psychology of gang life.  Through his study of 1,313 Chicago gangs, he concluded gangs are part of the psychological and group process of teenagers in economically deprived communities.  He believed gangs are:

"group(s) originally formed spontaneously, and then integrated through conflict….characterized by the following types of behavior: meeting face to face, milling, movement through space as a unit, conflict, and planning. The result….is the development of tradition, unreflective internal structure, esprit de corps, solidarity, morale, group awareness, and attachment to a local territory."  (pg 46)

By the ‘50s and ‘60s, the popular view changed – the perception of gangs became one of fear and threat..  Miller (1975) and Klein (1971) published papers defining gangs as innately criminal.  Miller’s pessimistic perspective is apparent in his classification of gangs as:

“a group of recurrently associating individuals with identifiable leadership and internal organization, identifying with or claiming control over territory in the community, and engaging either individually or collectively in violent or other forms of illegal behavior” (pg 9).

Miller was echoed by Klein (1971), who defined gangs as:

 “any denotable group of youngsters who…..recognize themselves as a notable group…. (and) have been involved in a sufficient number of delinquent incidents to call forth a consistent negative response from…..residents and/or law enforcement agencies”
(pg 13)

This theme was taken up by law enforcement agencies, and the idea of the gang as a part of the moral order of the community was subsequently gone. The sociological definition of gang was replaced by terms mainly useful to law enforcement, which are still used to this day.  Brantley and DiRosa of the FBI (1994) describe gangs as groups of  “individuals…..who associate on a continual basis for the purpose of committing criminal acts”.

But other researchers maintain the Thrasher group process hypothesis. Moore argues against Miller and Klein’s definitions, as she believes they are circular: the definitions include the very behaviour i.e. crime that they are trying to understand. Thrasher and Moore’s definitions differ significantly from Klein and Miller’s.  Moore (1998) believes criminality is not inherent to gangs and views them instead as “unsupervised peer groups…socialized by the streets rather than by conventional institutions.”  The debate continues, and the lack of agreement regarding the defining features of  gangs has made consistent findings and generalizations problematic. Criminal activity remains a pivotal issue in the debate; the criminality of gangs waxes and wanes,

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