Gangs – Defining the Phenomena

Dr. Donna L. Roberts
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The term "gang" is one of those words in the English language that tends to evoke strong emotional responses. Upon hearing this word, everyone immediately conjures up mental images, sometimes based on facts and real personal experience, and other times based on nothing more than the portrayal of gangs through various media. And yet, the specific nature of what a gang actually is and does is difficult to pinpoint. Our definitions tend to be either too broad and all-inclusive or too narrow and exclusive. Somehow, they do not seem to capture a clear and holistic picture of the phenomena of a gang.

Webster's Dictionary offers several variations of the definition of gang, from the innocuous "a group of people who socialize regularly" to the more ominous "a group of criminals, juvenile delinquents or hoodlums who band together for mutual protection and profit" (Soukhanov & Ellis, 1984, p. 519). Considering all of these definitions, nearly everyone in society belongs to a "gang" fitting at least one of these criteria.

In contrast to these broad and non-specific classifications, Miller, in conjunction with law enforcement professionals developed the following definition, "a self-formed association of peers bound together by mutual interests, with identifiable leadership, well-developed lines of authority and other organizational features, who act in concert to achieve a specific purpose or purposes which generally include the conduct of illegal activity and control over a particular territory, facility or type of enterprise" (Miller, 1990, p. 121). Yet, somehow, even the more detailed definitions do not fully capture the essence of a gang. For example, the preceding definition limits the concept to those gangs generally involved in illegal activity. However, there are certainly groups one would classify as gangs which are not involved in criminal behavior. Conversely, the definition could also include groups such as fraternities and/or sororities which engage in illegal drinking and/or drug practices, vandalism or assault. However, these groups are not generally considered "gangs".

In a text on juvenile delinquency, the negative side of gang involvement is highlighted by the following description, "The delinquent subculture constitutes not only a set of rules, a design for living which is different from, indifferent to or even in conflict with the norms of 'respectable' adult society. It is defined by its 'negative polarity' to those norms. That is, the delinquent subculture takes its norms from the larger culture, but turns them upside down" (Cohen, 1955, p. 26). Much of this definition is vague, ambiguous and subject to wide variations in interpretation. This discussion goes on further to point out several characteristics of gangs which in combination typify the gang "persona", but which are not inherently delinquent. These include short-term thinking, hedonism, emphasis on group autonomy and resistance to authority. As such, many of these identified characteristics are necessary, but not sufficient to thoroughly define the "gang" society considers as a social problem. Once again, groups not normally considered "gangs" could easily meet the criteria laid out in these conceptualizations. In effect the "average" adolescent portrays many of these characteristics as part of normal developmental phases.
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The definition generated by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations denotes a gang as, "a group of people who form an allegiance for a common purpose and engage in acts injurious to public health and public morals; who pervert or obstruct justice or the due administration of laws, or engage in criminal activity, either individually or collectively; and who create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation within the community" (Deshields & Jackson, 1992, p.3). This definition, as well as the criteria for identifying a street gang developed by Klein & Maxson (1989, p. 44) - "community recognition as a group or collectivity, recognition by the group itself as a distinct group and enough illegal activities to get a consistent negative response from law enforcement and/or neighborhood residents" - place emphasis on the gang's impact upon and recognition by the community. Such criteria leave room for widespread diversity and variation in the interpretation of gangs and gang behavior depending upon the composition and norms of the particular community.

Still other definitions, in an attempt to more specifically classify gangs, have identified behavioral characteristics generally associated with gang membership. The most common among these include, slang terminology, hand gestures, graffiti, color designations and identifying personal accessories (Deshields & Jackson, 1992). However, while these characteristics and behaviors may be common to many gangs, they are not generally in and of themselves considered a sufficient definition. Once again, other groups, such as certain sports teams for example, could loosely meet these criteria, but are not considered gangs.

In general, the wide diversity of gang type and gang activity - including the differences inherent in suburban, rural and urban gangs, the deviations in male and female gangs, the variations between the different cultural and ethnic gangs and the dissimilarities between gangs involved in various forms of criminal activity - make the formulation of a single inclusive definition difficult. Furthermore, the orientation and purpose of the person or agency creating and/or utilizing the definition will lead to pluralistic versions. In short, a law enforcement perspective will highlight different aspects of the gang phenomena than will a social work or mass media perspective.

In addition to the numerous problems inherent in the development of a single, cohesive definition of a gang there are problems with the research used to develop the current conceptions of gangs. Most of the studies thus far have been conducted with relatively small sample sizes and have included only one ethnic group, therefore limiting the generalizability of the research. Moreover, this type of research is characteristically difficult because of a general lack of trust between researcher and subject. Gang members are often suspicious of professionals and reticent to openly discuss gang activity, especially that of an illegal nature. Therefore, much of the current data on gangs comes from law enforcement statistics and the media. These sources offer a limited and often skewed picture of gang characteristics and behavior.

The question of formulating a single, cohesive definition of a gang is a difficult one, fraught with disagreement and controversy. Some professionals argue that good research necessitates solid and consistent operational definitions (Miller, 1980). They emphasize the importance of developing standard criteria for the measurement of gang prevalence and gang related activity in order that appropriate policies of intervention might be formulated and implemented. Others counter-argue that relying on restrictive definitions may constrict research and lead to overlooking the variations of gangs (Morash, 1983). In short, the parameters which define exactly what constitutes a gang are variable, evolving and the subject of much controversy. However, perhaps it is through this chaotic struggle to grasp a definition of the problem that some solutions will eventually be found.


Cohen, A. K. (1955). Delinquent boys: The culture of the gang. New York, NY: The Free Press.

Deshields, M. & Jackson, G. (1992). Street gangs: The Air Force connection. Washington, DC: Investigative Operations Center, Air Force Office of Special Investigations.

Klein, M. W., & Maxson, C. L. (1989). Street gang violence. In N. A. Weiner & M. E. Wolfgang (Eds.), Violent crime, violent criminals. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Miller, W. (1990). Groups and serious youth crime. In D. Shichor and D. Kelley (Eds.). Critical issues in juvenile delinquency. Lexington, MA: Lexington.

Miller, W. B. (1980). Gangs, groups and serious youth crime. In D. Shichor & D. Kelley (Eds.). Critical issues in juvenile delinquency. Lexington, MA: Lexington.

Morash, M. (1983). Gangs, groups and delinquency. Journal of Criminology, 23(3), 309-331.

Soukhanov, A. H. & Ellis, K. (Eds.). (1984). Webster's new Riverside university dictionary. Boston, MA: The Riverside Publishing C

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

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