John Hagedorn
The Enclyclopedia of Community
Sage Publications
Karen Christianson and David Levinson,
General Editors
pp 517-522

Gangs have become a permanent feature of the urban landscape around the world. A gang is typically defined as an unsupervised lower-class peer group, with leadership, structure, and adherence to a local territory. Social scientists have differed on whether or not gangs necessarily exhibit criminal and delinquent activity. Some hold that gangs are fundamentally the product of delinquent subcultures; others believe gangs are a response to social disorganization. The United States’ National Youth Gang Center reports there are about 25,000 gangs in the United States, with nearly three quarters of a million members.

How to define a gang has always been a matter of controversy. The relationship of the gang to its local community and the salience of race have been at the heart of academic and popular differences on the nature of gangs. While this entry focuses gangs in the United States, gangs are a recognized feature of urban life in areas as diverse as Johannesburg, Rio de Janiero, Paris, and Hong Kong

Gangs in the Industrial Era

Boy gangs have been a staple of U.S. culture since the nineteenth century. Huckleberry Finn, the boy hero of Mark Twain’s 1884 novel of the same name, describes the elaborate oath his friend Tom Sawyer invented to swear people into his gang. In the past, sociologists and social workers argued that the experience of immigration was at the root of gang formation. Some social scientists saw boy gangs as a universal product of second-generation rebellion from the traditional controls of their immigrant parents. Young girls, who had more restrictions placed on their movements, were less free to “hang around” outside, and their peer groups were not considered gangs by most social scientists.

Not all early gangs were made up of children. The U.S. frontier produced the “James Gang” and other adult male criminal groups. The Ku Klux Klan and other racist gangs terrorized African-Americans as Southern politicians mobilized to end Reconstruction and maintain white rule. Irish voting gangs in New York City were used by politicians to intimidate opponents and control vice industries. Italians and other ethnic groups established their own gangs and contested Irish political dominance. The Italians and Sicilians dominated control of liquor distribution during Prohibition. Thus adult gangs of various types used violence at the behest of local ethnic politicians and were closely tied to rackets.

The first major social-science treatment of gangs was by the sociologist Frederic Thrasher in 1927. For the sociologists at the University of Chicago, where Thrasher studied under Robert Park, the gang grew in the spaces of the socially disorganized slums.


In his 1884 classic Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain described the elaborate oath that the imaginative Tom Sawyer creates for members of his potential gang.

“Now we'll start this band of robbers and call it Tom Sawyer's Gang. Everybody that wants to join has got to take an oath, and write his name in blood.”

Everybody was willing. So Tom gave out a sheet of paper that he had wrote the oath on, and read it. It swore every boy to stick to the band, and never tell any of the secrets; and if anybody done anything to any boy in the band, whichever boy was ordered to kill that person and his family must do it, and he mustn't sleep till he had killed them and hacked a cross in their breasts, which was the sign of the band. And nobody that didn't belong to the band could use that mark, and if he did he must be sued, and if he done it again he must be killed. And if anybody that belonged to the band told the secrets, he must have his throat cut, and then have his carcass burnt up and the ashes scattered all around, and his name blotted off the list with blood and never mentioned again by the gang, but have a curse put on it and be forgot, forever.

Everybody said it was a real beautiful oath, and asked Tom if he got it out of his own head. He said, some of it, but the rest was out of pirate-books, and robber-books, and every gang that was high-toned had it.

Source: M. Twain (1884). Chapter 2. In Huckleberry Finn. Retrieved November 12, 2002, from

Thrasher wrote:

" The gang is an interstitial group originally formed spontaneously, and then integrated through conflict. It is characterized by the following types of behavior: meeting face to face, milling, movement through space as a unit, conflict, and planning. The result of this collective behavior is the development of tradition, unreflective internal structure, esprit de corps, solidarity, morale, group awareness, and attachment to a local territory. (Thrasher 1927, 57)."

Boy gangs, for the social scientists of the Chicago School, were also interstitial in the sense that they were transitory. The vast majority of gang members, Thrasher said, “matured out” of the gang, got a job, got married, and settled down. The gang was merely a stage in male adolescent development.

Race was not a significant variable in understanding gangs for Thrasher and the Chicago School. These social scientists were “ecologists” who saw the city as a living organism with ethnic groups competing for resources much as plants compete for sunlight. Race was seen as declining in significance over time as an ethnic group moved up the ladder of succession and assimilated into U.S. society.(even African Americans were seen as just another ethnic group and not a special case). Others at the time (such as W. E. B. Du Bois) and later (such as Euseni Perkins) have seen race as playing a major role in the origins and development of black gangs..