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.
|MARK TWAIN ON GANGS
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
Source: M. Twain (1884). Chapter 2. In Huckleberry Finn. Retrieved
November 12, 2002, from http://wiretap.area.com/ftp.items/Library/Classic/huckfinn.mt
" 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..