In Crime & Justice: A Review of Research Volume 24. 1998.
University of Chicago.
Pages 366-368 by John Hagedorn


"Before I advance into the argument, I have to face the troublesome issue of defining a "gang." That young children and teenagers form peer groups is something we observe everyday. But where the peer group ends and the "gang" begins is where the controversy heats up.

The debate on the definition of "gang" is long and rancorous, and I do not intend to repeat it here. 1 Rather, where we might start would be to adapt from Thrasher (1927/1963) the notion that "ganging" is a normal peer activity of adolescents within a continuum of behaviors, from conventional to wild. For many scholars (e.g. Klein 1971; Spergel 1990) an intrinsic behavior of those peer groups called "gangs" would include criminal acts, while for others (e.g. Short 1997) it would not. Most social scientists would agree, however, that gangs through the ages have formed as peer groups of mainly male youths on the wild side of the continuum. And social scientists seem to also agree that these young males and females organize, to a varying degree, some of their rowdy, delinquent, and criminal activities.

For example, Joan Moore (in press) has said that "gangs are unsupervised peer groups who are socialized by the streets rather than by conventional institutions. They define themselves as a gang or "set" or some such term, and have the capacity to reproduce themselves, usually within a specific neighborhood." This definition omits criminality as a defining characteristic, since changing levels of violence and criminality are what Moore seeks to explain. Other social scientists might include criminal behavior in this definition, and such an inclusion would not change the substance of the matter. Sociological perspectives differ from law enforcement’s points of view by social science’s more dynamic focus on the process of development of young people adapting, as they grow up, to various economic and social conditions. Law enforcement agencies, mainly concerned with apprehending criminals, more statically define gangs as intentional and cohesive criminal associations (e.g. Chicago Crime Commission 1995). In my view, Moore’s definition captures the essence of earlier industrial era gangs while being broad enough to describe gangs today

Social scientists have disagreed on the relative weight to put on individual, family, group process, cultural, and structural factors in understanding gang participation and violence. These issues have been recently reflected in the broader sociological debate on the underclass (Wilson 1987; 1996). How much do structural variables, such as social isolation, explain the apparent increases in gang activity and violence? If gangs are basically a reflection of individual characteristics or the product of distinct subcultural values, we might witness quantitative increases in some behaviors, but stability in the age-old form of the gang. On the other hand, if gangs organize not only out of youthful wildness, but also in response to more immediate economic and institutional forces, the impact of economic restructuring may have led to significant changes in the form of some gangs and the nature of their violence."


FN 1 For reviews of this long debate i gang resarch see Spergel (1990), Bursik and Grasmick (1993), and Ball and Curry (1995). For a helpful analysis, see Moore's (1991, pp39-41) appliation of Fine's concept of "normal devinace" to gangs.


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