Walter Miller and Malcolm Klein: Gangs as Criminals

The Chicago Police Department has its own defintion of gangs. Here it is:

"A gang is an organized group with a recognized leader whose activities are either criminal or, at the very least, threatening to the community.

Unity, identity, loyalty and reward are normal characteristics that are admired, but when associated with gangs they become distorted. They are traits each gang shares in order to survive.

Gangs display their identity and unity in obvious ways, such as the use of jewelry, selected colored clothing, jargon and signals. Members remain together in quiet times as well as in conflict. In response to this twisted loyalty, gang members are rewarded by being accepted and recognized as a gang member.

The main source of income for most gangs is narcotics. Members of all ages are used by the gang in the illegal sale of narcotics and other unlawful activities. It is a mistaken belief that gangs operate only in less affluent neighborhoods. Gangs exist in virtually every community."

The Illinois State Police have their own definition as well, equally criminalized and referring to the Illinois Criminal Code.

" There is an obvious and distinct difference that separates youth groups from gangs. "Street gang" or "gang" means any combination, alliance, network, conspiracy or understanding, of three or more persons with an established hierarchy; that through its membership engages in a course or pattern of criminal activity (740 ILCS 147/10). Drug distribution, assaults and weapons related offenses are typically associated with established street gangs".

The Chicago Crime Commission presents this definition:

"A street gang is a cohesive group, most members being between the ages of eleven and twenty-three years, who have recognizable geographical territory (usually defined with graffiti), leadership, a purpose, and various levels of an organized, continuous course of criminal activities."

For a text-book example of stereotyping gangs, see the CCC Report: "Gangs: Public Enemy Number One" on their webstite.

The US Criminal Code has a legal definition:

''criminal street gang'' means an ongoing group, club, organization, or association of 5 or more persons -
* (A) that has as 1 of its primary purposes the commission of 1 or more of the criminal offenses described in subsection (c);
* (B) the members of which engage, or have engaged within the past 5 years, in a continuing series of offenses described in
subsection (c); and
(C) the activities of which affect interstate or foreign commerce.

In the 1950s and 1960s, gang research experienced a revival. As concern for minority gangs grew among nervous whites in central cities, some researchers reframed the definition of gangs from being primarly a problem of wild peer groups to being primarily a law enforcement problem. This refocus from the Thrasher definition was in keeping with stepped up suppression efforts by police and a "war on gangs."


Here are two defintions from eminent gang researchers, who both consciously reframed the gang problem as primarily a criminal problem. First, Malcolm Klein's (1971, 13)


"any denotable group of youngsters who : (a) are generally percieved as a distinct aggregation by others in their neighborhood; (b) recognize thmselves as a denotable gorup (almost invariably with a group name) and (c) have been involved in a sufficient number of delinquent incidents to call forth a consistent negative response from neighbohrood residents and /or law enforcement agencies."


What is significant here is that criminal or delinquent activities are part of the definition of a gang. Similarly Walter Miller (1975, 9) defines gangs as by nature violence and engaged in illegal activity:

"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."

These definitions are not so much wrong, as by stressing crime and violence over group process, they define gangs as mainly the province of law enforcement. Their definitions are standard for law enforcement.

But other scholars have kept alive the Thrasher group process tradition. Both JAMES F. SHORT and JOAN W. MOORE argued that Miller and Klein's definitions are circular: they include behavior in their defintion (crime)that they are trying to explain. Short and Moore's definitions differ significantly from Klein and Miller's. GO TO NEXT PAGE.

Click here for references to social science definitions of gangs.

Kenneth B. Clark Center | Great Cities | John Hagedorn
UIC Criminal Justice Department