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Defining Gangs, Gang Formation, Symbols Of Gangs And Gang Membership, Gangs And Crime, Gangs And Neighborhoods

The label gang has been applied to various groups including outlaws of the nineteenth-century American West, prison inmates, Mafioso and other organized criminals, motorcyclists, and groups of inner city youths. Despite its diverse application, the term gang almost always connotes involvement in disreputable or illegal activities.

Social scientists use the term gang most frequently when describing groups of juveniles. This tendency dates back to Frederic Thrasher's The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago (1927). According to Thrasher, social conditions in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century encouraged the development of street gangs. In this period, many immigrants settled in ethnic enclaves in inner-city neighborhoods characterized by several features: a large, culturally diverse population; deteriorating housing; poor employment prospects; and a rapid turnover in population. These conditions resulted in socially disorganized neighborhoods where social institutions and social control mechanisms were weak and ineffective. The lack of social control encouraged youths to find other means of establishing social order, which they did by forming gangs.

Thrasher's research has influenced most subsequent theory and research on gangs. Albert Cohen (1955) theorized that gangs emerge from a subculture created by lower socioeconomic youths in response to their exclusion from mainstream middle-class culture. These youths recognize that they are unlikely to obtain the status valued by the middle class and create a gang culture that offers an alternative source of status. According to Walter Miller (1958), lower-class culture includes norms and values that are structured around the focal concerns of trouble, toughness, smartness, excitement, fate, and autonomy. Gangs and criminal activity are behavioral manifestations of these focal concerns. Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin (1960) proposed that delinquency and gang formation stem from differential opportunity structures: the uneven distribution of legitimate and illegitimate means of attaining goals. Lower-class adolescents' limited access to the legal means of achieving goals leaves them frustrated. Gangs can reduce feelings of powerlessness by providing youths access to illegitimate means; that is, with opportunities to learn and be instructed in crime by seasoned offenders.

Interest in gangs declined in the 1970s; however, gangs have increasingly captured the attention of academics since 1980. Many of the efforts since the 1980s focus on the social disorganization perspective from which much of the original gang research originated. For example, Robert Bursik Jr. and Harold Grasmick (1993, p. 147) suggested that expanding the social disorganization model to include "a broader systemic orientation that considers the simultaneous operation of three types of control: private, parochial, and public," is a better approach to studying neighborhood crime and gangs.

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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Social Issues