Patricia E Erickson. 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: H James Birx. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2010.

Gangs today are a worldwide phenomenon and, moreover, not unique to contemporary societies. Youth gangs have existed in Western and Eastern societies for centuries, and in the United States, gangs in urban centers existed before the 19th century. More recently, researchers have studied gangs in Amsterdam, Australia, Brazil, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, the People’s Republic of China, Peru, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan, and Tanzania. In many instances, gangs use the symbols, style of dress, and behavior of American gangs because these features are transmitted through movies, books, videos, and magazines. Indeed, today’s urbanized and globalized world is producing gangs faster than ever before in a variety of shapes and forms, and contemporary gangs play a significant role in many kinds of violence.

Curry and Decker (2003) indicate that gangs in the United States developed during four distinct periods. The first stage occurred as a consequence of immigration and industrialization in the latter part of the 19th century, when groups of recent immigrants—primarily Irish and Italian—engaged in petty property crimes. In the 1920s, a second wave of gangs emerged in cities, again composed of recent immigrants, but they had symbols of membership and were more actively involved in crime than the gangs of the first period. In the 1960s, another generation of gangs developed that contained a significant number of racial minorities. The availability of automobiles and guns gave these gangs the ability to fight other gangs in neighborhoods across a city. As a consequence, more gang members served time in prison and the prison itself became a source for the perpetuation of gangs. Once released, these individuals brought gang ideology and practices with them and recruited young new members. This creation of intergenerational gangs in the 1990s is the fourth generation of gangs.

This chapter examines the phenomenon of gangs from several vantage points. First, it describes how gangs are defined and the social conditions for their emergence and persistence. Second, it considers how social scientists study gangs by describing some of the classic and contemporary studies of gangs. Third, the chapter will analyze some of the contemporary issues associated with gang activity: female gangs, prison gangs, and drug trafficking. A fourth focus is to examine gangs in a global context, especially in terms of the reasons for the proliferation and growth of gangs in the world today. A fifth focus examines future directions for social science research. Finally, while the word gang can refer to many different kinds of groups, such as organized crime groups (gangsters) and hate groups (the Klan), most social scientists use the word to refer to youth gangs, also called street gangs. These gangs are comprised of adolescents and young adults. Therefore, this chapter will primarily focus on youth/street gangs.


A discussion of gangs is replete with a variety of theoretical issues that are of importance to social scientists. Three issues of special significance are (1) the definition of a gang, (2) the conceptualization of what constitutes gang membership, and (3) theoretical explanations concerning the social conditions that stimulate the development and persistence of gangs.


Social scientists have not formulated an agreed-upon definition of what constitutes a gang. Generally, there are two distinct conceptualizations that dominate theory and research. The first conceptualization emphasizes that gangs are unsupervised peer groups of adolescents who may or may not engage in criminal activity. Early definitions of gangs emphasized this conceptualization and described the gang’s social-support function. For example, Thrasher (1927) argued that the gang is not initially organized to commit delinquent acts; rather, it is spontaneous and unplanned in origin. It serves to give members a sense of community or belonging that is lacking in their lives. Therefore, from this perspective, gangs function as a residual social institution when other institutions fail. Contemporary researchers who subscribe to this meaning of gang argue that gangs are unsupervised peer groups who are socialized by the streets rather than by conventional institutions. They emphasize that members identify themselves with a gang or some similar term.

The second conceptualization requires engagement in criminal activity as part of the meaning of what constitutes a youth gang. For example, Malcolm Klein and colleagues (1971) argue that a gang is a group of youngsters who are perceived as a distinct group by others, recognize themselves as a distinct group, and have been involved in a sufficient number of delinquent acts that call forth a negative response from law enforcement or neighborhood residents. Usually, this conceptualization views gangs as groups with an identifiable leadership and internal organization that claim control over territory in a community, and whose members engage in violent activity or other forms of criminal activity. Often, researchers using this second formulation emphasize the changed character of gangs in contemporary societies because of their increased involvement in violence and other illegal behavior, especially narcotics trafficking. From this perspective, contemporary gangs pose a greater danger to public safety and call for an increased response from law enforcement.

Sharing the second conceptualization but with an attempt to further isolate the characteristics of contemporary gangs, Curry and Decker (2003) posit that there are a number of elements typically included in the definition of a gang. The first element is that a gang must include a group: Seldom does a gang have as few as two members. A second element is the use of symbols that represent membership. Clothes and hand signs are examples of such symbols and serve to give gang members a sense of belonging and identification. While most gang symbols only have meaning within the gang, sometimes symbols become widely known throughout a community or society. Third, gangs use a variety of words and nonverbal forms of communication, including graffiti and hand signs, to communicate messages. Often gangs also use graffiti to mark the external boundaries of their territory. The fourth element is permanence: Gangs must be in existence for a period of time. This element can be highly variable. For example, some gangs in Los Angeles have been around for nearly 60 years while other gangs have a very short life span. Hagedorn (2008) notes that major gangs in Chicago, Cape Town, and Rio de Janeiro have been around for more than 40 years and have spread outside their original neighborhoods. In these cases, the gangs have become institutionalized. A final element included in the definition of a gang is involvement in crime. Curry and Decker (2003) claim this characteristic is the factor that distinguishes gangs from other youth groups.

Gang Membership and Organization

Closely related to the problem of defining what constitutes a gang is the issue of deciding the criteria for gang membership. In part, the difficulty stems from the fact that researchers use different methods to obtain measures of gang membership. The clearest measure of gang membership is self-nomination; that is, individuals identifying themselves to researchers as belonging to a gang. Yet, this kind of estimate relies on individuals sufficiently trusting researchers to acknowledge gang membership. In addition to self-nomination, symbols and behaviors can be used to distinguish gang members from nonmembers. For example, a gang tattoo or clothing that displays gang symbols indicates gang membership. Researchers can also ask neighborhood residents about their knowledge of gang activity, and researchers can observe the company that an individual keeps to establish whether that person is a gang member. Finally, law enforcement and police agencies keep records of the names of gang members. Generally, their figures are based on arrests or a focus on “highprofile” gangs. Law enforcement data, therefore, may not capture the true extent of gang membership in a community.

Similarly, while much juvenile crime is committed by groups of young people, most researchers do not count membership in a delinquent youth group as necessarily indicating membership in a gang. Spergel (1990) indicates that while research in the 1950s and 1960s tended to view delinquent youth groups and gangs as equivalent, contemporary researchers attempt to provide definitions of gang membership that differentiate delinquent youth groups from gangs. From this perspective, gang delinquency is law-violating behavior committed in groups that are complexly organized with established leadership and rules. This view also holds that gangs display more violence than a delinquent youth group and, furthermore, share communal values; have conflict with other gangs; and have a tradition of turf, colors, signs, and symbols.

Social Conditions and Gangs

Anthropologists and sociologists who were members of the Chicago school of sociology conducted some of the first studies on gangs in the 1920s. These social scientists used observation and intensive interviewing to study the urban communities of Chicago, emphasizing the study of the relationship of social phenomena to their environment (human ecology). Much of the explanation for the emergence and persistence of gangs is derived from research by these social scientists. This research emphasizes the social conditions (social structure) that generally stimulate and perpetuate gangs and juvenile delinquency. From this perspective, delinquent youth are a product of their environment and gangs develop in response to environmental conditions. This section will review the major social-structural explanations used to explain gangs and gang membership, including social disorganization theory and subculture theory. These theoretical perspectives are not exhaustive of all theories that place emphasis on social conditions to explain gangs, but they serve to highlight some of the most significant classical theoretical developments in this area.

Social Disorganization Theory

Social disorganization theory was one of the most important theories developed by the Chicago school of sociology in the 1920s and 1930s. Social disorganization refers to the confusion of norms, values, and relationships at a community level. In this kind of community, there are weak personal ties between residents and, consequently, it is argued that there is weak social control over the individual. In his studies of Chicago gang youth, Thrasher (1927) first utilized social disorganization theory to understand the development of gangs. Thrasher posited that gangs were “interstitial,” meaning that they filled the gaps created by deteriorating neighborhoods, shifting populations, and the disorganization of slums. Thrasher argued that these neighborhoods were to a large extent isolated from the wider community and its culture. Those who resided in socially disorganized neighborhoods were the losers in the processes of competition and conflict within the larger society. Weak families and schools that were not effective in socializing youth characterized these neighborhoods. Their weakness left an opening for the development of gangs. Therefore, social disorganization theory advanced the view that gangs would not develop in strong communities.

Thrasher and those who followed him, especially Shaw and McKay (1943), argued that different degrees of social disorganization might exist in low-income neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods that suffer from extreme disorganization are characterized by extensive deterioration, social disorder, and greater violence. In these neighborhoods, gangs exert greater control because social institutions fail to function as agencies of social control. Moreover, it was the growth and development of cities that created the conditions for social disorganization because there was a succession of different racial, ethnic, and income groups in urban areas, often undergoing a very rapid transition, thereby creating a culture of conflict and a corresponding succession of gangs. Using social disorganization theory, Miller (1975) explained that an exodus of whites from central city areas occurred in the 1960s and 1970s and gave rise to the development of the segregated ghetto and an increased population from which to draw gang members. Social disorganization theory became a key theory in developing gang policy in the 1960s and 1970s. Creating strong communities became the approach to preventing the development of gangs.

In the 1990s, Robert Bursik and Harold Grasmick (1993) further developed social disorganization theory by arguing that there were three levels of community social control in urban areas. The first level was the personal level of social control based on the interpersonal ties among community residents. This was the level that Thrasher and his followers had identified. The two additional levels of community social control identified by Bursik and Grasmick were the parochial and the public. The parochial level consisted of ties between community residents and institutions such as schools and businesses. Ties such as these can create, for example, employment opportunities for residents or after-school activities for young people. The public level of social control concerns the control of residents over community resources such as law enforcement. Involvement in community policing is an example of the public level of social control. Bursik and Grasmick argued that even when personal control is high, low levels of parochial and public social control can result in gang activity. Their modifications to social disorganization theory remain an important contribution to explaining the development and persistence of gang activity in a community.

Subculture Theory

Closely connected and derived from social disorganization theory is subculture theory. A subculture is an identifiable group within a society that has patterns of behavior and norms that set that group apart from other groups within the society. Researchers who initially formulated a social disorganization explanation for the emergence of gangs later often extended their analysis to include subculture theory. For example, Thrasher’s book The Gang (1927) contains conceptions about subculture as applied to gangs. Thrasher argued that urbanization, along with the miseries of poverty, created classic conditions in poor communities for the growth of what he called gangland. Similarly, while Shaw and McKay initially focused on social disorganization theory to explain juvenile delinquency and gang behavior, the criticisms of the weaknesses of social disorganization theory led them to develop subcultural explanations. They argued that the subculture of gangs could serve as a social mechanism for transferring deviant normative values and behaviors from older to younger members.

Since these early writings on subcultures, several subculture theories were developed, each with its own set of important concepts and theoretical formulations. Four of the most influential subculture theories are Albert Cohen’s (1955) subcultural theory of delinquency, Walter B. Miller’s (1958) focal concerns, Gresham Sykes (1957/1990) and David Matza’s (1964) techniques of neutralization and delinquency and drift, and Marvin Wolfgang and Franco Ferracuti’s (1967) subculture of violence. More recently, James Diego Vigil’s (2002) multiple marginality theory has drawn upon the ideas contained in subculture theory. Each of these theories will be briefly reviewed.

In 1955, Albert Cohen developed one of the most influential subculture theories of delinquent gang behavior. He focused on young males who live in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. Cohen asserted that lower-class boys are judged by middle-class standards in school. However, lower-class boys fail to succeed in meeting these middle-class standards. Cohen maintained that lower-class boys do not have the prior socialization of middle-class youth and therefore are not prepared for achieving middle-class goals. As a reaction, lower-class boys develop a set of negative values that, when collectively shared, lead them to become a gang. Cohen argued that when lower-class boys are not able to achieve middle-class achievement goals taught in schools, they experience status frustration and react by inverting middle-class values. These middle-class values emphasize independence, success, delayed gratification, control of aggression, and respect for property. Instead, the values that lower-class boys adopt are nonutilitarian (gang members steal items for no reason), malicious (gang members enjoy the discomfort they cause others), negative (norms are opposite those of society), and versatile (gang members steal a variety of things) and include short-run hedonism (gang members emphasize momentary feelings) and include and group autonomy (gang members resist outside pressures for conformity).

In 1958, Walter B. Miller proposed a refinement of subculture theory in which he asserted that lower-class culture contains systematically related attitudes, practices, behaviors, and value characteristics designed to support and maintain the basic features of the lower-class way of life. He developed what he termed the focal concerns or key values of delinquent subcultures. Such concerns include trouble, toughness, smartness, excitement, fate, and autonomy. He claimed that subcultural crime is not the direct consequence of poverty and lack of opportunity, but rather derives from specific values that are characteristic of a subculture. More specifically, Miller claimed that trouble is a dominant feature of lower-class culture. Getting into trouble, dealing with trouble, and staying out of trouble become focal points in the lives of many members of lower-class culture. Miller believed that the lower class’s concern with male toughness was an outgrowth of the fact that many men were raised in female-headed families and consequently, lower-class boys lack a consistently present male role model. He described smartness as a capacity to outsmart, outfox, con, or dupe another person in order to achieve some valued end, such as material goods or personal status. He described excitement contained in such activities as fights, gambling, and picking up women as a search for thrills, which he saw as often necessary to overcome the boredom of lower-class life.

A concern of subcultural theorists was to explain why subcultural participants choose behaviors that negate the norms or values of the larger society when they, at the same time, to a certain degree, are participants in the larger society. More simply stated, how can a person be committed to two different sets of values—those of the subculture and those of the larger society? Gresham Sykes (1957/1990) answered this question by claiming that offenders can overcome feelings of responsibility when involved in criminal activities by using types of justifications for their actions which he called techniques of neutralization. Five types of justifications were identified: (1) denial of responsibility, by pointing to one’s background of poverty and the lack of opportunity as the reasons for criminal behavior; (2) denial of injury, by claiming, for example, that “everyone does it” or that the specific victim could “afford it”; (3) denial of the victim, by asserting that the victim deserved the victimization; (4) condemning the condemners, by claiming that authorities are corrupt or responsible for their own victimization; and (5) an appeal to higher loyalties, such as in defense of one’s family, gang, or neighborhood as the rationale for the criminal behavior.

A few years later, David Matza (1964) argued that youth tended to drift between criminal and conventional activities and used techniques of neutralization as justifications for deviant behavior. Matza used the term soft determinism to explain that youth were neither forced to make delinquent choices, nor were they entirely free to make choices unencumbered by their life situation.

In 1967, Marvin Wolfgang and Franco Ferracuti published The Subculture of Violence: Towards an Integrated Theory in Criminology. They claimed that violence is a learned form of adaptation to certain life circumstances, and that learning to be violent takes place within the context of a subculture that emphasizes the advantages of violence over other forms of behavior. Certain features characterize these subcultures, such as songs and stories that glorify violence, gun ownership, and quick response to insults in order to preserve one’s prestige within the group. Wolfgang and Ferracuti maintained that subcultures of violence both expect violence from their members and legitimize it when it occurs. In other words, they claimed that for participants in violent subcultures, violence can be a way of life. Wolfgang and Ferracuti also developed the idea of the “wholesale” and “retail” costs for homicide. They asserted that killings that are perceived to occur within a violent subculture generally result in a less harsh punishment than do killings that occur outside of the violent subculture. Punishments, they argued, relate to the seriousness of the offense; if the members of a subculture accept the violence, then members of the wider culture that impose the official sanctions on the perpetrators will also.

A more recent extension of subculture theory is contained in the work of anthropologist James Diego Vigil (2002). He maintains that embedded within the subculture of violence framework are the issues of “street realities” and the “state of mind” of the individual. Street realities include such factors as neighborhood, poverty, culture conflict, and sociocultural marginalization. Street realities ensure that a street subculture emerges among children who do not receive social control from families, schools, and law enforcement. Street socialization occurs when individuals who have traumatic family and personal backgrounds have to spend most of their lives in the streets from a very early age. During adolescence, group-oriented preteen activities coalesce and merge into that of the street gang. The streets become the place to learn how to gain recognition and approval. The culmination of all street experiences is the shaping of a mind-set that Vigil calls locura. He describes locura as a kind of quasicontrolled insanity, of moving in and out of wild events and adventures, showing fearlessness and toughness, and exhibiting daring and especially unpredictable forms of destructive behavior. This mind-set, Vigil argues, becomes a necessity for street survival and a standard for identification and emulation. He claims gang violence is a complex problem and social scientists need to include many factors or levels of analyses, referring to his complex research approach as multiple marginality theory.


Social disorganization and subculture explanations of gang behavior are macrolevel explanations; they do not attempt to focus on specific individuals or examine the specific social or psychological reasons why an individual joins and stays in a gang. That kind of research is important, but historically it is not a primary interest of research conducted by anthropologists or sociologists who explore and examine the relationship between social conditions and the presence of gangs. The focus for understanding the formation and persistence of gangs, for these researchers, is at the societal and community level of analysis.


Researchers have used both qualitative and quantitative approaches to study youth gangs. Early studies primarily used qualitative approaches. These studies of gangs relied upon ethnographic fieldwork and interviews with gang members. Beginning in the 1970s, the early emphasis on qualitative research gave way to more emphasis on quantitative research, especially because of the availability of data gathered by police, the courts, and corrections. For the most part, this shift occurred because of increased government funding in the United States for criminal justice research that could assist law enforcement in controlling gang activity.

The Qualitative Approach

The qualitative approach generally focuses on the non-delinquent and noncriminal aspects of gang behavior, as well as law-violating behavior. This approach frequently examines the everyday realities of gang life. Often these studies indicate that crime and violence are only a small part of gang life. Instead, gang members spend much of their time “doing nothing” or drinking and partying. These descriptions portray gangs as loosely structured groups that lack clear and stable leadership. For example, Frederic Thrasher’s (1927) pioneering work on Chicago gangs examined how members are motivated by typical youthful concerns, such as thrills and excitement. Fighting was the predominant activity and stealing was the most serious crime. Also of note is William Foote Whyte’s (1943) study of an older group of corner boys in Boston during the Great Depression that he identified as the Nortons. While the main activity of the Nortons was gambling, Whyte focused on giving detailed descriptions of personal interaction among group members. Other field studies include but are not limited to Yablonsky’s study of New York City gangs (1962), Spergel’s (1964) research on New York City gangs, Short and Strodbeck’s (1974) Chicago field research, Klein’s (1971) research on Los Angeles gangs, Moore’s (1978) research on Los Angeles gangs, Hagedorn’s (1988) research on Milwaukee gangs, Padilla’s (1992) study of a Chicago drug-selling gang, Decker’s (1996) research on Saint Louis gangs, and Fleisher’s (1998) ethnography of a Kansas City gang.

Although qualitative studies provide rich descriptions of gang life, they have several limitations. Qualitative research does not provide general information about the extent of gangs or sociodemographic characteristics. Moreover, Hughes (2005) notes that qualitative research is subject to methodological biases. Researchers tend to study the gangs to which they are able to gain access because the research requires a great investment of time and may entail both significant risks and the cooperation of the research participants. Therefore, using qualitative methods, the representativeness of the gangs studied is questionable. In addition, observational data may be biased because of the presence of the observer and observer-participant relationships. Also, field researchers often assume that the members they interview are representative of other gang members. However, interview samples may consist of gang members selected because of certain considerations, such as their willingness to be interviewed or because they are currently under investigation for violent crimes. Finally, gang members’ accounts of their criminal and violent activity may be exaggerated and may be contradicted by other evidence.

The Quantitative Approach

Quantitative research on gangs includes surveys of law enforcement officials, analyses of data compiled by law enforcement agencies or the courts, and self-reports of samples of youth or young adults. Walter Miller (1975), a Harvard anthropologist, published the first study of the nation’s gang problem. Miller studied gangs in 12 cities by interviewing police and asking them whether they thought there was a gang problem in their city. He classified 6 of his 12 cities as “gang problem” cities. In 1982, Miller conducted a second study that included interviews with 173 agencies in 26 intensive study sites. He concluded that there were 9 cities with gang problems. Miller’s research, as well as more recent surveys of law enforcement officials (e.g., Curry, Ball, Fox, & Stone, 1992; Klein, 1995; Needle & Stapleton, 1983; Spergel & Curry, 1989), indicates that gangs are disproportionately involved in delinquent and violent activities. Research methods expanded further in 1994, when the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention established the National Youth Gang Center in Tallahassee, Florida. In its first national survey in 1995, 1,492 municipal police departments reported gang problems in their jurisdictions. Since 1996, the National Youth Gang Center has annually conducted a survey of a representative sample of city and county law enforcement agencies concerning the scope of the gang problem. In 2007, for example, the National Youth Gang Center reported that, following a marked decline from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, a steady resurgence of gang problems has occurred (Egley & O’Donnell, 2007).

Although quantitative studies provide important general information about gangs, like qualitative research, they have limitations. Hughes (2005) notes quantitative studies do not explain the dynamics of gangs, such as how youth become involved in gang crime and gang violence. In addition, it is difficult to compare research that utilizes different definitions of gangs and different sampling strategies (e.g., official records, surveys of law enforcement, incarcerated youth); official records may also be incomplete, inaccurate, and confusing. Moreover, interviews of gang members may be problematic because gang members may feel pressure to hide delinquent and violent activities, or to exaggerate them to corroborate gang images. However, quantitative research appears to be the only method to assess general patterns of gang prevalence. Indeed, quantitative research that relies on surveys of law enforcement officials, or data compiled by agencies or the courts, generally focuses on the control of gangs, and therefore their research serves the purpose of responding to the gang problem in society. On the other hand, research based on self-report samples of youth or young adults tends to have crime prevention as its focus— achieved through using results to further understand the youth who become involved in gangs. In this respect, it is similar to qualitative research in that both focus primarily on understanding the nature of gangs.


Early research on gangs focused on adolescent males involved in street gangs who were generally involved in such delinquent activities as petty property crimes. More recent research examines other gang-related issues. Three such topics will be reviewed: female gangs, prison gangs, and drug trafficking.

Female Gangs

It was often assumed that females did not become gang members, and therefore early studies of gangs concentrated on males. While it is true that, at that time, most gang members were male and mainly males commit gang related crimes, Chesney-Lind and Hagedorn (1999) describe how previous researchers ignored the study of female gangs or saw their study as unimportant. Moore and Hagedorn (2001) note that most early research focused on whether female gangs were “real” gangs or merely satellites of male groups. Female gang members were portrayed in terms of their sexual activity or as weapon carriers for male gang members. Being a gang member, for girls, meant being a bad girl. These early studies reflected the widespread notion that gang membership for females was more shocking than for males because it violated gender-role norms.

In the United States, both male and female gangs proliferated in the 1980s and 1990s. Campbell’s (1984) research documents both the neglect of research on female gangs and the growth of female gangs. Moore and Hagedorn (2001) maintain that the proliferation of both female and male gangs stems from the economic decline in the 1980s and 1990s with the resulting growth of an informal economy, especially drug dealing. They indicate that female gang members were also affected by recent changes in the welfare system that have reduced or eliminated welfare payments and therefore created pressures to participate in the informal economy. As a result, many female gang members are involved in some type of delinquency or criminality, with drug offenses as among the most common offenses committed by female gang members. Available research also consistently indicates that the gang is a refuge for women who have been sexually abused at home. Joining a gang can be an assertion of independence from family, as well as from cultural and class constraints. However, in spite of recent research, further research on female gang members’ lives is needed.

Prison Gangs

A prison gang is a close-knit and disruptive group of inmates organized around a common affiliation. Prison gangs exist for the purpose of mutual care taking, solidarity, and profit-making criminal activity (Camp & Camp, 1985). The Gypsy Jokers, a gang formed in the 1950s in Washington state prisons, was the first documented American prison gang. The Mexican Mafia, which emerged in 1957 in the California state prison system, was the first prison gang to have nationwide ties. In the United States, the Crips, the Mexican Mafia (also known as La Emet), La Nuestra Familia, the Texas Syndicate, the Mexikanemi (also known as the Texas Mexican Mafia), the Gangster Disciples, the Bloods, Latin Kings, and the Vice Lords are among the largest prison gangs.

Criminal activities of incarcerated gang members have a distinctive character. Tattoos, special attire, macho images, and official titles reflect the sense of ganghood. In contemporary societies, prisons and street gangs are interrelated. Sometimes gangs are created in prison and these gangs move into the streets after inmates are released. However, usually prison gangs are a consequence of street gangs (i.e., incarcerated gang members continue gang activities in prison after incarceration). In addition, older gang members in prison are often leaders in their gangs, and from prison they regulate the activities of other incarcerated gang members and continue to provide leadership to gang members on the street. Activities of prison gangs include extortion, intimidation, drug trafficking, gambling, and homosexual prostitution. Gangs often bribe weak correctional officers, infiltrate job assignments, and abuse privileges to gain privileges, money, and drugs (Camp & Camp, 1985).

Discipline matters are far more serious among gang members than nongang members. Most prison-gang hostilities are not directed at prison officials but are directed at other prison gangs or inmates. To identify gang crime or gang violence, the term security threat groups (STGs) is used within the prison system in the United States (Knox, 2000). With this, prison officials have implemented a number of strategies to control gangs, such as segregation units for prison gang members, isolating gang leaders, and monitoring the internal and external communication of gang members.

Drug Trafficking

The relationship between gangs and drug trafficking is not clear and is the subject of debate by researchers. Curry and Decker (2003) state that there are two different views about the role of gangs and gang members in drug sales. The first view claims that street gangs are well-organized sellers of illegal drugs. Researchers who share this view see gangs as directly and substantially involved in drug transactions. An alternative view rejects this claim and argues, instead, that drug sales by gangs are rarely well organized. Furthermore, when drug sales occur, it is because gang members act independently of their gangs in selling drugs. Proponents of the first view often argue that many gangs are organized solely for the purpose of selling drugs. These gangs are entrepreneurial gangs and not the traditionally territorial gangs usually associated with street gangs. Entrepreneurial gangs are well-organized groups with clear goals. However, this view of gangs as well-organized groups with a common purpose is contradicted by other research that claims that gangs are often disorganized and lack shared goals. Therefore, gang membership adds little of a distinctive character to street-drug sales.

Some researchers propose an evolutionary framework to understand the relationship between gangs and drug trafficking. Hagedorn (2008) makes a distinction between the periods before and since the 1970s. He maintains that there has been more gang violence since the 1970s because of the adoption of economic functions (especially drug trafficking) by some gangs, the use of violence to regulate illicit commerce, the proliferation of firearms, the effect of prisons on neighborhood gangs, and the effect of mainstream cultural values regarding money on gang youth with limited opportunities. The National Drug Intelligence Center (2006) reports that some gangs have evolved from turf-oriented gangs to organized, profit-driven criminal enterprises whose activities include not only retail drug distribution but also other aspects of the trade such as smuggling and wholesale distribution. Some of the most highly organized gangs, such as the Latin Kings, Gangster Disciples, and Vice Lords, have centralized leadership cores that can conspire to transport and distribute drugs throughout the country.

Global and Topical Comparison of Gangs

As indicated at the beginning of this chapter, gangs are not confined to American society. They are present throughout the world, and in many cases gangs outside of the United States use the symbols, style of dress, behavior, and language of American gangs, with adaptations to their host culture. Social scientists are involved in research that seeks to understand formation, growth, and persistence. For example, the Eurogang Program (Decker & Weerman, 2005) examines street gangs in Europe utilizing both qualitative and quantitative research. Unlike contemporary American research that is government funded for the purpose of gang control and suppression, the Eurogang program is not based on such an ideology. On the contrary, many countries researched by social scientists in the Eurogang Program contain a wide variety of social service and justice models.

In A World of Gangs: Armed Young Men and Gangsta Culture, John Hagedorn (2008) argues that the recent proliferation of gangs is a consequence of globalization (i.e., conditions associated with contemporary globalization such as urbanization, poverty, and immigration create the marginalization and isolation of groups, leading to the formation of gangs). Moreover, he maintains that many urban areas are transforming into megacities of more than 20 million people, and while the populations of cities are growing, so are their youth populations. Hagedorn claims that in today’s world, the government has retreated from providing social welfare, cutting back on the safety net for the urban poor. Moreover, in the third world, the government cannot provide adequate employment, services, or security for the vastly expanding, poor-urban neighborhoods. Hagedorn asserts that when there is no regulation and control by legitimate forces of the government, there is ruthless control by the illegitimate forces of violent, private groups. Young men, particularly armed young men, he claims, are filling the void left by weak, repressive, racist, or illegitimate rulers. In some cities, gangs have exercised ruthless control of areas for decades. They have become institutionalized, like the Colombian drug cartels. Moreover, the gang “subculture” is no longer located in a neighborhood but rather is present in hip-hop culture and gangsta rap. Hagedorn argues that gangsta rap has become popular because it expresses the rage of the gang members in the ghetto.

Future Directions

Future research on gangs is important for many reasons. First, gangs provide us with information about a society and its values. Second, studying gangs informs us about the lives of young people and how social structure and social institutions influence them. Third, researching gangs is essential because gangs contribute to crime and delinquency and, as such, it is important to understand the social factors that give rise to gangs. Finally, some gangs have become institutionalized, or persisted for generations, and show no signs of disappearing. Youth growing up in cities where gangs have been institutionalized have an ever-present role model in local gangs. The gang may be the only chance many youth have to get a job, given the lack of legitimate economic opportunity in the slums of many cities. However, gangs not only give youth an economic opportunity but also have rituals, ceremonies, and a distinctive outlook. Young people searching for an identity can find one in gangs that are deeply rooted in inner cities. Future research needs to examine the relationship between globalization, urbanization, poverty, marginalization, and the development of gangs and their institutionalization. As inequality increases in many parts of the world, racial and ethnic groups are often the most neglected populations economically and politically. Therefore, the youth in those populations will continue to find meaning and identity in gangs.


Gangs are one of many kinds of groups that are socialized in the streets and not by conventional institutions. The vast majority of gangs are adolescent peer groups that have been socialized to the streets. In other words, gangs are mainly made up of youth who are displaying delinquent behavior. However, in the wake of a vast increase in urbanization and social and economic marginalization, gangs are being spontaneously created in cities all over the world. Gangs as a social problem become a more complicated issue for study when we understand that many of today’s gangs contain young men and women who exercise power not only over neighborhoods, but also sometimes even in larger spheres in cities of all sizes. The globalization of gangs and their institutionalization is one of the most significant developments of the 21st century.