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What is a gang?

What is a gang?

Defining what a gang is turns out to be a lot harder than you'd expect. The things we immediately think about -- symbols, colors, a specific dress code, rituals, participation in criminal activity -- aren't quite descriptive enough. 

 Is this a gang? They have a uniform, colors, symbols, hazing rituals, illegal activity...

Is this a gang? They have a uniform, colors, symbols, hazing rituals, illegal activity...

A fraternity, for example, has all of those elements. Yet few would describe Pi-Kapp as a legitimate gang. There’s a temptation then to define a gang the way Justice Roberts once defined pornography – I know it when I see it. Our understanding of the modern street gang is often hard to disentangle from implicit racial biases, and it’s very difficult to pin down prescriptive, rather than descriptive, characteristics of the groups.

The sociological definition of a gang has changed over the years:

In 1929, Frederick Thrasher described a gang as "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."

In the 1970's the focus changed from group identity to the idea of gang violence. Klein described a gang as "any denotable group of youngsters who : (a) are generally percieved as a distinct aggregation by others in their neighborhood; (b) recognize themselves as a denotable group (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 neighborhood residents and /or law enforcement agencies."

This crime-focus took hold, and soon gangs were defined using a criminal-justice lens: A gang is "an ongoing group, club, organization, or association of five or more persons—

(A) that has as one of its primary purposes the commission of one or more of the criminal offenses described in subsection (c);

(B) the members of which engage, or have engaged within the past five years, in a continuing series of offenses described in subsection (c); and

(C) the activities of which affect interstate or foreign commerce.”  

Then, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a push to bring the definition back to its sociological roots. Hagedorn argued that gangs are "alienated groups socialized by the streets or prisons, not conventional institutions." Klein and Maxson said gangs were "were any durablestreet-oriented youth group whose involvement in illegal activity is part of its group identity."

Klein and Maxson’s definition is short and clean, but it leaves out elements of gangs that help explain why they exist and why violence is often involved. My personal definition cobbles together Klein and Maxon with parts of Hagedorn and Thrasher: 

A gang is a durable, interstitial group consisting of alienated youths, socialized by streets or prisons, whose involvement in illegal activity is part of the group identity.

Why these elements? If we want to define the gangs in the context of our country’s gang problem, youth is especially important. To understand the gang mentality, youth is key. Males between the ages of 15 and 24 represent the most crime prone category of the population, and it’s not because they are irrational or ignorant. Psychologist Laurence Steinberg finds that youths have an imbalance in the strengths of the “gas” and “breaks” of social and emotional decision-making, causing them to underestimate risks and overvalue the short-term benefits of impulsive behavior.[1] This imbalance continues until around age twenty-five and is amplified by arousal, stress, and group participation. Group mentality tends to have a much greater effect on decision-making in youths, so youth, and the related impulsivity and violence, need to be emphasized in the definition of gangs.

But not all young people are violent. Hagedorn’s idea of being “socialized by the streets or prisons” is also important. Being socialized by non-conventional institutions encapsulates the idea of being alienated, and being forced into the interstitial spaces that Thrasher talks about. Moreover, something about this disenfranchised socialization becomes important when thinking about gang violence: Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson finds that the adoption of “code of the street mentality” -- acting tough to avoid victimization -- predicts violence better than economic disadvantage, family problems, or racial discrimination.[2]  Including these elements adds value because it helps to define why gangs exist and how members feel and act.  


[1] Steinberg, L. (2007). Risk taking in adolescence: new perspectives from brain and behavioral science. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2007, 16: 55.

[2] U.S. Department of Justice. (2009). The code of the street and African-American adolescent violence. National Institute of Justice, Research in Brief. Retrieved from