New Zealand Youth Gangs: Key Findings and Recommendations from an Urban Ethnography

By Eggleston, Erin J. | Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, July 2000 | Go to article overview

New Zealand Youth Gangs: Key Findings and Recommendations from an Urban Ethnography


Eggleston, Erin J., Social Policy Journal of New Zealand


INTRODUCTION

"The gang has taken on the responsibility of doing what the family, school, and other social agencies have failed to do -- provide mechanisms for age and sex development, establish norms of behaviour, and define and structure outlets for friendship, human support and the like." (Vigil 1988:168)

This paper discusses the findings of a study focused on understanding the experience of youth in gangs. In this study I used participant observation as a method for entering the semi-secretive youth-gang world, and through thematic analysis I examined "youth talk" from 54 recorded interviews. The results of this analysis yielded themes of belonging, gender, vulnerability and trouble. The key issues that emerged from the study include a working definition for the New Zealand youth gang, why New Zealand youth are so influenced by American cultural icons, concerns related to gender development, and suggestions for future research topics.

The Background section below provides an overview of the relevant literature on gangs. This is followed by a brief description of the methods used in the study, a summary of the themes that developed from analysis of the interview data, and finally a discussion of the key issues relevant to policy that emerged from the study.

BACKGROUND ON YOUTH GANGS

Across the history of the urbanised world, youth subcultures and the moral panic (Cohen 1972, Goode and Ben-Yehuda 1994) surrounding them have thrived. By predominantly focusing on the associated crime, drugs and fighting, a moral panic emerges and this sometimes prevents an accurate understanding of the experience of young people. Perhaps the panic is partly about fear that there are some very appealing aspects of youth subcultures that families frequently cannot provide.

Historical Perspective on New Zealand Youth Gangs

Looking back on the history of young people in New Zealand, urban "larrikinism" and delinquency were reported with concern as early as 1892(2). However, it was not until the 1950s, a time of economic prosperity and urbanisation(3), that a national youth subculture developed, with the emergence of the New Zealand teenager. At that time the delinquent groups of "Bodgies" and "Widgies" created a moral panic concerning their inter-rival fighting, rebellious nature, sexual promiscuity, occasional hooliganism, and "evil" rock music (Yska 1993, Manning 1958). They were described by Auckland psychologist A. Manning (1958) as the "active boils on the body of society" (p.89).

In addition to the urbanisation of Maori and rural working-class Pakeha, the perceived labour deficit of the 1950s promoted an influx of immigrants from the Islands of the Pacific. As Payne (1997) suggests, the "King Cobras" developed from a displaced community of ethnically diverse(4), working-class families that made Ponsonby their home. During the 1960s and 1970s, youth were involved with the emerging and established adult gangs, "Black Power", the "Mongrel Mob," King Cobras, and international adult motorcycle gangs such as "Hells Angels." With the exception of "skin-head" groups (Payne 1997), I can find little evidence of a national youth-gang subculture.

The most crucial influence for youth during the late 1970s and 1980s was America, symbolised by the surging "McDonaldalisation" (Ritzer 1993) of New Zealand from the early 1980s until the present day. American television programmes, clothing, music, sports and film stars, took New Zealand by storm (Tomlinson 1991). The gang film Colors (Solo and Harper 1988) was an inspiration for many young, wayward New Zealanders, who attempted to emulate the romanticised version of gang life that the movie depicts(5).

Youth street gangs, usually of ethnically homogeneous composition, became common in the cities. While the image of the African-American "Crip" and "Blood" gangs appealed to Polynesian and Maori youth, New Zealand Pakeha were involved in both these and the European-inspired "skinheads". …

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