Understanding Youth Gangs

By White, Rob | Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, August 2002 | Go to article overview
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Understanding Youth Gangs

White, Rob, Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice

"Youth gangs" range from harmless groups of young people who simply hang around together to those engaged in serious law breaking. There is very little empirical material in Australia that would tell us how many "gangs" exist, who is in them and what they do.

The recently formed Ozgang Research Network, of which Associate Professor Rob White, the author of this paper, is a key member, is concerned with systematic research into youth group formations and anti-gang strategies in Australia. It is hoped that the Network, which plans to undertake cross-national research, will also fill many of our knowledge gaps in relation to youth gangs.

This introductory paper sets the scene for understanding the complexity of gangs in Australia. It provides us with a framework of what gangs are, what sorts of behaviour they engage in, how they are structured, how they change over time, and how they form and disappear.

The Australian Institute of Criminology will, over the next few months, publish more papers by Rob White on how to deal with gangs from the perspective of the community, law enforcement, schools and parents.

Adam Graycar


An important part of gang research is to explore ways that criminal gangs can be prevented from forming or growing. Gang membership can affect criminal behaviour - it can increase the risk of involvement (that is, prevalence) in serious and violent crime, and increase the frequency of serious and violent crime. The key question here is: what strategies can be employed to prevent the development of criminal or violent youth gangs and what forms of intervention are most appropriate to diminish gang-related activity?

To start, it is crucial to know what gangs are (and are not) and what they do. There is no agreed consensus on gangs - there is disagreement about the key aspects of gang-related behaviour, identification of gang members and the formation and disintegration of gangs. But gangs, however they may be described, are fairly transient, with members coming and going. So knowledge of how they form and how they disintegrate is important.

Simply put, if a group sees itself as a "gang", and is perceived by others as a gang, primarily because of its illegal activities, then this constitutes the minimum baseline definition of a gang.

Do Youth Groups Equal Gangs?

It is important that distinctions be made between different sorts of groups. These may include gangs, youth subcultures, friendship networks, school cohorts, sports teams and so on. Similarly, the reasons for group formation and the typical focus of activities can provide insight into differences between groups - as with distinguishing between socialcentred and criminal-centred activity.

Recent work from Canada (see Gordon 1995, 2000; Gordon & Foley 1998) helps distinguish different types of street-present groups. These are particularly useful given the many similarities in social structure and cultural life between Canada and Australia. A six-category typology developed by Gordon consists of:

* youth movements - social movements characterised by a distinctive mode of dress or other bodily adornments, a leisure time preference, and other distinguishing features (for example, punk rockers);

* youth groups - comprising small clusters of young people who hang out together in public places such as shopping centres (for example, sometimes referred to as "mallies");

* wannabe groups - young people who band together in a loosely structured group primarily to engage in spontaneous social activity and exciting, impulsive criminal activity, including collective violence against other groups of youths (for example, territorial behaviour and the use identifying markers of some kind);

* criminal groups - small clusters of friends who band together, usually for a short period of time, to commit crime primarily for financial gain (may contain young and not so young adults as well);

* street gangs - groups of young people and young adults who band together to form a semistructured organisation, the primary purpose of which is to engage in planned and profitable criminal behaviour or organised violence against rival street gangs (for example, less visible but more permanent than other groups); and

* criminal business organisations groups that exhibit a formal structure and a high degree of sophistication, comprised mainly of adults, and which engage in criminal activity primarily for economic reasons, and almost invariably maintain a low profile (for example, may have a name but are rarely visible).

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