Youth Gangs and Youth Violence: Charting the Key Dimensions

By White, Rob; Mason, Ron | Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Youth Gangs and Youth Violence: Charting the Key Dimensions


White, Rob, Mason, Ron, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology


This article examines issues surrounding the relationship between youth gangs and violent behaviour by considering the complex definitional and methodological problems surrounding these matters. By drawing upon a recent survey of school students in Perth, Western Australia, it highlights the importance of and need for developing increasingly sophisticated ways of interpreting youth group formations and group activities. For example, a distinction can be made between gangs and gang-related behaviour. The importance of gang membership and nongang membership in shaping social behaviour also needs to be acknowledged. We argue that most teenagers appear to engage in very similar types of activities, including violence. However, the intensity and dynamics of this behaviour varies greatly depending upon the type of group membership in question. Typologies are presented to show the differences in antisocial behaviour depending upon gang or nongang membership.

The aim of this article is to provide a conceptual map of different kinds of youth violence. Based upon findings from a survey of high school students in Perth, Western Australia, we argue that most teenagers appear to engage in very similar types of activities, including antisocial behaviour. However, the intensity and dynamics of this behaviour varies greatly depending upon the type of group membership in question. Rather than present a statistical analysis of our empirical findings, for the purposes of this article we want to concentrate on the significance of the findings generally for conceptualising issues of youth violence.

Several typologies were developed on the basis of the Perth research. The key distinguishing variables were gang and nongang membership, and these are considered in relation to a range of social experiences and conflict situations. While members of each youth group formation share certain behaviours, attitudes and activities, nevertheless significant differences emerged between each group in relation to these. For instance, while most young people tend to join groups, the reasons for joining differ depending on the nature of the group. Furthermore, while significant numbers of young people engage in fights, the reasons for fighting and the context within which fights occur vary depending on the kind of group of which a person is a member.

What our research tells us is that studying gangs in relation to nongang membership can provide important insights into the group dynamics of young people generally and antisocial behaviour in particular. To appreciate why this is so, it is imperative to gain perspective on gangs, gang membership and gang-related behaviour.

Gangs and Gang-Related Behaviour

As with people of all ages, young people like to explore, have fun, and engage in exciting activities. They are also social animals where peer influence is strong. This may lead them into activities that would be considered antisocial or criminal. Yet are they gang members? If a group of young people engage in a street fight are they a gang? When does antisocial group behaviour become gang behaviour? The great variability in youth group formations precludes reliance upon either stereotypes of youth gangs or narrow definitions of what constitutes a gang. The sensitivities required of gang scholars is captured in what is known as the 'Eurogang Paradox': the denial that there are 'American style' street gangs in Europe, based on a 'typical' American gang, a model that is not at all typical of gangs in America (Klein, 2001). In other words, reliance upon stereotypes to define gang life not only allows the denial of youth gangs but it misrepresents the actual diversity of gangs.

Youth Gangs Research

Until recently, there has been relatively little concerted research into the nature and dynamics of contemporary youth 'gangs' in the Australian context (Aumair & Warren, 1994; Collins et al., 2000; Foote, 1993; White et al. …

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