What Do We Know About Gangs?

Posted on May 16, 2012 by


Gangs are notoriously difficult study. How do you define them? Ask people to self-identify and trust their answers? Ask cops? Social scientists? Prison officials? All of these methods have serious flaws, but there’s no great alternative.

So how does the National Gang Center conduct the National Youth Gang Survey?

Since 1996, the National Gang Center, through the National Youth Gang Survey (NYGS), has collected data annually from a large, representative sample of local law enforcement agencies to track the size and scope of the nation’s gang problem. The sample consists of two groups: (1) all police departments in cities with more than 50,000 residents (larger cities) and all suburban county police and sheriff’s departments (collectively referred to as “larger areas”) and (2) a random sample of police departments in cities with populations between 2,500 and 50,000 (smaller cities) and rural county sheriff’s departments (collectively referred to as “smaller areas”).

The National Gang Center recently published a report with findings from their most recent survey.  Their key findings based on law enforcement reports are here:

  • There were an estimated 29,400 gangs and 756,000 gang members throughout 3,500 jurisdictions across the United States.
  • Gang-related homicides increased more than 10 percent from 2009 in cities with populations of more than 100,000.
  • Highly populated areas accounted for the vast majority of gang-related homicides nationally.
  • Gang members were less likely to migrate to smaller areas and had most likely migrated for social, not illegitimate, reasons.

But understanding what we mean when talk about gangs, requires some sociological analysis. A gang, by any other name, might be a fraternity. Or a scouting group. Or a sports team. Or an Enron management team. A gang  is, simply, a group of people who are united for a set of common goals which include both pro and anti-social elements.

The gang designation is not necessarily a function of having criminal enterprise goals (think of the Mob, doctors who defraud Medicare, the Anonymous hacking group, or fine art thieves). Rather, we call a group of people a gang typically when they meet many of the following elements.

  • poverty
  • racial minority
  • drug involved (illicit street drugs)
  • inner city
  • named and/or with recognizable symbols
  • criminal justice system involved
  • street violence
  • firearm possession and use
  • risk of committing or being a victim of homicide

In looking at this list, I don’t think the idea of a “gang” is very solid. You wind up asking yourself why we have such a loaded word for this kind of social group, given that so many other social groups engaged in crime are not burdened with such heavy negative connotations that have the power to fuel moral panics.

Any attempt to quantify and describe what we “know” about gangs is necessarily flawed because the very question of what defines a gang is unanswerable. To define “gang” is to make judgments that are inherently a function of the haves defining the have nots.


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