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«Tara Young, Wendy Fitzgibbon and Daniel Silverstone London Metropolitan University CONTENTS ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 1. INTRODUCTION 1.1 ...»

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3.1 Defining the gang It is important to define what is meant by the term ‘gang’ as it can have a significant bearing on how we understand the issues facing gang-associated families and respond to their needs. As an idea, the gang, as it is commonly understood, emerged from North American society and it is from research conducted in the USA that the most influential definitions derive. Sociologist Frederick Thrasher was one of the first scholars to offer a workable definition of the gang. Drawing on findings from his observation of 1313 juvenile gangs in

the slums of Chicago during the 1920s he defined a group of this type as being an:

‘…interstitial group originally formed spontaneously, and then integrated through conflict and characterized by meeting face to face, milling, movement through space as a unit, conflict and planning. The behaviour develops a tradition, unreflective internal structure, esprit de corps, solidarity, group awareness and attachment to local territory.’ (Thrasher 1927:144)11 See Hirschi (1969), Hagedorn (1998), Miller (1958), Bjerregaard and Smith (1993), Artz (1998), Fleisher (2000), Campbell (1986), Moore (1991), Vigil (1988), Young (2011), Jankowski (1991), Klein (1995) and Miller (2001).

It is beyond the scope of this study to present the vast number of definitions on the gang that currently exist.

This section provides a basic outline of those that are most pertinent to the research.

When Thrasher spoke of the gang he was referring to a peer group in crisis, one that grew out of mass migration into Chicago. In the ‘melting pot’ that was Chicago in the 1920s disparate groups, struggling to maintain their own identities, lived together in cramped urban environments.

According to Thrasher, what resulted was interethnic conflict as each group tried to preserve its own cultural script. For urban youth, the gang provided the space to resolve some of the problems inherent in living in a new, culturally diverse environment (Thrasher, 1927). What is of importance to note is that Thrasher’s concept of the gang did not have, at its core, an emphasis on crime and violence, and this is what differentiates it from some of the more contemporary definitions that inform public policy in the 21st century.

3.1.1 The gang as criminal entity Most contemporary gang definitions emerge from within correctional discourse where the gang is considered a criminal actor rather than a peer group adapting to adverse social conditions.

Yablonsky (1962) challenged Thrasher’s idea of gangs as structured entities and, along with Haskell, argued that the primary characteristic of the gang was its collective offending.

He consequently defined the gang as ‘a group of lawbreakers who are primarily organised around violence and other illegal activities’ (Haskell and Yablonsky, 1982:452).

Following Yablonsky, Klein (1971) penned the next most influential definition of the gang.

For Klein, an important factor in the classification of the gang is the social reaction towards it. His definition was amongst the first to highlight the importance of public perception in

shaping the discourse on what constitutes a gang. In Malcolm Klein’s terms the gang is:

‘…any denotable adolescent group of youngsters who (a) are generally perceived as a distinct aggregation by others in their neighbourhood, (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 neighbourhood residents and/or enforcement agencies.’ (Klein, 1971:13) Klein’s definition brings to the fore the importance of self-perception and the process of labelling individuals as gang members and the groups to which they belong as gangs.

According to Klein’s definition, it is not enough for individuals to conceive of themselves as gang members; this self-image has to be reinforced and accepted by the wider community in order for it to be sustained. How people are viewed and treated by the wider community, particularly law enforcement officials, is therefore of central importance, as it has considerable implications for constructing and cementing an individual’s gang status as well as the status of their family.

3.1.2 Defining gangs in the UK Reviewing the literature to date, the Centre for Social Justice (2009) expressed concern at the lack of coherence and consistency of definitions of gangs. There is, however, considerable similarity in the definitions that are in existence.

In 2004, Hallsworth and Young (2004) penned a definition for the Metropolitan Police Service as part of an initiative to develop a framework for interpreting collective violence in the UK. They developed a typology of delinquent collectives in urban society and classified one component of this model, the gang, as ‘…a relatively durable, predominantly street-based group of young people who see themselves (and are seen by others) as a discernible group, for whom crime and violence is integral to the group’s identity and practice. The minimal characteristic features of the gang then are that it has a) a name, b) a propensity to inflict violence and engage in crime where c) violence and delinquency performs a functional role in promoting group identity and solidarity.’ (Hallsworth and Young, 2004:68) This definition resonates with that of Klein illustrated above. However, Hallsworth and Young were keen to make the distinction between street-based groups of youngsters who were largely antisocial and the ‘organised’, collective offending of career criminals operating in gangs.





A Home Office study reporting on the offending behaviour of youth groups (Sharp et al,

2006) echoed a reluctance to apply the gang label too liberally. Reporting on the offending profile of delinquent youth groups this study identified the following characteristics as

defining such collectives:

–  –  –

Since the publication of these definitions a few more have surfaced. Some offer a fairly broad definition of gang groups, such as that used by Strathclyde Police, which classifies

gang groups as:

‘A group of three or more people who associate together, or act as an organised body, for criminal purposes’ (Centre for Social Justice, 2009) whilst others clearly resemble past efforts. In 2011, the Home Office adopted an alternative definition produced by the Centre for Social Justice. According to the Home Office, a street

gang is:

–  –  –

Despite the seeming differences several features connect all of these definitions. Each refers to groups of three or more, usually young, people, with a territorial presence, who engage in criminal behaviour. Since Thrasher, and notwithstanding some of the other definitions of the gang that do not connect these types of groups with criminal behaviour (see Kontos et al, 2003), many definitions incorporate these elements.

If, as asserted above, young people formulate their self and collective identities in relation to how they, and their groups, are defined, then it is crucial to our understanding of gang membership and associated interests to ensure that the most appropriate definition is applied when researching aspects of the gang experience. A standardised working definition of the gang is needed to assist practitioners in their efforts to frame appropriate policies to tackle gang-related issues such as the role of the family in relation to gang membership. In the absence of such a definition, this study will use that offered by Hallsworth and Young (2004) as we believe it is the most useful for our purposes because it offers a nuanced distinction between the different types of groups to which young people belong.

3.2 The family and delinquency When considering why young people engage in delinquency one of the most common focal points is the family. Familial structure and composition, and the quality of the parent–child relationship have all come under scrutiny in attempts to explain antisocial and criminal behaviour in young people. In particular, it is the idea that the ‘problem’ family, as opposed to the ‘normal’ family, creates the basis for delinquency that dominates the discourse in this area.

3.2.1 The urban underclass

Charles Murray is the academic most notably associated with this way of thinking about the family and delinquency (Murray, 1996). Murray’s thesis is important to the debate on the role of the family as it directly links ‘non-traditional’ families, particularly single-parent households headed by unmarried women, with crime and violence.

According to Murray, the 1990s saw a significant growth in the number of illegitimate births in ‘municipal’ districts and amongst those in the lowest social classes (Murray, 1996:23).

For Murray, this was problematic for society because people who had children out of wedlock lived ‘in a different world from other Britons’ and subscribed to norms, values and behaviours that were ‘contaminating entire neighbourhoods’ (Murray, 1996:26).

Murray’s message was clear: single mothers could not raise children, particularly boys, effectively (Murray, 1996:33); that they could not do so effectively was problematic for society. He claimed that women were unable to rear boys because they could not translate what it meant to be a man in a morally and socially acceptable way. Consequently, without the guidance of fathers young men raised by women were apt to display a ‘level of unruliness’ that made life difficult for everyone around them (Murray, 1996:34). Moreover, in a female-dominated household boys were unlikely to learn what it was to be a ‘good’ father to their own children later on in life, which had negative implications for future generations.

The net result for Murray was the formation of an ‘underclass’ community that espoused a lawless, feckless culture peppered with violent criminality amongst the young, particularly young men.

Although Murray’s thesis was founded on little evidence, and despite the numerous criticisms that his assertions have attracted (Williams 2004:342), variants of the ‘underclass’ thesis can be seen in contemporary discourse on youth crime and violence. Whilst not fully embracing Murray’s position on the underclass, UK government policy has, and continues, to stress the strong links between families and young people’s involvement in antisocial behaviour, crime and gang-related violence. The 1998 Crime and Disorder Act introduced the Parenting Order as an initiative to tackle ‘problem parenting’ through both sanctions and support for those unable to control their children’s behaviour. This was followed by Family Intervention Projects designed to extend intensive support provision to the most chaotic families causing the most harm to society (Gregg, 2010). Both initiatives locate the family, particularly female single-headed households, at the centre of youth criminality, continuing the legacy of the underclass thinking as expressed by Murray. However, the academic evidence to date suggests a more complex picture.

3.2.2 Family structure and delinquency

Wells and Rankin’s (1991) study compared 50 research studies on ‘broken homes’ and delinquency. They found the officially recorded delinquency rate for children from ‘nontraditional’ homes (ie single-parent homes or step-families) to be 10–15% higher than that for children from traditional families (eg where both biological parents lived with their children) (Wells and Rankin, 1991:87). However, what is of importance to note about Wells and Rankin’s findings is that the link between ‘broken’ families and delinquency held only for minor offences and not for more serious ones (Williams, 2004: 342).

Other research has identified family size (as distinct from family structure) as having an impact on delinquency, with young people from large families (i.e. three or more children) more likely to engage in delinquent behaviour than children from smaller family units (Rutter et al, 1998; Lyon et al, 2000).



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