Click on the
topics below or
continue reading down the page ...
Gangs are a Society within
Society: "an enduring
and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of
relationships through interaction with one another." (Merriam-Webster
Collegiate Dictionary, page,
type in "society")
Group: "a number of
individuals assembled together or having some unifying relationship." (Merriam-Webster
Collegiate Dictionary, page,
type in "group")
As we consider the culture of a gang we should first have an
understanding of what a society and culture are. Societies consist of a group of people who
share an exclusive territory and
a common culture.
A culture "is the totality of learned, socially transmitted customs, knowledge,
material objects, and behavior." (Schaefer,
2001, p. 65) Among the customs are norms
- expectations about how people in the society should behave.
Most members of a society share a
common language, beliefs,
values, symbols, and
artifacts. Another important
characteristic of societies is their tendency to organize into social
institutions. Among the most common are the family, faith organizations, schools,
government, commerce, a military, justice system, and the like.
The social institutions are further characterized by their internal
organization whereby members hold specific statuses (what someone is)
and are expected to fulfill
the roles (what someone does in a given status) attached to each. For
example, fathers are expected to provide guidance for their children and
earn an income (two of a father's many roles). Children (a status) are
expected to follow orders and eat everything on their plate (two of their
many roles). Statuses are further differentiated in
that one may have more power than another. For example, children (a status)
are subordinate to fathers and mothers (statuses).
All of these - a society's culture, norms, language, beliefs, values, and symbols
- are conveyed from generation to generation through a process called socialization.
Why This is Important
Understanding the nature of human society and culture is important because it helps us better understand gangs and the behavior of their
members. Gangs are a part of our society and have become a
mini-society of their own within it. This mini-society, referred
to as a subculture, is part of the larger society in which we live.
Some examples of the thousands of other subcultures in American society are the deaf,
doctors, students, the Amish, and Hispanics.
A subculture "is a segment of society that shares a distinctive pattern
of ... [norms] ... and values that differs from the pattern of the larger society.
In a sense, a subculture can be thought of as a culture existing within a
larger, dominant culture." (Schaefer,
2001, p. 78)
What follows is a revision of some of the material you read above in Gangs
are a Society Within Society but with the word gang substituting for society.
I'm doing this in hopes of highlighting the relevance of this discussion to
an understanding of gangs.
The Sociological Characteristics
of a Gang
Gangs are groups of people who
often have an exclusive territory and
exhibit a common culture. To the extent
that gangs are recognized as groups: gang members recognize themselves as members,
fellow gang members recognize
them as members, and gang members - as well as non-gang members - outside a
gang recognize who members of other gangs are. This recognition is key to
identifying an aggregate of people as a group.
Understanding that a gang may be viewed as a mini-society or subculture
allows us to appreciate the importance some gangs place on their territorial
boundaries. While for some the boundaries are defined
as turf (i.e., a street corner, city park, neighborhood), for others the
boundary is a market (i.e., customers who want a certain drug or service
provided). The invasion of a gang's territory takes on new meaning when we
understand their territory is as sacred to them as the land occupied
by the United States is sacred to its citizens.
With heavy doses of drugs often mixed into gang life,
turf wars have become drug territorial wars. Turf, in some cases, means
more than the place where the gang congregates. "Gangs defend their
territories in order to protect their narcotic business," ...
"Each street corner, dope house, salesperson, distributor, or
customer is part of the territory." (Gardner,
1992, p. 41)
Each gang has a culture of its own,
although it may not be very different from the culture of other gangs. Using Schaeffer's
definition of culture, gang members teach one another -
formally and informally - what the customs of the gang are (i.e., how to
dress, how to behave with women - or men), and they
possess specific knowledge about the gang (i.e., traditions, initiation
rites, territory, history).
The culture of a gang is imparted from one generation to the next through a
process called socialization.
As indicated in our characterization of a society, norms are
behavioral expectations. The norms of a gang define
which behaviors are expected and accepted among its members. Violations of the norms, depending upon their level of importance to members
of the gang, may result in punishments which range from minor to
severe. Understanding this allows us to understand gangs more fully and provides
insights into the response of gang members to violations of their norms. For
example, you may know that disrespecting (slang: dissing) a gang
member may result in severe punishment for the person doing the
disrespecting. Respect is a cherished value, so disrespecting a gang or gang
member violates a cherished norm.
Similarly, members of a gang often share a
common language, beliefs,
values, symbols, and
artifacts. Every society has a common language,
both verbal and non-verbal. Gangs, too, have a language of their own. Nearly
every group develops its own argot - its own special language. Doctors have
one, lawyers have one, mothers have one, baseball players have one. Gangs
also have an argot of their own.
Though killing each other over brands of sneakers,
letters of the alphabet, and colors of clothing seems unbelievable, it is
an extension of the gang member's whole existence revolving around the
gang identity. If the gang stands for a person's whole sense of self, then
everything he has, wears, or says is colored by gang identity. Thus, from
the gang member's distorted viewpoint, any insult to even the trappings of
gang identity is ground for battle. (Gardner,
1992, p. 54)
Graffiti and throwing signs are forms of argot used within and between
gangs. So are certain words gang members use, each often unique to the gang
of which they are a member. Understanding how gang members communicate allows us to
understand what they are communicating. For example, if a gang
member's name/moniker is painted on a wall and is later crossed out, the
person whose name was crossed out may be in danger from another gang.
Likewise, if the number
187 is used it may be communicating information about a
murder or intended murder (the number "187" is the California
state penal code number for murder).
Field Note: This
well-trained and well-versed police trainer's concerns extend to the content of gangster rap music.
He identified what he believed to be problematic about this
music by noting that "It glorifies gangs and related gang values,
attitudes and behavior. It dignifies violence against society,
the police - particularly against black police - and against rival gangs. It is racist, furthers the myth of the superiority of black,
male, sexual prowess and embraces misogynous thinking by referring to women
with derogatory words, putting them down, and supporting their abuse. And it exhibits and supports a disregard for the value of
He also shared his frustration and
disgust with the fact that Ice T (the gangster rapper) is a documented gang
member. "Gangster rap not only glorifies being a gangster,
Ice T is living proof that gangsters are glorified and can even
become popular recording artists. 2 Pac, of course, would be another
example of this, but gang banging resulted in his premature death." (Opposing
In American society we have a dominant culture, one in which nearly
everyone knows, for example, what the American flag, a college diploma, and
a court house stand for - they are symbols
for ideas, beliefs,
and values we cherish as a society.
Gangs, too, have symbols which represent the ideas, beliefs, and values they
possess. Sometimes the symbols appear as tattoos. In addition, most gangs have artifacts
- material objects - which they value (i.e., graffiti, gang-related clothing
and accessories, guns, cars, special jackets).
Gangs and the Subculture of the
The idea that gangs represent a subculture, combined with the notion that
street gangs are most commonly found in lower class neighborhoods, has been around for
nearly fifty years. As early as 1958, Walter
Miller (1958), a well-respected
American criminologist, was writing about this phenomenon.
Miller believed "The lower class has a separate, identifiable
culture distinct from the culture of the middle class." (Vold
and Bernard, 1986, p. 214) "Where the middle class has
'values' such as achievement, the lower class has 'focal concerns' that
|getting into and staying out of trouble
(masculinity, endurance, strength ... are all highly valued) ...|
(skill at outsmarting the other guy; 'street sense' rather than
high IQ) ...|
constant search for thrills, as opposed to just 'hanging
|fate (the view that most things that happen
to people are beyond their control, and nothing can be done
about them) ... and|
(resentment of authority and rules).|
Miller described this lower-class culture as a 'generating milieu' for gang
delinquency." (ibid, p.
214). His characterization of focal concerns may also partially
explain lower-class youths' behavior in defiance of the middle class, its
laws, authority figures, and
their tendency to be careless and aggressive (at least in the eyes of the
Status and Role Expectations
characteristic of a gang is their tendency to organize. Although the degree
of organization may vary from one gang to another, each member typically has
a certain status in the gang (i.e., leader, look out, dealer,
is obligated to fulfill
the role expectations attached to each status. Their statuses are further differentiated in
that one status may have more power than another. For example, a newly
initiated gang member (a
status) is subordinate to older members and leaders in the gang (other
Each status position in the gang has a unique set of role expectations. An
O.G. is usually expected to provide advice, maintain harmony within the
gang, and provide for the protection of its members. A newly initiated gang
member is expected to obey the O.G., commit crimes for the gang, and do
whatever else he or she is told to do by those with greater status in the