Into The Abyss:
A Personal Journey into the World of Street Gangs

by Mike Carlie, Ph.D.        
© 2002
Michael K. Carlie
Continually updated.

~ Table of Contents ~
Home | Foreword | Preface | Orientation

What I Learned | Conclusions
End Note |
| Appendix
Site Map / Contents
| New Research

Up-To-Date Gang-Related News

Part 6:
The Gang Culture

Modern urban street gangs have evolved into tribal organizational structures. These new urban tribes have developed into a subculture in the streets of the urban jungle. They claim territory, are self-supporting, have their own language and customs, and establish their own rules and codes of conduct. Their customs are passed to new members by rites of passage from generation to generation, thus ensuring the continuance of the gang. Gang members identify themselves as a people that is separate from the rest of society. (Etter, 1999, p. 261)

Frederic M. Thrasher was the guru of American street gang research. His book, The Gang, published in 1927, was the first systematic and in-depth study of gangs conducted in the United States. He referred to the 1,313 Chicago-based gangs he studied as being tribal when he wrote "The broad expanse of gangland with its intricate tribal and inter-tribal relations is medieval and feudal in its organization rather than modern and urban." (Thrasher, 1927, p.5)  

Field Note: The director of a west coast anti-gang initiative said "Gangs provide an alternative belief system and system of values in place of religion, family, the school, and the community."

Field Note: A police gang unit commander said "The culture of the prison is now the culture on the street. It's spilled over because so many gang members do time then come home. The culture is 'Fuck you. You get in my way, you're dead.' And they don't even think twice about it before they kill someone, or think about it again after they've done it."

Gangs are a Society within Society

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 life."

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 viewpoint)

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 Lower Class

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 include

bulletgetting into and staying out of trouble ...

bullettoughness (masculinity, endurance, strength ... are all highly valued) ...

bulletsmartness (skill at outsmarting the other guy; 'street sense' rather than high IQ) ...

bulletexcitement (the constant search for thrills, as opposed to just 'hanging around') ...

bulletfate (the view that most things that happen to people are beyond their control, and nothing can be done about them) ... and

bulletautonomy (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 middle class).

Status and Role Expectations

Another important 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, O.G.) and 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 statuses). 

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 gang.

Field Note:  Charles is a big city gang member. I asked him about the community's gang culture. He said "We got it from L.A. Some L.A. people came here and started it." And although he said gangs in this community are not organized, he defined some of the roles found in his, and other, gangs he knew about. He identified and described the roles of:

a. Look-Out: The individual who, when drugs are being sold by fellow gang members, acts as a look out for police. He said there will likely be several look outs posted around the area who also look for rival gang members who may upset the drug deal. Look outs may often be found riding on bicycles around the periphery of where the drugs are being sold.

b. Flunky: A gang member who mindlessly, and dispassionately, goes about doing what he is told to do by someone with more status in the gang. "Go kill so and so, go get this, get rid of that ... stuff like that," he said. They have little power in the gang but carry out some of the gang's business. Charles describes flunkies as having "no feelings. Or, if they do, they hold 'em in. They're cold hearted. They don't care about anything."

c. O.G. or Shot-Caller: One of the leaders of the gang.

Charles also said "Gang members sometimes switch gangs ... they're Bloods one week and Crips the next. Or you'll find a guy in red next to a guy in blue, both selling drugs next to one another. Today it's all about money. They're not for real [not really dedicated to the gang, otherwise they would not work together like that]. Some guys take the gang thing as a game, just a phase in their life. For others, it is their life."   

What Charles told me fits with police intelligence on how some gangs in American cities formed around Los Angeles gang members who, while fleeing prosecution in L.A., moved into other communities. Local gang members were drawn to them and, depending upon whether the L.A. gang member was a Crip or a Blood, a new Crip or Blood gang was formed.

Violence as a Characteristic of Gang Culture

The culture of the gang is often a culture of violence. It is a culture of physical assaults, guns, knives, bats, and anything that one can use to protect him- or herself or gain advantage over another person or situation. Gang members are less inhibited about using violence than non-gang members and confer status upon winners of violent confrontations. Given the setting in which many of the gang members I observed live, I am not surprised there is a great deal of violence.

Frustration resulting from a lack of opportunity for meaningful employment, poor quality schools, failing public services, incompetent parents, and discrimination from the larger society could drive someone to violence - against oneself (i.e., substance abuse, self-mutilation, suicide) or against others. In addition, anger resulting from child abuse and poor role modeling often leads to violence against oneself and others.

Field Note: A national educator on the subject of Hispanic gangs said "Among the rules Hispanic gang members impose upon their members are to never cooperate with the police, never leave an insult unattended and never snitch. If a gang member has violated one of these rules, it would not be unusual for the gang to respond by giving the violator a 'time violation' - physically beating the violator for 2 minutes, a 'numbered beating' - hitting the violator a specific number of times on the same spot on his or her body, or making them 'pee red' - the violator's kidneys are hit as many times as it takes to cause blood to appear in the his urine."

The Impact of Ex-Convicts on Gang Culture

Complicating the picture is the impact of ex-convicts on the gang culture in hundreds of communities throughout the United States. Among the 600,000 inmates being released from prison annually into American society are those who were gang members prior to their incarceration and those who joined a gang for the first time while in prison. Both have an impact on the gang culture in the community to which they return.

Survey respondents for 1998 were asked how much their jurisdiction’s youth gang problem has been affected in the past few years by the return of gang-involved adults who have been in prison. Research suggests that involvement of ex-convicts in youth gangs increases the life of gangs and their level of violent crime, in part because of the ex-convicts' increased proclivity to violence following imprisonment and the visibility and history they contribute to youth gangs. (Howell and Decker, 1999, page)

Some of these ex-convicts bring with them a sense of gang loyalty and cooperation which may exceed that which is commonly found on the street. The prison environment has a tendency to cause an amalgamation of gangs in order to provide strength in numbers against other and more threatening groups in the prison. For example, I observed primarily African-American members of gangs such as the Crips, Bloods, and Black Gangster Disciples joining together to protect themselves against Hispanics and radical Caucasians in a federal prison. Members of different and normally conflicting Hispanic gangs had also formed a union. Where once they would conflict with one another, they now associated with one another to provide protection against the African-American and Anglo (Caucasian) inmates.

In Closing

Thinking of gangs as societies with cultures of their own aids in understanding them and their members more fully. A better understanding may aid in developing strategies for reducing gang activity and youth violence. 

Every society offers its members something, whether it's a sense of belonging, power, affection, status, or something else of value to the recipient. What gang researchers have discovered is that, for many children in the United States, neighborhood and community social institutions which are supposed to provide these things are not ... gangs are. If we understand that, we can develop ways to provide these things to local youth legitimately so that joining a gang is not necessary.


Read some autobiographies of gang members.

Additional Resources: Learn about the ethnicity and gender roles in a gang. For a list of slang terms visit this site. Or if your interested in the meaning of words used in rap music, you can visit the Rap Dictionary. Visit a site displaying gang graffiti. Read up on Chicano Music: An Influence on Gang Violence and Culture.

© 2002 Michael K. Carlie
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the author and copyright holder - Michael K. Carlie.