Youth Gangs: Problem and Response

Irving Spergel begins his research by noting that the phenomenon of youth gangs is not exclusively a product of American civilization or the modern urban condition, pointing out that gangs date as far back to the 17th century England and span as far as Asia and South America,  have evolved from places as diverse as the secret societies from Hong Kong and the prison conditions of New Zealand.Spergel also observes that attempts to research youth gangs have yielded varying results and drawn wildly differing conclusions as to their criminal severity, the circumstances which spawn them, and the correlation they have with youth delinquency. Researchers also choose to define gangs and/or categorize them in relation to non-gang-related youth delinquency in rather varied ways, which only complicates this.I find this kind of social and historical context very fascinating. It certainly lends the concept of youth gang a certain legitimacy that is not afforded in mainstream representations of them. Too often, gangs are simply viewed as products of depressed areas of urban America. They are considered a symptom of social failure rather than as a natural product of civilization, simply because it makes for more sensational content on television. But as Spergel’s research summary shows, youth gangs are a means for the youth to address their own community’s shortcomings, most notably a lack of confidence in one’s family or an inability to completely connect with peers at a school or work environment.In addition, Spergel suggests that law enforcement, social welfare agencies and other ways a community addresses youth gangs are problematized by how the demographic complexities of gang formation are distorted and/or exaggerated by how mainstream news media and governmental organizations choose to profile them. One telling example is how such distortions lead even the Department of Justice to fund research that relies on flawed methodology or rely on grossly inflated figures for the purposes of rhetoric. Despite these acts, studies have indicated that the ‘gang problem’ cannot be singularly reduced to one demographic and that the various activities they engage in are not necessarily limited to criminal behavior.Spergel does attempt to address this by reviewing such literature, and through this has suggested that gang behavior differs from other forms of youth delinquency in that the former must lie completely within the domain of group oriented conduct — protecting the ‘turf’, maintaining an ideological code, etc. He also decidedly defines delinquent youth groups against gangs by noting that the latter must have a relatively stable social order/grouping whereas the former tends to be more fluid in structure, and leadership is not a fixed constant.Furthermore, gang violence or criminally-oriented gang behavior is not as dramatically problematic as popular accounts tend to suggest. While some cities are certainly known for their alarming figures, the general average of criminially-oriented gang behavior is actually quite low. Spergel takes research data to task by suggesting that the veracity of any such statistics is immediately made suspect by problematic ‘measurements’ used to derive such data. They can be distorted depending on how one ‘counts’ gang population and criminally-oriented gang behavior.Spergel’s research is quite too long to really address all his points in a brief manner, but let it suffice to say that he presents a rather thought provoking look at research and its perceptions of gangs and gang behavior, most notably because it suggests the heterogeneity of the phenomenon and the ease at which it can be distorted.