This chapter presents the review of the literature on youth gangs and youth gang membership. The goal of this chapter is to provide the reader with a better understanding of what has been done and what has been established in the area of youth gangs. The chapter begins with a definition of youth gangs, then gang structure, and gang initiation, then the more specific discussion on youth gang membership. Youth gangs are different from the hard-core gangs such as motorcycle gangs, hate gangs and other more organized crime gangs.
Youth gangs by definition are more of the street gangs that dominate local neighborhoods, aside from which there is no known universal definition for what youth gangs or gangs are because of the varied structures and goals of these gangs. The qualifier youth is attached to differentiate it from the adult gangs although it is not uncommon for a youth gang to have older members and even for gangs to have adolescent members.
One of the earliest definitions of gang was given by Thrasher (1927), he said that gangs originate spontaneously and through conflict, a sense of fellowship is attained, members come together and plan and either resolve and seek conflict. In the process, the gang forms a set of rules and traditions that dictate every member’s behavior. The rules and traditions also lead to a sense of solidarity, group identity and territoriality. Klein (1967) defined gangs as a group of adolescents who are recognized as a distinct group in the locality, is known by a distinct name and have been involved in a
number of delinquent behaviors that have come to the notice of the neighborhood and the even the police. Miller (1992) offers another definition by stating that gangs are nothing but a group of young peers that share common interests and goals. A gang has its own hierarchy and figures of authority that orchestrate the achievement of the group’s goals; however, these goals are often illegal in nature and include the control of a particular territory, facility or business.
On the other hand, Huff (1989) differentiated gangs from other peer groups by saying that gangs are regularly involved in illegal activities, and that there is a definite deliberateness to that illegal action, gangs also tend to make claims of ownership or authority over a place or locality and that gangs have a well-formed organizational structures. Still, other researchers loosely define gang as a group of people who engages in criminal behavior or in some socially disruptive activities such as vandalism.
Gangs are also said to be highly territorial in the sense that they tend to exert authority over a turf or neighborhood they claim to be their own, or from where the group originated. Most gangs are composed of the same gender although at some cases, members may be from the two sexes. Moreover, gangs most likely adopt a logo, color, name or fashion statement to identify the gang and its members. Gangs intimidate other member of the community and are usually feared by most of the community and are avoided. Gangs also have a set of rules wherein gang member’s behavior and membership are clearly identified.
Gang Structure As there are varied types of gangs, there are also different gang structures, this is because gangs evolve and their structure is often dictated by the needs of the gang. There are almost two kinds of gangs, the loosely organized and the highly organized, the loosely organized gangs generally having a wider membership and a core group manages the internal affairs of the gang, while the highly organized follow an organizational structure in which specific rules and code of conduct that must be followed by all members are emphasized (Klein & Maxson, 1996).
Gangs usually have a core group that is composed of the more popular and influential members considered the leaders in the group. The core members run the gang, they give out instructions and missions to their members, and they make decisions and give out sanctions to members who fail to live up to the expected behavior of the gang. At the same time, core members may be effective recruiters who often target young children to join them since they are more trainable and can easily be integrated into the gang (Ponce, 1990).
On the other hand, it is also important to note that there are varying degrees of membership in a gang, the founders or the leaders compose the core group, while the regular gang members are tested and proven supporters of the gang and are usually called upon by the core group to carry out important jobs. The wannabes are possible gang members who are in the process of becoming a part of the gang but are not yet fully recognized by the gang as full-fledge members.
The wannabes usually come from the younger crowd, and is undergoing some form of initiation as a prerequisite for gang membership. The peripheral members refer to those who are non-members of the gang but enjoy being associated with some members of the gang, the association may be due to family ties or being friends with the gang members. Moreover, the member may move from the bottom ranks to a higher position, wannabes can become full members, to regular members and even the possibility of becoming the leader of the gang (Fagan, 1996).