This paper will consider the formation of delinquent gangs within our society from a criminological perspective. It will look at the definition of a gang, its motives, purposes and effects. It will then examine links to strain theory, first proposed by Merton, which was expanded upon in the work of the criminologists Cohen, Cloward and Ohlin. It will consider other criminological theories and explanations to see if they help us understand this phenomenon.
It will conclude that the strain theory forms the basis for a school of thought, but that other theories may more suitably provide the impetus for a new phase of criminological studies to examine this problem from a specifically UK perspective. There is no generally agreed-upon definition for a gang as such. However, a suggested definition (Klein, 2005, p. 136) could be a "durable, street-oriented youth group whose own identity includes involvement in illegal activity. " This suggests a group of individuals that share a common identity.
A gang can signify an opposition to mainstream norms, such as abiding by the law, and can flourish in areas where there is a lack of social control to prevent its presence on the street. To its members it may provide an alternative sense of belonging and protection, whilst possibly offering immediate economic success through illegitimate means. There is strong evidence to show gang involvement in a wide range of criminal activities; a survey in the U. S (Bennett and Holloway, 2004, p.308) indicates that a large proportion of gang members are responsible for offences such as drugs, theft, burglary, assault, as well as regular use of firearms.
It is hard to obtain numbers of gangs, or a specific geographical split, as by their very nature they operate outside of the mainstream of society. However, the majority exist in highly populated urban areas within low working class neighbourhoods. For example, in London, the Metropolitan Police recently identified 169 separate groups with approximately 5000 members (Police identify, 2007).
A study (Bennett and Holloway, 2004, p.314) has shown that the average age of gang members is 19 years with the majority being under 25 years. The study also suggests they may be responsible for nearly a third of all offences reported (Bennett and Holloway, p. 317), which would indicate that they represent a negative element within our society presenting a viable threat to our way of life, particularly in the urban areas where they are situated. The criminological term strain theory was conceived by Merton as an updated and modified version of Durkheim's anomie concept. Merton suggested (Jacobs, 2006, p.
73-75) that crime and delinquency could result where individuals did not have the means to achieve culturally defined goals. Merton pointed to the 'American dream' of the 1950s, which suggested that everyone could achieve success, particularly financial success, through their own hard work, even though in reality this was not possible in many lower working class areas where poverty and hardship act as a powerful barrier. The strain appears when the dream could not be achieved through legitimate means, which may compel individuals toward crime and delinquency.
Merton's work was extended by Cohen, best known for his sub-cultural theory on delinquent urban gangs (Jacobs, 2006, p. 79-81) which looked to address group as opposed to individual deviance, the prominence of lower working class young males within these groups and the reasons why their delinquent acts appeared to be violent or malicious with no financial benefit. Cohen suggested that if there is a dominant culture within society, there would also be other sub-cultures generated by and motivated in response to that which is the dominant.
Cohen believed that strain was created during school years between the working class and the dominant culture of the middle class. The success of boys in the middle class culture was based on ambition, skills, responsibility and long term gain which the working class were less able to achieve. This creates status frustration, which the disaffected youths may choose to solve through the coming together and formation of gangs, a delinquent subculture that rejects middle class cultural values and norms, gaining status amongst their peers by acts of what is now termed as anti-social behaviour.
The Prime Minister (Respect, 2006, p. 1), argues that "anti-social behaviour by both adults and young people creates havoc for the communities around them. " He talks of the government's tough approach, for example the large scale imposition of ASBO's, acceptable behaviour contracts, dispersal orders and the like. At the same time he talks of understanding the causes of this anti-social behaviour with an underlying theme of individual and family responsibility.