Gangs in Perspective

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Gangs in Perspective

Book excerpt

By: Gilbert Geis

Date: June 1965

Source: Gilbert Geis. Juvenile Gangs. Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1965.

About the Author: A retired professor from the University of California at Irvine, Gilbert Geis received his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He has researched and written extensively on topics related to criminology and juvenile delinquency. More than 350 of his articles have been published and he is a past president of the American Society of Criminology.


Gang violence in the major urban centers continues to be one of the greatest sources of criminal activity in the United States. Gangs, despite ongoing efforts on the part of law enforcement to limit their growth, continue to attract youth particularly in inner city areas with large minority communities. Violence connected to gangs is believed to have led to the deaths of more than 25,000 people over the last two decades. Gangs of various sizes can be found in more than 800 cities around the United States.

During the 1990s, the rise in gang activity and related crimes served as the basis for enhanced legislation directly focused upon limiting the spread of gangs. While gang violence among juveniles is a problem that is most prevalent in the United States, similar phenomena exist in other Western democracies. Sociology and criminology experts maintain that the rise of gang activity is linked to a general ethical mood prevalent in the greater society. Youth are generally attracted to the life styles offered by gangs because they present juveniles with a sense of belonging and camaraderie as well as excitement.

While the number of gangs and the number of gang members continue to rise, the intensity and nature of the violent activities with which they are involved are not believed to have grown worse as compared to similar groups in history. The types of criminal activity with which gangs in modern society are involved are similar to the illegal or antisocial activities with which such groups have been involved throughout history. It is believed that the renewed focus on gangs has come about with the gradual breakdown of social barriers between classes in Western democracies, allowing the threats posed by gangs to become more visible.

Efforts aimed at combating gang violence focus on a combination of enhanced law enforcement and educational and social programming. Specific attention is paid by the judicial system towards rehabilitating gang members while they are in prison with the intent that upon release they will be able to find new, non-criminal activities.


The conclusions of the Mead study and similar inquiries force us to look closely at the social structure in which gangs form and in which they operate in order to obtain an indication of the functions which gangs serve. The conclusions of these studies also lead us to an appreciation of the fact that gangs need not exist—that they are not necessary products of something inherent in the nature of young men. And finally, anthropological research reminds us, lest we be inclined to forget, that the basic ingredients of gang existence probably lie deeply embedded within the fabric of a society, and that products of its social structure and ordering will continue to remain relatively impervious to major alterations so long as dominant social motifs persist.

In the United States, the emphasis on competition and individualism, for instance, which is basic to our way of life, probably could not be altered drastically without social surgery that might be extremely injurious to the general vitality and attractiveness of many aspects of our existence. At the same time, if juvenile delinquency and gang activity are most basically responses to the ethos of the society in which they are found, it is also unlikely that either will be eradicated in any dramatic fashion in the United States in the near future.

Cross-Cultural Perspective. —Albert K. Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut, has pointed out that "the sad truth is that the comparative study of juvenile delinquency does not exist." Cohen's call for such research is based upon a desire to gather cross-cultural material in order, among other things, to understand better similar behavior in our own society. He quotes two Italian researchers who have indicated that gangs as we know them are rare in their country and, where they do exist, they seldom attack other adolescents but direct their activity against adults. "If this is so," Cohen suggests, "the tendency for delinquents to coalesce into gangs and for gangs to war on other gangs, so common in our country, is not necessarily implicit in the idea of delinquency."

The material that we do have from foreign countries regarding delinquent and gang behavior is quite suggestive in terms of broadening our understanding of the full panorama of such activity. It also helps to provide additional clues to the cultural roots of delinquency since it is often through noting similarities and variations to the thing that interests us that we come to a clearer understanding of its generic attributes. Thus, for instance, a study of race relations in the Union of South Africa, where conditions are worse, as well as in Hawaii and Brazil, where they are better, will contribute considerably to an appreciation of the nature of America's racial situation today.

It is worth noting initially that the present state of gang behavior in the United States hardly indicates the total depravity of our society. Nor is it accurate to maintain that conditions today are worse than they were in the romanticized past of human history. Daniel Bell, among other social commentators, has tried to show that crime was probably appreciably higher and more brutal during America's frontier period than it is today. Bell believes that the general breakdown of social barriers between classes has brought about the myth that the country is more ridden with illegality now than earlier in its history. Previously, persons in the middle class were merely better shielded, because of communication and transportation obstacles, from evidence of violence and theft.

Throughout recorded history, individuals and groups have always failed to adhere to demands for conformity to the general dictates of their society, and they have resorted to acts which were outlawed or disapproved. It is very difficult to specify with precision those conditions which have particularly encouraged or discouraged illegal aggression or depredations in any society at any time in history. A lack of consensus regarding proper social behavior among all members of the society is, of course, virtually by definition an underlying factor in disruptive activity. The real and the perceived ability and efficiency of retaliatory forces, either secular or theological, have also undoubtedly influenced the extent and form of antisocial behavior. Deprivation alone, however, is hardly adequate to account for phenomena such as crime and gang violence; nor, for that matter, neither is any other single isolated factor sufficient unto itself as an explanation. But it again needs to be emphasized that gang behavior today hardly points to a state of degeneracy and decline in contemporary civilization. Note, for instance, the following vivid portrayal of gang activity in the 18th century by William Lecky, the noted historian of bygone manners and morals:

The impunity with which outrages were committed in the ill-lit and ill-guarded streets of London during the first half of the eighteenth century can now hardly be realized. In 1712, a club of young men of the higher classes, who assumed the name of Mohocks, were accustomed nightly to sally out drunk into the streets to hunt the passers-by and to subject them in mere wantonness to the most atrocious outrages. One of their favorite amusements, called "tipping the lion," was to sqeeze the nose of their victim flat upon his face and to bore out his eyes with their fingers. Among them were the "sweaters" who formed a circle round their prisoner and pricked him with their swords until he sank exhausted to the ground, the "dancing masters" so-called from their skill in making men caper by thrusting swords into their legs, the "tumblers," whose favorite amusement was to set women on their heads and to commit various indecencies and barbarities on the limbs that were exposed. Maid servants, as they opened their masters' doors, were waylaid, beaten and their faces cut. Matrons enclosed in barrels were rolled down the steep and stony incline of Snow Hill. Watchmen were beaten unmercifully and their noses slit. Country gentlemen went to the theater as if in time of war, accompanied by their armed retainers. Such behavior makes most contemporary juvenile gangs appear by comparison to be composed of gentle and mild-mannered lads out for a playful romp. It is usually reassuring and always fruitful to try to gain a clearer perspective of current events by looking back into historical annals and archives.

The two most noteworthy parallels to American gang activity in recent European history appear in prewar Germany and in the post-revolutionary Soviet Union. Both seem to indicate a combination of social upheaval and ideological disruption as major ingredients in the emergence of juvenile gangs.

Following the Soviet revolution of 1917, large groups of youths, finding themselves in a socially disorganized society, which was still groping for political order, and also finding themselves without adequate adult supervision because of the death or dislocation of their parents and relatives, formed marauding bands, housing themselves in cellars and similar makeshift shelters in or near the large urban centers.

Attempts to incorporate these youths into the majority society after the regime had become more stabilized were unsuccessful at first, and the explanation offered, "that children who had lived for more than a year on the streets found it difficult to adapt themselves to the new life" because they had been "influenced by the picaresque life of the vagabond," has relevance to work with gangs in the United States. It suggests the importance of appreciating fully the attractions of gang existence, the camaraderie, the self-indulgence, the luxury, and the excitement of gang life that must be weighed with the disadvantages so that a better understanding is achieved of both the lures and the fears connected with gang membership.

The major stress in Soviet efforts to reform the habits of the bezprizornye (literally, "the neglected"), who numbered more than 524,000 by 1921, was placed upon training for factory employment. Special use was made of the honor code of the boys, a code somewhat similar to that found among members of American gangs:

In the beginning we made many mistakes, but now we know that, above all, we must teach these children by appealing to their sense of honor. Strange to say, a sense of honor is much more strongly developed amongst the bezprizornye than it is in normal children. Locks are of no use at all, for they can easily pick them, so we give them keys. They are really astonished that they are treated like ordinary children.

The Soviets inaugurated a rule that no questions be asked of a boy concerning his past life or record, unless he initiated the subject. They also attempted to put group pressure upon individual boys who would not abide by the rules and to instill a sense of shame through ritualtized examples of disapproval:

The children have meetings every evening, and those who have not worked well, or who have done something wrong, are called to account. The unfortunate delinquent has to stand in the middle of a circle and submit to a fire of questions. The worst punishment is temporary forfeiture of the badge of the community.

The use of peers to impose sanctions, in ways similar to that described above, has traditionally been one of the most effective techniques in working with any group. This is particularly true when the peers themselves have at one time occupied the same position as those whom they are now trying to influence. But the technique also contains many subtle pitfalls and much potential for boomeranging upon a program, unless it is employed with considerable care and understanding. In fact, as we shall shortly see, despite their apparent success with the bezprizornye, the Soviets actually still have not resolved the problem of youthful rebellion and continue to grope for adequate methods for dealing with it.

The German adolescents, the Vandervogel, had a considerably more formal and formidable structure than the Russian youths and resembled in some respects the Boy Scouts in the United States. Their generally middle-class background adds a different note to the study of rebellious gangs, which usually are formed in working-class settings. The Vandervogel, unlike our Boy Scouts, however, were in strong opposition to the values of their parents, whom they viewed as stolid burgher types, unexciting and hardly worthy of emulation. As Becker has noted:

German youth loathed and hated the world of their elders, and were ready to follow any Pied Piper whose mystery and power held promise of a new realm where longings found fruition. Definite promises, clear-cut goals, purposeful methods were unnecessary—indeed, no small part of the revulsion against adult life was against its very planfulness, its readiness to cast aside the joys of spontaneity in favor of crafty money-getting and the ribbon to stick to the coat. It was a rebellion against flabby school routine, insincere church attendance, flatulent concerns, boring parties designed for display and climbing, repellent counsel about ways of getting on in the world—to escapes making you feel that adventure was still possible.

The German Vandervogel groups tended to be led by individuals who have been characterized as "eternal adolescents"—unstable of purpose, diffusely emotional, dogmatically idealistic, intellectually fuzzy, and erotically fixated on leaders or followers—Becker thus describes them, and believes that "they found the gates of the adult world too high to scale or too forbidding to enter." The Vandervogel were also characterized by a strong homosexual tinge, a trait that may not be receiving adequate attention in studies of American gang behavior, in which personal adornment and fanciful hair styles, normally considered the province of female plumage, often represent the trademark of the gang member. The Vandervogel, however, were considerably more monastic than their American counterparts, which often have girl auxiliaries and extensive heterosexual involvement.

The Vandervogel engaged in numerous outings and camping expeditions, sometimes traveling to neighboring countries, where they acquired experience and information that later was to prove of considerable value to invading German troops during the second World War. It was during the course of the War, in fact, often as gestapo members, that Vandervogel initiates found a sympathetic response to their previous social protest, and it was in the gestapo that they often discovered a satisfying role to play and a niche that was able to provide them with the rewards and the recognition they desired.

The German and Russian material on gangs points consistently to the relationship between social conditions and the appearance of juvenile groups of a particular nature. The political and middle-class coloration of the German gangs and the prevalent pattern of mobility among the dispossessed Soviet youth are both adaptations different from the phenomenon of today's American urban, insular, and apolitical working-class gangs. It may be that we are soon to witness the birth of political awareness among American gangs, particularly as racial issues blaze in urban areas, and it may be that middle-class youths will revolt more pronouncedly against social pressures and gather together in defiant groups in order to render their protest more effective. If so, we will have to trace the origins of these movements to social conditions and base attempts to ameliorate them upon an understanding and interpretation of such conditions.

The lesson that might be read from the history of the German and Soviet youth movements is that there are at least two general ways of "reforming" gangs—one is to make them by one means or another conform more closely to the values of the major social system, while the other is to have that system move more closely toward their values. It would seem perhaps to be the better part of social wisdom, granting these choices, to aim for some sort of an intermediate condition: To offer to the gang member some acceptable use and outlet for his talents, feelings, and aspirations by effecting some alterations in the social system or in his ability to cope with it. In response to such widened opportunity, presumably the gang member will come to abandon some of his more unacceptable behavior.


While gangs have become an entrenched part of American society and there is a direct link between juvenile delinquency and gang violence, this article suggests that gangs need not be a necessary problem in all U.S. cities and that there are ways of combating them. Yet, the author contends that, given the nature of the societies in which gangs have been allowed to flourish, reducing the frequency of gang crimes will not be easily achieved.

Gang violence is linked to serious crimes like armed robbery and homicides, generally precipitated by one gang infringing on the territory of another. Despite the violent nature of these gangs, this article highlights that in relation to other criminally inspired groups in history, modern day gangs in the United States are relatively mild. The primary causes for the growth of gangs in society have historically been linked to major social upheaval. Using this argument, the article suggests that gangs are as much a reflection of a lack of general moral norms in society as opposed to evidence of growing juvenile delinquency.

The Soviet Union in the post-revolution years and Germany just prior to the World War II, are prime examples of environments in which social disharmony contributed to the growth of youth gangs. While this article was written in 1965, a period of considerably more social unrest than later decades, its thesis is significant—addressing the broader society is key to fixing the growing problems of juvenile delinquency.

The solutions offered by this article focus on motivating the broader American society to reach out to gang members and encourage them to use their talents and emotions for positive purposes. The article supports a method of treatment towards gang mem-bers based on respect rather than harsh discipline. It is believed that when gang members see themselves as more respectable youth rather than neglected citizens, they will feel more appreciated and be less prone to violence. This approach asserts that if gang members recognize that society is developing constructive opportunities for them, they will, in some part, abandon their criminal activities in favor of more lawful behavior.



Christensen, Loren W. Gangbangers: Understanding the Deadly Minds of America's Street Gangs. Boulder, Colo.: Paladin Press, 1999.

Hernandez, Arturo. Peace in the Streets: Breaking the Cycle of Gang Violence. Washington, D.C.: Child Welfare League of America, 1998.

Web sites

Safe "Youth Gangs." 〈〉 (accessed February 7, 2006).