Clarifying the Concepts

Defining the Terms "Gang," "Gang Proliferation," and "Gang Migration"

Gang. There has been much debate over the term "gang," but little progress has been made toward widespread acceptance of a uniform definition. Some researchers prefer a broad definition that includes group criminal and noncriminal activities, whereas law enforcement agencies tend to use definitions that expedite the cataloging of groups for purposes of statistical analysis or prosecution. Variations in the forms or structure of gangs make it difficult to put forth one standard definition (Klein and Maxson, 1996). For example, researchers have attempted to draw a distinction between street gangs and drug gangs (Klein, 1995). Drug gangs are perceived as smaller, more cohesive, and more hierarchical than most street gangs and are exclusively focused on conducting drug deals and defending drug territories. Street gangs, on the other hand, engage in a wide array of criminal activity. Drug gangs may be subgroups of street gangs or may develop independently of street gangs. For the purposes of this Bulletin and the national surveys on gang migration conducted by USC, gangs were defined as groups of adolescents and/or young adults who see themselves as a group (as do others) and have been involved in enough crime to be of considerable concern to law enforcement and the community (Maxson, Woods, and Klein, 1995). In the USC survey, drug gangs were included in the overall grouping of gangs, but members of motorcycle gangs, prison-based gangs, graffiti taggers, and racial supremacy groups were excluded to narrow the focus to street gangs.

grafitti Another challenge in defining the term "gang" is the fluctuating structure of these groups. Over the course of adolescence and young adulthood, individual members move in and out of gangs, continually affecting the gangs' structure (Thornberry et al., 1993). The terms "wannabe," "core," "fringe," "associate," "hardcore," and "O.G." (original gangster) reflect the changing levels of involvement and the fact that the boundaries of gang membership are penetrable. Some researchers argue that the term "member" was created and used by law enforcement, gang researchers, and individuals engaged in gang activity with only a loose consensus of generalized, shared meaning.

Gang proliferation. The term "gang proliferation" indicates the increase in communities reporting the existence of gangs and gang problems (Knox et al., 1996). While gangs have existed in various forms, degrees, and locations in the United States for many decades, the sheer volume of cities and towns documenting recent gang activity cannot be denied. Some of this increase may be attributed to a heightened awareness of gang issues, redirection of law enforcement attention, widespread training, and national education campaigns. Nevertheless, gangs exist in locations previously unaffected and attract a larger proportion of adolescents than in the past. 1

Gang migration. The already difficult task of defining gangs is compounded when the relationship between gang migration and proliferation is addressed. Gang migration -- the movement of gang members from one city to another -- has been mentioned with increasing frequency in State legislative task force investigations, government-sponsored conferences, and law enforcement accounts at the Federal, State, and local levels (Bonfante, 1995; Hayeslip, 1989; California Council on Criminal Justice, 1989; Genelin and Coplen, 1989; McKinney, 1988; National Drug Intelligence Center, 1994, 1996). For the USC study, migration was broadly defined to include temporary relocations, such as visits to relatives, short trips to sell drugs or develop other criminal enterprises, and longer stays while escaping crackdowns on gangs or gang activity. More permanent changes, such as residential moves (either individually or with family members) and court placements, were also included. Individuals in the study did not have to participate in gang activity in the destination city to be considered gang migrants. This broad definition of gang migration allowed researchers to investigate the degree of gang-organized and gang-supported expansion of members to other locations, of which little evidence was found. It also allowed researchers to examine variations in gang activity in the destination city and the many reasons for relocating. If the concept of migration was limited to individuals or groups traveling solely for gang-related purposes or at the direction of gang leaders, the patterns of migration would change drastically. Further, collective gang migration is rare, but the migration of individual gang members is not.

Another complication in defining gang migration is the distinction between migrant gang members (migrants) and indigenous gang members, which often fades over time. As migrants settle into new locations, sometimes joining local gangs, their identities may evolve to the point to which their prior gang affiliation no longer exists. This process of assimilation into local gang subcultures has not been addressed in research literature, because law enforcement officers and researchers have only recently begun to discuss gang migration. In future studies, researchers should consider at what point a migrant gang member is no longer perceived as a migrant but as a local gang member in the new location.

  1. Few studies attempt to assess the proportion and age of adolescent gang members within a given area. Recent information on self-identified membership from longitudinal projects for representative samples in Denver, CO, and Rochester, NY, (Thornberry and Burch, 1997) is available from the OJJDP-funded Program of Research on the Causes and Correlates of Delinquency. Approximately 5 percent of youth living in "high-risk" neighborhoods in Denver indicated that they were gang members in any given year (Esbensen, Huizinga, and Weiher, 1993). In Rochester, 30 percent of the sample reported gang membership at some point between the beginning of the seventh grade and the end of high school (Thornberry and Burch, 1997). To address the issue of gang proliferation within Denver or Rochester, new samples would need to be examined to determine whether the proportion of youth joining gangs in these cities has increased since the initial sampling period (nearly 10 years ago).

    Prevalence estimates derived from law enforcement identification of gang members have been challenged, as when Reiner (1992) reported that, according to the gang data base maintained for Los Angeles County, 9.5 percent of all men ages 21 to 24 were identified gang members. However, this proportion increased to 47 percent when the analysis was limited to black males ages 21 to 24. This figure has been generally recognized as a vast overstatement of black gang membership.

Gang Members on the Move Juvenile Justice Bulletin   ·  October 1998