line Data limitations

Respondents were asked to exclude motorcycle gangs, hate or ideology groups, prison gangs, and exclusively adult gangs.

Despite the comprehensiveness of this survey and the use of a representative sample, there are some important limitations. As noted earlier, law enforcement data have some inherent weaknesses that might affect the conclusions presented in this Summary. Respondents to the survey were asked to base their responses on records or personal knowledge. Since it is impossible to determine which responses were based on official records and which were based on personal knowledge, the most conservative view would be that all responses were estimates by the individual or agency respondent.

Responses to survey questions likely were influenced by the respondents' perceptions of gangs in their jurisdictions. For instance, studies relying on law enforcement data tend to produce lower estimates of female involvement in gangs than general surveys (Esbensen and Winfree, in press). Furthermore, females are sometimes excluded from gang classification as a matter of policy (Curry, Ball, and Fox, 1994). These tendencies may have resulted in underreporting of female involvement in gangs by respondents to this survey.

Definitions continue to pose problems for practitioners and researchers evaluating gang activity on a national level. Little agreement has been reached on what constitutes a gang, gang member, or gang incident, despite efforts to gain a consensus (Law Enforcement Youth Gang Definitional Conference, 1989). In light of these problems, the current survey did not seek to define gang terms narrowly. The survey defined a youth gang as "a group of youths or young adults in (the respondent's) jurisdiction that (the respondent) or other responsible persons in (the respondent's) agency or community are willing to identify or classify as a 'gang.'" Respondents were asked to exclude motorcycle gangs, hate or ideology groups, prison gangs, and exclusively adult gangs. No definition was presented regarding what constitutes a gang member or gang incident, although respondents were asked whether the gang homicides reported in the survey were solely gang motivated.

The effect of the lack of a standardized definition of a gang was compounded by respondents who indicated that their definition of a gang included the following groups: taggers (58 percent), satanic groups (24 percent), "stoners" (20 percent), and terrorist groups (5 percent) (see figure 6). The reporting of such groups as "youth gangs" indicates that the definitional problems among law enforcement agencies are widespread.

The current survey did not specify what constitutes a troublesome youth group or a multiethnic/multiracial gang. As a result, responses concerning each category were wide ranging and difficult to interpret. For instance, there is no way to determine the degree to which gangs are multiethnic/multiracial. Some gangs may have a large variety of races/ethnicities while others may have only a few members whose race/ethnicity differs from the remainder of the gang. A lack of standardized definitions among respondents is an important limitation to the current survey and should be considered when drawing conclusions about the findings in this Summary.


1996 National Youth Gang Survey   July 1999