Criminology Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs
Tereza Østbø Kuldova
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0300


Outlaw motorcycle clubs (OMCs), also referred to as outlaw motorcycle gangs (OMCGs), such as the iconic Hells Angels MC, emerged as a subculture after World War II in the United States, being attractive to a number of veterans. The clubs were originally outlaws from the motorcycle club community rather than the law. The “1%” patch that distinguishes these clubs as outlaw motorcycle clubs dates back to the infamous Hollister riot in 1947 during the Annual Gypsy Tour motorcycle rally organized by the American Motorcycle Association (AMA), following which AMA is said to have stated that 99 percent of motorcyclists were law-abiding and that the riot was caused by the 1 percent of deviant law-breakers. The AMA has denied this statement, but the 1% patch has since been worn as a badge of honor, and outlaw motorcycle clubs came to be known as “One Percenters.” The subculture grew over the following decades, as clubs established chapters in new localities in the United States and in the 1960s began their transnational expansion, which accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s. Simultaneously, they became a powerful figment of popular culture and have ever since straddled the fine line between fact and fiction, reinforcing their “power mystique.” The most influential outlaw motorcycle clubs, such as Hells Angels MC, Outlaws MC, and Bandidos MC, have morphed into strong transnational organizations, counting thousands of members worldwide. These clubs have, through skillful self-commodification and branding, inspired the global growth of the 1% subculture and a worldwide proliferation of outlaw motorcycle clubs with the same organizational structures, laws and by-laws, core values, and marks of distinction: the three-piece patches consisting of a club logo, top rocker with the name of the club, and bottom rocker with location, along with the 1% patch. OMCs have been connected to a broad specter of illegal and criminal activities and are considered organized crime groups by law enforcement agencies worldwide. Considerable resources are channeled into the fight against these groups. Despite the size of the phenomenon, criminological research on outlaw motorcycle clubs has been limited and is still dominated by studies from United States, New Zealand, and Australia, albeit growing recently in Europe. This bibliography includes references to key works from criminology and related disciplines, such as anthropology of crime, as well as literature concerned with the policing of OMCs. While there are numerous accounts of OMC life written by (ex-)members and undercover agents that can be of interest to researchers, this bibliography summarizes only high-quality research.

Definitional Dilemma and Research Approaches

Outlaw motorcycle clubs have been understood as deviant subcultures or countercultures, as a particular iteration of criminal and deviant (street) gangs, as organized crime groups, or as a mixture of these. While Barker 2015 and Lauchs, et al. 2015 analyze outlaw motorcycle clubs primarily through the lens of gang theory and crime, other works argue that OMCs have to be understood to a far greater degree as a phenomenon in their own right, despite sharing some features with gangs. This is partly also due to their (often transnational) organizational and power structures and far higher degree of formalization of club relations and matters through internal laws and by-laws, described in detail by Wolf 1991 and Piano 2017a (cited under Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs and Consumer Culture), among others. Arguments for more neutral terms, such as “clubs,” which recognize that OMCs are often officially registered associations whose involvement in crime varies even among the charters of the same club, have been put forward by works like von Lampe and Blokland 2020. This bibliography uses this neutral term precisely for these reasons, without taking theoretical sides. Roks and van Ruitenburg 2018 discusses what is at stake in the struggle over the “gang label,” and Lauchs and Staines 2019 (cited under Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs and Criminal Involvement) questions the degree to which outlaw bikers can be considered organized criminals. The larger tendency is such that those who study OMCs from the perspectives of policing, criminal justice, and quantitative approaches within criminology tend to analyze OMCs primarily as organized crime groups and gangs, while those who utilize perspectives from cultural, critical, and ultra-realist criminology, using qualitative and ethnographic methods, tend to understand OMCs more often as a subculture or as organizations in their own right, often because their analysis goes beyond the focus on crime. Within the latter academic genre, ethnographic works like Kuldova 2019, Veno 2009, Kuldova and Sánchez-Jankowski 2018, Wolf 1991, and Harris 1986 offer more nuanced perspectives on the clubs, arguing that these clubs cannot be understood exclusively through the lens of organized crime. These works show that OMCs offer a number of social goods to their members and supporters within concrete socioeconomic, political, and cultural contexts. Schmid 2021 raises methodological questions of how to study these groups and gain access to the field.

  • Barker, Thomas. 2015. Biker gangs and transnational organized crime. 2d ed. Waltham, MA: Anderson Publishing.

    Barker offers an introduction to the subject of OMCs, tracing their history and evolution from clubs to gangs and transnational organized crime groups, describing their organizational structures, while focusing primarily on their increased involvement in crime. The book also offers a useful overview of the most prominent clubs in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe, and traces the various responses to their expansion.

  • Harris, Ian R. 1986. Myth and reality in the motorcycle subculture. PhD diss., Univ. of Warwick.

    This iconic thesis traces the historical and cultural development of the outlaw motorcycle subculture from a deviant subculture in Southern California to an international and increasingly well-organized but also myth-ridden phenomenon, attempting to separate myth and popular fiction from reality. The thesis is unique and of interest also because it is written by a founding member of Hells Angels in Great Britain.

  • Kuldova, Tereza. 2019. How outlaws win friends and influence people. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-15206-2

    The book offers a unique ethnography of OMCs in Europe, analyzing the multiple reasons for their growth and the key drivers behind the support for these clubs, arguing that admiration of and recruitment into these organizations needs to be understood not only in terms of a range of material and “social goods” these clubs offer, but also in terms of the political and socioeconomic context in which they thrive.

  • Kuldova, Tereza, and Martín Sánchez-Jankowski, eds. 2018. Outlaw motorcycle clubs and street gangs: Scheming legality, resisting criminalization. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-76120-6

    The edited volume offers an entry point into the latest debates within the field, bringing together contributions from across criminology, sociology, and anthropology, and investigating both the overlapping and the diverging organizational and cultural logics of OMCs and street gangs, as well as the various ways in which these organizations resist criminalization, legitimize their existence, and integrate into society—thus challenging some of the dominant perspectives on OMCs.

  • Lauchs, Mark, Andy Bain, and Peter Bell. 2015. Outlaw motorcycle gangs: A theoretical perspective. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Pivot.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781137456298.0001

    This book offers a succinct introduction to the subject, offering a historical and theoretical overview of the field, discussing the role of labeling of these groups as deviant, the degree to which they can be understood as organized crime groups, policing strategies and international cooperation of law enforcement agencies, and political responses of governments to the threat of OMCs.

  • Roks, Robert, and Teun van Ruitenburg. 2018. Dutch gang talk: A reflection on the use of the gang label in the Netherlands. In Outlaw motorcycle clubs and street gangs: Scheming legality, resisting criminalization. Edited by Tereza Kuldova and Martín Sánchez-Jankowski, 69–92. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-76120-6_4

    Drawing on labeling theory, the authors trace the history and tensions associated with labeling of outlaw motorcycle clubs as “gangs” and organized crime groups in Netherlands, addressing, among others, the ways in which the Dutch outlaw motorcycle clubs attempted to resist the “gang label” in both media and the court. This is a particularly useful chapter for understanding the definitional dilemmas.

  • Schmid, Christian J. 2021. Ethnographic gameness: Theorizing extra-methodological fieldwork practices in a study of outlaw motorcycle clubs. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 50.1: 33–56.

    DOI: 10.1177/0891241620964945

    Schmid reflects in this article on doing ethnography with outlaw motorcycle clubs, the impact of one’s positioning, gender, background and “habitus,” and what it takes to immerse oneself in a deviant subculture. This is an honest, much needed, and interesting account for any student of OMCs.

  • Veno, Arthur. 2009. The brotherhoods: Inside the outlaw motorcycle clubs. Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin.

    Veno traces the history and evolution of outlaw motorcycle clubs in Australia, while offering insight into their culture and rituals through an ethnography of the Gypsy Joker MC. The book is written in an accessible style and is by now a classic introductory work on this subject.

  • von Lampe, Klaus, and Arjan Blokland. 2020. Outlaw motorcycle clubs and organized crime. Crime and Justice 49:521–578.

    DOI: 10.1086/708926

    The article focuses on two key issues: the criminality of outlaw motorcycle club members, and the functions of these clubs as organizational entities in relation to the crimes committed by these members. It reveals a need for a more nuanced conceptual discussion as well as further empirical research, while also offering a useful overview of literature focusing on crime and OMCs.

  • Wolf, Daniel R. 1991. The Rebels: A brotherhood of outlaw bikers. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.

    Wolf offers a unique and classic ethnography of the Rebels MC in Edmonton, Canada, analyzing in detail the seductions of outlaw biker life, identity, brotherhood, group-socialization and organizational and “political” structures, rituals that sustain the brotherhood, gender relations, and relations—both alliances and warfare—between different clubs, and with larger society and law enforcement.

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