In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gangs

  • Introduction
  • Journals
  • Reference Works
  • Defining Gangs
  • History of Gangs
  • Gang Theories and Approaches
  • Gang Typologies
  • Gang Processes
  • Gangs and the Internet and Social Media
  • Gang Member Ethnicity, Race, and Gender Identification
  • Gang Delinquency and Crime
  • Gang Membership and Victimization
  • Gangs and Drugs
  • Anti-gang Programs
  • Autobiographies
  • Case Studies of Gangs

Childhood Studies Gangs
Herbert Covey
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0185


Street gangs and law-violating youth groups have been present in Western societies for centuries. During the early twentieth century a few scholars began to study gangs, but almost as an afterthought to the larger issues of crime and delinquency. For decades, these gang scholars focused on the United States, because gangs were viewed as uniquely American. However, as gangs and gang culture have grown, spread, and become worldwide phenomena, the amount of governmental and academic interest throughout the world has also flourished. Today the volume of scholarship on gangs is at an all-time high. In the early twenty-first century, important changes in the study of gangs have emerged. In the past, much of our knowledge about gangs was derived from law enforcement agency records and occasional case studies. Gang research now relies on more complex, cross-sectional, longitudinal, and multidisciplinary study designs. These new research strategies have challenged old assumptions about the true nature of gangs. Currently, traditional theories and approaches to gangs are being redirected and revamped to match the contemporary gang scene. Gang theory is developing its own propositions and constructs. For example, scholars are beginning to look at social networks within and outside of gang boundaries. Scholars are incorporating concepts such as social capital, life course development, networks, geographical context, multiple marginalization, developmental stages, and globalization into theories and approaches Although gang scholarship has advanced, some issues remain unresolved and controversial. For example, the role of gangs and gang members in the distribution of illicit drugs continues to garner conflicting findings. In addition, the degree to which gangs share similar cultures or are shaped by local circumstances continues to be explored. How best to address the root causes of gangs and why individuals choose to join gangs are unresolved questions. Questions remain regarding the roles of ethnicity and immigration in the generation of gangs. The changing nature of gang membership poses new questions about the inner operations of gangs and what membership means to members. Concerns about gangs being ideal recruiting grounds for terrorist organizations are being voiced by some academics but challenged by others. In addition, evaluations of gang intervention programs have had mixed results, suggesting that the puzzle of how to best address gangs has not been solved. The absence of the resolution of these and other issues and the continuing expansion and their changing nature ensures that the study of gangs will flourish and continue to develop in the future.

Textbooks and Overviews

Overviews of gangs are typically found in texts and Anthologies. One exception is an encyclopedia on gangs, Kontos and Brotherton 2008 (cited under Gangs in the United States). General overviews and textbooks can be distinguished between those that focus on gangs in the United States and those that center on gangs in other countries. While scholarship on Gangs in the United States has developed for decades, studies on gangs outside of the United States have lagged but have recently surfaced. The textbooks cited in this section are suitable as college textbooks. All are well organized and touch on key subject areas related to gangs.

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