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date: 04 March 2021

The Global Comparative Study of Gangs and Other Non-State Armed Groupslocked

  • Nicholas BarnesNicholas BarnesSchool of International Relations, University of St. Andrews

Summary

After nearly a hundred years of debate and analysis, the gang concept remains hotly contested within the social sciences. Once thought to be an exclusively American phenomenon, the study of gangs has become increasingly global over the last decade. Countries from every world region have observed the emergence of gangs and gang-like groups. In some places, gangs resemble their American counterparts, while in others they engage not only in petty crime and drug trafficking but in targeted assassinations, corruption of public officials, and racketeering as well. These activities make them less like the delinquent youth groups they were once conceived as and more akin to organized crime. In less stable and violent contexts, gangs have even been incorporated into ethnic militias, rebel groups, and paramilitaries or have taken on a more vigilante ethos by combating violence and providing some semblance of order. The remarkable proliferation of the gang form and the incredible variation in the phenomenon across the globe requires a reassessment of the gang concept.

In the limited literature that focuses on the study of gangs cross-nationally, several conceptualizations have been proposed. Some scholars have attempted to separate smaller street gangs from a variety of other related phenomena: prison gangs, drug gangs, and organized crime. They have done so by crafting a more restrictive concept. However, while separating street gangs from other criminal groups may make sense in the American or European context, it applies less well to other parts of the globe where such organizational forms have become thoroughly integrated, thus blurring these traditional conceptual boundaries. At the same time, some scholars have advocated for a conceptual framework that captures the transformative nature of gangs and encompasses any and all types of gangs and gang-like groups. Such an evolutionary framework fails, however, to distinguish between gangs and a huge variety of criminal and political nonstate armed groups that share little in terms of their origins, motivations, or activities. It can be argued that the best conceptualization is a minimal one that incorporates gangs and many gang-like groups but avoids conceptual stretching to include virtually all nonstate armed groups. Ultimately, contemporary scholars of gangs within any national context must be increasingly attentive to the global dimensions of the gang organizational form and the various overlapping and multifaceted relationships they maintain with a variety of other nonstate armed groups.

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