New zealand youth gangs: key findings and recommendations from an urban ethnography

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new zealand youth gangs: key findings and
recommendations from an urban ethnography

Erin J. Eggleston1

Senior Psychologist

Psychological Service

Department of Corrections


"The gang has taken on the responsibility of doing what the family, school, and other social agencies have failed to do – provide mechanisms for age and sex development, establish norms of behaviour, and define and structure outlets for friendship, human support an the like." (Vigil 1988:168)

This paper discusses the findings of a study focused on understanding the experience of youth in gangs. In this study I used participant observation as a method for entering the semi-secretive youth-gang world, and through thematic analysis I examined "youth talk" from 54 recorded interviews. The results of this analysis yielded themes of belonging, gender, vulnerability and trouble. The key issues that emerged from the study include a working definition for the New Zealand youth gang, why New Zealand youth are so influenced by American cultural icons, concerns related to gender development, and suggestions for future research topics.

The Background section below provides an overview of the relevant literature on gangs. This is followed by a brief description of the methods used in the study, a summary of the themes that developed from analysis of the interview data, and finally a discussion of the key issues relevant to policy that emerged from the study.

background on youth gangs

Across the history of the urbanised world, youth subcultures and the moral panic (Cohen 1972, Goode and Ben-Yehuda 1994) surround them have thrived. By predominantly focusing on the associated crime, drugs and fighting, a moral panic emerges and this sometimes prevents an accurate understanding of the experience of young people. Perhaps the panic is partly about fear that there are some very appealing aspects of youth subcultures that families frequently cannot provide.

Historical Perspective on New Zealand Youth Gangs

Looking back on the history of young people in New Zealand, urban "larrikinism" and delinquency were reported with concern as early as 18922. However, it was not until the 1950s, a time of economic prosperity and urbanisation3, that a national youth subculture developed, with the emergence of the New Zealand teenager. At that time the delinquent groups of "Bodgies" and "Widgies" created a moral panic concerning their inter-rival fighting, rebellious nature, sexual promiscuity, occasional hooliganism, and "evil" rock music (Yska 1993, Manning 1958). They were described by Auckland psychologist A. Manning (1958) as the "active boils on the body of society" (p.89).

In addition to the urbanisation of Māori and rural working-class Pākehā, the perceived labour deficit of the 1950s promoted an influx of immigrants from the Islands of the Pacific. As Payne (1997) suggests, the "King Cobras" developed from a displaced community of ethnically diverse4, working-class families that made Ponsonby their home. During the 1960s and 1970s, youth were involved with the emerging and established adult gangs, "Black Power", the "Mongrel Mob", King Cobras, and the international adult motorcycle gangs such as "Hells Angels". With the exception of "skin-head" groups (Payne 1997), I can find little evidence of a national youth-gang subculture.
The most crucial influence for youth during the late 1970s and 1980s was America, symbolised by the surging "McDonaldalisation" (Ritzer 1993) of New Zealand form the early 1980s until the present day. American television programmes, clothing, music, sports and film stars, took New Zealand by storm (Tomlinson 1991). The gang film Colors (Solo and Harper 1988) was an inspiration for many young, wayward New Zealanders, who attempted to emulate the romanticised version of gang life that the movie depicts5.
Youth street gangs, usually of ethnically homogeneous composition, became common in the cities. While the image of the African-American "Crip" and "Blood" gangs appealed to Polynesian and Māori youth, New Zealand Pākehā were involved in both these and the European-inspired "skinheads". Similar to the "Bodgie" youth phenomenon of the 1950s and linked to the community style of gang formation of the original "King Cobras", youth gangs of the 1990s differ from the more established New Zealand adult gangs in terms of their recent history and the age of the members. While New Zealand youth gangs may call themselves "Crips" and "Bloods", it is questionable whether they accurately resemble their American counterparts.

Sociological, Psychological and Criminological Perspectives

H.D. Sheldon, in 1898, used the term "gang" to refer to spontaneous societies of young people who engaged in predatory acts of property and violent crimes (cited in Decker and Van Winkle 1996). In his 1927 classic, The gang: a study of 1303 gangs in Chicago, Thrasher set out to explain the inter-generational nature of gang neighbourhoods. He found three consistent ecological features: deteriorating neighbourhoods, shifting populations and disorganisation of the slum. Thrasher (1927) described the gang as "the spontaneous effort of boys to create a society for themselves where none adequate to their needs exists" (p.37) and recognised the gang hangout as "the hub of the gang boy's universe" (p.90).

The American male gang member was originally regarded as a spirited, venturesome an fun-loving individual who lived in lower-class immigrant communities situated in transitional inner city areas (Thrasher 1927). Whyte (1943) emphasised the stable, organised and community-integrated character of youth gang members, while others saw connections between such youthful groups and organised adult crime (Spergel 1964), Cloward and Ohlin 1960, Shaw and McKay 1942). Cohen (1955) argued that rather than examining each boy becoming delinquent we could look at "gangs of boys doing things together" (p.178). He stressed the togetherness from which gangs derived their meaning.
The work of Short in the 1960s and 1970s highlighted the psychosocial nature of gangs. Short and Strodtbeck (1974) suggested that sociologists had tended to focus on macro-level and group processes t the expense of examining more closely why individuals behave the way they do. As Kelin (1995) notes, Yablonsky's (1962) book The Violent Gang raised concerns regarding the psychopathy of gang leaders and individual susceptibility of gang members. While Yablonsky may have over-emphasised the individual nature of gang behaviour his work did serve to highlight the point that person-centred issues were often ignored by the sociological literature. As Klein has suggested, "street gang members get into any and every kind of trouble" (p.22), a phenomenon he described as "cafeteria style crime" (p.22).
In his definition of the street gang Klein excludes skinheads, bikers, terrorists, Satanists, tagger crews, car clubs and street corner pals as described by Whyte (1943). Klein suggests that the mot difficult groups to exclude are the "wannabe" groups who are trying out gang life.
Perhaps the reason such as distinction is so difficult relates to the pervasive popularity of American youth gang culture across widely differing groups of youth. In New Zealand it is apparent that many "wannabe" youths watch the gang movies and listen to the gang rap: they play around with gang styles, names, initiations, symbols and legends. As the gang culture is considered "cool" across a broad spectrum of New Zealand youth, the lines as to where groups of friends become "wannabe" groups and "wannabe" groups become gangs are very difficult to draw. It is likely that in addition to such American gang culture there is also a New Zealand youth culture operating which could blend quite well with American gang ideals in the formation of a New Zealand street gang.
The gang may be conceptualised as a means for young men to relate to each other. In a self-report study with 131 participants, Lyon et al. (1992) found no differences in family relations between gang members and other serious offenders, yet gang members tended to be more aggressive and less socially mature than other serious offenders. In concurrence with Short and Strodtbeck (1965), Lyon et al. hypothesised such aggression to typify friendships between gang members – for example, such pseudo-aggression as body-punching – due to social disabilities that preclude other ways of relating.
Thornberry et al. (1993) concluded that the group processes of the gang and the normative support it provides for criminal behaviour generate a social contest in which such troubling behaviour flourishes. Similarly, in Sweden Sarnecki (1990) found that affiliation within what he described as "asocial networks" (p.46) advanced knowledge of criminal techniques, fostered drug dependence and minimised the possibility of employment. Curry and Spergel (1992), in a study of Chicago school children, found that gang involvement did not always precede criminal behaviour, and some youths were involved with gangs yet not in crime (14% of their sample). One important conclusion that can be drawn from this is that gangs do not exist for the sole purpose of crime.
Thrasher (1927) and other proponents of what came to be known as the "Chicago school" (Sutherland 1947, Shaw and McKay 1969, Kornhauser 1978) brought an ecological perspective to the study of gangs. They suggested that delinquency was a product of where children lived, rather than individual deviancy, as traditional psychological models posit. Later, Cloward and Ohlin (1960) merged Sutherland's differential association concept with Merton's (1938) anomie theory to provide a further angle on the origins of criminal behaviour. That is, gang crime did not arise simply from conformity to deviant norms, bad families, or lack of controls. Instead, the source of crime lay in frustration. The poor were basically the same as the middle-class with the exception of being unable to attain American cultural goals and achieve success (Hagedorn 1997). The gang was therefore a response to such a lack of opportunity (Bourgois 1989).
Moore (1985) describes Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles as disproportionately representative of an urban underclass; a group that strives in vain to escape the "ascribed deviance" associated with minority persons in the ghetto and tries to achieve the benefits of a middle-class lifestyle. Moore defines ascribed deviance as when society stereotypically labels some minority persons as "probably deviant" and should be distinguished form the achieved deviance of the drug addict or criminal. When the suspicious majority – anxious to avert and control possible deviance – have power over the police, schools and organised services for youth, many children are groundlessly assumed to be deviant; many may become deviant as a result.
Vigil's (1983) "multiple marginality" integrates the psychosocial effects of living in an underclass with the conflicts of cultural assimilation and acculturation. While most struggle to make the best of their marginality, gang members personify the "cumulative effects of these multiple status crises" (p.68). Similarly, Joe and Chesney-Lind (1995) examined common themes of youth gang membership in Hawaii and describe the gang as a social outlet and alternative family (also see Spergel 1995) with a boring, under-resources and distressed community.

Youth Perspectives on Gangs

Members have given researchers many reasons for joining gangs. These include material incentives of the criminal subculture, affiliation, physical protection or personal safety, resistance to being like their parents, a form of commitment to their community, boredom, peer pressure, fun, partying, thrills and excitement (Decker and Van Winkle 1996, Fleisher 1995, Spergel 1995, Scheidlinger 1994, Campbell 1990, Sanchez-Jankowski 1991, Hagedorn 1988, Katz 1988, Vigil 1988, Sarnecki 1990, Vigil 1983, Spergel 1964, Cohen 1955, Whyte 1943). Like Thrasher's (1927) boys and Cohen's (1955) boys, it is apparent that the gang members of the 1990s still spend most of their time hanging out. As one of Hagedorn's participants puts it, "If I didn't have no job that's where I'd be. To me it's like community help without all the community" (1988:131).

Decker and Van Winkle (1996) have focused on threats of physical violence, whether real or perceived, as a model to account for the decision to join a gang. Based on field research they characterise the reasons for joining the gang in terms of a series of "pulls" that attract individuals to the gang, and "pushes" which compelled the individual to join. Ironically, they found while threat (perceived need for protection) compelled individuals to join the gang and increased their level of activity and commitment to the gang, it was also the reason that many cited for leaving the gang.
The academic literature on youth gangs provides us with valuable background information to help us understand the phenomenon. The tendency for researchers to focus on troubling behaviours, however, may be at the expense of a wider understanding of what it is like to be youth. This is particularly noticeable in the youth gang literature, where I have read much about the perspectives of the researcher, yet hear very little from the participants. While participant testimony may at times be designed to mystify both researcher and participant (Campbell 1984), I am convinced that the emic (Vigil and Long 1990) or participant story is worth telling. I became interested in the psychosocial question of how youth conceptualise their world and themselves within it. In the course of my research with gangs I have tried to understand what it is like to be a youth gang member in New Zealand. I set out to examine gang members' thoughts about why they joined a gang and to explore what they understood to be the central themes of youth gang membership.


This study was guided by the premise that the best information about the experience of young people would come from young people contacted directly in the field. Access to this semi-secretive group of youth was gained through a prior study of a youth programme (Eggleston 1996) and follow-up study (Eggleston 1997), after which interviews with 10 long-term participants were sought to consult with them on the idea of a youth gang study. Three of these participants provided introductions to people in the youth gang world. They advised me to interview youth gang members in the Weymouth youth facility (generating 27 participants from 16 different youth gangs), before going into the field to hang out with a neighbourhood gang.

I spent time in the field with two youth gangs, C2S of Mt Roskill (10 participants were interviewed) and Roughnecks of Royal Oak (four participants were interviewed). I interviewed three ex-members of youth gangs as a result of contacts generated while in the field and had many casual conversations with participants who chose not to be formally interviewed. The 55 interviewed participants ranged in age from 11 to 24 years (mean = 15.8 years) and across Māori, Pākehā, Tongan, Fijian, Niuean, Cook Island, Tokelau an Samoan ethnic groups6.
Readers should be warned that despite the precautions of cultural safety taken by the researcher (including a research partnership with Te Whakapakari Youth Programme), a New Zealand Pākehā male such as myself will obtain a different perspective with different emphases from a person of different cultural or gender background who looks at the same information. This does not mean that either perspective is right or wrong but that both are culturally and gender bound. This study does not include any female gangs (despite their existence), although two female gang affiliates were interviewed in the Weymouth sample. Throughout this paper, the names of the participants have been altered to protect identity.


Hammersley and Atkinson (1995) define ethnography as oriented towards "exploring the nature of particular social phenomena, rather than setting out to test hypotheses about them" (p.248). Within the ethnographic method, participant observation is the specific method used in this study. As the words "participant observation" suggest, this research method involves looking, listening and experiencing a social setting and then writing it all down (May 1993). Bernard (1994) defines participant observation as "… getting close to people and making them feel comfortable enough with your presence so that you can observe and record information about their lives" (P.136) Buraway et al. (1991) distinguishes participant observation from all other methods of social research on the basis of breaking the barrier between those who study (observers) and those who are studies (participants). When doing research with criminals Polsky (1985) makes clear the problematic circumstances surround researchers pretending to be "one of them" or, as Jorgensen has put it, "becoming the phenomenon" (cited in Bernard 1994:137). Yet by expressing an interest in understanding what it is like to be "them", the researcher may succeed in establishing an observational role within the social setting of the study.

The method of participant observation was chosen for this project as it enabled distinct advantages over other methods. Firstly, through experience in the field setting the research is able to gain a broad perception of the sociocultural environment, exploring a range of areas before focusing on specific variables. When conducting cross-cultural research and aiming to develop participant-centred texts this is important because it both widens the lens through which the researcher observes, and encourages the acquisition of local knowledge as a precursor to the collecting of texts. Secondly, the emotional, cognitive, social and physical experiences of the participant observer in the field setting add life to participant texts. Thirdly, the method of expressing personal, field-based experience beside participant texts promotes a distinction between the cultural baggage of self-experience (attitudes and ideas from one's own culture that can distort perceptions of participant experience) (Hammon 1990) and the experience of the other. Potter (1995) describes this as reflexive validity.
While experience in the field setting is the cornerstone of participant observation, ethnographers often use interviews as a key sub-method for generating texts of participant talk. The difference between interviews conducted by an ethnographer and those of a sociologist or psychologist is the ability of the ethnographer to accurately draw out and contextualise texts based on experience and rapport within the field setting (May 1993). The local knowledge derived from participation concerns the meaning of particular phenomena for the insider. Such a shift form a psychologist's concern for accuracy of representation to an ethnographer's search for meaning through participation somewhat addresses the point Hagedorn (1996) raises with regard to the presentational accounts of gang members' talk:

Use of hype is a common strategy for gang members, particularly younger kids, who want to build themselves up to an outsider … the less familiar the interviewer is with the respondent, the greater opportunity exists for the respondent to exaggerate or to produce an account which creates a role of "gang member" to match the background expectations of the researcher. (p.5)

Hagedorn advises that the use of multiple methods is the best way to triangulate and verify data and reduce "hype". In this study such triangulation includes young and older participants, new and experienced gang members, multiple members from the same gang, personal experience and observations made while with the gang and/or individual participants over an extended period of time. Interview hype is recognisable, understood and able to be contextualised by the ethnographer in the field in a way that weaves meaning through participant texts. This is unlike the psychological interviewer who, lacking context, is driven by a concern for accurate reporting of data.

Thematic Analysis

Unlike a traditional psychological approach which "listens" carefully to texts to reliably or validly categorise, diagnose or identify symptoms, the purpose of reading and attending here was for learning about the meanings that were real and relevant to the speakers. Drawing originally from sociology, this analytical method is known as thematic analysis (Kellehear 1993). Ideally, participant texts "speak" around a range of desired issues and the analyst develops themes that accurately represent participant texts. As validity of interpretation rests on "how well a researcher's understanding of a culture parallels that culture's view of itself" (p.38) participant observation is arguably an excellent data-gathering method to accompany theme analysis. By using participant texts as the orienting stimulus for interpretation, the analysis becomes inductive.

A limitation of this analysis is that I was only able to present what Kellehear described as "a point of view" (1993:43) [emphasis added]. Given the multicultural context of this study (not simply ethnic but also the experience of being a young person, the culture of poverty, and the criminal subculture) such experience adds credibility to what can be described as an (not the) interpretation. I start with the assumption that, as a group, youth may know things about what it is like to be youth that adults do not know. Further, I assume that New Zealand youth, particularly those in urban areas, do share some common ground as a group, that there is to some degree a "youth culture".


The following themes were developed in the course of analysis: "belonging", "vulnerability", "gender", and "trouble". These are discussed below.


Overriding most gang activity seemed to be a desire for affiliation and belonging. In general participants either described the togetherness of the gang or the social life it created. With regard to togetherness they described being "really good mates" or hanging with "the boys". In terms of social life, members talked about parties, girls, telling jokes together, laughing, meeting new people, and becoming "famous"7 (popular), as a result of membership. Such attributes of the gang could be considered "normal" to the world of the adolescent male. That is, gang members did not seem particularly different to non-gang members in their desire for social fun; however, their fun was often a key link to troublesome behaviour. Participant discussion included:

"You got lots of friends, umm and just like hanging out together and having fun, we just have heaps of fun. We always do everything together." (Xkon)

"Well man you have good mates, like you get to know them, you get to hang around with them a lot. And they always make us laugh and get us into trouble, they get us into trouble and we have to all be in it … but when we come back we always talk about it and laugh." (Has)

"Aw it's like a second family if you need any help, they'll be there. Need a place to stay, they'll be there. Need any alcohol, they'll be there." (Drew)

"Friends, doing things together, but like when you get in trouble and fight another gang you've got the boys." (Jase)

"First we go to the nightclub, drink up and spend up and get real wasted as. Then go do a job, get some more cash, cruise back to the nightclub. Go do some drugs, find a couple of chicks. Cruise back to the wholesalers and take them back to our house and rage up." (Henry)

Occurring in a domain controlled by teenagers, gang life was emotionally charged, exciting, promoting of freedom, yet fraught with threats and confrontations. Participant stalked about the physical consequences of fighting, such as getting into trouble with your mates, worrying your parents, bringing trouble to your siblings and damage to the family homes.


The gang was viewed as a powerful entity, one that functioned to protect people "versus always getting the smash" (being beaten up). As one participant stated, "You know your friend are there for you." A feeling of vulnerability within youth increased the likelihood of seeking gang-based protection and association. In ironic contradiction, while gang members subjectively believed gangs were good protective agencies, joining a gang had a number of consequences that functioned to dramatically increase participants' needs for protection, their scope of vulnerability to violence, and pressure to commit crimes:

"You know how you take your girlfriend out to town and all that, I was always scared man. Inside myself, I was always scared. 'Cause you know what it's like when you catch one of their guys, smash him … you think you're hard when you're with your gang, but that's when it really comes down to it when you are by yourself." (Capone)

"Sometimes you go back and hurt people who you have known for years and you are really close to but you have to do that because that's the gang." (Tanya)

"Like you know, probably try and test you out see if you are down with your colour and say, 'that's a nice car, why don't you break into it?' You have to do it, that's how they test how loyal you are to the brothers." (Quinn)

The increase in violence, threats and pressure to commit crimes were coupled with a feeling of togetherness, helping, supporting and generally backing each other up. The prospect of one fight alone possibly seemed scarier than ten fights with a group.


"Gangs are for men" and "caring for women" themes functioned as complementary forms of exclusionary talk. Participants suggested that girls should stay home and relax; that they had no interest in girls when with the gang; and girls should not be in the youth gang scene as gangs are only meant for guys. Members very rarely allowed young women to step into gang space in public, yet the peripheral presence of women supported the "maleness" of the gang core. Members suggested a "caring for women" theme towards girlfriends on the periphery of the gang: "It's not a place to take your girlfriend, gang parties" (Capone). This idea was also used with girls who were pregnant to a gang member and "looked after" by the gang, and girls who hung out with the gang for protection. Importantly, they "looked after" the women as associates and supporters of the gang, but not as gang members. The "caring for women" theme allowed the gang member to explain himself as a responsible and charitable man who looks after "his" women. In support of theories suggesting the gang as a form of resistance to lack of opportunity, youth gangs in the present study were masculating (they increased "maleness") because they offered opportunity for "poor" boys to provide for women like a middle-class "rich boy" could.

In contrast to the girlfriends on the periphery of the youth gang, if women "crossed the line" and attempted to function in "men's space" as members, they lost their traditional female supporting role. Such women were forced into a degrading sexual role by the members who conceptualised them as "rootbags" who could be used and abused without respect, with gang rape being the most violent and unusual example of this.

"Aw sometimes, sometimes you get the old gang bang. They want it but then after a while they get embarrassed and they say aw they raped me. Ha ha." (Ed)

We don't go with the same girls all the time 'cause we don't wanna be passing round all our germs. You see, to the other boys. Aw that's one thing we don't get into the old gang bang. Aw man, that's what you call sickening. They don't even wash themselves after the other one has gone through." (Denny)

"So who do you think it's sickening for?" (Researcher)

"Both of them man. The girl and the boy" (Denny)

"So do you feel sorry for the girl?" (Researcher)

"Yeah, I feel sorry. Sometimes they have no choice, eh." (Denny)


Trouble was defined by participants as illegal activity (such as car theft, aggravated robbery, and fights), and often as the process one went through when the illegal aspects of one's behaviour became known to the police. Participants talked about trouble in terms of trouble being part of the youth gang scene, as money, fun, an easy way to obtain commodities and, most seriously, trouble was about "being bad".

Most participants suggested that at times they were passive actors in their social world: "We don't cause trouble, trouble just comes to us" (Dee), "You get into a lot of trouble and it's not really your fault" (Has). It was evident that trouble was normal within the social boundaries of the street culture and participants were involved in many spontaneous troubling activities; as Bugs said, "every week we probably steal something". Critically, however, such an attitude creates a veneer of being out of control, which in turn dispels personal responsibility for antic-social behaviour and distances members from experiencing empathy for their victims.
Trouble was also talked about as fun. Fun in the street culture was often seen by adults as rebel behaviour; yet to be a rebel ("bad") seemed desirable to many young people. Older participants talked about "kids" thriving on "badness", playing with guns, and doing drugs.

"… it's jut fun while you're young; yeah, it's fun when you're doing crime … it's just a buzz but it's not fun when you get caught." (Drew)

For many participants, trouble was about getting money so one could be "normal" or have the opportunity to participate in some of the fun that "rich people" were perceived to have, such as taking a girlfriend out on the town. Similarly, trouble was described as easy, meaning a high chance of short-term success in obtaining money, cars, clothing, alcohol or drugs.

"For a Crip, you can make easy cash, make money doing crime." (Kurby)

"Hanging out with the boys you can always get drugs." (Johnny)

Some of the hard-core youth gang members, talked about "getting paid" so they could have it easy, get the drugs into their system, or just amass cash. They talked about doing crime every day unless they had money in their pocket.

"It's all about getting paid. That's what a gangster is, you gotta support your habits. You just do what you gotta do to get your drugs and alcohol into your system. Like I do crime every day unless I got bulk money in my pocket." (Dean)

Dean suggested "everyone was bad" and that gang members were the only ones being true to their real selves:

"Cause everybody's bad you know. There is no point pretending to be good. Just be your real self. Everyone's got that evilness inside them eh. It's pure evil that's what it is. I wasn't born good. If I was born good, I wouldn't be here right now saying what I'm saying." (Dean)

Such participants as Dean did not emphasise the belonging and affiliation in the youth gang. They were deviant in terms of being seriously violent, apparently without remorse, untrustable, and dedicated only to money, drugs and alcohol (Hagedorn (1997) calls such members "New Jacks"). Despite a minority of New Jack participants who were seriously antisocial, most of the talk around being "bad" was about trying to appear bad:

"Na, they are just trying to be bad. Yeah, just trying to be bad … 'Cause you know it's not good being famous like that, but you know, little kids, not kids but when you're that age you thrive on it. Even if you get in trouble like it's a big thing, even if they get out, get let off or they've done their PD [Periodic Detention] it's just a big thing. That's what boys of that age go through. You know we used to go, 'oh we smashed them, oh we robbed them,' you know." (Capone)


The key issues that emerged from this research concerned how best to define youth gangs, gender issues, the influence of American culture, and the nature of members' commitment to their gangs.

Defining Gangs

Drawing from the definitional work of US researchers, I could exclude 15 of the 55 interviewed participants as "wannabes" (Klein 1995) who do not have a criminal orientation to life. Despite having a greatly increased risk of being involved with "trouble" compared to the general population, such participants were trying out the gang scene as a way to "get famous" and stayed away from much of the crime. Less than 10 of the remaining 40 could be defined at the opposing end of the scale, as seriously anti-social "New Jacks". These were young people who were not interested in being popular, having fun and enjoying the company of peers; rather they led a life of crime and violence directed towards amassing cash and using drugs. The New Zealand youth gang in the middle could be defined as a semi-secret, protective, structured group of loyal adolescents, living in a common community, sharing common social interests, who had little regard for their almost daily, risky, illegal behaviour.

In order to further define youth gangs in New Zealand, future research should broaden the unit of analysis from the individual within the youth gang (as the present study has done) to the gang itself as the base unit. My limited between-gang experience would suggest that there are more significant between-gang differences than within-gang differences in terms of seriousness of troubling behaviour. The difference between the predominantly "wannabe" gangs and the well established, actively criminal gangs was a good example of this.
Clarification of the "wannabe" group may prove useful for community initiatives. For example, participants suggested that tagging was the most prevalent starting point for youth gang members, yet the current sample did not include those taggers who did not become involved in youth gangs. Future research could follow tagger crews and document what happens to their members. Do they become gang members? If not, why not? A focus on the younger age group (9-13 years) may prove more useful than the present study in terms of backgrounding policy on early intervention. Further, the difference between tagger crews and graffiti artists remains somewhat unexplored in New Zealand.


The concept of the exclusively male gang is supported by cultural ideology suggesting men must learn to be men from men; boys have little to gain from associating with women if they want to be "successful" men (Silverstein and Rashbaum 1994). Firstly, as Vigil's quote (1988) at the outset of this article suggests, it could be argued that the gang is developmental, that is, it allows boys to experiment with their manliness. Secondly, Silverstein and Rashbaum (1994) have suggested that the cultural downplaying of important, traditionally feminine traits, has allowed the complexity of emotions within adolescence – the fear, horror, sadness, isolation, pain and hurt – to be transformed into aggressive actions and experienced as anger. Finding the forum to allow young men to explore and experience their emotions is a difficult yet necessary task.


American culture is appealing to a wide array of New Zealanders, not least young people who are struggling to establish an identity. Like their advertised idols, they talk with Americanisms, dress in American sport clothing, listen to hip-hop and rap music, watch gang movies, eat at American fast food restaurants, play basketball, and carry knives and sometimes guns. It is notable that many older youth refer to the gang film Colors (Solo and Harper 1988) as the beginning of "Crips" and "Bloods" in New Zealand. Many contemporary youth are finding American cultural icons preferable to their own. The Americanisms of the New Zealand youth gangs of the present study separate them from the well-established New Zealand adult gangs8.

Such conclusions are supportive of further resourcing the strengthening of culture in New Zealand. The present study suggests that youth-driven initiatives that promote a pro-social peer culture will be most attractive. Handing money, premises and appropriate support to young people to develop their own place and exciting peer culture is an unsettling yet absolutely necessary task. Further, the allure of American cultural icons may be representative of the weakening of New Zealand culture and arguably the relatively recent urbanisation of Māori and Pacific Island cultures (Johnston 1973). Support for Māori and Pacific Island urban cultural initiatives may therefore be especially important.

Talking the Talk

I was particularly interested in some of the "New Jack talk" which came straight from movies like "Menace II Society" (Scott and Hughes 1993). As one participant said about his gang, "We are a product of society you know, created by all the fuckin' evilness in the world." His friend added, "Like a menace to society."

The link between ways of speaking and ways of acting would be interesting to explore. It may be that many youth are adept at "talking the talk" fed by the mass media, but do they "walk the walk"? This study suggests that, once probed, most gang youth are not as ruthless and menacing as they say. While the menacing bravado of street speech sells movies, it may also "disguise the vulnerability of fearful boys" (Fleisher 1995:118), and, as Moore (1985) has suggested, mark a feeling of isolation from middle-class aspirations.
Fleisher (1995) conceptualises a child's attempt to join a gang in terms of a struggle to gain recognition and acceptance within the "right" community group. Finally, future research could explore the rhetoric surrounding the idea of joining a gang to support one's culture.


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2 Urban juvenile delinquency was understood as the "besetting sin" of colonialism and referred to by the Police Commissioner of 1892 as "undoubted evil" (Beagle 1974:208)

3 Such urbanisation was particularly relevant to Māori, who had lost their traditional tribal means of subsistence, given huge blocks of their land had been appropriated by Pākehā. With urbanisation Māori came face to face with discrimination and disadvantage.

4 While predominantly Samoan, the original King Cobras included people of Tongan, Niuean, Māori, Cook Island, and Pākehā descent (Payne 1997).

5 Interestingly, gang members and researchers from the United States also attribute the movie "Colors" as the marker for the proliferation of "Crip" and "Blood" gangs throughout their country (Decker and Van Winkle 1996, Klein 1995).

6 It is difficult to offer a numerical breakdown of ethnic groups as many participants recognised dual ethnicity, such as Samoan/Māori, and no further exploration of this was attempted.

7 "Getting famous" was also used as a rationale for tagging.

8 Other factors which separate youth gangs from adult gangs include mean age, level of organisation and ethnic composition.

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