A gang is a group of people which shares an identity and a common purpose. The term has come to be associated specifically with street gangs, which organize for the purpose of carrying out illegal activity which may vary from inciting conflict with other gangs to dealing drugs. Because of this, people tend to be careful about how they use the word “gang,” to ensure that people know what sort of group is under discussion. For example, historically groups of people who worked together in construction were known as “gangs,” and this usage has become less common to avoid confusion.
Defining a gang can be difficult, as the term has a fluid and often changing meaning. As a general rule, most definitions include the idea that a gang is organized in some way, often with clear leaders and a hierarchy, and that the members gather to socialize and carry out various activities on a regular basis. The shared identity of gang members can be based on ethnicity, culture, class, religion, or another common thread which allows people to find something of interest in each other.
In the sense of gangs which commit violence, the idea of the gang is ancient, and many cultures have ample historical examples of gangs. In the 20th century, gang violence became an important issue for many people, especially in urban areas, where large gangs comprised of minorities and impoverished individuals degrade the quality of life for many residents. These street gangs, as they are known, are infamous for committing violent acts and for being involved in activities of questionable legality.
On a lesser level, schoolyard gangs have what some people consider to be gang members in training, people who gravitate towards the gang lifestyle at an early age. People who want to see a reduction in gang violence and gang culture often try to keep an eye on the development of schoolyard gangs, and provide alternatives to young men and women who may feel bored, restless, or frustrated in the school environment to prevent them from joining street gangs as they mature.
Members of street gangs may choose to identify themselves with nicknames, tattoos, specific slang, distinctive graffiti tags, or specific styles of dress. However, not all gangs identify themselves with obvious symbols, especially highly organized gangs which deal in drugs, weapons, and other illegal materials, and many members of minority groups have complained of being targeted as “gang members” by law enforcement for wearing the wrong clothes or speaking in the wrong way.
Leaving a violent gang can be very difficult, especially for members who are deeply involved, rather than at the fringes of the gang. In communities where gang violence is a major problem, service organizations often offer assistance to people who wish to leave gangs; such assistance can range from vocational training to tattoo removal.