Social sciences : Encyclopedia of Gangs

The Reviewers

Terry O'Brien, Deputy Librarian, Waterford Institute of Technology, Waterford, Ireland



Review Subject:

Encyclopedia of Gangs

Edited by Louis Kontos and David C. Brotherton

Publisher Name:

Greenwood Press

Place of Publication:

Westport, CT and London

Publication Year:



978 0 313 33402 3


£47.95 $85

Article type:



xxii+289 pp.


Encyclopaedias, Social groups

Emerald Journal:

Reference Reviews









Copyright: ©

Emerald Group Publishing Limited



Although the study of gangs has become increasingly popular, this is the first encyclopaedia of gangs produced in the USA. The editors, Louis Kontos a sociologist from Long Island University, and David Brotherton a sociologist from John Jay, “illuminate the world of gangs” by offering us 100 essays on the various facets of gangs and gang culture. Both have pedigree in the field (see Kontos et al., 2003) and approach the subject matter from a cultural criminology perspective. This is very much a sympathetic treatment, with the authors arguing persuasively, but not exclusively, that the “problem” of gangs is one that requires social justice rather than criminal justice.

There are four broad areas that place the encyclopaedia in context. These are:gang theory, which provides us with an outline framework of the study of gangs;gang practices, which refers to what gangs do and the relationships between gangs and others;gang types, the proliferation of gangs, regional variations and global growth; andgang expansion, the internationalization of gangs.From the outset, the editors contextualise the study of gangs in terms of some of the problems associated with the academic field and perceptions around gangs. First, there appears to be little consensus among researchers as to the nature and real scale of the “gang problem”. Another of the prevailing issues is that of preconceived generalisations and assumptions about gangs, many of which, according to the authors, are grounded in ideology. Enthusiasm for information about gangs remains unsatisfied because “gang research is fragmented” and because “gangland is changing rapidly and dramatically”. There is no “dominant theoretical paradigm” in the study of gangs. There is however, general agreement among researchers on the social complexity of gangs, the public fascination around gang culture and that gangs tend be “economically and politically isolated”. It is also claimed in the preface that “it is an uncontroversial fact among researchers that the growth of the prison system has facilitated that growth and spread of gangs and gang culture”. As sociologists, Kontos and Brotherton seem to argue against criminologists' views intrinsically linking violence and drugs to gang subcultures, contending that disenfranchisement of gang youths is as a result of “coercive system(s) of social control”.

The encyclopaedia attempts, in the words of the authors, to provide a “detailed overview” and an “overview of public policies and programs that seek to ameliorate the gang problem”. It certainly meets the author's goals of stimulating curiosity and providing guidance for continued investigation, and gives much more than the stated “glimpse”. In addition to the 100 essays, there is a useful list of entries, and a guide to related topics index. This index covers crime, criminal justice, economics, ethnicity, foreign gangs, gang culture, gender, ideology, immigration, intervention, politics, theory and research. The scope is very much international; although much of the content is based around the USA, there are copious and extensive entries on gangs in Germany, France, Spain, Brazil, China, Russia and Australia. At the end of each essay there are reference lists and suggested readings, with then main entries referred to in bold type.

There are some captivating entries on a diverse range of subjects. A particularly interesting essay is the benevolent account of Stanley Tookie Williams by former Senator and socio-political activist Tom Hayden. Williams was the founder of the notorious Los Angeles Crips gang and was executed by the State of California in 2005. Thrasher and Short's (1963) seminal study of 1920s Chicago gangs gets a full treatment, and there are pieces on the role of the internet in the globalisation of gangs and the transnationalisation of youth gangs. The Hells Angels, known in popular circles as a motorcycle club, are characterised as a Canadian phenomenon with strong links to the narcotics trade and noted for their longevity as a gang. The mafia's origins are traced to thirteenth-century Sicily, when a group of local guardians known as the Sicilian Vespers rose up against their French attackers with the motto “Morte Alla Francia Italia Anela” (death to the French is Italy's cry). There is an extensive essay on Jewish gangs and gangsters, such as Meyer Lansky (famously characterised as Hyman Roth in The Godfather II) and their links to the modern mob. King Blood, the founder of the New York branch of the Latin Kings and Queens is also significant. Brotherton “disputes the conventional view of the under-class”, and cites the Almighty Latin King & Queen Nation as an example of a social movement as much as a gang, and one that engages in spiritual and education based practices and non-violent tactics. The popular theory on how the term “hooligan” originated is fascinating. Legend has it that an Irish immigrant family with a name sounding like or similar to hooligan terrorised the East End of London in the late nineteenth century, and as a consequence the name became synonymous with anti-social and destructive behaviour, and in more recent years football hooliganism.

The international perspective is very much to the fore in the encyclopaedia. In Australia, for example, the authors maintain that gangs develop as a result of integration barriers, and that many of the immigrant youth groups find themselves in a sort of social vacuum “in between” traditional cultures and outside of more affluent modern consumer ways of life. In the Brazilian cities of Rio and Sao Paulo “gang life has become the norm” (as reflected in the 2002 film City of God). There are other strong entries on German, Russian and South African gangs and also on Chinese organised crime and gang culture. The style, fashion, language, sound and signals of Mexican gangs and particularly the youth gangs such as Pachucos and Cholos living in the Southern cities of the USA are well depicted. Other subject headings include clothes (see ZootSuit subculture) fashion and the significance of colours, tattoos and jewellery. The subject of gangs and females, although not new, is now particularly popular with the media and scholars, and is “much more varied and complex than the early stereotypes (e.g. tomboy, sex object) suggested”. The role of graffiti and what it symbolises has become increasingly ambiguous in the public mind, often “associated with young criminality and a symbol of youth delinquency”, but in reality according to the authors is a much more important element of gang culture. It is important to recognise different strands of graffiti, particularly the difference between gang and hip hop graffiti. Gang graffiti can function “as a medium for negotiating status and shaping identity” and can be extremely valuable as a method of defining status, space or as a symbolic warning. Graffiti can be perceived as a potentially positive force that can “displace the need for physical confrontation”. The relationship between gangs and rap music is also explored. The authors make reference to many of the current tenuous links between gang members and terrorist organisations and argue that this has been occurring in public policy even prior to 9/11. Post-9/11 has seen many gang members “re-defined as domestic terrorists” through what the authors describe as a “blurring of the line” between actual reality and perception and through a “faulty chain of logic”.

The Greenwood press Encyclopedia of Gangs is highly recommended. The authors have provided excellent context and academic background for what is becoming an increasingly multifaceted and prevalent subject matter. Kontos and Brotherton make it clear that although they do not offer definitive solutions, dealing with gangs should be more a question of social than criminal justice. This book will find a strong audience in sociology, cultural, justice, civil liberty and criminology fields. It is particularly readable and offers a nice balance between depth of subject matter and “continued investigation”. Public, special and academic libraries should give strong consideration to this item, particularly as there is a dearth of resources in the subject area.


Kontos, L., Botherton, D.C. and Barrios, L. (2003), Gangs and Society: Alternatives Perspectives, Columbia University Press, New York, NY.

Thrasher, M.F. and Short, J.F. (1963), The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.