We all know the harm that gangs can do but can they ever be good for society? And what constitutes a gang anyway? Three experts from the University discuss the issues in 350 words each.

Social inequality is the real crime 

By definition, gangs are entities that engage in criminal behaviours. To this end, no, gangs are not good for society, and in most cases gangs end up being harmful to gang members themselves. While that is a definitive answer, it is also an easy answer and one that lacks adequate context.

The more difficult question is, if gangs are not good for society and are not even good for those enmeshed in gang activities, why would people join them? The answer lies in understanding how social inequalities play out.

Every society has inequalities. Relative to other OECD countries, Aotearoa New Zealand experiences some of widest gaps between rich and poor. What research has shown across multiple global contexts is that in communities lacking economic resources and opportunities, gang membership increases. The blocked opportunities that accompany economic strain include inadequate educational services, poor relationships with law enforcement and family fracturing.

When a young person doesn’t see school as a place that provides the means to progress in society, gangs become a more attractive mechanism to secure employment and learn the respect that work delivers.

Likewise, in communities where there is heavy tension with law enforcement and trust is hard to come by, young people will be more susceptible to finding alternative forms of protection.

Thus, even if gangs are entities that encourage dangerous activities, they are perceived by many as organisations of protection in an environment where the formal institution assigned to protect – the police – is viewed as (and often is) dangerous.

You can see where we’re going with this. When there is family breakup and if a gang is in the mix, all of a sudden a young person may be inclined to see the gang as their new family.

By themselves, lack of family cohesion, contentious relationships with police and poor schooling will not make gang membership appear a beneficial avenue. But when all three happen simultaneously, surrounded by a broader context of economic precarity, gang membership can appear a positive option.

Gangs also generate a particular type of respect that resonates heavily with men and boys who have been ostracised by school, family and the police – a respect connected to physical toughness and aggression.

So, no, gangs are not good for society. But what’s worse for society are the social inequalities and gendered norms that make gangs look good for those who lack equal opportunity.

David Mayeda is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Auckland. David undertakes research in indigenous and Pacific communities.


Labels are too simplistic 

Whether gangs are good for society is a complex question. It assumes a number of readings of what we understand of gangs and also what we understand constitutes good society.

The word ‘gang’ has a stigma associated with criminality – which negates any belief they can contribute positively.

My research around Samoan and Māori experiences of the youth justice system dovetails into the question because we stereotype Māori and Pacific young offenders in the same way. They are collectively labelled early.

A lot has to do with media portrayal leading to societal constructs of what is appropriate in terms of social connections. Are they groups of like-minded social justice warriors or gangs? Moral panic abounds with the word gang. What is considered newsworthy rarely considers evidence. It is wholly simplistic to take a black and white perspective on any value of gangs.

If you delve into the broader narrative around criminality, gangs and delinquency, you get a better sense of these complexities. A person’s ethnic and gender group or class and identity will frame their choices.

Class is a major driver and it’s a no-brainer that economic and social deprivation can lead people into so-called gangs. Māori have a long history struggling with colonisation and state abuse, which is now intergenerational and normalised. For Pacific young people who are in gangs, many are still a part of their families. They still go to school and may even go to church. They often haven’t lost their culture or suffered disconnection.

Kinship is a good word in terms of thinking about why people join and mobilise as a unit. It’s a fight for identity and space, and aligns well with the kaupapa of asserting your identity and prominence in that space. As experienced by one of our research team members, if you look at a gang like the King Cobras, it is structured in a similar way to a Samoan aiga in terms of rank, seniority and roles played.

I’m interested in the associations being made in which we, as a society, label particular groups, especially ethnic groups. Māori and Pacific are considered to have associations with criminality and violence in the same way that gangs are associated with those traits.

But we are all in a gang of sorts. We say we aren’t because we see ourselves as not being criminals. That’s because the words ‘gang’ and ‘criminal’ have become interchangeable.

Tamasailau Suaalii is an Associate Professor in Criminology at the University of Auckland. She is an expert in indigenous criminology in the Pacific.


Good and ‘bad’ gangs

Ngāi Te Rangi chief executive Paora Stanley told RNZ: “Gangs are supported by accountants, lawyers, a lot of different sectors feed off gangs in this town – we need an appreciation that it is everybody’s problem not just a gang problem, and not just a Māori problem.”

Mention the word ‘gang’ and we typically think patched gang members, drugs and violence. They’re ‘bad’, we’re ‘good’ and politicians must ‘crack down’ on them. But let’s remove the political headlines and have a look at the data. In 2019, of the crimes that had a specific offender identified, only 4.8 percent were linked to national ‘gang list’ members.

We humans are social beings who form groups to be able to rear infants, feed and protect ourselves, and stay warm and dry. These groups flourish across generations with shared identities, histories, valued beliefs and cultural practices. Thus, the highest risk factor for being a doctor or lawyer is intergenerational – passed down through warm houses and the high expectations of the private schools our fathers went to, and the first job we’re given at a parent’s friend’s firm. Gang principles operate across our groupings – though the outfits look different.

The ‘bad’ gangs arise out of social and economic hardship, poverty and entrenched institutional racism. Violence and addiction within the nice homes of white-collar criminals (family-violence perpetrators, tax criminals, sexual predators and people with alcohol, drug and gambling addictions that cause harm to all those around them) are less visible.

Early intervention is the key to solving the ‘gang problem’. Children need good role models in loving adults, who help them learn to manage their emotional pain without abusing drugs and alcohol, show respect to intimate partners, to abide by tax and other laws, and to cultivate decency and kindness towards others.

New Zealand’s justice system has a history of ‘too little, too late’, with money going into building prisons instead of schools and communities where the real solutions lie.

When any chance of early help is gone, some entrenched offenders need jail but, particularly for young people on the fringes of gangs, incarceration only compounds the problems. We cannot arrest and imprison our way out of the ‘gang problem’ – especially when those who profit from gang business, selling flash cars and real estate, managing dodgy accounts and clever legal cover, earn far more than addiction workers, family violence advocates or early childcare workers ever will.

Ian Lambie is a Professor in Psychology at the University of Auckland. He is an expert in clinical psychology. 

This article was originally published in the Spring Edition of Ingenio and was republished with permission. For the original, click here.

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the author(s) views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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