"Gang" as empty signifier in contemporary Canadian newspapers.

Author:Richardson, Chris


In 2010, the term "gang" appeared almost 3,900 times in the top-selling English-language newspapers in Canada. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that each occurrence relates to the same object of analysis. Up to 17% of the time, these newspapers deploy the term without any relation to criminality. Instead, they describe the characters of the popular Peanuts comic strip (Fredrix 2010), the cast of Saturday Night Live (Brownstein 2010), and even a group of scientists at the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (Brown 2010). Criminal gangs that journalists refer to include bikers, drug dealers, militias, terrorists, thieves, youths, and many other collectives. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (online ed.) defines a "gang" as "an organized group of criminals" or "a group of people who regularly associate together" as well as various other meanings. The Canadian Criminal Code, however, does not define "gangs," nor does it even mention them. Although a statute on "criminal organizations" has enabled Crown Attorneys to charge such groups as the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club (Mallory 2007), the absence of a legal definition of gangs allows journalists and their sources to use the term as they see fit, applying it to individuals and associations that may otherwise appear quite disparate.

In this paper, we introduce the concept of a gang and its relevant social history. After providing a discussion of the current Canadian media-scape, we assess the uses of the term in contemporary newspapers, which are a powerful influence on and indication of popular discourses of crime within the country. Deploying Ernesto Laclau's (2007) concept of the empty signifier, we contend that discussions of gangs in the media are currently being emptied of meaning, making such discourses vulnerable to political manipulation and hegemonic strategies that stand to significantly curtail democratic discussions of criminal policy in Canada. We conclude by arguing that the discussion of gangs in the country must become more self-reflexive, asking not only to what extent gangs are a problem or what must be done about them but also what exactly this word means to those who use it. Without this dialogue, meaningful participation by members of the public is threatened and issues relating to youth crime and delinquency stand to be significantly obscured.

A brief history of gangs

Explanations for the origin of what we now call gangs vary between scholars, but one popular time frame is Europe's Early Modem period (Covey 2010; Cummings and Monti 1993; Hagedorn 2007; Klein 1995; Pearson 1983; Shelden, Tracy, and Brown 2001; Spergel 1993, 1995). Other terms that have had currency at one time or another are "thugs," "hooligans," and "hoodlums" (see Dash 2006; Pearson 1983; and van Deburg 2004, respectively). Gangs arrived in North America shortly after the new world was discovered in the guise of pirates (Schneider 2009). They were soon followed by cowboys and outlaws who so occupied the news media and local discussions in the mid-nineteenth century (Cummings and Monti 1993; Schneider 2009). As urban populations in North America skyrocketed in the early- to mid-twentieth century, local newspapers in Canadian cities like Toronto and Montreal regularly printed accounts of gangs robbing, stealing, and killing on the streets ("Gunmen" 1940; "Police" 1941). However, long before journalists dubbed Vancouver "Canada's gang capital" (Stueck and Hyslop 2009: A1) or warned readers that Toronto's "elementary school grounds" had become "nighttime killing fields" (Leeder and Powell 2005: A1), Frederic Thrasher (1927/1963) published his pivotal book The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago, which would change the way gangs in North America were conceived and studied.

While previous researchers had sought biological and psychological explanations for the existence of young delinquent groups, Thrasher, a University of Chicago sociology professor, saw a distinctly social phenomenon unfolding and developed the first major scholarly analysis of gangs in the social sciences. (1) He spent seven years getting to know the young men who gathered on street comers and engaged in acts of petty larceny and violence, who formed bonds with one another, and who found identity in an environment that generally ignored their thoughts and desires. Thrasher (1927/1963) posited that gangs emerge spontaneously as play groups that become solidified through conflict: "Not only does the gang boy transform his sordid environment through his imagination, but he lives among soldiers and knights, pirates and banditti" (85). These fairly innocent exploits, however, escalate to more violent crimes when assemblages of young men seek more excitement. "Junking leads to petty stealing. 'Going robbing' is a common diversion in the gang and this often develops into more serious types of burglary and robbery with a gun" (Thrasher 1927/ 1963: 269). Thrasher refused to acknowledge a "gang instinct" per se, but he asserted that gangs will continue to thrive where social organizations and community supports lag behind the growth of a city.

Alongside Thrasher, researchers associated with the Chicago School of Sociology engaged in myriad studies of marginalized groups during this period to examine the rapidly changing urban landscape (Park and Burgess 1925/1984; Shaw 1930/2004; Shaw, McKay, and McDonald 1938/2004). Robert Park became a founding member of the group after working for more than a decade as a journalist. He argued that "[w]e need such studies, if for no other reason than to enable us to read the newspapers intelligently" (Park and Burgess 1925/1984: 3). Park Thrasher, and their colleagues tried to better understand the criminal elements of their city using ethnographic, geographic, and statistical analyses, borrowing concepts from biology and other sciences to explain their findings. Critics have since observed that the arguments of the Chicago School presuppose a set of normalizing assumptions about the superiority of white, middle-class values (Dimitriadis 2006; Platt 1977; Rothman 1980). Nevertheless, the theory that social disorganization, urban poverty, and neglected youth lead to deviance and gang formation continues to be generally supported (Hoffmann 2003; Pratt and Cullen 2005; Sampson and Groves 1989; Veysey and Messner 1999) and the Chicago School's lasting legacy was the beginning of contemporary gang research.

The language of gangs: Situating our study within contemporary research

Gang research may have entered the social sciences in the early twentieth century with studies by Thrasher (1927/1963) and his colleagues, but the term itself dates back many centuries. The Old English gang, a word that seems to have been common to many early Germanic languages, originally meant "to go" (Oxford English Dictionary, online ed., s.v. "gang").

In the early seventeenth century, "gang" began to denote a set of things or people that go together. Eventually, English speakers began referring to groups, primarily sailors or workmen, as gangs, and the term later acquired negative connotations that implied criminal activities. Today, the National Gang Center provides the most wide-ranging information on gangs in America and greatly influences social research and public policy. Its National Youth Gang Survey (National Youth Gang Center 2006), one of the most heavily cited sources in gang research, defines youth gangs in its police survey as "a group of youths or young adults in your jurisdiction that you or other responsible persons in your agency or community are willing to identify or classify as a 'gang'" (4). It also directs its subjects not to include "motorcycle gangs, hate or ideology groups, prison gangs, or other exclusively adult gangs" (National Youth Gang Center 2006: 4). Virtually all scholars have criticized this tautological definition (Curry and Decker 1998; Hagedorn 2007; Huff 1990, 2002; Klein 2007; Klein and Maxson 2010). However, when--immediately after their brief comments on this definition--these authors move on to their own arguments about gangs, they often do so without providing a working definition of the term.

The first major Canadian study on youth gangs defines the term, much as its U.S. equivalent does, as "a group of youths or young adults in the respondent's jurisdiction, under the age of 21, that the respondent or other responsible persons in their agency or community were willing to identify or classify as a gang" (Astwood Strategy Corporation 2003: 5). The study also explicitly excludes from its definition "motorcycle gangs, hate or ideology groups, prison gangs, and other exclusively adult gangs" (Astwood Strategy Corporation 2003: 5). Six years later, the same corporation, led by Michael Chettleburgh, conducted the 2009 Police Survey on Street Gangs (note the change from "youth gangs" to "street gangs"), defining its subject for law enforcement officers as "a self-formed group of three or more youths or young adults in your jurisdiction, interacting with each other and who engage in a range of criminal behaviors, or that you or other responsible persons in your agency or community are willing to identify or classify as a street gang or youth gang" (Astwood Strategy Corporation 2009: 1). Again, the study excludes "motorcycle gangs, hate or ideology groups, prison gangs and traditional organized crime gangs" (Astwood Strategy Corporation 2009: 1). In addition to the problematic definitions these Canadian studies deploy, the changes made between the 2002 study (released in 2003) and the 2009 study (results of which have not yet been released) will render any comparison of the data untenable. This foundational ambiguity should ring alarm bells. Not only is a significant definitional problem frequently neglected, but all of the findings about "gangs" become moot if the term itself is vacant.

To better understand this problem, we...

To continue reading