Outlaw Bikers and Patched Street Gangs: The Nexus Between Violence and Shadow Economy

Author: Bradley, C
Published in National Security Journal, 15 May 2020

Reasons for joining

Why do young people join gangs and potentially engage in criminal and risky behaviour? When considering outlaw bikers and patched street gangs and the reasons for their presence in Aotearoa New Zealand, it is difficult to ignore the impact and arguably negative consequences of neo-liberal politics on society. Gangs have been described as ‘fraternities of the dispossessed, the disaffected, the economically deprived and the culturally alienated’.17 Social scientists and criminologists have long sought to understand why young people join deviant groups such as gangs since the Chicago School of Criminology analysed American urban youth gangs in the early decades of the twentieth century.18 In the later decades of the twentieth century, theories such as social learning, sub-cultural theories, and strain or opportunity theory considered the idea of following criminal pathways to attain desired goods or the symbols of success in modern capitalist society. Criminal behaviour can be seen as the result of various influences including social, economic and political factors and the attempts to achieve social and personal success measured in monetary wealth and materialistic cultivation.19

In 1937 Robert Merton developed a criminological approach called Strain theory to explain sub-culture and learning. Strain theory looks at the tensions (or strain) between the working and middle-class cultures where blocked opportunities create a sub-culture or alternative cultural system.20 His typology of response sets out five adaptations; conformism, innovation, ritualism, retreatism and rebellion.21 These five adaptations by members of the society are explained as;

  • conformism – the acceptance of culturally designed goals and institutions
  • ritualism – the acceptance of culturally designed goals and institutions but with no avenues to attain them going through the motions for their own sake;
  • retreatism – the rejection of culturally designed goals and institutions and a retreat from society;
  • rebellion- the rejection of culturally designed goals and institutions with the creation of their own goals and institutions, and
  • innovation- the acceptance of culturally designed goals but lacking the institutional avenues so adapt.22

Strain theory was out of favour as a way to explain deviant behaviour in the 1960s and 1970s, and was seen as too much aligned to the “American dream” analogy. However neo-liberal policies and economic ideology have arguably created an environment where rebellion and innovation can be applied to some patched gang members (and whole chapters) and their participation in the shadow economy. Within the context of strain theory and Robert Merton’s five adaptations, we can navigate along some of the issues of modernity and gauge a response through the optic of gang membership,