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The Functionalism of Gangs in New Zealand Essay

Gangs have been perceived as a predominant and rising social issue in New Zealand since as early as the 1950s. Associations of crime and deviance have been the focus of media and law enforcement throughout this time but the issues associated with gangs do not prevail singularly within the construct of the groups. It is too easy to point the finger to those on the fringes of society and say that they are the cause for social instability. It is harder to look at those ‘issues’ that seem to impede society and say that they actually have a function that keeps society stable.

This essay will seek to underline the key influences of gang life in New Zealand and its effect on society from a functionalist perspective, employing Erik Durkheim’s theories, New Zealand sociologist expertise and other affiliated sources. The purpose is to explore the functions of gangs within the context of society as a whole to prove that they indeed have positive attributes that keep communities and society healthy. The three main areas this essay will be targeting are cultural breakdowns, economic instability and ‘unity and purpose’.

The rise of gangs in New Zealand began as early as the 1920s but there was no systematic study of them until the 1950s (Gilbert, J. , 2013). The struggle for identity is one of the main causes for the increase in gang memberships during the New Zealand urbanisation that many Maori experienced in the 1960s. They suffered enormously from a break in traditional forms of their cultural structure as they migrated to the cities for work. The problem that arose from the exodus from rural to urban living was the breakdown of their cultural identity and traditional forms of power and hierarchy (Gilbert, J. . Cited by Turner (1973) in the European Journal for Social Psychology; ‘an insecure social identity for members of a low-status group would follow when they have some awareness that their inferiority is not completely inherent, fixed or legitimate’ (p304).

This suggests that Maori who were part of the urbanization saw and noticed the change to their social status and took action to change their social inferiority. It was here gangs became an effective tool within society to deal with the large numbers of individuals that were not coping within a functional system. Ill-equipped to deal with the many realities of city living, and with the breakdown of traditional forms of authority, young Maori faced with ‘multiple marginality’ formed gangs in unprecedented numbers. ” (Gilbert, J. , p292). Gangs here have proven not only to become effective surrogate communities for those who have suffered from cultural breakdowns but also have actively provided a rise of status for individuals who had become marginalized. It is this function, creating identity and community, that gang membership has proven to be a staple for maintaining healthy individual lives.

Emile Durkheim’s most famous work is his study of suicide which recorded and proved statistics of suicide in relation to crisis such as economic instability and people who experienced ‘anomie’ (lack of social regulation) or ‘egoism’ (lack of social integration) (Cree, p 10). His argument was that intensely personal decisions, such as suicide, were actually influenced by the functions of the community and society people are part of. If the functions and stability of those environments then breakdown, statistics recorded by Durkheim have shown that there is an increase in depression and suicide.

A functionalist perspective would then argue that the provision of gangs recreated stability for many Maori during the urbanization period, and not only in ways of community and hierarchy. Gangs were also a provision for economic stability. “The faltering economy of the 1980s reshaped gang membership. With few employment options to entice members toward conventional lifestyles the gangs became not just vehicles of rebellion but a means to achieve social and material fulfilment. ” (Gilbert, p 292) Economically gangs provided security through many forms of work, both legal and illegal.

Even now substances like marijuana are an important economic aspect of communities facing decline in isolated and rural areas of New Zealand, such as the East Coast and Northland (Giddens, p 239). Although the work gangs provided was often illegal it was (and still is now) an essential component for those who were struggling during economic upheaval. If anything, even in modern New Zealand, the system of the gang actually controls and manages the illegal behaviour of the individuals within it, as they have to conform to the power structures and hierarchy.

The structures of power within gangs were not only good for consolidating members into their communities but also for providing unity amongst its members through having a shared purpose. Through this unity they have evolved into more sophisticated entities and are commonly known as a significant part of certain communities (Gilbert, p286). The reason that this is so is because many gang members share common identities with the communities they are embedded in, on economic grounds as well as cultural grounds. In these communities gangs often provided security and a focal point for decisions and issues that surround the people.

This security can be critical for specific communities, the majority of which face marginalization because of ethnicity or economic status. Emile Durkheim suggested in his 1895 work that ‘law and morality’ were the key components for individual happiness. “Durkheim thus insists that human happiness is realised, not through the satisfaction of individual wants and needs, but through the creation of social harmony,” (Cree, p 10). It is here we see and can begin to accept the importance of the unity of the gang.

A functionalist at this point would argue that it is by the existence of entities such as gangs, who create social acceptance for those marginalized, that quells higher statistics of suicide within New Zealand. The gangs provide unity, hierarchy, purpose and social standing; all of the things Emile Durkheim believed were essential for individual happiness and a prosperous society. This essay has covered several different aspects of gang evolution within New Zealand which have significant and positive attributes that contribute to a functioning society.

In this regards I would argue that gangs are not an issue that needs a solution within New Zealand, nor would society benefit from their eradication. In saying this this essay did not cover many of the negative aspects of gangs, including gang violence and rivalry. In its defence this essay would conclude, there is no social structure – whether schools, businesses, families or churches – that do not have negative attributes, but that does not impede them in terms of their function within a healthy society.

Gangs within New Zealand society play a larger role for social stability than people realise. Society within New Zealand does not have adequate coping tools to deal with people who have been marginalized or faced with extreme identity crisis due to cultural shifts within their life. Gangs have proven with their structures of hierarchy, provision of security and accessibility within lower socio-economic communities that they have an important function within society and play an essential role in maintaining the social health of those drawn to their communities.

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