how gangs work

An Ethnography of Youth Violence

Palgrave Macmillan

St. Antony's Series

11 April 2013

In the wake of the 2011 UK riots and the British government’s new American-style ‘war on gangs’, this book is the definitive account of ‘how gangs work’. Based on two years of ethnographic fieldwork with gangs and drawing on a variety of sources, How Gangs Work provides a vivid portrayal of gang life, but not as the British traditionally know it.

James Densley deconstructs the mythology of gangs to make sense of the profiles and motivations of gang members in straightforward, rational terms. How Gangs Work examines the vital processes of evolution, organization, and recruitment within gangs and gangmembers’ instrumental and expressive uses of violence, media, and technology. Special attention is paid to the role of gangs in the drugs trade and the relationship between gangs and organized crime. Densley concludes with a critical appraisal of gang desistance and the precarious future of gang prevention and intervention, with practical advice for practitioners, police and policy-makers.


"How Gangs Work is a much needed volume in the study of gangs and youth culture. James Densley builds on months of in-depth fieldwork to describe gangs and gang members in London. He provides both a framework for understanding gang members, as well as a solid series of steps for changing their lives and helping them exit their gang. The book is a must read for those who would understand the lives of young people in large cities, in London and elsewhere."

— Scott H. Decker, Arizona State University, USA

"James Densley’s book greatly improves our understanding of how juvenile gangs send signals to their larger world, as well as to their own participants. The signalling process is not merely a curiosity: It is at the very core of a gang’s ‘service’ to members and the fears it creates. The idea of the gang is in many ways more important than its behavior. Densley offers a clearer description and deeper understanding of how gangs signal and hence how they work."

— Marcus Felson, Texas State University, USA

"James Densley writes with a great sense of humour and superb style. But make no mistake—this is a difficult, dangerous subject and Densely is a tough young researcher who has risked much to bring you an insightful and in-depth look at street gangs. Not to be missed!"

— Declan Hill, journalist & bestselling author of The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime

"This readable and provocative book nicely captures the nuances, complexities and ambiguities of youth gangs in London. Featuring the voices of young people themselves—telling their own stories—it provides important and fascinating insights into the nature of street life and community relations in contemporary Britain. Highly recommended."

— Rob White, University of Tasmania, Australia

"Densley’s work points the way to how gang research should be done in the future. … This work is overdue in terms of its contribution to the United Kingdom gang agenda … it moves us back to critical ethnography and first-class fieldwork. In so doing, it extends our understanding of the relationships operating within the gang and offers a well-crafted and highly readable interpretation of their street world."

The British Journal of Criminology

Read Simon Harding's entire review here.