When sociologists first began studying street gangs, they were not usually criminal enterprises, or at least, they were not significant criminal enterprises. Typically individuals got married and “aged out” of hanging out with the gang. See for example Street Corner Society by William Foote Whyte (1943) or The Gang by Fredrick Thrasher (1927). At some point in the post-war era, most likely around the time that “gangs” become majorly involved in the drug trade (though I’m having trouble finding an exact citation), first likely with heroin and amphetamines in the 1960’s and 70’s and then especially with crack-cocaine in the 1980’s, gangs became something of a more permanent delinquent lifestyle, and something much more closely associated with stigmatized minorities. With street gangs, one interesting line throughout the research is their close ties to place, which various mafias don’t necessarily have (though in immigrant contexts they often start or are based in immigrant enclaves).
On similarity is that both seem to create a local order in the absence of other orders. This is what Thrasher emphasized in his first study on gangs (they form in marginal neighborhoods, neighborhoods in transition, and “interstitial” spaces), and this is what Diego Gambetta emphasizes in his The Sicilian Mafia (they came to power in Sicily in the 19th century in response to the breakdown of the feudal system). The groups can maintain presence even in areas where the state more eagerly tries to asset its presence, but one necessary condition for both seems to be the absence of other resilient ways of ordering society and settling conflicts between groups.
As Albanese explains for organized crime and the Eurogang Network for Street and Youth Gangs, there is an issue of definition. There is a vague understanding of what is organized crime, what is a mafia, and what is a street gang. Citing Albanese:
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said he did not know precisely what it is, but “I know it when I see it.” He was talking about obscenity, but he may as well have been speaking of organized crime.
Citing Medina et al.:
[The Eurogang Network’s] survey measure departs from the traditional approach to measuring gang membership employed in most North American research, which relies on what is often referred to as the ‘self-definition’ approach. Survey respondents are simply asked whether they are members of a gang (e.g. ‘Are you now in a gang?’; ‘Do you belong to a gang?’), although sometimes additional qualifiers (e.g. involvement in illegal activity, initiation rites, colours, established leaders) are added. North American criminologists consider this a valid approach that identifies a distinctive set of individuals.
The Eurogang Network “defines street gangs as ‘any durable, street-oriented youth group whose identity includes involvement in illegal activity’ (Weerman et al., 2009: 20)”.
According to Albanese, most researchers agree on the following definition of OC:
Organized crime is a continuing criminal enterprise that rationally works to profit from illicit activities that are often in great public demand. Its continuing existence is maintained through the use of force, threats, monopoly control, and/or the corruption of public officials.
Street and youth gangs can be considered a type of organized crime which, for example, is “street-oriented” and composed of young members.
The thing is that there are many types of organizations called mafia and of organizations called gangs. Citing Agnew:
Gangs in one city, for example, may be large, highly organized, and heavily involved in drug sales. Gangs in another city may be small, loosely organized, and have little or no involvement in drug sales.
Compare motorcycle gangs and a gang like the Crips, anyone could differentiate the two “intuitively”.
One might then suggest gangs are more “local”, however, Crips are arguably a national gang.
One might also suggest that the mafia is involved in both legal and illegal businesses. Yet, as Albanese points out: “In Sweden, for instance, organized crime groups, including motorcycle gangs, have been found to supply legal businesses with undocumented workers and obtain fraudulent unemployment subsidies from the government.”
My point is that to broadly compare the differences between “the mafia” and “gangs” ultimately depends on the definition. Differences between organizations called “mafia” and organizations called “gangs” can be as large or small as differences between “mafia” and “gangs”. In the end, they are all types of organized crime.
The Sociological Mail