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I’ve got a question for you - about gangs



Ellen Kirk, Analyst

Tuesday 9 May 2023

Crest Advisory has been involved in a novel project to improve the way statistics are collected on gangs and weapons. Analyst Ellen Kirk explains the aims of the project and the work that it entailed.


If you’re conducting research about crime or justice, the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), produced by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), is likely to be a highly valuable resource. Based on interviews with around 30,000 people each year, the CSEW produces quarterly estimates of crime levels that aren’t affected by changes in police activity or recording methods.

Here at Crest, we often use data collected by the CSEW for our work, so we were excited to be asked to help re-develop the “gangs and weapons” part of the survey. This section, which is based on responses from children and young people aged 10 to 29, was devised in 2009. Since then our knowledge and understanding of gangs have evolved significantly, so the ONS decided it was time to rewrite the section, to improve the quality of the figures and better meet the needs of those using the data. The ONS was open to creating a new definition of gangs or even abandoning its use of the term.

The first step: deciding whether or not to explicitly mention “gangs”

Deciding whether to include the term “gangs”, and how to define it if it were to be included, was a crucial element of the project. The term is used in different ways. For some, the word describes organised crime groups; for others it can mean a few 15 year olds who sometimes wear hoodies. As the CSEW is intended to give a figure for the number of victims of crime, we were interested in gangs that put children and young people at risk of harm.

We began our research by reaching out to people who potentially use CSEW data. We interviewed 30 stakeholders from government departments, the charity sector, law enforcement, local government and academia. It was clear that there was no immediate right answer. Some people told us that they found “gangs” to be a useful and well-understood term in their organisation, others had mixed feelings but felt the term added clarity, while a few stakeholders objected to using the word “gangs” at all, arguing that it had become a racialised term which stigmatised members of particular ethnic groups.

In the next phase of our research we were able to check if the concerns raised by stakeholders were echoed by people in the age groups that take part in the gangs and weapons section of the survey. We carried out three waves of cognitive and usability interviews with a total of 21 children and young people, including six with lived experience of gangs. Cognitive testing focuses on an individual’s perceptions and understanding of survey questions, as well as their thought process behind answering them. Usability testing looks at how easy or difficult the survey is to go through, such as whether the instructions are clear and whether there are the right number of response options per question. These interviews allowed us to test our proposed questions, ensuring they were understood how we’d intended and that participants felt comfortable answering the questions honestly.

In the first wave we tested two versions of our questions - one that explicitly referred to “gangs”, and another that referred to a “group of friends”. Of the eight young people interviewed in this wave, seven preferred using the word “gang”; one felt it made no difference. Those who preferred using “gang” said that it was clearer and helped them to understand exactly what they were being asked about. None of the children and young people found the term to be stigmatising or uncomfortable. On the basis of this feedback, and the need among users of the survey for data specifically on gangs, we decided that it was appropriate to include the term in the survey.

The second step: defining “gangs”

While including the term “gangs” helped to provide clarity and avoid confusion, a definition was needed so everyone could understand the term in the same way. The definition needed to reflect the elements of gangs that data users were interested in, while also matching children and young people’s understanding of gangs.

We developed our initial working definition by collating the features and characteristics of gangs suggested by stakeholders in the first phase of interviews. This definition was then refined during the subsequent waves of testing with children and young people as well as a focus group with stakeholders.

Some elements of the definition remained fairly constant throughout multiple iterations, but many were either adapted based on feedback from children and young people or cut from the definition entirely. For example, many stakeholders made clear in the initial interviews that they were interested in mentioning the coercive dynamics observed in gangs. That was reflected in the first definition through a reference to large age gaps between members of the same group. During testing, however, participants told us that this element of the definition was confusing, as many friendship groups involve young people of different ages, so it was removed. Later, an element describing how young people may be “asked or told to do things” was added, which was well received by participants and met the needs of stakeholders.

By “gang” we mean a group:

  1. Which has a shared group identity such as a name

  2. Who get involved in violent, threatening, or criminal acts together

  3. Which may involve young people being asked or told to do things by others, such as carrying drugs or weapons

The third step: widening our focus

At the same time as refining the definition of gangs, we were also testing different sets of questions relating to gangs, to understand which topics were easier to understand and would be honestly answered by participants. For example, while all participants were comfortable with questions relating to awareness of gangs in their local area, many of those with lived experience said they would be uncomfortable being asked about their own involvement in gangs and would not answer honestly. That would affect the accuracy of the results so questions relating to “own gang involvement” were removed.

We also focused on other gang-related topics of interest to potential users of the data. Many had expressed interest in understanding children and young people’s vulnerability to exploitation and the impact gangs have on their feelings of safety. During testing, children and young people said they would be comfortable answering such questions which suggests that reliable data will be produced, as a result.

After further research, including two workshops with stakeholders, the focus of the gangs and weapons part of the CSEW will now be on children and young people’s sources of support, perceptions of safety, weapon carrying and exposure to violence. It means the scope of the section will be wider than before. “Gangs” will be mentioned and defined only when people are asked about the impact of gangs on perceptions of safety.

It was fascinating to be part of the process of changing questions in the CSEW and at Crest we look forward to one day analysing the data that are collected using those questions.

If you have any questions about the CSEW or would like any more information about when the data will be available, please contact the ONS at

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