Decentering Gangs: Comparative Ethnographic Insights from Nicaragua and South Africa

Background paper available on request.

The political ethnography reading and seminar group welcomes Dennis Rodgers, Research Professor at the Graduate Institute of Geneva, for a presentation of the first results of the ERC GANGS project on “Gangs, Gangsters and Ganglands”. The presentation will focus on longitudinal and comparative ethnographies of gangs in Cape Town and Managua with Steffen Bo Jensen (Aalborg university).

“Decentering Gangs: Comparative Ethnographic Insights from Nicaragua and South Africa”

Gangs are inherently revealing social institutions, by virtue of the fact that they are simultaneously autonomous social phenomena, with complex internal logics and dynamics, and epiphenomena, fundamentally reflecting – and shaped by – broader social structures and processes. At the same time, however, most studies of gangs are focused on a single gang or location, moreover mostly in the Global North, and as a result, despite over 100 years of gang research, we arguably still lack a proper sense of what kinds of gang dynamics might be general, and which ones are specific to particular epochs and places, and why. Drawing both long-term, longitudinal and collaborative ethnographic research, this presentation offers a “disjunctive comparison” of gang dynamics in Managua, Nicaragua, and Cape Town, in South Africa, in order to highlight how gang research needs to be both empirically and conceptually “decentered” in order to maximize the inherently revelatory potential of the phenomena.

About the GANGS project

This five-and-a-half-year project (2019-2024), funded by an ERC advanced grant, aims to develop a systematic comparative investigation of global gang dynamics, to better understand why they emerge, how they evolve over time, whether they are associated with particular urban configurations, how and why individuals join gangs, and what impact this has on their potential futures. It draws on original ethnographic research carried out in multiple locations, adopting an explicitly tripartite focus on “Gangs”, “Gangsters” and “Ganglands” in order to better explore the interplay between group, individual and contextual factors. The first considers the organisational dynamics of gangs, the second focuses on individual gang members and their trajectories before, during and after their involvement in a gang, while the third reflects on the contexts within which gangs emerge and evolve. Research combines innovative collaborative ethnography in Nicaragua (Managua), South Africa (Cape Town), and France (Marseille), a ground-breaking comparison of 32 individual gang member life histories from across Africa, Asia, Europe, North and South America, and unique joint ethnographic investigations into the political economy of three gang-affected cities in France (Marseille), Italy (Naples), and Spain (Algeciras).

The paper will be discussed by Prof. Jonny Steinberg.