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.