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Gangs, Gangsters, and Ganglands: Towards a Global Comparative Ethnography

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - GANGS (Gangs, Gangsters, and Ganglands: Towards a Global Comparative Ethnography)

Reporting period: 2022-01-01 to 2023-06-30

Gangs occupy a key position in the global imaginary of violence, widely perceived and represented as primary sources of brutality and insecurity. This can be related to the fact that they are one of a small number of truly global phenomena, found in almost every society across both time and space. At the same time, however, as almost 100 years of gang research have highlighted, the phenomenon can vary significantly in form, dynamics, and consequences. While there have been many insightful studies of gangs, the overwhelming majority has focused on a single group or location, and we still lack a proper sense of what kinds of gang dynamics might be general, and which ones are specific to particular times and places. The GANGS project is developing a explicitly 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. The project is based 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 aspect 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 involves innovative collaborative ethnography in Nicaragua, South Africa, and France, a ground-breaking comparison of 33 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, Italy, and Spain.
The GANGS project is made up of three subprojects, respectively on "Gangs", "Gangsters", and "Ganglands". The "Gangs" subproject focuses on the comparative analysis of gang dynamics in Nicaragua, South Africa, and France. It is divided into three phases: a first phase of joint ethnographic research by the GANGS project PI and Senior Researcher (SR) in Nicaragua and South Africa, on the basis of which they will a second phase of joint ethnographic research in France, which will be validated afterwards by a third phase of joint ethnographic research in Nicaragua and South Africa again. In this way, the subproject aims to reverse the traditional North-South gaze characteristic of transnational gang research, as well as explore new, innovative forms of collaboration in ethnography, traditionally an individual enterprise. The first phase of the research was successfully completed, and the PI and SR have co-written several articles detailing both their methodological innovations and new avenues for comparative investigation that are currently under review. The second phase of joint ethnographic research in France will begin in August 2021. The "Gangsters" subproject is focused on the comparison of individual gang member life histories and is currently just beginning. It involves 32 researchers with whom the PI has engaged with intensely in order to establish the parameters for their contributions. The PI has also written an article detailing the conceptual and empirical worth of comparing gang member life trajectories that is currently under review, as well as a "model" life history of a female drug dealer in Nicaragua, based on interviews carried out during research there in February 2020. "Gangsters" researchers will carry out their data collection over the course of the next year, and participate in one of two "Gang Lives" workshops that will take place in September 2022 and 2023. The "Ganglands" subproject involved 3 PhD students, Alice Daquin, Chiara Feliciani, and Lene Swetzer, who were recruited in September 2019. Between September 2019 and March 2021, they successfully completed their obligatory PhD coursework, including successfully finalising their "Mémoires Préliminaires de Thèse" outlining their individual and joint research projects that will contribute to the “Ganglands” subproject, in respectively Marseille (France), Naples (Italy), and Algeciras (Spain), thereby constituting a "Mediterranean comparative arc" that intersecting with the "North-South" arc made up of the Nicaragua-South Africa-France comparison. All three PhD students successfully started their fieldwork in April 2021, despite the Covid-19 pandemic.
There are two areas where the GANGS project has already made progress beyond the state of the art. The first is methodologically, in relation to the joint comparative ethnographic research that is at the heart of the project, and which has shown itself to be insightful in unsuspected ways, in particular opening up new avenues for considering gang dynamics. Most of the literature on gangs and drug dealing considers that their involvement responds to rational-formalistic logics, for example, but our research has underscored the importance of intimate relations, whether in terms of involvement, production, sourcing, selling, buying, or management of the activity. The issue came to the fore as we sought to go beyond the seemingly very different logics of drug dealing in Nicaragua and South Africa and tried to focus on underlying similarities instead. Applying an intimacy lens more generally is also revealing other important areas of connection that have not come to the fore in the wider literature. We expect to encounter more of these kinds of "disjunctive" points of comparison as we continue to process our data, and embark on the research in France, and the second round of joint ethnographic research in Nicaragua and South Africa in 2023. The second concerns the GANGS project's collaboration with the other ERC project focusing on gangs, the TRANSGANG project at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Barcelona), which involved co-financing a Spanish translation and publication of Frederic Thrasher’s foundational 1927 study "The Gang", which had never been published in this language before, and the two project PIs co-writing an original introduction setting out the work’s enduring relevance for gang research. With regard to the expected result until the end of the project, the preliminary conversations that the PI has had with the "Gangsters" subproject participants have confirmed the potential richness and innovative insights that comparing gang member life histories from around the world could potentially yield, with a number of interesting points of convergence and disjuncture already emerging. Similarly, the "Ganglands" subproject promises to generate some counter-intuitive insights about the way such areas are both internally and externally constructed.
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