04 October 2018

Dennis Rodgers: Portrait of a Gang Researcher

Newly arrived at the ANSO Department, Professor Dennis Rodgers worked previously at the Universities of Amsterdam, Glasgow, Manchester and the London School of Economics. His research focuses on the dynamics of conflict and urban violence in Latin America (Nicaragua and Argentina) and South Asia (India), the political economy of development, and the historiography of urban theory. He has in particular spent over 20 years studying the dynamics and evolution of youth gangs in Nicaragua, and recently obtained a five-year Advanced Grant from the European Research Council to develop this work in a comparative perspective. Interview.

Among all your research interests, which of them constitute your specialised “research” identity?

rodgers_portrait photo.PNGI am a social anthropologist by training, although I also have a degree in international history – from the old IUHEI! – and this is actually the first time I have been in an Anthropology and Sociology department since obtaining my PhD, having worked in international development studies, urban studies, and geography departments previously. As a result, while I do ground myself primarily in anthropology, both theoretically and methodologically, I tend to be very interdisciplinary. This is also because most of my research focuses on urban contexts, which I believe can only truly be apprehended by combining different perspectives in a multi-scalar manner. Similarly, although I am frequently labelled a “gang researcher” due to the fact that a lot of my work focuses on the phenomena, I see gangs both as autonomous social institutions, with complex internal logics and dynamics, and simultaneously as epiphenomena, fundamentally reflecting – and shaped by – broader social structures. Along with the fact that they are found in some shape or form in almost every society across time and space, this duality arguably makes then particularly insightful “bellwether” institutions, or, as the US sociologist Frederic Thrasher pithily put it in his pioneering study of gangs in 1920s Chicago, gangs are “life, often rough and untamed, yet rich in elemental social processes significant to the student of society and human nature”.

Is your ERC project “Gangs, Gangsters, and Ganglands: Towards a Comparative Global Ethnography” (GANGS) an important moment for your researcher career? And what are its problematic and originality?

The GANGS project, due to start next January, definitely comes at an important moment for me. Beyond the material resources that it provides me, it is intellectually my “dream” project, and takes the longitudinal ethnographic research that I have been conducting for the past 20 years on gangs in a poor neighbourhood in Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua, to the next level. The starting premise of the project is the – perhaps surprising – observation that during the course of over 100 years of gang research, there has been almost no comparative research. At the same time, however, this same research has highlighted how gangs around the world can vary enormously in form, dynamics, and consequences. If we are to get to grips with what kinds of gang dynamics might be general, and which ones are specific to particular epochs and places, and why, there is arguably no better strategy than to engage in comparative research, and the project therefore proposes to explore the nature of gangs in Managua (Nicaragua), Cape Town (South Africa), and Marseille (France). It involves research on the organisational (gangs), the individual (gangsters), and the contextual (ganglands) levels, and also experiments with different forms of collaborative ethnography, including in particular with a Danish colleague, anthropologist Steffen Jensen of Aalborg University – who is also a research associate at the Graduate Institute’s Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding.

Why do you focus specifically on South Africa and France for your comparative research?

The choice to compare Nicaragua and South Africa was driven principally by the fact that engaging with gangs ethnographically is not an easy proposition, and even less so regularly over a long period of time. Steffen has been carrying out longitudinal research on gangs in Cape Town for the past two decades, in a manner similar to the research I’ve conducted in Nicaragua. We’ve been exchanging informally about our findings for almost two decades now, and it is clear that gangs in South Africa and Nicaragua can be usefully related to each other, particularly with regard to their respective trajectories. Our insights have however been rather ad hoc in nature, and we now want to develop a more systematic cross-cultural comparison of gang dynamics together. We are starting in Managua and Cape Town, but then we want to develop joint research in Marseille. France was selected as our third case study partly to counter a pervasive but under-considered epistemological bias that exists in gang studies, whereby the majority of investigations either focus on gangs in the Global North – in particular the United States – or else take these as the major reference point through which to consider the dynamics of gangs in the Global South. One of the underlying ideas of the GANGS project is to reverse this gaze, and Steffen and I will explicitly start our consideration of gangs in Marseille from our South-South comparison of gangs in Managua and Cape Town.

I suppose one does not study gangsters and their world safely in a library. So, how do you manage your safety during your field research?

Through a mixture of serendipity, luck, common sense, and paranoia! I never intended to study gangs originally. I first went to Nicaragua in 1996 with a doctoral project to study the economic survival strategies of the urban poor, and ended up focusing on gangs instead partly because I suffered several violent encounters with gangs and then subsequently moved – for completely serendipitous reasons – into a neighbourhood that happened to have a particularly notorious local gang. As a result of a series of perhaps somewhat unlikely events, within a few weeks of directing my investigative attentions towards gangs, I ended up actually being initiated into the local neighbouring gang, which obviously gave me a lot of research advantages (but also involved drawbacks insofar as I became a target for rival gangs, but that is another story…). Although I eventually retired from the gang, I’m considered a respected “elder” whenever I go back to Nicaragua, and both old and new gang members are happy to talk with me, although both the professionalisation of criminality with the large-scale arrival of drugs in Nicaragua during the early 2000s, and generational turnover have sometimes complicated matters, hence my invocation of luck, common sense, and paranoia (details are best told over a beer or two…).

Are there recent books that have marked your research field?

A very important recent contribution to gang research is Vanessa Panfil’s The Gang’s All Queer, about gay gang members in the US and the way that these complicate the stereotypical representations of gang life as both hyper-masculinised and heterosexual. It opens up a significantly under-researched area, and I think will drive new research agendas for the next few years. Probably the best book on gangs I have read in the last few years, however, is Lamence Madzou’s autobiographical J’étais un chef de gang, which offers us an exceptionally insightful account of his trajectory from gang member to drug dealer and professional carjacker to community worker in the Parisian satellite city of Corbeil-Essonnes. Beyond gangs, I was hugely stimulated by Danny Hoffman’s recent book Monrovia Modern, which explores the relationship between urban form and the political imagination in Liberia, something that is widely recognised as extremely important but rarely dissected in detail. I also enjoyed reading Didier Fassin’s recent La vie: mode d’emploi critique, an extremely thought-provoking attempt to put forward an anthropological critique of the moral economy of inequality in the contemporary world. Finally, I’m also a big believer in regularly returning to or discovering old “classics” – academic research all too often tends to constantly seek the new and forget that we all stand on the shoulders of giants…

What kinds of books do you read for sheer pleasure? 

I’m an avid reader of fiction of all sorts, and normally have two or three novels on the go at the same time. I’m currently reading The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, a science fiction novel that imagines how the profoundly gendered nature of the US space programme might have been played out in another way had certain historical events occurred differently, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”, originally written in 1931 but only published this year, which vividly illustrates the horrors of slavery through the biography of the last-known survivor of the Atlantic slave trade, Cudjo Lewis, also known as Kossola. I recently finished two fabulous novels, Tropique de la violence by Nathacha Appanah, a superbly evocative story about a youth gang on the Indian Ocean island of Mayotte, and Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, an uproariously hilarious parody of the neoliberal dynamics of US academia. I’m also hugely looking forward to reading William Boyd’s new novel, Love Is Blind, which has just come out, and which will reportedly be another one of his wonderful cradle-to-grave “whole life” novels, along the lines of his amazing Any Human Heart or Sweet Caress. I generally feel that it is critical to engage with fiction and non-academic forms of writing beyond the academic, and I actually regularly integrate reading novels and sometimes even fiction writing assignments in my courses!

Interview by Marc Galvin, Research Office.