The power of belonging: researching gang psychology
21 February 2006
Writing in 1994, Professor Garry Trompf noted that the world was changing dramatically. “Small groups of people – gangs – are taking on national significance more than ever before,” said Professor Trompf, from the University’s School of Studies of Religion, who was studying gangs and politics. From the clans on the Mexican-Guatemalan border to the gangs keeping the Bougainville conflict alive, these groups were making a range of different claims, he explained.
Twelve years on, the significance of these small groups has grown exponentially. “They have impact beyond their national borders,” explained Professor Trompf at a University symposium on international politics, religion and global justice. Since 9/11, Iraq and other world events, we speak of gangs and politics in an international dimension. “Now, more than ever before, it is critical to understand the psycho-religious dimensions of gang involvement,” he said.
For Professor Trompf, who recently retired from teaching, gangs are about belonging and about redressing powerlessness. “People who join gangs seek to mean something to other people and seek to feel empowered, to feel that they can effect change in their own lives and in the world. The dynamics of a gang, with all that intensity and connectedness, feels like a dynamo. It feels fantastic,” he said.
But the presence of gangs is also dependent on how they are framed. Sometimes the media, people in authority, or the public are too quick to call a group of young men a ‘gang’ when they may simply be a group of young men. “We could use words less pejorative than ‘gang’, words such as ‘set’ or ‘bunch’. Labelling groups as gangs usually has adverse repercussions as members begin behaving like a gang. It cements something,” explained Professor Trompf.
The interdisciplinary symposium, International Politics, Religion and Global Justice in the New Century involved academics from the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales.
Contact: Kate Rossmanith
Phone: 02 9351 3168