By Richard Bennett – Surf Psychologist

Localism is as much a part of our surfing experience as big winter swells and spaghetti arms. It is strongly ingrained into our surf psyche and culture. Being a local means belonging to a particular beach or area of coastline where you were either born or have lived for some accepted period of time. Localism is simply a preference for what is local, and may be expressed through the ideas, customs, attitudes and behaviours of the surfers in that area. So how does localism develop and what underlies the various expressions of this psychological and social dynamic?


A couple of local’s sharing the ocean in harmony

Localism develops through the process of Social Categorisation and our tendency to engage in territorial behaviour. Social categorisation is a process by which we divide the social world into in-groups and out-groups. This is the Us and Them phenomenon. Social categorisation occurs because when we define who we are with regard to social factors like race, sex and group membership, we also define who we are not. In this way we include us in our in-group, and exclude them to their out-group. Hence, by defining ourselves as a local at one area of coast we effectively exclude ourselves from being a local at all other areas of coast.

Along with many species of birds, fish and animals, humans share the instincts of Territorial Behaviour. Territorial behaviour involves marking off and defending a physical space we define as ours against unwanted intrusions. This serves to maintain our privacy and control. Although the ocean is considered a public territory where access is usually on a first come first serve basis, local surfers tend to behave more dominantly at their home breaks. This is known as the prior residence effect or in sports the home field advantage, and often results in better performance by locals in competitive interactions.

Depending on whether we are part of the newcomer out-group or the local in-group, expressions of localism may hinder or enhance our surfing experiences. Most of us have either witnessed or experienced uneasy vibes, snakes or drop-ins by locals when surfing at their home break. Also, occasional incidences of verbal abuse and more rarely physical assaults or property damage by locals on newcomers have occurred.

Unfortunately, at times assertive territorial behaviour or localism may cross the line and become expressions of prejudice or discrimination. Prejudice is an attitude towards members of a group based solely on their membership in that group. The attitude is usually negative, and when it turns into action, this is termed discrimination.

Expressions of heavy localism can stem from the process of social categorisation itself whereby we tend to view members of our in-group as having greater individuality and talent than out-group members who are often considered to be “all the same”. The development of such stereotypes of out-groups tend to bias what we notice, interpret and remember about them, and influence us to focus on information that confirms the stereotype. For example, if a newcomer has been waiting patiently for a set wave then skillfully catches one among the local crowd, this may be interpreted as snaking by the local who has newcomers stereotyped as hasslers, undeserving of the set waves. This interpretation will further confirm the stereotype and the potential for prejudice and discrimination can increase.

Realistic Conflict Theory explains heavy localism as the result of inter-group conflict over scarce resources. Competition over waves can increase negative attitudes and feelings towards opponents and create a tendency to view one’s in-group as more superior and deserving of the sets. This theory helps to explain how heavy localism appears stronger in areas where prized waves are competed for by many surfers from many parts of the globe, like on Queensland’s Gold Coast during cyclone season, or on the North Shore of Oahu during an Hawaiian winter.

A final theory is the Social Learning view, which can provide an explanation for both heavy and enhancing expressions of localism. This theory simply suggests that a persons attitudes and behaviours are shaped by observational learning from role models such as respected locals at your home break. For example, the grommet who observes their local role models acting in prejudiced and/or discriminatory ways towards newcomers may learn to approach newcomers in similar ways. On the other hand the grommet who observes their local role models acting in a fair and reasonable manner towards newcomers is likely to learn a similar approach.

It is not uncommon for locals to be hassled by newcomers too. For many of the reasons described to explain heavy localism, some newcomers may behave arrogantly and fail to respect the local surfers and local norms or rules.

In these circumstances the prior residence effect and realistic conflict theory become understandable as well as expressions of assertive localism and the regulating role this serves. A cohesive group of locals with a pecking order that clearly defines the status and role of each surfer will best manage hassling from both newcomers and from within. The fair regulation of surf breaks is an enhancing expression of localism that helps maintain peace and harmony among surfers in the line up.

Localism can also help us take our surfing where we want it to go. At times we may set a goal that alone is almost impossible to achieve, however, by joining a group that goal can become more easily attainable. Australia’s strong lineage of boardrider clubs and club competitions illustrate how a young grommet aspiring to become world champion can achieve this goal. The support and encouragement from boardrider clubs helps to guide and foster a surfers natural ability. They also provide optimal role models and the necessary surfing experiences to build the foundations for a successful surfing career. Similarly the surfer who simply wants to improve their surfing also benefits from these enhancing expressions of localism.

Finally, localism can also enhance our surfing experiences on a personal level. Our style of surfing can be greatly influenced by the way peers at our local beach surf, and by the types of waves that break there. Simply being a local also helps satisfy our psychological needs for a sense of belonging and acceptance and we help to define our social identity by belonging to an area of coast or local boardrider club. This serves to develop our self-concept and enhance our self-esteem and confidence as an individual. Furthermore, all locals know the rewards of being privy to the intricacies of local knowledge and enjoy the comfort of being welcomed when paddling out to a favorite secret spot at home.

When you think of your experiences of localism I am sure the enhancing expressions far outweigh experiences of heavy localism. And while localism does influence our surfing life in many ways, it does not appear to segregate surfers as a global tribe. In fact, the common attributes we share as surfers like environmental awareness and the spirit of adventure serve to strengthen our sport and lifestyle. Also the celebration of great surfers with events like the Mark Richards Pro and the Eddie evoke a strong sense of kinship and camaraderie among surfers from all over the globe.

First published in Tracks Surfing Magazine Australia November 1999