In Search of Respect

For my first book/ethnography review of this blog I thought it only fitting to dedicate it to possibly the most moving and best ethnography that I have read so far – “In Search of Respect: Selling Crack In El Barrio” by Philippe Bourgois (who won a Margaret Mead award). Yes traditionally Anthropology is concerned with learning about other cultures, the Other and reading ethnographies like “The Nuer” that follow in the footsteps of Malinowski and participant observation, but I feel that this ethnography really captures what Anthropology is about. Maybe I’m just saying that because I’m more fascinated with how anthropology applies to our lives today, but I really do feel that it just gets to the core of finding out about a very real human culture of addiction, social exclusion and structural-functionalism in a world that we actually live in rather than a far flung island in Melanesia.

It explores the social marginalization of Puerto Ricans living in East Harlem, New York City, USA and was one of the first ethnographies to have an anthropologist establish a trusting friendship with street level crack-dealers.  This friendship is fundamental to the book’s nature; the very intimate (not least illegal) things that the subjects reveal to Bourgois make it extremely honest and give you a full picture for what exactly is happening and their reasoning behind their actions. The title of the book is perfectly fitting as it explains the dilemmas felt by the crack dealers as they choose between having legitimate low paying jobs but a lack of respect from the upper classes or illegal fast money jobs with social mobility where they evoke respect in the community (usually through violence) in which they live.

Bourgois sets out his themes (Gender inequalities, Kinship etc) through transcripts, backgrounds, life stories, and  black and white images whilst explaining his own emotions and thoughts. His honesty and the transcripts especially, which include background noises such as gun shots are central to the books achievement as he leaves nothing out and lets you fully immerse yourself into the situations he is in.

He says early on that:

“I refuse to ignore or minimize the social misery I witnessed, because that would make me complicitous with oppression” (p. 12)

which he sticks with as he does not shy away from leaving out harsh and disturbing events such as gang rape, and in the case of Candy, an abused mother of 5 children who shot her husband. They give a background and reasoning to why these subjects act as they do whilst demonstrating changing kinship and hierarchy patterns. These stories are effectively told with no hint of persuasion or pity, and by being shown in transcripts allowed me as a reader to fully understand the primary evidence void of manipulated judgements. I have to respect Bourgois for this, particularly so for creating such a deeply trusting relationship with the subjects for them to reveal such intimate details that make it a very poignant book.

Whilst the book is honest it does come with many dilemmas, which I must admit would have caused me to fall at the first hurdle. The close friendships between Bourgois and the drug dealers meant that at times he could not be objective and stand back as he saw some of his friends’ lives spiral out of control because of the drugs and did not know whether to intervene. In one case, Caeser, a violent addict, describes how he nearly killed a boy who had cerebral palsy whilst at school and Bourgois’ son had just been diagnosed with this condition, which reduced him (and me!) to tears. Bourgois does often show his disdain at their actions which does question the credibility of the ethnography, but I feel that it just lets the ethnography be all the more honest and perhaps surely it is more credible for him to have been upfront and reflect on his outbursts and its effects on the subjects as he does.

His deep understanding of the underlying social structures of this community meant that he explained a clear picture of how positive change could occur and how the policies of the US Government are failing and are ineffective based on their current perceptions of what life in the area is like. He demonstrated that with his internal knowledge of the area and its mechanisms he probably has a better chance of improving the area than the government itself! He usefully includes an epilogue describing the lives of the main people since his study and whilst one remains happy that Primo (the main dealer and closest friend) has found a legal job and has stopped taking drugs, you do wonder how this transformation took place which is not described.

Whether you are an Anthropologist or not, I have no hesitation in recommending it to you. It is brutally honest, descriptive and will really open your eyes to so many concepts, from kinship to respect to language to functionalism that just by reading it you will undoubtedly become an Anthropologist (even if just for the duration of the book) just from the thoughts that it will cause to swirl around your head.

Also at a time when we can be more inclined to gather quantative data, this book just shows how important qualitative data can be, and how it can offer you more explanations, better information and reasonings than simple surveys, assumptions and mathematics.

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2 thoughts on “In Search of Respect

  1. Chelsea says:

    I wanted to ask you how you felt about the footnote in the back explaining how he moved, re wrote and re ordered the transcripts in order to better get his point across? It’s the only concession he makes.

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