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ethnography of the city
Ethnography in the City:
Phillipe Bourgois and the Barrio
Cities exist for many reasons and the diversity of urban form and function can be traced to the complex roles that cities perform. Cities serve as centers of storage, commerce, and industry. The agricultural surplus from the surrounding country hinterland is processed and distributed within the city. Urban areas have also developed around marketplaces, where imported goods from distant places could be exchanged for the local products. Throughout history, cities have been founded at the intersections of transportation routes, or at points where market goods must shift from one mode of transportation to another such as river or ocean ports as well as railways. Cities are also sites of enormous religious and cultural significance not to mention being the center of administrative action. (Johnson, Earle)
Cities have always existed in the mind as well as in physical structure. For many poor and disenfranchised a particular city can be assumed to be a utopia of possibility in which there will be economic wealth, job security, political refuge, and religious sanctity. Thomas More's Utopia envisioned a city in which no one was exploited or impoverished, because all worked. This has never been made a terrestrial reality. With the rise of the industrial city and the onset of mass media, the city can has its dystopian features as well. Urban areas are plagued by enormous and widespread poverty intermingled with prodigious wealth. The plight of the poor within the city has not been a facet of traditional anthropological inquiry until the prevalence of urban anthropology and studies that evolved in the late twentieth century.
Violence is a pervasive presence in the lives of young people in urban communities in the United States. Despite recent declines in murder rates, homicide is a leading cause of death and injury among young people, especially those in urban areas. A recent study showed that in New York City, "one in four adolescent girls in the United States has been sexually or physically abused or forced to have sex against her will. National surveys show that almost one-fifth (18%) of high school students have carried a weapon to school at least one day in the last month and that 37% had engaged in a physical fight in the last year." (Freusenberg: 1999) This violence is particularly prevalent in areas of urban poverty and discontent. Other characteristics of such activity is the flagrant and widespread use of heavily addictive and illegal substances such as crack or heroin. Studies show the rise in physical exposure to violence among children and adolescents, particularly within urban neighborhoods.
In 1985, Phillippe Bourgois, his wife, and young son moved into a tenement apartment in East Harlem of New York City known to residents as El Barrio. They spent the next three-and-a-half years living among the harsh realities of the ghetto streets. The purpose of this was to gain entrance to a network of Puerto Rican crack dealers as well as their network of relatives and acquaintances. Bourgois eventually found his way to a storefront called the Game Room where video games provided a cover for the sale of crack cocaine. It was the manager of this establishment, Primo, who became Bourgois's friend and primary informant about life in El Barrio. Through this intimacy, Bourgois seeks to tell us some things about the symbols and symptoms of urban ghetto life, the "Achilles heel of the richest industrialized nation in the world by documenting how it imposes racial segregation and economic marginalization on so many of its Latino/a and African-American citizens." (Bourgois: 1995a; 14) Bourgois painstakingly records and analyzes the exploits of these elements of Puerto Rican diaspora. The culmination of such fieldwork is collected in ethnography about the urban underground economy and social marginalization entitled In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio. The book is now a best-selling classic of urban anthropology that covers issues of inner city life, kinship ties, ethnic relations, and work in the informal economy.
Like pioneering Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, Bourgois's method of ethnographic research is that of participant observation, which he believes to be "better suited than exclusively quantitative methodologies for documenting the lives of people who live on the margins of a society that is hostile to them." (Bourgois: 1995; 13) His research is a continuation of Malinowski's groundbreaking work in the field of economic anthropology as well as newer fields like political economy. His aim is to veer away from "ethnographic presentations of social marginalization…guaranteed to be misread by the general public through a conservative, unforgiving lens." (Bourgois: 1995; 15) Instead he means to build an alternative and critical understanding of the socially marginalized that does not tend to place the blame on the victims. This is to be achieved in "a manner that emphasizes the interface between structural and oppression and individual action." (Bourgois: 1995; 12)
Bourgois takes a first person point of view as opposed to the traditionally distant and third person narration that Malinowski instituted as the model of ethnographic literature. Malinowski wrote in his journal (which was later published posthumously by his wife as A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term) of his hatred for the natives. Similarly, Bourgois notes that although the dealers become his social network as well as his subjects in classical participant-observer fashion, he is often disgusted by violence perpetrated by his subject. This is quite apparent when trying to rationalize or humanize the high incidence of rape as a normalized aspect of sexual relations among his subjects. He writes that "despite the almost three years that I had spent on the street at the time of this particular conversation, I was unprepared to face this dimension of gendered brutality. I kept asking myself how it was possible that I had invested so much energy into taking these 'psychopaths' seriously. On a more personal level, I was confused because the rapists had already become my friends…I was living with the enemy; it had become my social network. They had engulfed me in the common sense of street culture until their rape accounts forced me to draw the line. " (Bourgois:1995;276) Unfortunately, some theorists suggest that for second or third generation urban-to rural immigrants, the view of urban women as a whole may tend to be misogynistic. "Women loom large not only in…conceptions of urban vice but in ideas of rural virtue as well." (Ferguson: 1997;140)
This is also an example of the anthropologist's complicity as described by the tenets of functionalism advocated by Malinowski and practiced by Bourgois. Functionalism institutes a policy of complete noninterference with even the most objectionable elements of a society's practices (such as headhunting in the Trobriand Islands or institutionalized rape in El Barrio). Such a doctrine believes that all aspects of a society (institutions, interpersonal roles, norms, etc.) serve a distinct purpose indispensable for the long-term survival of a particular society. Such principles are based on the identification of inter-relatedness of the components within the society, which are so interpenetrating that a variation in single element could produce a disturbance within the whole. Within the last thirty years, however, much leeway has been made in the areas of examining emotions and their place in the study of anthropological subjects. According to Bourgois, "Substance abuse in the inner city is merely a symptom--and a vivid symbol--of deeper dynamics of social marginalization and alienation. Of course, on an immediately visible personal level, addiction and substance abuse are among the most immediate, brutal facts shaping daily life on the street." (17)
The business practices in the underground economy of East Harlem crack dealers who find a certain amount of respect in their trade. The pre-eminent example of this is Ray, the illiterate owner of the Game Room crack house, who obtained considerable respect and "juice" (power). Also, it contributes widely to the urban underground economy which has enormous consequences upon the social and political circumstances of any given urban area. The hidden economy refers to illegal profit-making activities of many and varied kinds, which include drug trafficking, smuggling, procuring, corruption, tax fraud and forgery as well a
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