Ethnography of the city Essay

This essay has a total of 2687 words and 12 pages.

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 as prostitution. In each case the activity is kept hidden (since it is illegal) and
makes money-or saves it when tax fraud or evasion is involved--for the person who carries
it out.

The female subjects of the study are as equally marginalized as their male counterparts.
However, the fact of their gender disenfranchises them further from the mainstream
societies and its benefits. It is noted than less than one-third of the impoverished
mothers of El Barrio receive public assistance. Female heads of impoverished households
must supplement their meager checks in order to keep their children alive and thus are
likely to engage in the informal economy though in not the obviously illegal ventures of
many of the male population. "Many are mothers who make extra money by babysitting their
neighbors' children, or by housekeeping for a paying boarder. Others may bartend at one of
the half-dozen social clubs and after-hours dancing spots scattered throughout the
neighborhood. Some work 'off the books' in their living rooms as seamstresses for garment
contractors. Finally, many also find themselves obliged to establish amorous relationships
with men who are willing to make cash contributions to their household expenses."

Bourgois proves himself as 'street-wise' to the locale of his study as were any of the
Continues for 6 more pages >>




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