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