The latest issue of the Chronicle Review has an extended profile of Philippe Bourgois, which coincides with the release of his much-awaited book–Righteous Dopefiend–co-authored with Jeff Schonberg. Not surprisingly, the article highlights the riskiness of Bourgois’s fieldwork on the drug trade–it opens with a story of the ethnographer getting swept up and arrested during a Philly drug raid–but it also addresses some of ways that Bourgois’s work has been able to inform or engage with policy and health care:
“Some social scientists say Bourgois deserves credit for breaking a stalemate that long stymied the study of the American urban poor. In the 1960s, the anthropologist Oscar Lewis, who also wrote about East Harlem, helped to popularize the idea of a “culture of poverty”: Poor, urban parents passed along to children dysfunctional ways of thinking and acting. In the 1970s, leftist anthropologists pushed back, saying the poor should not be judged by the standards of the middle class, with the nuclear family, for example, held up as the ideal.
Fearful of being caught in the crossfire, many sociologists and anthropologists simply stopped looking, except via statistics, at poverty in the United States. Bourgois broke the deadlock in two ways, according to Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociologist at Columbia University and author of Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets (Penguin, 2008). He reframed drug dealers as people driven by essentially American aspirations: They wanted money, they wanted a career path that would offer new challenges over time, and they wanted the approval of their peers.
That subtle reframing points policy makers away from prison as a response and toward removing people from toxic networks or otherwise changing their incentives,” (Shea 2009).
While one of the themes of the article is that of Bourgois’s ability to bridge “theoretical” and “applied” concerns in the social sciences, the piece treats the theoretical engagements with a dismissiveness that I found surprising for the Chronicle of Higher Education. On the policy-related end of things, the article surprisingly doesn’t mention Bourgois’s NIDA-sponsored work on buprenorphine (and its potentials for extra-therapeutic use). However, its worth a read–if you’re unfamiliar with Bourgois’s work or if (like me) you’re interested in general media portrayals of anthropologists.