The mean streets mirror

In Search of Respect
November 15, 1996

Like those grocers who have never come across camembert, many criminologists have never met a criminal in their life. The difficulties of attempting ethnographic investigation into criminal activity encourage most researchers to deal with theories or statistics rather than with those who are their unwilling subjects. Surely, the decision to conduct ethnographic research does not simply stem from a sudden act of will, but is often the result of established contacts, of a degree of empathy with or understanding for those researched, of the capacity to suspend moral judgement, and finally of chance. This highly stimulating study by Philippe Bourgois displays a mixture of these preconditions, without which contacts with informants would have been impossible, particularly in dangerous areas such as East Harlem or El Barrio.

The author stumbled into the economy of crack cocaine while conducting research into poverty and segregation. In his initial project, drug use and distribution were only partial aspects of the underground economy, which was the original object of his study. However, after a year of examining untaxed car repairing, unlicensed betting and baby-sitting, the author realised that "most of my friends, neighbours, and acquaintances had been swept into the multibillion-dollar crack cyclone: selling it, smoking it, fretting over it". According to official statistics, they should have been homeless, starving and dressed in rags. Almost 40 per cent of residents in East Harlem live below the poverty line, and some find in the economy of illicit drugs the only equal-opportunity employers available to them.

With this premise, one may be tempted to locate In Search of Respect in what a caricature would term an example of "idealistic" criminology, namely a criminology driven by a notion of law-breaking as a rational response to disadvantage, if not as prepolitical rebellion against social injustice. In fact, the book is far from being an apologetic account of illegal behaviour led by need. Rather, it is a fine illustration of how criminal activity may ape aspects which prevail in the official law-abiding society. Some examples will illustrate this point. El Barrio presents us with an internal segregation based on race which mirrors the segregation existing in New York, and for that matter in most North American cities. Puerto Ricans are hostile to African-Americans and vice versa, and the two groups would prefer mutual annihilation to criminal partnership. Incidently, their common hatred for whites does not result in more exposure of whites to physical attack or mugging. The few whites residing in El Barrio are safer than their minority counterparts, because would-be attackers assume that they are likely to be police officers. In El Barrio, to have many children with many women is not regarded as disreputable, nor does the contrast between economically successful criminals and the poverty of their children and partners court disapproval. Exploitation is rife, and dealers, though working impossible shifts, are given what amounts to a minimum wage. To survive, along with a bit of cash, some street dealers rely on food stamps, which they hide shamefully. Those who earn large sums are too "visible" to try and invest it in some legal enterprise: they would fail to obtain a licence. This exacerbates their profligacy.

The most disturbing parts of this book, particularly those related to the obsessive presence of violence, make the author fear that his ethnography may be misconstrued as "giving the poor a bad name". I would reassure Bourgois about the clarity of his message. Street cultures and illegal economies express an alternative search for dignity and respect, but they often add to the degradation from which they emerge. In this sense, their prime victims are their very promoters. The dream of many social "reformers" seems to come true: if criminals are unreformable, let us design contexts in which they are forced to commit crime against one another.

Vincenzo Ruggiero is reader in criminology and social studies, Middlesex University.

In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio

Author - Philippe Bourgois
ISBN - 0 521 43518 8 and 57460 9
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £24.95 and £14.95
Pages - 392

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