In Search of Respect


Philippe Bourgois

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In Search of Respect Study Guide

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Brief Biography of Philippe Bourgois

The son of an Auschwitz survivor and wealthy mother from New York City, celebrated urban and medical anthropologist Philippe Bourgois is best remembered for his ethnographic studies of American inner-city life, including In Search of Respect, although he conducted his early research largely in Central America. His dissertation at Stanford was based on his research at a banana plantation on the Costa Rica-Panama border (which formed the basis for his first book in 1989, Ethnicity at Work: Divided Labor on a Central American Banana Plantation). His early ethnographic work also took him to Nicaragua, Belize, El Salvador, and Paris. Since the 1990s, however, he has focused on the urban United States, especially New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, on which his third and latest ethnography is based (Righteous Dopefiend, co-authored with Jeffrey Schonberg, 2009). Beyond his three ethnographies, Bourgois has authored hundreds of articles and edited a number of volumes, including two with celebrated anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes: Violence in War and Peace and Violence at the Urban Margins. His most recent work looks at how medical, psychiatric, and prison systems in the United States are used to manage, evaluate, and castigate Americans living in inner cities. This has also led him to various research projects for the National Institutes of Health and applied work evaluating state policies toward people with mental illness. After a long tenure at San Francisco State University (1988-1998), Bourgois helped found and chaired the interdisciplinary Department of Anthropology, History and Social Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, where he taught for the next decade (1998-2007). He moved to the University of Pennsylvania from 2007-2016 and returned to California to direct UCLA’s School of Medicine’s Center for Social Medicine and Humanities.
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Historical Context of In Search of Respect

Bourgois’s second chapter focuses on three important histories that converge in the time and place of his research: that of Puerto Rico, that of East Harlem, and that of the so-called crack epidemic (including the federal and state government policies that were intended to address poverty and drug use, but actually exacerbated them instead). Although settled for thousands of years, Puerto Rico’s modern history begins with Spanish conquest at the end of the 15th century. For the next 400 years, the island was a Spanish colony notable primarily for its military importance and sugarcane plantations, which were run on slave labor during much of the 19th century. In 1898, the United States conquered Puerto Rico and consolidated these plantations, forcing many Puerto Ricans into exploitative labor on them, while preserving the island’s status as an important military center. Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens in 1917, and the government began deliberately importing Puerto Ricans to the mainland as laborers; in conjunction with the demise of the Puerto Rican sugar industry in the 1940s and 1950s, these factors made Puerto Rican migration to the mainland U.S. accelerate drastically in the mid-20th century, with a large majority going to New York City. As Bourgois explains, many of the first generation of migrants found work in the manufacturing industry that had largely collapsed by the time their children came of age. At the time of Bourgois’s research, 12% of New York City residents were Puerto Ricans. (As of 2010, the number is closer to 9%.) On balance, they remain New York’s lowest-income group. Since Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017, migration from Puerto Rico to the mainland United States has accelerated once again. Originally a rural suburb of New York, East Harlem became a bustling immigrant area in the late 1800s, with numerous German, Irish, Jewish, and Scandinavian immigrants creating distinct enclaves in what is now the neighborhood. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Italian immigrants dominated the neighborhood, but waves of Puerto Rican immigrants gradually moved into the neighborhood during the same period, becoming its majority group by the 1950s. Although some Italians still lived in the neighborhood during Bourgois’s research in the second half of the 1980s—and the Genovese crime family was still operating, in fact out of Bourgois’s block—by this time the neighborhood’s reputation as “El Barrio” was cemented, and as of the late 2010s Puerto Ricans remain the area’s plurality ethnic group, although rapid gentrification promises to transform the area and possibly displace many of its longtime residents. Nevertheless, it has long been the lowest-income and highest-crime neighborhood of Manhattan, although both of these measures have improved substantially in the decades since Bourgois’s research. Finally, the “crack epidemic” began in the same year as Bourgois’s research, 1985, with a huge media sensation quickly making the drug a household name. With the sudden influx of cocaine into the United States, in part the result of drug enforcement policies that attacked traffickers (and therefore made the relatively lightweight and easy-to-conceal cocaine a preferable alternative to marijuana). Smokable, cheap, fast-acting crack soon became an attractive product for dealers to sell, and the drug was almost immediately associated with inner cities and black and Latinx users, especially women. Violent crime in these areas increased significantly, as did incarceration rates, especially when the government mandated that crack offenses—and the mostly black and Latinx men who committed them—would be punished 100 times more harshly than powder cocaine offenses. Crack began fading in the mid-1990s, as Bourgois discovered in his trips to New York between the publication of the first and second editions of his book, and the sentencing disparities were eventually lightened in 2010 (to a still severe 18-to-1).

Other Books Related to In Search of Respect

Philippe Bourgois’s most recent book, Righteous Dopefiend (2009), looks at the experiences of San Francisco drug users in the decade since In Search of Respect. An extraordinary amount of ink has been spilled on both the crack epidemic and the War on Drugs. Notable works on the former include the 1997 compiled work Crack In America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice, edited by Craig Reinarman; personal narratives like New York Times journalist David Carr’s account of his past crack addiction, The Night of the Gun (2009); and documentary work like photographer Eugene Richards’s controversial, arguably voyeuristic 1994 book Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue. Books on the War on Drugs’ political background include former undercover agent Michael Levine’s The Big White Lie: The Deep Cover Operation That Exposed the CIA Sabotage of the Drug War (2012), which narrates the author’s participation in American efforts to protect drug traffickers associated with U.S.-installed Latin American dictators, at the same time as the United States was supposedly fighting these same traffickers in the War on Drugs, and Gary Webb’s incendiary work on the so-called Dark Alliance (1998). In his Cocaine Nation: How the White Trade Took Over the World (2010), Thomas Feiling covers cocaine’s history, the rise of the crack epidemic, and the drug’s contemporary appeal through interviews with those involved in its production, transportation, and trade. And Dimitri A. Bogazianos’s 5 Grams: Crack Cocaine, Rap Music, and the War on Drugs (2011) looks at the severe disparity between laws against powder and crack cocaine, the racial underpinnings of the War on Drugs, and their relationship to street culture as expressed through 1990s New York hip-hop. Important scholarly work on Puerto Rican history includes James L. Dietz’s Economic History of Puerto Rico: Institutional Change and Capitalist Development (1986), the volume Puerto Rican Diaspora: Historical Perspectives (edited by Carmen Whalen and Victor Vasquez, 2005), Cesar Ayala and Rafael Bernabe’s Puerto Rico in the American Century (2009), and numerous volumes resulting from the extensive work of Hunter College’s Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños. Early anthropological work on Puerto Rico includes renowned ethnographer Sidney Mintz’s Worker in the Cane: A Puerto Rican Life History (1960) and the collaborative study in which he participated, The People of Puerto Rico (1956), formally authored by Julian Steward. One of the most important scholars of the inner-city United States is William Julius Wilson, who remains best known for his landmark work The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (1987). His students have proven the new standard-bearers in this field: sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh has published a number of books on the underground economy in the United States since 2000, most famously Gang Leader for a Day (2008), and Loïc Wacquant has taken up the issue of inner-city governance from a somewhat more theoretical perspective in works such as Punishing the Poor (2009). There is also a substantial scholarly literature about East Harlem in particular. According to Bourgois, Oscar Lewis’s notorious 1966 study La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty—San Juan and New York ultimately and unintentionally fed the American tendency to blame people for their own poverty and “scared a generation of social scientists away from studying the inner city.” Since In Search of Respect, two prominent ethnographies have looked at East Harlem: Arlene Dávila’s Barrio Dreams (2004), a study of economic and cultural changes in East Harlem amidst encroaching gentrification, and Russell Leigh Sharman’s The Tenants of East Harlem (2006), which is narrated by seven different residents with various ethnic backgrounds and relationships to the neighborhood. Finally, the Nuyorican Movement has produced an enormous wealth of literature in both English and Spanish, starting with Jesús Colón’s A Puerto Rican in New York (1961). The movement has produced numerous novels (like Giannina Braschi’s 1998 Yo-Yo Boing! and Luis López Nieves’s 2005 Voltaire’s Heart), plays (most famously Miguel Piñero’s 1973 Short Eyes), and especially poetry (such as the extensive work of Pedro Pietri and Lourdes Vázquez) and memoirs (such as Piri Thomas’s 1967 Down These Mean Streets and the celebrated trilogy by Esmeralda Santiago).
Key Facts about In Search of Respect
  • Full Title: In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio
  • When Written: 1985-1995 (research 1985-1990)
  • Where Written: New York City, San Francisco
  • When Published: 1995 (first edition), 2003 (second edition)
  • Literary Period: Contemporary Academic Monograph
  • Genre: Ethnography
  • Setting: East Harlem, New York City; Puerto Rico
  • Climax: N/A
  • Antagonist: N/A
  • Point of View: First person, including reported dialogue

Extra Credit for In Search of Respect

Eric Wolf and Philippe Bourgois. Bourgois’s most important scholarly influence was likely his professor and mentor Eric Wolf, who is best remembered for Europe and the People Without History, but whose earliest work, like Bourgois’s, involved ethnography in Latin America. In fact, Wolf’s dissertation research was part of the landmark collaborative study in Puerto Rico that led to the book The People of Puerto Rico (1956).

Philippe Bourgois’s Motives. Bourgois credits the story of his father—who escaped from Auschwitz just before its liberation at the end of World War II—with driving him to focus on “institutionalized forms of social inequality and suffering.” He sees the place of American inner cities, “out of sight, out of mind,” as analogous to that of Nazi concentration camps.