In his insightful ethnography, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio, Philippe Bourgois focuses his research on the topic of social marginalization in inner-city America. He goes in depth about the cause of the issue and the details surrounding it, including historical data and modern day realities.
The study takes place during the mid-1980s through the early 1990s in the Spanish harlem neighbourhood of Upper Manhattan, also known as El Barrio. It involves the cultures of Puerto Rican immigrants, and to a lesser extent, African Americans. Professor Bourgois does not go into detail regarding the community’s religious beliefs, however he is clear about other characteristics like family structure and economics. Throughout the book, the anthropologist argued there is a certain level of pressure between the two ethnic groups, although they are essentially stuck together in the same cycle of social alienation. Some of the characters were condemning of black people, even if those people happened to share their own ethnicity as Puerto Ricans. When it came to their close family circle, the citizens of El Barrio were described as somewhat critical and condescending towards their parents and sometimes even towards their friends, who, for the most part, counted as part of the family. That perception was rooted in the fact that people that belonged to the older generation were often simple farmers back on their home island, and many were completely illiterate, allowing their kids to easily manipulate them if need be, which of course hurt their authority as parents. Friends, on the other hand, or peers, were seen as unsuccessful and almost pathetic, were they to cling to a job in the legal world if it was perceived as less prestigious than what their neighbourhood had to offer.
The motivation of those people that tried to stick with legal employment had also a lot to do with the economic climate in El Barrio. A relatively small percentage of the population ensured its main income by participating in various criminal activities, mostly related to drug dealing. Contrary to popular belief, those people barely made minimum wage, and considering the high risks of their “occupation”, it is understandable why the majority of the population sought legal employment. However, Professor Bourgois did not focus his research on the majority. The ethnography deals specifically with the day-to-day life of El Barrio’s core drug dealers and the economy of making minimum wage while also sustaining a drug habit.
The author’s hypothesis is essentially that El Barrio’s population is forced into illegal activities by outside factors that bar them from participating equally with the rest of society, working regular, not necessarily minimum wage jobs. Professor Bourgois argues that the lack of perspective and opportunities for Puerto Ricans in the outside world act as perpetrators for the underground economy, as people try to seek alternative paths of providing for their families.
In order to be able to conduct the study and submerge himself in the local subculture, the symbol-based patterns and traditions associated with locals, the author lived in the ghetto tenements of Spanish Harlem, along with his wife, for five years.
Throughout those years, Professor Bourgois conducted his study by effectively infiltrating the local population and using what is called participant observation, or constantly listening, asking questions, and even helping when necessary. He also utilized tape recordings during his interviews with locals, the product of which are the extensive verbatim dialogues between various figures participating in the underground economy, but also with police officers, with whom the author had to interact on more than one occasion as he was oftentimes identified as a lost white addict in a hostile neighbourhood. The local contributors to the anthropologist’s research were, for the most part, the higher level “employees” of the Game Room, where drugs were sold, disguised under video game covers.
The biggest issue that the author faced when conducting his research was the difference of his appearance compared to the rest of the population. His pale skin and thin figure made him resemble a regular drug addict, which at times, especially in the beginning, caused distrust among locals. His race also made him a potential undercover cop in their eyes, which further complicated their relationship. On top of all, police officers themselves regularly noticed he was standing out which only led to more encounters with the law enforcement in an area where its attention is highly undesired.
Professor Bourgois implemented the scientific method by drawing data from public research like statistics form the Census, which provide scientific data about life in El Barrio, then articulating the issue of the cyclical ethnic marginalization, and then conducting interviews involving various members of the community and asking them key questions about their experience with the education system, family life, and outside society, to be able to get to the root of the issue and prove that their way of life and even thinking, is not a product of merely their own actions, and is instead, a result of a hidden modern apartheid.
Overall, the anthropologist, Philippe Bourgois, successfully investigates the community of Spanish Harlem, along with its struggles for individual social legitimacy and how and why they came to be the way they are. El Barrio’s small tenements open up their secrets as their inhabitants choose to go out and share the tales of their life with a well-meaning stranger, and the whole world. No drugs or potential incarceration can stop this neighbourhood’s community from speaking out once it finally feels like it has a voice.