In search of respect: an interview with Philippe Bourgois

Guest post by Julia Friederich, Jessica Grebeldinger, Stephanie Harris, Jacqueline Hazen, and Casey McHugh

The following is an edited transcript of an interview with Philippe Bourgois, the Richard Perry University Professor of Anthropology and Family and Community Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Barbara Miller conducted the interview on October 26, 2010, as part of her introductory cultural anthropology class at the George Washington University. Her 280 students had just finished reading In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio, and several of them submitted questions for the interview.

Skyping with Philippe. Photo credit: Elliott School of International Affairs, GW

BDM: First, please tell us why you decided to do your dissertation fieldwork in the United States?

PB: I didn’t! I began my dissertation research with the Miskitu Indians in Nicaragua. But the Nicaraguan Revolution, a popular guerrilla movement that eventually overthrew the Somoza dictatorship, was trying to develop an independent socialist government at the time, and the US, through the CIA, destabilized the situation. The CIA distributed machine guns among the people and it turned into civil war. So I went to Costa Rica and Panama where I did research on the United Fruit Company’s banana plantations, and really that’s what eventually brought me to East Harlem. I thought if I can study ethnic conflict in Central America, I should study ethnic conflict and its political economy in my own country. I wanted to look at segregation and what I call “de facto inner city apartheid” in the US. So I went up to East Harlem in New York City and started my new research project there while I was writing my dissertation about the ethnic divide-and-conquer strategy of a US multinational corporation in Costa Rica and Panama. It became my first book: Ethnicity at Work: Divided Labor on a Central American Banana Plantation.

BDM: Please describe how you developed rapport with residents of East Harlem.

PB: I talk about this in the chapter on apartheid: It’s simply about being yourself and not obeying the rules of apartheid. If you treat people with respect, you get treated with respect. At first I was very intimidated. I felt weird and awkward. Then I started doing normal things like doing repairs on my car. I got married and had a baby, and that “normalized” me as a person within the patriarchal hetero-normative frameworks that dominates common sense. It was the kids on the block where I lived who were the first to welcome me.  They don’t experience the same rigid structures of racism that adults do. Gradually I made friends with my neighbors. It’s just a question of not being intimidated. My friends from childhood and even some anthropologists kept saying to me, “You’re going to get killed!” but it’s not true. It was not crazy to live there and it is easy to violate apartheid if you do it slowly, carefully, and respectfully.

BDM: What did your wife think about East Harlem?

PB: I met my wife in Costa Rica, but her arrival in the US was delayed by visa problems since the US excludes many categories of foreigners. When I told her about my new project in East Harlem, she started asking her friends in Costa Rica about it. They told her it was the poorest urban neighborhood in the US. So she thought East Harlem was going to be like the poorest urban shantytowns in Costa Rica. When she arrived, her first thought was that it was beautiful with real buildings and hot and cold running water. She came from a background of urban poverty, and she never had hot and cold running water where she lived. What she found difficult in East Harlem was seeing drug addicts, interpersonal violence, and people shouting at each other. In Costa Rica at that time, there weren’t many hard drugs, maybe weed, and no people looking like crack-smoking Auschwitz survivors. A positive point is that when neighbors came to visit our house, they were always respectful to my wife and child. They were not monsters or slobs who leave paraphernalia around. As I said throughout the book, they are seeking respect, just like all people. We all seek social meaning and respect.  If any reader thinks that they were monsters or slobs, they are missing the point. I was trying to show that these are normal people.

Book cover. Photo credit: Philippe Bourgois
Book cover; Photo credit: Philippe Bourgois

BDM: How did you resist the urge to do drugs, even just weed?

PB: (laughing) I have a serious addiction: I’m a workaholic. I ruined my hands from typing too much and then ruined my throat from dictating when I could no longer type. My priority is my research material and developing ideas. If you drink too much, you lose fieldwork material, “you’re not smart anymore”, you miss what’s going on. So I restricted myself to beer. But malt liquor beer makes you completely blotto. You want to drink it like its beer, and then you’re … [drunken sounds].  So I learned to limit myself to two per night. But it does help you relax and helps you stay up all night talking. They respected the fact that I didn’t use drugs or get blotto drunk and that I was a nerdy person, an egghead cranium from the outside world. They wanted me to be a good person, and so that part was easy. There was no pressure on me to use marijuana or heroin or cocaine or crack. This was the mid-80s—it was spring 1985 when I moved in. Crack became a household word in the late fall of that year. It became the “cool” drug. Not until the next year did marijuana explode in response to crack and cocaine, and heroin, which had devastated the generation before me. The main drug of choice is now weed and mostly white people use heroin – among youth that is. The older generations remain addicted from the old ethnic patterns. No self-respecting Latino smokes crack – at least not in public today. Some people, of course, fall into crack-smoking or heroin injection because they sell the product to the older generations. Crack did not get the negative reputation among poor whites. It was bad, but it wasn’t as destructive or widespread in the poor white neighborhoods.

BDM: Can you comment on recent discussions in the media about sociologists reviving “the culture of poverty” concept?

PB: I am glad you raised that question! The concept of culture is a very important, but complicated concept. Anthropology exists around the concept of culture, but we (anthropologists) don’t really trust it. It gets essentialized. When you say “culture of” anything, it’s a dangerous thing to say because it makes you think you understand that “something” or that “anything”.  It’s like, yeah, yeah, people do something or anything because its their culture to do that something or anything. But in fact the culture concept in a vacuum tells you nothing. Even in In Search of Respect, when I write about the “culture of the street,” it’s a dangerous phrase. The word culture is  a black box. Anthropologists are always saying that culture is what makes us different from animals. But really in unconscious intellectual practice the word culture becomes a mealy mouthed code for race or an excuse for stereotypical projections that aren’t useful for understanding how things happen. I wrote a letter to the New York Times (they didn’t publish it) about how it is more helpful to use the concept of “risk environment” to understand how poverty articulates more specifically and precisely with lousy schools, lousy infrastructure, and lack of access to good food sources, decent jobs, and the public sector services that middle class people take for granted. Risk environment is a much more useful concept for understanding why people do what they do on the streets. The “culture of poverty” is not useful because it looks at epiphenomena, at self-destructive outcomes, rather than on the structural forces that poor people have to face every day that make them to what they do.

BDM: What do you think are the biggest misconceptions in mainstream American society about street culture, crack dealing and life in places like El Barrio?

PB: Good question, let’s take it to a higher level critique of US culture or more precisely US ideology – what gets called values and common sense. First, there’s a pervasive Manichean distinction between groups of individuals as being all good or all bad, all worthy or all unworthy. But in fact, drug dealers are not all bad. They are trying to do something with their life. It’s never just all good or all bad.  It’s more ambiguous. Lots of middle class (and virtually all upper class) people in the US cheat on their taxes, so are they all good or all bad? Those people (who cheat on their taxes) steal much much more from the American public than your average street-based mugger. Someone like Primo (the main character in the book, In Search of Respect), who is struggling with being responsible is not unworthy. Primo is devoting the rest of his life to taking care of his younger kids and now he’s their primary caregiver. He is a single dad of two kids and is living in a homeless shelter. He has reconnected with his two older sons too. I learned in a recent visit with him how hard he is trying to be the dad he didn’t have. The baby who Maria was pregnant with in the book, is now 18 years old. The six-year-old in the book now designs web pages. He was forced into the military by a judge – it was that or go to jail. But the military didn’t send him to Iraq because he was married to an underage girl with only one kidney, and they didn’t want to be responsible for her if he was killed, or for her if she had kidney failure. So the military released him, and he and his wife lost access to health care.

Second, a big public misperception exists about individual agency. People think that street people choose a life of using drugs. The reality is that if anyone in this class was born on that block in East Harlem in the ‘80s, they would most likely be doing or selling crack and they would most likely be in prison right now. You’ve got to be realistic about how the larger structural forces in risk environments affect people. A person in such a situation can strive to be different, but it’s hard to overcome the context. Those of us who care about giving inner city poor a fair chance at life have to work upstream, at changing the structural forces.

Julia Friederich, Jessica Grebeldinger, Stephanie Harris, Jacqueline Hazen, and Casey McHugh are graduate teaching assistants in the Anthropology Department at the George Washington University. Julia is a first year student in the MA program and is concentrating in international development; Jessica is a second year student pursuing an MA in anthropology with a concentration in international development; Stephanie is a second year student pursuing an MA in anthropology with a concentration in museum training; Jacqueline is a first year student pursuing an MA in anthropology; and Casey is a second year student in the MA program and is concentrating in international development.


Bourgois, Philippe. In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Bourgois, Philippe. Poverty, Culture of. International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, pp. 11904-11907.

Philippe and Jeff Schonberg. Righteous Dopefiend. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

2 thoughts on “In search of respect: an interview with Philippe Bourgois

  1. Evan

    Good book from Bourgois. He said something very important “If you treat people with respect, you get treated with respect” and that’s what we live by at where we help companies and individuals repair a bad reputation online. Treat others with respect and you benefit, especially if your reputation is available for everyone to see – on Google!


  2. Nancy

    Thanks for the book. Respect – humanity’s great Common Denominator – neglected, despised, manipulated, withheld – but still the most powerful concept on earth. If we could just figure out what our personal hangups are – the ones that want to keep our playing fields un-equal – we might find ourselves surprised by happiness. Of course there will always be a price to pay. Sign me up!


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