righteous dopefiend

Bourgois and Schonberg’s Righteous Dopefiend is a photographic ethnography of heroin addicts in San Francisco’s Edgewater neighborhood. The six assigned chapters introduce the project and the theory of abuse, race relations, gender relations, community, informal economies, and policy recommendations. The book is structured in terms of co-written text, photographs, and ethnographic field notes taken directly from Bourgois’, Schonberg’s, and others involved in the project. Co-written text structures the book and situates the various narratives in the broader theoretical contexts of deindustrialization, neoliberal reformations of public services, and gentrification. The accompanying black and white photographs anchor the representations of bodies and spaces to narrative descriptions in addition to creating affective reactions from the reader. Field notes, much like the photographs, serve as short vignettes where observations and conversations are foregrounded and theoretical subtexts and historical contexts are backgrounded.

Bourgois and Schonberg’s theory of lumpen abuse intersects Marxist critiques of capital with Bourdieu’s theory of symbolic violence and Foucault’s theory of governmentality. The authors further situate their field research in what Holocaust survivor Primo Levi calls a “gray zone,” a compromised situation where survival and self-preservation override all moral imperatives. Lumpen proletariats, the “scum, offal, refuse of all classes” in Marx’ words, are the leftovers of capitalist society, having no productive purpose because of “large scale, long-term, transformations in the organizations of the economy.” Furthermore, symbolic violence and governmentality work hand in hand to maintain lumpen populations in the margins of society; middle class values frame addiction as a personal choice and in turn these values are codified into policies. As such, the subjects of Righteous Dopefiend inhabit the gray zone these policies create and endure ongoing abuse at the fringes of society.

Despite their marginal position, the righteous dopefiends Bourgois and Schonberg study sustain the racist and gendered habitus of the society they’re alienated from, to the degree their addiction allows them. In chapter 1, the authors describe the processes of “apartheid” the homeless camps exhibit and document racist boundary-making white and Latino addicts engage in to distinguish themselves from blacks. Nonetheless, racism does not trump addiction, with most of the subjects putting their differences aside the moment “dopesickness” was imminent. Al and Sonny’s interracial friendship subverts the informal apartheid of the Edgewater camps. Al’s willingness to partner up with a black man is contextualized by the authors’ observation that Al grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood. Similarly, in chapter 2, Tina and Carter’s relationship preserves gender binaries and patriarchal dynamics. However, Tina, a dynamic presence in the camp, is subverts these tropes through her transactional vision of sex work and independence.

Chapters 3 and 5 concern bodies, whether in the hospital or at work. The images in chapter 3 drew the most guttural reactions from me, especially when accompanied by the graphic description of the various injuries (self-inflicted or medically-inflicted) that the Edgewater residents experienced. The authors’ description of how abscess treatment changed from debridement to lancing was a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak chapter that documented how the medical establishment abused these bodies, often on purpose, given the middle-class values upholding the policies of the medical establishment. Chapter 5 similarly deals with the informal gig economy the Edgewater homeless engage in and the different levels of exploitation they endure. The authors do a great job contextualizing the availability of work in Edgewater along a continuum of increasing globalization, privatization, and gentrification and situating the subjects of the study outside of a sustainable living wage even if their addictions were not an issue.

Bourgois and Schonberg’s conclusion make several pragmatic policy recommendations that address the neoliberal model that dominated when the book was written and continues to today. An interesting suggestion they make is heroin prescriptions. Considering the opioid crisis we’re currently in and the moral panic that has created, I’m not certain that recommendation is currently viable. If anything, the moral argument against that suggestion would point to the current crisis and assert that preventative opioid prescriptions don’t work. Regardless of the policy recommendations, Bourgois and Schonberg’s book humanizes these marginal subjects, undoing some of the symbolic violence we’ve become so accustomed to. Given the imagery and the narratives, I don’t think I’ll be able to look at a person on the side of the freeway and judge them in the same way I used to; in my eyes that makes Righteous Dopefiend a tremendous success.


Bourgois, Philippe, and Jeffrey Schonberg. 2009. Righteous Dopefiend. University of California Press.

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