All posts in blog tagged with engaged social science

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.

renegade dreams

Laurence Ralph’s Renegade Dreams centers on the community of Eastwood and the intersection of gang life, postmodern urban development, and media portrayals of this West Side Chicago neighborhood. Ralph focuses on individual perspectives to move away from essentialized versions of the “urban ghetto” in America and instead understand how these individuals navigate and negotiate their precarious existence precipitated by failed institutions and paternalistic policies. Ralph approaches the past “as an ambiguous space” that is “somewhere between history-as-registered and history-as-lived.” Through his ethnographic research, Ralph soon discovered that to many Eastwoodians history is emergent; in other words, their interpretation of what happened in the past, what they’re doing about it in the present, and what will happen in the future is heterogeneous, contested, and open ended. By understanding history in ambiguous terms, Eastwood residents frame tragedy, bodily harm, and urban isolation as sites of inspiration and potential for change.

Throughout the book Ralph introduces each chapter with a field note vignette drawn directly from his notebooks, setting the tone for each chapter by describing his feelings, doubts, and concerns while still in the field. Part one of the book contextualizes the theory of isolation as experienced in Eastwood. Chapter one provides a historical context of Eastwood vis-à-vis redevelopment efforts spearheaded by a well-intentioned but ideologically problematic church organization and the activist group protesting their proposal. Gangs play a salient role in the redevelopment since the “urban blight” gang members embody is an easy target for Chicago’s establishment to rally against. Further, the values the Chicago establishment espouse are reflected in the Eastwood Community Church’s (ECC) “rehabilitative” redevelopment plan. The Neighborhood Coalition provides a counternarrative to the rehabilitation narrative, pointing out the political and economic imperatives to redevelopment before the neighborhood ends up as “rubble and ash” and pragmatically engaging Divine Knight gang members to intimidate policymakers into hearing the coalition’s concerns. Though the coalition’s effort ultimately fails, the chapter complicates the roles of the ECC, the Neighborhood Coalition, and the Divine Knights in negotiating the future of Eastwood.

The next two chapters explore the narratives gang members from several generations tell themselves about the Divine Knights and how the performances expected and often required of gang members keep them stuck in the organization. Nostalgia serves frames emergent histories told from the perspectives of an old timer, a current gang leader, and a gang member still in high school and discusses the social capital that various types of shoes represent in the present. Ralph contextualizes the disdain both the old timer and older gang leader show current renegades in terms of their respective historical contexts, noting that even seemingly superficial concerns renegades discuss are reflections of these emergent narratives. Ralph uses Blizzard’s story in the next chapter to illustrate the self-fulfilling prophecies ploys for authenticity result in. Attempts at legitimacy, often fueled by popular culture tropes expressed in hip hop, lead men like Blizzard to make poor decisions, ultimately landing him in prison. Tosh, similarly imprisoned by gang life in his own body, uses his “failed” narrative to build a different sort of legitimacy, this time as a storyteller.

Part two of Ralph’s book explores the resilience of dreams through the Crippled Footprint Collective (CFC) and HIV education efforts in Eastwood. The CFC is a loose collective made up of wheelchair-bound former gang members and their efforts to reclaim their “damaged” bodies as tools for violence prevention. Ralph focuses on Justin’s efforts to share his testimony with current gang members at the House of Worship and outlines the considerable effort Justin goes into to make sure this meeting happens. Justin’s testimony is incredibly moving to the young gang members with its relatability. Ralph ends the chapter by highlighting how Justin transformed tragedy into a pathway for peacekeeping in the Divine Knights. Similarly in the next chapter, the multifaceted efforts to rehabilitate HIV positive residents remove stigma from their illness and serve as narratives of transformation for the community at large to follow.

Ralph’s conclusion is the best example of engaged social science in Renegade Dreams. Ralph spends considerable time discussing the issue of framing when studying Eastwood using the case study of a viral video portraying community violence. Ralph argues that the dominant narratives in America made it easy to frame this video as just another example of urban gang violence. However, in light of the previous chapters, the reader is provided with a more nuanced and plausible explanation for the violent death Derrion Albert through the lives of numerous Eastwoodians: the intersection of neoliberal policy reforms, isolation, and institutionalized racism in urban America.


Ralph, Laurence. 2014. Renegade Dreams: Living through Injury in Gangland Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

yo mama’s disfunktional!

Robin D. G. Kelley’s Yo Mama’s Disfunktional! outlines the ideological culture war African Americans have engaged in through the latter half of the 20th century. By reframing the root causes of social issues in terms of individual actions, neoliberal/neoconservative agents minimize the role of policy and maximize the role of poor people of color in their own demise. Despite being written in the 90s, many of the issues Kelley brings to the forefront in his book continue to be relevant.

Kelley wrote the book in response to what he considers most prevalent and damaging “yo mama” joke in modern American society: the demonization of black mothers (and by extension black culture). Kelley describes how social scientists invented this version of “black culture” that is centered on poverty, (bad) behavior, and deficits. This oversimplified version of “blackness” glosses over hybridity and complexity in the black experience in America. These constructs, in turn, help justify the enactment of neoliberal policy decisions and provide vitriol for neoconservative ideologues to blame “black culture” for the social woes many black people experience.

Kelley provides case studies of basketball and hip-hop cultures as examples of this process of essentializing, leading to policy, leading to behavior, leading to additional essentializing, and so on, in a worsening cycle of judgement and policy action. Kelley argues that neoliberal reforms themselves created the rampant unemployment and social dilapidation that contextualize the emergence of basketball and hip-hop cultures in black America. Nevertheless, Kelley asserts that many social scientists, policymakers, and ideologues treat the hybridization of work and play these cultures represent as outcomes of black priorities and not as strategic decisions in response to structural deficits and symbolic violence levied upon the black community. Meanwhile, the neoliberal establishment argues that government assistance is precisely what led people to deficit situations in the first place, with “bootstrap” solutions serving as the only appropriate way out of these deficits. Kelley responds to this neoliberal ideal by suggesting that black Americans should feel entitled to the assistance they deserve as tax-paying citizens and that self-built ideologies are myths upheld by corruption and government subsidies (in other words welfare systems) for the rich.

Kelley also attacks the ideologies espoused by activists in the left framing class struggle as more important than “identity politics.” Kelley situates these arguments within neo-Enlightenment thought and teases out the racist/sexist/prejudiced/politicized perspectives hiding behind their supposed “universalism.” Kelley also cites racist construction worker unions in the 60s and AFL-CIO’s alignment with cold war policies as examples of prejudiced/politicized action even within the “universalist” framework. Kelley’s last chapter then surveys examples of (then) current union activism that best approach the slogan from the Black Women’s United Front: “abolition of every possibility of oppression and exploitation.” Two salient trends in these examples of union activism include the tendency for labor in the United States (and the world) to become increasingly contingent/subcontracted and the approaches organized labor takes to unify a decentralized mass of workers.

Kelley’s book is disappointingly relevant, despite being as old as many third and fourth year undergraduate students currently enrolled at UCLA. The culture war waged against people of color is ongoing, with social media and the internet amplifying these battles daily, and giving contingents on multiple sides of these arguments the means to wage post-mortems after every such engagement. Just last Friday (editor’s note: 4/20/18 at the time this was written), Candace Owens, a black neoconservative personality, spoke at UCLA and engaged in the very rhetoric Kelley described 20 years ago. She accused Black Lives Matter activists protesting the event of engaging in “a culture of victimhood” and praised her audience for embracing “a victor” culture. Then rapper Kanye West tweeted that “[he loves] how Candace Owens thinks” and dozens of ideologically driven blogs and news outlets responded. Nevertheless, these tools are also available for activists and radicals as well, with the potential for widespread, decentralized social movement in the vein of the Black Women’s United Front constantly evolving and hopefully emerging.


Kelley, Robin D. G. 1997. Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America. Beacon Press.

down out & under arrest

Forrest Stuart’s Down Out & Under Arrest paints a cinematic picture of life in Los Angeles’ Skid Row through his ethnographic research of police, residents, and advocacy populations over five years, 2007-2012. Though he never intended for his research to involve the police, it became inevitable for him to engage Central Division officers in his research after repeated interactions Skid Row residents resulted in Stuart describing a pattern of behavior he termed “becoming copwise.” According to Stuart, the process of becoming copwise among residents of Skid Row was a defacto “folk ethnography of policing” that extracted successful behavioral interventions residents could engage in to minimize their interactions with aggressive policing. Because cop wisdom was an effect policing had on his original research subjects, Stuart had to engage police officers and police leadership to understand the causes behind the policing choices that led Skid Row residents to their cop-influenced behavior.

Though chapter 1 wasn’t assigned, I couldn’t resist reading it given the context it gave about Skid Row’s current structure. What was most helpful about this chapter was the three-arc history Stuart sketched about Skid Row, from paternalistic, to maintenance-centric, and back to paternalistic. As I read the assigned chapters, it was useful to map the subject’s behaviors to these historical framing elements and the therapeutic policing pattern Stuart experienced first-hand.

Chapter 2 discusses the police. It’s shrewd for Stuart to begin his ethnographic analysis with cops since they are shaping the behaviors chapters 3-5 will describe most directly. The most important takeaway from this chapter is that regardless how “evil” the officer’s actions seem to Skid Row residents, readers, or even Stuart himself most of the officers believe they are acting in the best interests of Skid Row’s residents. It would have been easy to make this book into another cop-hating piece of social justice research. Instead, Stuart complicated Central Division’s role in the matter, painting many officers’ arrests as interventions on behalf of Skid Row residents that stemmed from a deep commitment to the community and its people. The symbiosis this police paternalism had with the shelters was also very enlightening, given the shelter’s deeply ideological expression of assistance. It is precisely through this ideological disconnect that Skid Row residents framed police actions as victimization rather than assistance.

Chapters 3 and 4 discuss two approaches to “becoming copwise,” through a group of friends and the “Skid Row weight pile” and through a group of street vendors. Ironically, both versions of cop wisdom resulted in individuals performing “police work” on themselves and others because of their interpretations and applications of their unique “folk ethnographies of policing.” The Skid Row weight pile chapter really broke my heart. The weight pile crew’s worst crime, in my estimation, was that of creating an unsanctioned therapeutic intervention that ran counter the “approved” ideology of recovery. Stuart did such an excellent job painting these characters that I hope a great director and screenwriter pair up to make an amazing movie out of chapter 3. Chapter 4, though less cinematic is perhaps more interesting in its implications, since self-policing among street vendors has effects beyond the vendors themselves. Again, through their “folk ethnography policing,” street vendors are quick to identify and eliminate those elements in their block that “don’t belong,” including drug users, white people, and women.

Stuart’s methodological appendix was useful describing the effects of his positionality and the rationale for his sampling strategy, two items that were closely entangled. Stuart’s identity, appearance, and occupation was a challenge for engaging with Skid Row residents and an advantage when interacting with cops. Though his intended research subjects were Skid Row residents it quickly became obvious he would have to engage police officers in an “inconvenience sample” of interactions that ran counter to the data he had collected about police behavior thus far. After a surprisingly easy integration into the cop community, it became necessary for Stuart to engage with yet another “inconvenience sample,” this time of policing and community activists (Los Angeles Community Action Network and the Catholic Worker). This “switching sides” upset many of the officers he had worked with, ending much of his access to him and potentially making him a target for police retaliation. Though methodology is often labeled “the boring stuff” in social science research, I found Stuart’s openness about his methods and commitment to rigor, despite the inconvenience it would cause, extremely validating to his work.


Stuart, Forrest. 2016. Down, Out, and Under Arrest: Policing and Everyday Life in Skid Row. University of Chicago Press.

engaging contradictions: theory, politics, and methods

This week’s reading establishes the idea of activist research. Hale’s introduction outlines the structure of the book, engaging with the various themes the volume will cover and making a case for activist scholarship. Hale begins by showcasing the contention between traditional scholarship and its positivist, neoliberal, objectivist application and politically aware scholarship, with its dialogical, person-centric collaborative approach. He spends the rest of the introduction countering three arguments against activist scholarship: that it is not methodologically rigorous, that its politics get in the way of its outcomes, and that practice makes for bad theory. Ultimately, Hale’s goal for this book is not that of a roadmap to follow but a provocation to pursue and reclaim scholarship for one’s own truths.

Part I of the book includes chapter 1-3 and covers the conceptions of space within an activist framework. Gilmore engages marginalized people within forgotten spaces by referring to the Malay term desakota which translates to town-country, a space that is neither urban or rural. I grew up in Kern County, where some of Gilmore’s research takes place and can attest to the prison infection the area has experienced over the last 30 years. Nabudere, continues by outlining the movement towards subject-centered research in the global south and describing participatory research approach or PRA and how it was deployed in Africa. Using this work as a compass, the Marcus Garvey Pan-Afrikan Institute was been established to preserve and connect the multiplicity of knowledges, traditional and otherwise, that a place like Uganda supports. Finally, Lipsitz writes to legitimize activist social movements and the knowledge they produce in order to “break the chains and to steer the ship.”

Part II in the book complicates the role of the researcher in activist work, introducing notions of positionality into activist scholarship. Pierre’s piece begins with a pithy observation from a Ghanaian asking her about her research: “[r]ace? [t]hat’s a U.S. problem.” The rest of the chapter goes on to disentangle the role of the researcher in defining the issue under study and how complicated that becomes when studying another culture. Pierre ends by noting the importance of situating knowledge, both one’s own and that of one’s subjects. Costa Vargas’ piece is my favorite in this week’s assigned readings. Very much like quantum physics, Costa Vargas warns against the impossibility of observing without influencing and makes the strongest case for becoming the subject through his research in the Coalition Against Police Abuse (CAPA) and the Community in Support of the Gang Truce (CSGT). Rather than engaging in the traditional participant observation, Costa Vargas inverts the anthropological standby into observant participation, the only way to researching activist groups like these is to become one of them. This piece was my favorite because it dealt with recent history, local politics, and COINTELPRO, a very relatable cocktail of information.


Hale, Charles R., ed. 2008. Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics, and Methods of Activist Scholarship. 1st ed. University of California Press.

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