The new book by Phillippe Bourgois, Righteous Dopefiend, has just been published by University of California Press. Righteous Dopefiend covers Bourgois’ long-term ethnographic work with heroin injectors and crack smokers on the streets of San Francisco. Jeff Schonberg provided haunting photographs for the book.
“Calling this book ethnography would be like calling The Wire a cop show: what comes roaring out of its pages is almost as visceral and devastating as spending a night in ‘the hole’ itself.”
-Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums
“Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg provide a riveting narrative of the daily struggles for survival of homeless people with a physical and emotional addiction to heroin. The authors’ poignant account of these experiences features sophisticated analytic themes that enable them insightfully to integrate discussions of agency and moral responsibility on the part of homeless addicts with an analysis of the powerful structural forces that shape the addicts’ lives. Righteous Dopefiend is a must-read.”
– William Julius Wilson, author of More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City
Here’s the UC Press description:
This powerful study immerses the reader in the world of homelessness and drug addiction in the contemporary United States. For over a decade Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg followed a social network of two dozen heroin injectors and crack smokers on the streets of San Francisco, accompanying them as they scrambled to generate income through burglary, panhandling, recycling, and day labor. Righteous Dopefiend interweaves stunning black-and-white photographs with vivid dialogue, detailed field notes, and critical theoretical analysis. Its gripping narrative develops a cast of characters around the themes of violence, race relations, sexuality, family trauma, embodied suffering, social inequality, and power relations. The result is a dispassionate chronicle of survival, loss, caring, and hope rooted in the addicts’ determination to hang on for one more day and one more “fix” through a “moral economy of sharing” that precariously balances mutual solidarity and interpersonal betrayal.
And here’s Publisher’s Weekly starred review:
In this gritty ethnography exploring the world of San Francisco’s homeless heroin addicts, Bourgois, anthropology and community medicine professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Schonberg, a photographer and graduate student in medical anthropology, draw on a decade immersed in this subculture to eloquently elaborate on the survival techniques and intimate lives of black and white addicts who live in self-made communities and work the economic fringes for survival. The authors explore racial boundaries and crossings, love stories, family relations, parenting, histories of childhood abuse, as well as the constant work of navigating hostile police enforcement, exploitative and helpful business owners, overburdened medical services and social service bureaucracies.
The book details the gruesome material toll of addiction, infection and homelessness and the risks of ongoing personal and institutional violence. Bourgois and Schonberg create a deeply nuanced picture of a population that cannot escape social reprobation, but deserves social inclusion. Schonberg’s photographs capture the scars of addiction, the social bonds between romantic pairs and drug-running partners and the concerted efforts at domesticity without a domicile. The collage of case studies, field notes, personal narratives and photography is nothing short of enthralling.
Robin’s Bookstore gives us some more details on the methods and analytic lens Bourgois used:
The book chronicles the lives of 10 drug users (in the Bernal Heights area of San Francisco), developing portraits of these individuals to assess the means by which the dynamics of gender, race, and class find expression in their lives… Its gripping narrative develops a cast of characters around the themes of violence, race relations, sexuality, family trauma, embodied suffering, social inequality, and power relations. The result is a dispassionate chronicle of survival, loss, caring, and hope rooted in the addicts’ determination to hang on for one more day and one more “fix” through a “moral economy of sharing” that precariously balances mutual solidarity and interpersonal betrayal.
Finally, the Chronicle of Higher Education recently reviewed Bourgois’ Righteous Dopefiend, and I’ve excerpted a few relevant parts below.
Having an interdisciplinary perspective, in a sense, means you serve different masters, and that is unusually evident in Bourgois’s case. On the one hand, he is a cultural anthropologist in the humanistic, participant-observer tradition. He can emit at will great clouds of jargon that draw on the writings of Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu. But he also produces concrete recommendations about treating drug abuse and limiting the spread of blood-borne diseases, which is why the National Institutes of Health has long financed his work.
American drug policies, he says, “turn the filthiest nooks and crannies into the only objectively safe places for the indigent who are physically addicted to heroin to inject.”
Robert Borofsky, a professor of anthropology at Hawaii Pacific University who oversees the California Series in Public Anthropology, which includes Righteous Dopefiend, offers a sweeping defense of the ethics of the project. “Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg are doing a wonderful job of giving life and voice to these homeless drug addicts,” he says. “It brings them more fully into the human community and lets us understand more fully their understanding of the world.”
On the policy front, some of Bourgois’s proposals are fairly mainstream: more mobile health, psychology, and methadone clinics; better case management for frequent emergency-room visitors (or separate clinics for them); expanded access to single-room-occupancy hotels with in-house medical staffs. (Without such staffs, SRO hotels can be deadly, because unlike at Edgewater, there’s no one to revive you if you OD.)
Other proposals are more forward-looking. Bourgois has come to believe that the culture of shared needles and drug paraphernalia is so ingrained among addicts that you have to assume people will share when they are desperate. “I think the most important piece of information to get out is to rinse needles thoroughly,” he says — even if that means just with water. On the West Coast, he has written in a paper with Ciccarone, people tend to rinse thoroughly out of necessity, because the black-tar heroin that is common there clogs syringes.