CeaseFire: Violence Prevention and Why Gary Slutkin Is An Anthropologist

Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist and physician at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is treating violence like an infection. Stop its transmission; get at the highest risk cases. And he’s doing that by acting like an anthropologist, using experiences and ideas culled from years working on public health projects in immigrant communities in the United States and in several countries in sub-Saharan Africa. I just wish more anthropologists would act like him!

CeaseFire, a Chicago-based violence prevention program started by Slutkin, was featured in the New York Times Magazine yesterday, covered by Alex Kotlowitz in his excellent “Blocking the Transmission of Violence.” Kotlowitz focuses on the core feature that makes CeaseFire a different sort of program: the use of “violence interrupters.” These are men who have been through the streets, who have the contacts and know the code. They are men like Zale Hoddenbach, thirty eight, once active in gangs, then eight years in prison, now a fervent interrupter. These “hardened types” form the core of CeaseFire, living proof of change as well as men who can go places and talk to people that no public health PhD could ever imagine doing.

So why do I say he’s an anthropologist? Three reasons, really. First, Slutkin is critical of received ideas, in this case that punishment drives behavior: “He was convinced that longer sentences and more police officers had made little difference… ‘Copying and modeling and the social expectations of your peers is what drives your behavior’.” He sees this approach as more akin to stigmatization and moral punishment than effective policy: people are afraid, so they turn to old reactions “like putting people away, closing the place down, pushing the people out of town.” This combination of a critical cultural take on present practices, and an informed social perspective, makes his approach inherently anthropological.

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