The Many Purposes of Cities

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Cities exist for many reasons and the diversity of urban form and function can be traced to the complex roles that cities perform. Cities serve as centers of storage, commerce, and industry. The agricultural surplus from the surrounding country hinterland is processed and distributed within the city. Urban areas have also developed around marketplaces, where imported goods from distant places could be exchanged for the local products. Throughout history, cities have been founded at the intersections of transportation routes, or at points where market goods must shift from one mode of transportation to another such as river or ocean ports as well as railways. Cities are also sites of enormous religious and cultural significance not to mention being the center of administrative action. (Johnson, Earle)

Cities have always existed in the mind as well as in physical structure. For many poor and disenfranchised a particular city can be assumed to be a utopia of possibility in which there will be economic wealth, job security, political refuge, and religious sanctity. Thomas More’s Utopia envisioned a city in which no one was exploited or impoverished, because all worked. This has never been made a terrestrial reality. With the rise of the industrial city and the onset of mass media, the city can has its dystopian features as well. Urban areas are plagued by enormous and widespread poverty intermingled with prodigious wealth. The plight of the poor within the city has not been a facet of traditional anthropological inquiry until the prevalence of urban anthropology and studies that evolved in the late twentieth century.

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Violence is a pervasive presence in the lives of young people in urban communities in the United States. Despite recent declines in murder rates, homicide is a leading cause of death and injury among young people, especially those in urban areas. A recent study showed that in New York City, “one in four adolescent girls in the United States has been sexually or physically abused or forced to have sex against her will. National surveys show that almost one-fifth (18%) of high school students have carried a weapon to school at least one day in the last month and that 37% had engaged in a physical fight in the last year.” (Freusenberg: 1999) This violence is particularly prevalent in areas of urban poverty and discontent. Other characteristics of such activity is the flagrant and widespread use of heavily addictive and illegal substances such as crack or heroin. Studies show the rise in physical exposure to violence among children and adolescents, particularly within urban neighborhoods.

In 1985, Phillippe Bourgois, his wife, and young son moved into a tenement apartment in East Harlem of New York City known to residents as El Barrio. They spent the next three-and-a-half years living among the harsh realities of the ghetto streets. The purpose of this was to gain entrance to a network of Puerto Rican crack dealers as well as their network of relatives and acquaintances. Bourgois eventually found his way to a storefront called the Game Room where video games provided a cover for the sale of crack cocaine. It was the manager of this establishment, Primo, who became Bourgois’s friend and primary informant about life in El Barrio. Through this intimacy, Bourgois seeks to tell us some things about the symbols and symptoms of urban ghetto life, the “Achilles heel of the richest industrialized nation in the world by documenting how it imposes racial segregation and economic marginalization on so many of its Latino/a and African-American citizens.” (Bourgois: 1995a; 14) Bourgois painstakingly records and analyzes the exploits of these elements of Puerto Rican diaspora. The culmination of such fieldwork is collected in ethnography about the urban underground economy and social marginalization entitled In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio. The book is now a best-selling classic of urban anthropology that covers issues of inner city life, kinship ties, ethnic relations, and work in the informal economy.

Like pioneering Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, Bourgois’s method of ethnographic research is that of participant observation, which he believes to be “better suited than exclusively quantitative methodologies for documenting the lives of people who live on the margins of a society that is hostile to them.” (Bourgois: 1995; 13) His research is a continuation of Malinowski’s groundbreaking work in the field of economic anthropology as well as newer fields like political economy. His aim is to veer away from “ethnographic presentations of social marginalization…guaranteed to be misread by the general public through a conservative, unforgiving lens.” (Bourgois: 1995; 15) Instead he means to build an alternative and critical understanding of the socially marginalized that does not tend to place the blame on the victims. This is to be achieved in “a manner that emphasizes the interface between structural and oppression and individual action.” (Bourgois: 1995; 12)

Bourgois takes a first person point of view as opposed to the traditionally distant and third person narration that Malinowski instituted as the model of ethnographic literature. Malinowski wrote in his journal (which was later published posthumously by his wife as A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term) of his hatred for the natives. Similarly, Bourgois notes that although the dealers become his social network as well as his subjects in classical participant-observer fashion, he is often disgusted by violence perpetrated by his subject. This is quite apparent when trying to rationalize or humanize the high incidence of rape as a normalized aspect of sexual relations among his subjects. He writes that “despite the almost three years that I had spent on the street at the time of this particular conversation, I was unprepared to face this dimension of gendered brutality. I kept asking myself how it was possible that I had invested so much energy into taking these ‘psychopaths’ seriously. On a more personal level, I was confused because the rapists had already become my friends…I was living with the enemy; it had become my social network. They had engulfed me in the common sense of street culture until their rape accounts forced me to draw the line. ” (Bourgois:1995;276) Unfortunately, some theorists suggest that for second or third generation urban-to rural immigrants, the view of urban women as a whole may tend to be misogynistic. “Women loom large not only in…conceptions of urban vice but in ideas of rural virtue as well.” (Ferguson: 1997;140)

This is also an example of the anthropologist’s complicity as described by the tenets of functionalism advocated by Malinowski and practiced by Bourgois. Functionalism institutes a policy of complete noninterference with even the most objectionable elements of a society’s practices (such as headhunting in the Trobriand Islands or institutionalized rape in El Barrio). Such a doctrine believes that all aspects of a society (institutions, interpersonal roles, norms, etc.) serve a distinct purpose indispensable for the long-term survival of a particular society. Such principles are based on the identification of inter-relatedness of the components within the society, which are so interpenetrating that a variation in single element could produce a disturbance within the whole. Within the last thirty years, however, much leeway has been made in the areas of examining emotions and their place in the study of anthropological subjects. According to Bourgois, “Substance abuse in the inner city is merely a symptom–and a vivid symbol–of deeper dynamics of social marginalization and alienation. Of course, on an immediately visible personal level, addiction and substance abuse are among the most immediate, brutal facts shaping daily life on the street.” (17)

The business practices in the underground economy of East Harlem crack dealers who find a certain amount of respect in their trade. The pre-eminent example of this is Ray, the illiterate owner of the Game Room crack house, who obtained considerable respect and “juice” (power). Also, it contributes widely to the urban underground economy which has enormous consequences upon the social and political circumstances of any given urban area. The hidden economy refers to illegal profit-making activities of many and varied kinds, which include drug trafficking, smuggling, procuring, corruption, tax fraud and forgery as well as prostitution. In each case the activity is kept hidden (since it is illegal) and makes money-or saves it when tax fraud or evasion is involved–for the person who carries it out.

The female subjects of the study are as equally marginalized as their male counterparts. However, the fact of their gender disenfranchises them further from the mainstream societies and its benefits. It is noted than less than one-third of the impoverished mothers of El Barrio receive public assistance. Female heads of impoverished households must supplement their meager checks in order to keep their children alive and thus are likely to engage in the informal economy though in not the obviously illegal ventures of many of the male population. “Many are mothers who make extra money by babysitting their neighbors’ children, or by housekeeping for a paying boarder. Others may bartend at one of the half-dozen social clubs and after-hours dancing spots scattered throughout the neighborhood. Some work ‘off the books’ in their living rooms as seamstresses for garment contractors. Finally, many also find themselves obliged to establish amorous relationships with men who are willing to make cash contributions to their household expenses.”

Bourgois proves himself as ‘street-wise’ to the locale of his study as were any of the great anthropologists ‘culture-wise’ to the societies of their attention. He lives and works as one of them, but yet does not allow the inhabitants of the world he portrays as members of some primitive tribe of scientific interest. He notes that “the self-conscious reflexivity called for by postmodernists was especially necessary in [his] case” as he was an “outsider from the larger society’s dominant class, ethnicity, and gender…attempting to study the experience of inner-city poverty among Puerto Ricans.” (Bourgois:1995;13) Unlike traditional anthropologists, Bourgois is an advocate for change and reform. The common characteristics of the drug users and entrepreneurs that supposedly separate them from mainstream America are shown to be illusory. We find these supposed criminals of El Barrio merely to be pursuing the American Dream through the most realistic mechanism that presents itself under the circumstances which happens to be within the underground economy particularly the crack trade.

The obvious strength of the work is its insight into the thought processes of the subjects involved in the underground drug economy of El Barrio. Bourgois’s liberal use of transcripts of conversations from the many hours he spent with members of a gang of drug dealers in El Barrio relates the way these men and women view and understand their circumstances. The book’s combination of the crack dealers discourse in their own words and Bourgois’s discussions of the broader social and economic framework provides an intuitive emphasis on the interface between the structural constraints of their socioeconomic circumstances and the rationale behind the decisions guiding their individual actions. In Search of Respect keeps its focus on the dynamics of the social marginalization and alienation experienced by the people caught in this economic niche. In this view, drugs and violence are merely symptoms, or symbols of deeper change in the culture of modern America. The actions of these young drug dealers are, for Bourgois, nothing more or less than an alternative forum for an autonomous personal dignity denied by mainstream culture.

Yet another strength of Bourgois’s monograph is its innovative attempt to ‘decolonize’ urban anthropology by synthesizing a number of re-inventive threads–a form of new-Marxist political economy, experiments in interpretative and reflexive ethnographic analysis. The author also touts a feminism that underscores the impact race, class, and the misogynist violence of mainstream culture has upon gender. Underlying this synthesis is a concerted effort to resist reinforcing popular racist and socioeconomic stereotypes. Bourgois strives continually to understand and contextualize the self-destructive daily life of the people he studied in El Barrio.

The problem In Search of Respect has with balancing the “in-your-face” (Nancy Sheper-Hughes on the dust jacket) report of street culture and the cultural context of this report intellect and everyday life of El Barrio is forced into an interpretative analysis that makes the author’s cultural abstractions a reality. This obscures the actions at center stage rather than illuminating them. One example of this is that there are Puerto Ricans living in the same neighborhood who are very different from the crack dealers. These people hold steady legal jobs and subscribe to more mainstream values about dignity. Bourgois acknowledges that these people exist, but the strategy of their struggle is nowhere to be found in the interpretative argument Bourgois presents for life and dignity in El Barrio. Another is the assertion that the workers in the Game Room express deep humiliation and insecurity when they talk about their efforts to enter the legal world of office or service work. They believe their supervisors see them as inarticulate, idiotic, and low class. The discussion of the difficulties that subjects have holding such jobs where they feel “dissed” by female supervisors is quite provocative with an undercurrent of misogynist philosophy. He subtitles that chapter “Disrespect and resistance,” but the “disrespect” seems to be standard managerial behavior. The “resistance” is not exactly insurrectionist rage but thievery, general incompetence, and unwillingness to acculturate to standard work practices. This is perhaps leftover from the cultural ideologies that survive the diaspora from rural, patriarchal, and macho Puerto Rico.

Bourgois’ thoughts on the theory and practice of anthropological investigation are also of interest. “Suffering,” he writes, “is usually hideous; it is a solvent of human integrity, and ethnographers never want to make the people they study look ugly. This imperative to sanitize the vulnerable is particularly strong in the United States, where survival-of-the-fittest, blame-the-victim theories of individual action constitute a popular ‘common sense’.” (Bourgois:1995;17) He proposes a different common sense, in which poverty and hopelessness play key roles. Ortner agrees in article stating that culture “derives from the logic or organization of action, from people operating within certain institutional orders, interpreting their situations in order to act coherently within them.” (130)

The scope of Bourgois’ work is important in the field of urban anthropology. Field workers are commonly called upon to work amidst some of the most violent specimens of society. “Classical ethnographers have assumed that such representatives can be found or that they will come forth voluntarily so that ethnographers need only cultivate and build rapport with them…. Crack sellers and upper-level dealers, however, have very good reasons to insulate their identities, locales, and illegal activities from everyone.” (Williams, 1992) Nevertheless, these segments of society need to be studied if one is to have a full grasp of all sectors of urban anthropology. If nothing else, Phillippe Bourgois has shown that the study of the dangerous side of political economy need not be disregarded in favor of ‘safer’ societies.

Works Cited

Bourgois, Philippe.
1995. In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio. New York: Cambridge University Press.

1995. “Workaday World, Crack Economy” Nation. 12/4/95, Vol. 261 Issue 19, p706, 5p

Ferguson, James.
1997. Culture, Power, Place. Durham NC: Duke University Press

Freudenberg, Nicholas, et al.

1999. “Coming Up in the Boogie Down: The Role of Violence in the Lives of Adolescents in the South Bronx.” Health Education & Behavior, Dec99, Vol. 26 Issue 6, p788, 18p

Golden, Richard M.

1993. Social History of Western Civilization. New York: St. Martin’s Press

Johnson, Allen W and Timothy Earle
1987. The Evolution of Human Societies. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford
University Press.

Macionis, John and Vincent Parrillo
2000. Cities and Urban Life. 2nd edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall

More, Thomas.
1990. Utopia. New York: Penguin Classics. Translated from the Latin by Paul Turner.

Ortner, Sherry.

1984. “Theory in Anthropology Since the Sixties.” In Society for Comparative Study of Society and History.

Williams, Terry
1991 “Personal Safety in Dangerous Places” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Oct92, Vol. 21 Issue 3, p343

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