As an historian of the Crack Era, I am more often than not engaging the work of sociologists, anthropologists and criminologists that have treated the drug trade and the hyper-policed urban communities I study. While young graduate students and early career PhD’s are poised to properly historicize the period in years to come, those looking to teach the period right now need to be both creative and interdisciplinary. In the main, my own work and teaching often draws a great deal from ethnographies of the drug trade. This got me thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of said work, and a bit frustrated at the paucity of interdisciplinary and collaborative work on the subject. In many respects, the work of ethnographers and historians are inherently complimentary. Students and scholars benefit from cross-pollination in this vein as it provides a more nuanced, holistic, and humanized treatment of a long-standing, highly complicated, vexing social problem.
The first drug ethnography ever handed to me was In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio by Philippe Bourgois. The work re-affirmed my commitment to my field of study and convinced me of what I already suspected. Most poor young men and women involved in the drug trade—directly or indirectly—are rational economic actors that very much aspire to basic tenets of the “American Dream.” Many of the boys, girls, men and women populating the pages of In Search of Respect idealize and work towards establishing a traditional nuclear family, steady jobs, and security. Moreover, those in reckless pursuit of fast money and subsequently engaged in conspicuous consumption can hardly be castigated as outliers of the 1980s.
Ethnography provides qualitative insights that are often hard to replicate in strictly historical work beyond the exception of oral histories. Productive discussions followed in my own class on the Crack Era after a student asked why police repeatedly assumed Bourgois was an out-of-towner looking to cop. His apparent white skin and learned affect provided a window into the shortcuts police take when perusing districts disproportionately effected by the drug trade. Moreover, the disparate treatment of Bourgois and other subjects by police highlighted the ways in which race, class, and place all effect policing tactics and the likelihood of arrest and prosecution.