Prof. Dr. Philippe Bourgois

'A 25 Year Ethnographic Retrospective on An Anthropology of Violence'

- Report by Rivke Jaffe


In his presentation, Philippe Bourgois gave an overview of the ways his work has focused on various forms of violence and the ways in which this has contributed to the theorization if violence. He started off by elaborating on the concept of a ‘continuum of violence’, which he developed together with Nancy Scheper-Hughes. Within this continuum, different forms of violence overlap and can morph into each other. The four main forms of violence distinguished are, first, structural violence, as developed by scholars such as Johan Galtung and Paul Farmer. Structural violence relates to invisible political economic forces that impact on the bodies of the socially vulnerable. Such impacts are evident in class inequality, international terms of trade, unequal access to services and so on.


A second form is symbolic violence, a concept developed by Pierre Bourdieu. This refers to the process whereby domination is legitimized as natural and deserved and insults and oppression are internalized by the dominated. Everyday or normalized violence is a third form, introduced by Nancy Scheper-Hughes, and indicates the processes by which violence is invisibilized and normalized through institutional practices and discourses. This type of violence entails the production of social indifference. A fourth form, that Bourgois has been focusing on more recently, is that of intimate violence, which includes interpersonal and delinquent violence, organized or ‘disorganized’ crime, and self-abuse including drug addiction.


Bourgois came to this theorization of violence through fieldwork in multiple violent and contested sites. His first research, from 1979-1981, was in revolutionary Nicaragua, where he was employed by the Sandinista government. Studying Miskitu Indians, he watched an indigenous cultural nationalist movement - the rejection of the structural violence of internal colonialism and the symbolic violence of internalized racism - turn into a bloody, CIA-financed conflict. Bourgois’ reports to the government of the racist revolutionary structure fueling the conflict got him thrown out of the country (though he was invited back four years later).


His second fieldwork (1981-1984) continued the study of institutionalized racism and internal colonialism, this time within the context of worker barracks of a banana plantation on the Costa Rican-Panamanian border. Here he focused on the human rights abuses associated with labor conflicts, while witnessing but not yet documenting or theorizing high levels of domestic abuse. In the context of the plantation he found that his access to unions was facilitated by his partisan engagement, while his cultural capital allowed him to access plantation management - drinking martinis, playing golf, and copying secret documents.


His third fieldwork took place from 1981, documenting FMLN guerilla fighters and the human right violations of the population by the Salvadoran government. This fieldwork included being trapped in a scorched earth campaign where US-funded government troops attacked 1000 civilians, of whom 250 were killed as they fled for 14 days. While documenting both the structural and symbolic violence, again he did not register the domestic and everyday violence, as the peasant violence appeared to be solely redemptive.


Bourgois’ perhaps most famous fieldwork (1985-1991) took place as he lived next door to a crack house in East Harlem and became part of a social network of crack sellers. Halfway through the fieldwork he began to theorize violence, and understand the crack dealers’ understanding of themselves as violent animals as symbolic violence, and connect their fate to the rise of the carceral neoliberal state and the post-industrial restructuring of the New York economy. The connection between interpersonal, structural and symbolic violence he witnessed there and described in the classic In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio has remained a central theme in his work.


This was evident in his fifth fieldwork (1991-1993) studying neighborhood gang members in San Francisco’s mission district, together with Jeff Schonberg, with whom he also collaborated on his sixth site, working with aging homeless crack and heroin addicts (started in 1994 and still ongoing). The Californian gang members were often of Central American descent, which made it possible to make links between the political violence there and the way it traveled to the United States as criminal and interpersonal violence. The study of homeless drug addicts, whose lumpen status is accentuated by living amongst the ‘gilded garbage’ of Silicon Valley, allowed a further theorization of the continuum of violence to include self-abuse.


Bourgois’ current and ongoing research (started in 2000) focuses on homeless youth heroin injectors in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district. Again, he is trying to expose the interconnections between different types of violence: gendered violence, the US War on Drugs (which is heavily racialized) and what he calls ‘intimate embodied self-abuse’. He also continues to make return visits to El Salvador, where heightened levels of interpersonal violence seem to be the modern-day version of the previous, politicized revolutionary violence.


Bourgois continued to stress this linking of different types of violence, for instance in El Salvador where the guerillas would mimic the logic of state repressive violence. Another example is when the structural violence of neoliberalism and the penal state are regurgitated in the intimate violence - domestic or self-abuse - their victims practice on each other or themselves. Bourgois also argued that Foucauldian understandings of governmentality and biopower can help redefine terms such as ‘class’ and ‘lumpen’. In this era of contemporary neoliberalism governmentality takes on progressively abusive forms and promotes violent subjectivities, either in times of war, through army recruitment of suicidal resistance, or in times of peace with increased levels of intimate and self-inflicted violence. Intimate violence is often the most visible form, but as anthropologists we must seek to understand the symbolic and structural forces that tend to generate it.