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Book Review: "In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio" by Philippe Bourgois

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Philippe Bourgois’ In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio is a well-written ethnographic research book that has been set to have an in-depth look into the lives of a micro-society in East Harlem’s neighborhood that is involved in the sale of crack. The author has raised a variety of themes such as racism, addiction, poverty, class-stratification, and drug addiction. Most importantly, the author has uncovered the various reasons that have contributed to the dramatic turn in the character’s life, most of whom are involved in the sale of crack illegally in the streets. In this book, the author has argued out the fact that his book’s characters’ actions did not entirely contribute to their illegal acts, but rather, their environment. As such, Bourgois has shown the astounding social, economic and cultural difficulties that have led to the characters’ involvement in the crack trade. This review, therefore, will discuss the main themes addressed by the author, and further look at how well he has visualized the living conditions in East Harlem.

Social marginalization has been a key aspect brought forward by Bourgois. Social and economic negativity toward the Puerto Rican immigrants has been a key factor in shaping the residents of East Harlem into most drug dealers. Bourgois had the common demonized image of dealers but was soon shocked to realize that an inverse perspective of such people is true. The author soon realizes that for most of the drug dealers in the upper section of Manhattan, it is barely their natural conditions that have forced them to grow into the illegal traders they have become. A meeting with one of the drug dealers soon proves his assertion, wherein the dealer, the author sees a potential businessman had nature let him. Additionally, the author explores the themes of economic restraints, racism, the characters’ Latino culture, injustices and prejudice afflicted by the police to the characters’ groups, and social challenges. By having a look at the characters’ dealings, the book gives an explanation for the main factors that lead to the massive drug-dealing in East Harlem.

Bourgois’ personal encounters with Primo, a character who he had grown to respect, authenticate that his book was majorly based on facts surrounding the drug dealers in East Harlem. By looking at the main characters in the book, we evaluate the effects of these factors and determine the authenticity of the author’s argument. Among the main characters include Primo (the game room’s manager), Cesar (A friend and employee of Primo), Ray (Primo’s boss), and Candy (a young woman who falls in love with Primo). Basically, most of these characters are in the lower social strata and are mostly involved in illegal trade. Efforts by Primo and others to pull themselves out of the illegal trade are futile, as working conditions do not favor them. Often, these characters are challenged by racism and poor working conditions in the legal jobs. At one time, Primo goes for a legal and standard job, but the pay is too low to support him when compared to the sale of crack. At most times, Primo ends up quitting or getting fired from jobs. Bourgois argues that “…is not about crack, or drugs, per se. Substance abuse in the inner city is merely a symptom — and a vivid symbol — of deeper dynamics of social marginalization and alienation….”.

Bourgois, through In Search of Respect, has achieved his goal of visualizing and living the lives of most dealers in American states, who are ill-judged. By staying close to a drug dealer and making a chronicle of their memories, the author has brought forth the various ill-conditions and challenging factors that influence the lives of immigrants, and similar people. The book has illustrated that the living conditions of individuals eventually shape them into becoming who they are, which also applies to drug dealers.

The author has clearly shown that racism, cultural prejudice, and poverty among others have greatly impacted individuals in areas such as East Harlem. In regard to such living, the book, therefore, suggests that an improvement of these conditions would be beneficial to all individuals in these areas. The fight against cultural prejudice, the elimination of racism, and a general improvement in living conditions would better live in such areas. However, in my opinion, the author does not adequately support the fact that people living in areas similar to East Harlem are ultimately affected by their environment, which leads to the question of Given a chance for better conditions, would the main characters in the book change? Personally, I believe that the conditions in an area determine people’s characters, which would apply to drug dealers. Evidently, growing up in a drug-infested area has been influential in the making of drug dealers.

Bourgois has expertly explored the conditions of living in areas such as East Harlem, where being a drug dealer has offered a better chance of survival. In Search of Respect has exhaustively demonstrated the negative factors that limit the legality of operations in such areas through aspects such as racism, cultural prejudice, injustice from police encounters, and poverty. Through brushing with the low-end and illegal economy, the author has proven beyond doubt, that an individual’s environment eventually catches up with him/her and affects a turning point for them. Bourgois has, therefore, shown exemplary expertise and mastery in his book by conducting such ethnographic research.

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Book Review: “In Search Of Respect: Selling Crack In El Barrio” By Philippe Bourgois. (2019, July 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 4, 2023, from
“Book Review: “In Search Of Respect: Selling Crack In El Barrio” By Philippe Bourgois.” GradesFixer, 10 Jul. 2019,
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