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In his ethnographic study of a heroin dealing network in Denver, Colorado, among a homeless community, Lee Hoffer details how this community lives and how dealers operate their illegal drug activities. Hoffer focuses on the daily lifestyles of two heroin dealers, Kurt and Danny, by living with them and understanding the operations from their perspectives. In this essay, the paper identifies and discusses Lee Hoffer’s work and the methods that he uses to attain the goals of the study. Further, it discusses the ethnographic method used in the text, and how the book offers a glimpse of how people adapt to their circumstances in life.
Author’s work and Methods used to attain the goals. Junkie Business: The Evolution and Operation of a Heroin Dealing Network is written by Lee D. Hoffer as an ethnography that details how a drug network flourishes among the homeless people of a Denver community, Larimer. Hoffer attempts to show how the highly addictive heroin is sold and bought in this area between 1995 and 2000 (Hoffer, 2006: 19). In much of the text, Hoffer focuses on the partnership of two heroin dealers who began as addicts before becoming dealers (Bobashey & Morris, 2009: 273). The author examines the daily activities of the two partners to understand the drug network. The researcher covers the time before the main dealers start selling heroin and documents how their operations progressed from a loose-knit-street-based partnership to a fledging underworld private business with well-organized division of labor. Further, Hoffer attempts to demonstrate how the business transformed the lives of the dealers and the magnitude, and resiliency of the underground economy associated with the distribution of heroin. Through cultural observation, Hoffer demonstrates that to maintain a heroin addiction, one requires daily use of the drug. On a broader perspective, Hoffer attempts to show the heroin dealing that occurs on the consumer-oriented facet of the drug business, and understand how it transforms Kurt and Danny’s operations. Consequently, Hoffer was able to gain a better understanding of the deep-rooted social aspects that govern the dealer-customer relationships and the level of organization involved in these relationships.
Hoffer attains his goals in the ethnographic study by forming relationships and living with the two dealers; Kurt and Danny. As he lives with them, and becomes one of their employees, Hoffer gets a better ethnographic understanding of the operations that also involve the police and other dealers. Through these activities, Hoffer illustrates that he was able to understand the dealers’ operations, especially during the period when the police and community were cracking down on and cleaning up the widespread use of heroin in the Larimer area of Denver, Colorado (Hoffer et al., 2009: 274). By detailing the difficult backgrounds of the two dealers, the author demonstrates that their eventual success in heroin dealing depended on creating codes and rules on how to engage their addictive daily customers. Hoffer understands the motivation behind their decision to sell heroin and the critical aspects of their operations from a personal perspective since he had developed a personal relationship with both dealers and not just as a researcher. He lived as their confidant and understood the “common code of conduct” among the users that was founded on the principal of reciprocity (Hoffer, 2006: 19). For instance, when the cleanup began, the dealers had to change their operations because of increased police presence and the sweeping changes initiated by the homeless community. In fact, these changes led to the disappearance of the homeless community while the dealers’ operations also changed as they could only acquire the drugs from fellow junkies (Hoffer, 2006: 25). These dealers also acquired connections and were trusted than immigrant dealers. Imperatively, the author succeeds in attaining his study goals by living and befriending the dealers and the homeless community.
Ethnographers in Anthropology use agent-based cultural models to collect data and information during their studies in communities to illustrate their findings. These models offer community-based researchers a single analytical tool which assumes a holistic approach in understanding what these communities are, their individuals, and how they function or carry out their socio-cultural, political, and economic activities. According to Zachary Neal and Jennifer Lawlor (2016), agent-based models are a particular form of scientific methods that ethnographers use to collect information from communities. The authors assert that agent-based models are used as simulation approaches to the behaviors of the agents, in this case people. Researchers using this model interact with the agents in particular settings to develop an understanding of how these people’s behaviors, and how the features of their context can be interpreted from a social perspective (Jason & Glenwick, 2016)). As used by Michael Robbins and colleagues in Uganda when studying acculturation and modernization among the local communities in the country, this ethnographic method bases on two kinds of ethnographic informants; key and specialized informants where key informants possess a lot of knowledge about their culture, and willing to share this knowledge (Robbins et al., 1969). On their part, specialized informants possess certain competence in some cultural domains.
Hoffer used Kurt and Danny as both key and specialized informants since they understood the culture of the homeless community, the culture of the addicts, and the culture of the dealers and the law enforcement agents, especially those in the “War on Drugs” (Hoffer, 2006: 10). Using this approach in anthropology, Hoffer debunks the myths about drug dealing networks as chaotic, violent and disorganized. What he realizes is that these networks are well organized with established codes of conduct, and not as depicted by the media or the law enforcement agents. In fact, Hoffer’s findings are consistent with Manni Finkelstein who demonstrates in her book; With No Direction Home: Homeless Youth on the Road and in the Streets, that homeless people, especially the youth, have different lifestyles to cope with their conditions on the street. Through an ethnographic approach, Manni studied this highly transient demographic and accurately portrayed their lifestyle by living among them, and observing them daily (Finkelstein, 2005). Imperatively, these studies demonstrate that agent-based ethnographic approaches in anthropology offer researchers in-depth information to understand the cultural aspects, and reach conclusions to inform decision-makers on how to tackle such challenges. More importantly, ethnographic methods attempt to debunk existing myths in such populations or communities.
The text offers a glimpse of how people can change based on their circumstances in life. Hoffer decides to befriend and live with Danny and Kurt for purposes of his research on the illegal drug network in the homeless community (Hoffer, 2006: 24). Eventually, he becomes personally involved with the dealers to a point of being their confidant. As a confidant, he understood the common code of conduct, and rules that defined the business. Through the ethnographic study, the author was able to debunk some myths about the drug dealing operations, particularly how they are negatively depicted in the media and by law enforcement agents. Hoffer changes his perception even on the “War on Drugs” in the United States (Hoffer, 2006: 10). On their part, the dealers changed their circumstance during and after the crackdown and went on to acquire a new address for their business. Further, they succeeded in their underground operations despite the positive outcomes of the crackdown that led to the disappearance of the homeless community.
Lee Hoffer’s text offers a detailed ethnographic description of the drug network among the homeless people in a Denver area between 1995 and 2000. The text used agent-based model where he assessed the activities of drug users, drug sellers, police officers and homeless people. The author, using simulation experiments shows the depth of the drug dealing network, its organization and debunks the existing myths about such networks. The text offers a better glimpse of how one can change their life circumstances based on their conditions as reflected by the engagement between the two dealers and Lee Hoffer.
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