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COUNCIL: State of the University
November 3, 2009, Volume 56, No. 10

President Amy Gutmann: Next, we’ll hear from Richard Perry University Professor Philippe Bourgois. Dr. Bourgois is a medical anthropologist and holds appointments in the department of anthropology in the School of Arts and Sciences and the department of family practice and community medicine in the School of Medicine.

His work has transformed our understanding of at-risk urban populations. Through participant-observation fieldwork with drug addicts and homeless people, he has illuminated the day-to-day realities of life on the street and has challenged overly simplistic approaches to some of society’s most complex problems.

From December to March, our Penn Museum will showcase Dr. Bourgois’ work with homeless drug addicts in southern San Francisco. The exhibit, Righteous Dopefiend: An Ethnographic Representation of Homelessness, Addiction and Poverty in Urban America, will include field notes, photographs, and tape-recorded conversations from the 12-year study.

In his current research, Dr. Bourgois is bringing together anthropologists, clinicians, epidemiologists, and public health experts to study HIV risk and HIV-medication adherence among homeless heroin injectors. I call on the Richard Perry University Professor, Dr. Philippe Bourgois.

Philippe Bourgois, Richard Perry University Professor

I am at the intersection at the fields of cultural anthropology, medicine, and public health.  I bring together the theories, questions, concerns and commitments of these different disciples.  I teach in the School of Arts and Sciences and in Penn’s new Public Health Master’s Program, which itself is a fascinating multidisciplinary program that spans all the schools in the University. 

My work in a nutshell is dedicated to analyzing the negative health effects of social inequality.  Primarily, I have been focusing on violence, substance abuse and HIV.  I look at the ways that life chances are limited by larger political, economic and socio-cultural structures, and the ways suffering is distributed unequally across the world and within nations and across specific vulnerable populations, so that these inequalities and politically structured suffering can be changed and intervened upon.

For the past 25 years, I’ve been doing what we call in anthropology participant observation ethnographic fieldwork on the phenomenon of what I call, US inner city apartheid.  That is to say, that dramatic phenomenon of class and ethnic segregation that exists in the heart of all our major cities--  what used to be called “the ghetto.”  It is a phenomenon of gross social inequality that is unfortunately taken for granted all too often in our country.

Inner-city segregation and concentrated poverty causes, of course, a tremendous amount of human suffering, a tremendous amount of violence and results in a tremendous amount of thwarted life chances.  I just finished the book to which Amy just referred, called Righteous Dopefiend.  It was based on (I’m embarrassed to say) 12 years of intensive hanging out among a social network of homeless heroin injectors that survived in the streets surrounding where I used to live in San Francisco. 

They smoked crack, injected heroin and drank alcohol and their daily lives constituted the tragic statistics that we have in this country of early death, premature death and unnecessary shortened lives among the urban poor. 

I co-authored that book with a former student, Jeff Schonberg, and it is his photographs that we are going to be presenting in the Penn Museum show in December.  The photos are interweaved with our fieldwork notes and transcriptions from interviews and our theoretical and anthropological analysis.  Basically we are analyzing the survival strategies of the homeless and examining the effects of the institutions and forces that try to help or contain them, but often make their lives worse, rather than better.

This research has been funded through the National Institutes of Health, as an HIV prevention project, so it has a strong applied component that strives to render services for indigent addicts more effective.  It discusses what policies need to be changed and what new services need to be introduced, expanded and/or modified. 

My project before Righteous Dopefiend also came out as a book.  It is called, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio, and it drew from 5 years I spent living with my family next to a crack house in East Harlem, New York, where I began the research. I did not mean to live next to a crack house, the crack epidemic hit a couple months after I moved onto my block in 1985. That book examines the daily lives of the dealers, their families and also analyzes their interactions with social services and the legal labor market.  It argues that they take the tragedy of drug dealing in a desperate attempt to get a piece of the American pie.

Before my research on the US inner city, I worked in Latin America, and wrote a book on Chiquita Banana, a United Fruit Company plantation in the middle of nowhere in the Central American jungle spanning the Panama/Costa Rica border.  No one read that book unfortunately. 

And now, as Amy just mentioned, I am just beginning a new project on violence and HIV among young heroin and cocaine sellers and addicts on a block in North Philadelphia’s Puerto Rican community.  I expect this research to be in my next book (and hopefully it won’t take twelve years this time).  Philadelphia is an extraordinary place to be studying the phenomena of the US inner city and the tragedy of poverty, violence and substance abuse.  Of the ten largest cities in the United States, we have the highest rates of poverty and in 2006, we actually had the highest murder rate. 

Philadelphia also, to my surprise, has the highest proportion of vacant properties and abandoned buildings of any large city--higher even than Detroit.  But Philadelphia is also a city with tremendous potential, located in a strategically wealthy part of the country, with some of the best educational and health institutions in the country concentrated here.  

I look forward to my next years here and I thank you for making it possible to work at Penn and in Philadelphia at the intersection of so many exciting fields—anthropology, medicine, and public health. 


Almanac - November 3, 2009, Volume 56, No. 10