Righteous Dopefiend: A Review

If you’ve read In Search of Respect, Philippe Bourgois’s ethnography of Puerto-Rican crack dealers, you know that he is expert at getting into the gritty side of Urban America. In Righteous Dopefiend, Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg present a compelling photo-ethnography that exposes the harsh realities of homeless heroin injectors living in the makeshift Edgewater community of San Francisco. It is one of the best uses of photography in written accounts that I have seen.
The authors delve deep into the social and emotional lives of their subjects, exposing the raw of nerve heroin addiction, its causes, and how it drives addicts to homelessness. It runs the course of typical ethnographic topics such as family, economy, and complex forms of racism, yet inherent in every column of observation is a pervasive sadness at the beleaguered existence of these individuals. Drawing on themes from Marx, Foucault, and Bourdieu, Schonberg and Bourgois offer up a sensible explanation for how American institutions like the justice system and the healthcare industry are directly involved, often to a detrimental effect, in the lives of people in the Edgewater community.
Righteous Dopefiend can be quite graphic at times. The descriptions of amateur medical procedures like lancing one’s own abscess and medical professionals who don’t use adequate anesthesia for quite painful procedures were enough to make me squirm slightly with discomfort. This is where the power of Schonberg’s photography steals the show. In nearly all ethnographies I’ve read the photographic material has been placed somewhere in the middle of the text and it can be relevant to anything or nothing contained in the text in no particular order. By presenting a series of images at the beginning of every chapter, the visual media emphasizes the essence of particular moments and themes as they arise. The decision to use thicker and glossier pages is also a subtle way to emphasize the role Schonberg’s photography plays in representing members of and scenes in the Edgewater community.
Bourgois’s and Schonberg’s research was funded by a NIH grant as part of a larger campaign to prevent the spread of AIDS. Their work exposed the flaws in the proposed medical interventions and suggested newer methods that would be easier for addicts like those who lived in Edgewater to utilize. As such, this text would be a good addition to courses focused on Applied and Medical Anthropology.

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