Poverty and the Pathologies of Privilege: Reflections on Fieldwork among the Poor and Vulnerable in the US
(City University of New York, John Jay College)
Paper short abstract:
A retrospective look at ethnographic research on urban US poverty, homelessness, and political economy over several decades to assess what is old and new in the social circumstances, ideological constructions and social-structural positions of so-called deviant, marginalized, outcast groups.
Paper long abstract:
Zygmunt Bauman notes that "modernity" is implicated in the production of "wasted lives"—society's outcasts. "Modernity's global triumph" means that more people face the specter of being superfluous, redundant, even aberrant at the same time as the "extra-legal"—all that is illegal, illicit, informal, and unregulated—becomes the global norm. With a nod to anthropologist Paul Farmer (The Pathologies of Power), and Paul Rabinow (Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco), I reflect on changes and continuities in life experiences of society's outcasts as Neoliberalism extends its political and economic global reach politically. Neoliberalism's unregulated, free market advances private enterprise and consumer choice, making a few people extremely wealthy, providing them near-complete freedom, while leaving many others in utter destitution, despair, and oftentimes imprisoned—literally and figuratively. As privatization and a particular form of individual liberty have dominated in principle and in practice, the state as provider of collective goods and protector of collective interest has lost sway. Keeping these conditions in mind, I seek to comprehend the life experiences of the urban poor in the US. Taking a retrospective look at my ethnographic research on poverty, homelessness, displacement and the street drug economy over the past several decades, I assess what is old and what is new in the social circumstances, ideological constructions and social-structural positions of so-called deviant, marginalized, outcast groups. By unraveling the local aftermaths of Neoliberalism and considering the human costs that lie in its wake, my conclusions may have far-reaching implications for social justice, theory and policy.
Comparing urban poverty from an ethnographic perspective