Penn PIK Professor Philippe Bourgois: Book Smart, Streetwise
June 10, 2009
It seems that everything about Philippe Bourgois, Penn's fifth Penn Integrates Knowledge (PIK) Professor, is a provocative contradiction in terms, including the title of his latest book, Righteous Dopefiend.
Dubbed a "rogue sociologist" who practices "participant observation" in his anthropological field work, Bourgois is an Ivy League professor who was once mistaken for -- and arrested as -- a junkie.
But all that is part of his method. As a cultural anthropologist and professor of medicine, Bourgois studies our most vulnerable, at-risk populations in urban subcultures, moving in with drug addicts and homeless people to better grasp their contexts and perspectives. He then uses that understanding to inform (and, often, to reform) our responses to critical, complex societal problems.
In Righteous Dopefiend, which draws on Bourgois's decade of immersion into this subculture in San Francisco, we are given photos, personal narratives, case studies, and field notes that illuminate the intimate lives and survival techniques of addicts who live in encampments on the city's fringes.
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slideshow [Warning: graphic images may be offensive to some viewers.]
The result: instead of out-moded depictions of homelessness, drug addiction, and HIV as individual behavioral problems, or as inevitabilities of a "culture of poverty," Bourgois shows them more fully as interlocking consequences of an ongoing structural problem of social and cultural forces. Bourgois also makes the case for a more comprehensive, integrated approach -- of medical treatment and public policy -- to address these problems.
For example, in Philadelphia, which has one of the largest HIV epidemics in the country, Bourgois is bringing together anthropology and public health in a program that will increase HIV-medication adherence among poor AIDS patients. "Basically," says Bourgois, "it'll be a collaboration with clinicians and epidemiologists, and then me and my team doing personal observation with the people who aren't able to adhere, to try to figure out what's going on."
This integration of knowledge -- incorporating multiple, often alternative viewpoints from different disciplines in order to understand and solve complex problems facing our society -- is what Penn's Penn Integrates Knowledge (PIK) professorships are all about.
what is a PIK Professor?
Bourgois, recruited by Penn in 2007 as the Richard Perry University Professor with joint chairs in the School of Arts and Sciences and the Perelman School of Medicine, has already proven to be an invaluable addition to Penn's community of faculty-scholars, simply by daring to see -- and to show us -- what other academics have not.
People in the drug subculture aren't "exotic others operating in an irrational netherworld," he says, but rather "highly motivated, ambitious inner-city youths... attracted to the rapidly expanding, multibillion-dollar drug economy during the 1980s and 1990s precisely because they believe in Horatio Alger's version of the American Dream."
Another provocative contradiction?
"It's always surprising to me," says Bourgois, "but when one treats with respect people who have been treated as pariahs, they become real human beings.... That's part of what the magic of ethnography is: to bring out the humanness of the quote-unquote Other. And that's what Righteous Dopefiend was about: rendering human the absolutely inhuman homeless person."
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