The Moral Economy of Violence in the US Inner City: Ethnographic Notes from Puerto Rican North Philadelphia

Philippe Bourgois, Richard Perry University Professor of Anthropology, Department of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and Visiting Research Associate, SAR; and George Karandinos, Student, Harvard Medical School, and Visiting Research Associate, SAR

Colloquium, SAR Boardroom

Wednesday, September 25, 2013, 12:00–1:00 pm, Free

During an eight-week period in the four square blocks surrounding a North Philadelphia fieldwork site, there were sixteen shootings with three fatalities, three stabbings, and fourteen additional “aggravated assaults.” The high levels of violence affecting daily life in the US inner-city can be conceptualized as operating within overlapping moral economies that propagate even more violence and extract capital from the brutalized bodies of local residents in a process akin to primitive accumulation. Youth find themselves trapped within social networks that oblige them to participate in solidary exchanges of assistive violence following kin-based and gender-scripted chains of allegiance. Seeking security and asserting self-respect, overwhelmed heads of households proactively engage in violence. Even the instrumental mobilization of violence by drug sellers follows ethical norms and reciprocal obligations recognized as at least partially legitimate by most local residents. This presentation explores moral economy as a concept for explaining violence within the complex social context of this North Philadelphia neighborhood.  

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