How to Contribute a Capsule Review for the Book Nook
Write a capsule review of a really good ethnography, preferably recent (or old but overlooked), in 200-300 words, and attach its cover picture. Give your capsule a title. Tell us in one sentence who the author is and in a couple of paragraphs what the book is about; two or three things it does well; and why patrons of the CAFÉ should read it. When two superb ethnographies go together like a left jab and a right cross, pair them. Capsules on smashing monographs that have unjustly gone unnoticed or fallen into oblivion are particularly appreciated. Send your capsule to email@example.com.
The ironies of working class consciousness
Paul WILLIS, Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs (Saxon House, 1977; Columbia University Press, 1982; Routledge, 2017).
Learning to Labor is one of the most important contributions of the Birmingham School of cultural studies, originally associated with Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy, followed by Stuart Hall, Angela McRobbie and Paul Gilroy among others and associated with Edward Thompson and Raymond Williams – but deeply influenced by Antonio Gramsci’s understanding of working class culture with its good sense embedded in common sense. If a great ethnography is one that offers novel insights, generates debate and inaugurates a research program that pushes ideas forward, then Learning to Labor has to be near the summit.
Learning to Labor is a story of 12 working class "lads" in their penultimate year of high school in the early 1970s. Willis joins the lads in their lives, quite an achievement given how huge and conspicuous he is! He describes their irreverence towards schooling and the pranks they get up to in subverting the middle class education foisted upon them. They consider it a waste of time, so they treat it as a joke. The paradox and brilliance of the book lies in the way Willis shows how this contempt for middle-class values leads the lads to embrace factory jobs and the working-class life that lies in store. Rebellion against class organizes consent to class. This account directly challenges and counters the influential accounts of Bourdieu and Passeron’s Reproduction in Education, Culture, and Society and Bowles and Gintis’ Schooling in Capitalist America.
Willis leaves a whole set of questions unanswered. What happens to the lads once they arrive on the shop floor? What do they tell their children, especially once working class jobs disappear or suffer degradation and lower pay? What about the “ear'oles,” working class kids (boys and girls) who aspire to do well in school, hoping for upward mobility? How do they see the lads? Willis seems to give credence to the lads as carriers of true working class consciousness, only qualifying it as a partial "penetration" (his word, not mine) because the lads give spontaneous adherence to sexism and racism.
Michael Burawoy, UC Berkeley
Trials of Waiting
Javier AUYERO, Patients of the State: The Politics of Waiting in Argentina (Duke University Press, 2012).
Patients of the State masterfully combines thick descriptions of temporal experiences of the urban poor waiting in lines for social services in Argentina with a careful analytical construction of the relationship between time and domination.
As part of Auyero’s broader intellectual project on the intersection of formal and informal mechanisms of state violence that creates political subordination among the urban poor (Poor People’s Politics , Routine Politics and Violence in Argentina , and Flammable: Environmental Suffering in an Argentine Shantytown, with Déborah Swistun, ), the book disentangles a subtler, less visible mechanism of violence that orders day-to-day interactions between the destitute and the street-level bureaucrats: waiting time. By continuously creating uncertainty in the lives of people who are always made to wait an arbitrary amount of time for welfare services, public officials working for the “social” ministries of the neoliberalized Argentinian state inadvertently but effectively teach the urban poor to be “patients of the state” instead of recognizing them as citizens with political rights.
Following three different waiting sites (the registration office for a national ID card, the welfare agency, and the squatter settlement that Auyero previously studied in Flammable) with his research collaborators, Auyero charts a Kafkaesque narrative of the subjective experience of waiting as a productive phenomenon. Patients of the State reminds us that, to parse larger-scale political transformations such as neoliberalization, we need to start with reconstructing the everyday encounters between state officials and the urban poor on the ground.
Eylem Taylan, UC Berkeley
A COUNTERINTUITIVE ELITISM
Muriel DARMON, Becoming Anorexic: A Sociological Study (London, Routledge, 2016, translated from French, 2008).
Mating the interactionist concept of « career » from Everett Hughes with the notions of habitus and social space from Pierre Bourdieu, Darmon studies anorexia, not as a label or a discourse, ordinary, journalistic or psychiatric, but as a set of mundane practices reorganizing nutrition, the body, and the self over time in the family, the school, and the hospital. Revoking the opposition between the normal and the pathological, she painstakingly documents and dissects the « labor of anorexia » through which teenage girls seek to « take charge » of their social being and existence and the transformation of their body, over and against, and then in paradoxical coordination with, the concern of their loved ones and the supervision of medical specialists.
Drawing on a wealth of ethnographic interviews with anorexic girls in treatment, former anorexics, and teenagers in a high school, and from meticulous observation of counseling in a clinic, Darmon retraces the stages of the anorexic career before turning to its social conditions of possibility. The «unfinished character of the body » as a norm imposed especially on women, age-specific expectations, and social class (captured as position and aspiring trajectory) nourish an «ethos of the control of corporeal and social destiny » and account for the recruitment of anorexics, fueling « anorexic elitism » as a project of self-elevation above the common.
Darmon offers subtle reflections on the vexed relationship between the sociological and the medical gaze and rich methodological reflections on the violent refusal of permission to study she initially encountered when trying to access the psychiatric clinic as field site (« patients are not cattle »). Closing the book, the reader must conclude that Darmon has won her « epistemological wager » : ethnography can construct a medical disorder as a distinctively sociological object.
Loïc Wacquant, UC Berkeley
Crack is Not Dead: An Ethnographic Duo
Philippe BOURGOIS, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio (Cambridge UP, 1995, 2003, 2nd ed); Randol CONTRERAS, The Stickup Kids: Race, Drugs, Violence, and the American Dream (Univ. of California Press, 2012).
Excellent ethnographies are even better when paired. Twice I have enjoyed reading In Search of Respect and The Stickup Kids back-to-back in the classroom. On their own, each is an intense dive into one of the most critical periods of substance abuse and related violence in urban America. Pair them and you get the rise and fall of crack in the American inner city experienced through an outsider and an insider ethnographer.
Philippe Bourgois was not planning to study crack but it was everywhere as he “violated apartheid” and walked into El Barrio in the mid-1980s. Raised in the South Bronx, Randol Contreras was not planning to go to graduate school but did and then went back to drug trafficking friends turned “stickup kids” as the crack market dried up in the early 1990s. Each ethnographer brings the other’s distinct dilemmas into sharper focus, though both worry about portraying the self-destructiveness of their subjects—Bourgois with concerns over crack dealers blaming themselves and Contreras through the metaphor of the “fallen stars” or suicidal tendencies of drug robbers facing diminished status. Young college students in the United States more preoccupied with the opioid epidemic might initially read this powerful pairing as distant history. End class with media coverage of the rise of crack in the contemporary Brazilian favela and they will get both the timeless relevance and timeliness of the work, the need to globalize drug ethnographies and perhaps even the desire to write the next one.
Ana Villarreal, Boston University
Power in its infancy: learning to take, give back, and ask for things in a daycare center
Wilfried LIGNIER, Prendre. Naissance d'une pratique sociale élémentaire (Seuil, 2019).
-“Symbolic Power for Beginners: The Very First Social Efforts to Control Others’ Actions and Perceptions,” Sociological Theory, 2021.
-“Words Also Make Us: Enhancing the Sociology of Embodiment with Cultural Psychology,” European Journal of Social Theory, 2020.
-with Julie Pagis, « “Left” vs. “Right”: How French Children Reconstruct the Political Field », American Behavioral Scientist, 2017.
With this groundbreaking study of “taking”practices among children ages 2 and 3, Wilfried Lignier takes another step forward in his sociology of childhood, socialization and the sociogenesis of social order and power. For several months, Lignier observed the day-to-day interactions among children, and between children and their caretakers, in a French daycare center. He watched them paying attention to objects, coveting them, asking for them, taking hold of them, letting go of them, passing them on — or not. He traced how these banal actions are practices both socially differentiated and socially differentiating along lines of class and gender lines. At two, children have already learned, and keep on learning, different ways of asking for objects or seizing them by force
Lignier thus discloses how toddlers learn the social order and their place in it, extending the analyses in his book (with Julie Pagis) L’Enfance de l’ordre (“Order in its Infancy”). He also offers rich analyses of the social space of symbolic and physical violence, of language uses, modes of appropriation, attitudes towards possession and property, with direct interest and implications well beyond the ethnography of childhood. The book is by turns grave, funny, and poignant, as when we learn who (socially) has the guts, at 3, to call the adult ethnographer “Wilfriedoux” (“Willsweet” instead of Wilfried) and, less amusingly, who is already cornered into physical violence for lack of mastering the legitimate use of language.
The Crucible of Hope at the Urban Margins
Matías DEWEY, Making It at Any Cost: Aspirations and Politics in a Counterfeit Clothing Marketplace (University of Texas Press, 2020).
Entrepreneurs, stall-holders, parking-lot owners, cart-pullers, clothing manufacturers, violent entrepreneurs, predatory brokers, shady politicians, corrupt cops, and all sorts of characters come together in Dewey’s granular ethnography of La Salada, South America’s largest informal marketplace for counterfeit clothing.
Dewey, a former hockey player, volunteered in a local NGO as a coach and through his daily embeddedness gets to know many participants in this sprawling market. How does a market come into being? How do market exchanges operate outside the law and how do the clandestine hands of the state support (and benefit from) these exchanges? How do aspirations for a better future emerge out of a mix of illegality and informality?
Ordinary people’s struggles in illicit and informal worlds have been the subject of enduring misrepresentations – from romantic celebrations to thinly veiled classist assaults on their character or morality. Dewey deftly mobilizes ideas and concepts from economic, cultural and political sociology to make sense of the everyday internal dynamics of this grand bazaar and the external links that make it possible. The intricacies, challenges, and contradictions of life at the urban margins come to life as precariousness and exploitation co-exist with hopes and grand aspirations.
Javier Auyero, UT-Austin
Disinterring Necroviolence via Public Ethnography
Jason De León, The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail (University of California Press, 2015).
To illuminate the concealed and countless toll in perished lives and fractured families directly attributable to the border policy officially known as Prevention Through Deterrence, De León deploys a “four-field anthropology” – incorporating ethnography, archaeology, forensic science, and linguistics – in his study conducted between 2009 and 2015 across multiple field sites, geographical terrains, and countries. Land of Open Graves illustrates how border zones are ‘spaces of exception’ where unauthorized migrants’ legal rights are reconstituted by policies shaped according to an insidious, punitive logic.
De León he shows how the US Border Patrol has created and still maintains “an infrastructural funnel along the US-Mexico border that intentionally directs people toward the desert,” i.e. the geographical terrain where the operationalization of xenophobic politics constitutes what De León coins “necroviolence.” This deliberate strategy conjoins scorching temperatures, opportunistic vultures, ruthless smugglers, and desensitized border patrol agents as the main actants constituting the center of a complex “hybrid collectif” to simultaneously deter unauthorized migration while absolving the US government from blame for the deaths and trauma occurring within these spaces of exception.
The multi-sited, mixed-method analytic approach of the book is anchored to a multi-experiential, beautifully rendered narrative intercalated with the mournful introspection and pensive optimism of both the migrants who embark on this dangerous northbound trek and the family members anxiously hoping for the news of their safe journey across the southern US border. Land of Open Graves is an exemplary work of public ethnography that provocatively petitions us to stop “turning a blind eye to the global political economic structure that set this entire scenario in motion”; to break with our obsessive gaze upon diversionary walls in order to hear the stories of the dead, as told by the still-living; and to turn our attention towards the sights and silences entombed in the land of open graves.
Khoi Quach, UC Berkeley
Behind Digital Flexing
Forrest STUART, Ballad of the Bullet: Gangs, Drill Music, and the Power of Online Infamy (Princeton University Press, 2020)
This book was a remarkable surprise to discover in the summer of 2020: In the middle of my pandemic-induced overconsumption of news and social media, I found this ethnography about how young and poor black men in Chicago use social media in pursuit of micro-celebrity by uploading raw rap videos onto YouTube.
The men are called “drillers,” their videos are full of violent bravado, and in pursuit of their dreams of fame or even subsistence-level earnings in the exploitative and sharply competitive attention economy, they perpetuate stereotypical images of dangerous black masculinity that lead to real violence by rival gang members and law enforcement. Stuart spent two years living and filming alongside drillers, he watches how they flex on camera always with an keen awareness to the importance of appearing “authentic” as gangsters. He also follows their lives as sons, boyfriends, fathers, and students. Because social media collapses context, their hyperviolent mediated images define them in the eyes of institutions and the law. Stuart is an urban ethnographer we know, but in this book he’s also a cultural sociologist, a communications scholar, a criminologist, and implicitly a field theorist.
The wildest surprise for me is Chapter 6, “Digital Slumming,” when he follows a driller who flies on a plane, for the first time in his life, from Chicago to LA paid for by a rich white fan who wants to fantasize about living the gangster life from his home in Beverly Hills. Stuart captures this cultural appropriation, noted in bell hooks’ phrase “Eating the Other,” in such brilliant, rich narrative that you both see and feel the distance and distortion of social life as it appears as image online and as it unfolds in real life. The book completely reshaped the way I think about micro-celebrity and youth culture, and it opened my eyes to how discussions of the Internet have been largely oblivious to the worlds of people who are not class-privileged, white, and feminine. As people have been sucked ever deeper into digital worlds since 2020, this book shined a light on the hope and the danger social media offers for some of the cities’ most disadvantaged young people.
Ashley Mears, Boston University
Inside the Symbolic Violence of Gender
Annick PRIEUR, Mema’s House, Mexico City: On Transvestites, Queens, and Machos (University of Chicago Press, 1998).
Drop a young, tall, blue-eyed, Norwegian ethnosociologist into a sanctuary house for young homosexual men in a poor barrio of Mexico City and equip her with an acute sense of social diplomacy, lush humor, a sharp eye for practical detail and ear for subtle meaning, the gamut of gender theories and the conceptual framework of Pierre Bourdieu and you get an ethnographic gem.
Prieur puts the “construction” in the social construction of gender and the body. In this house, the jotas and vestidas “gather to chat, flirt, listen to music, smoke marihuana, and maybe have sex,” but the house has rules and “Mema is the boss,” who surely deserves a place in the pantheon of key informants. Prieur deciphers those rules and shows us how the house’s regulars play with them to spawn a brittle community and a fragile sense of self, against the background of a mix of violence and care from their family, amused indifference from their neighbors, and exclusion from school and work. She demonstrates how the binary opposition between the sexes is paradoxically reproduced by the very agents who disrupt it, in their thoughts, feelings, and actions such as the styling of the body, and “why homophobia, machismo, and widespread male bisexuality and homosexuality make a perfect fit.” The best Bourdieusian field study to date, bar none, Mema’s House also reminds us that there is one reason to live life that sociologist too often overlook: the sheer quest for pleasure and joy.
Loïc Wacquant, UC Berkeley