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An Ethnographic Study of the Impoverished Chicago Neighborhood in No Way Out, a Book by Waverly Duck

No Way Out: Precarious Living in the Shadow of Poverty and Drug Dealing, by Waverly Duck. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

No Way Out by Waverly Duck incorporated insight from numerous renowned sociologists, including Durkheim, Garfinkel, Goffman, and Rawls, which increased the credibility of Duck’s claims. As the author, Duck acquired information for his book by spending prolonged periods of time observing the subjects for his book and getting to know them on a personal basis. According to Duck, the evidence for his book came from ethnographic studies about people in black, impoverished neighborhoods. This allowed him to write a mesmerizing and powerful book which recounted and analyzed personal narratives rather than relying solely on statistics to formulate conclusions about the people he studied. Although an ethnographic experiment provides Duck with deep insight into the lives of his subjects, the data he collects is mostly qualitative rather than quantitative. This means that his data is prone to bias or varying interpretations, allowing critics to suggest that Duck’s claims have no concrete evidence to support them. However, by understanding the social context of the neighborhood where Duck conducted his study, one can better interpret Duck’s qualitative data. Duck studied an impoverished Chicago neighborhood, which he named Bristol Hill (to preserve the anonymity of the predominantly African American community that he studied). Duck first became intrigued by Bristol Hill when he was invited to provide testimony in a federal death penalty case involving a defendant that came from this neighborhood. In order to testify accurately, Duck conducted an ethnographic study to help him develop a sociological viewpoint for his testimony.

There exists a common belief that many of these civilians have no way to better their predicament. This belief is partially true. Impoverished civilians have limited opportunities to move out of the Bristol Hill community due to the absence of a social safety net, the presence of a flawed criminal justice system as well as laws that burden the impoverished population with excessive regulations without providing necessary aid. Isolated from mainstream society and struggling with poverty, the inhabitants of Bristol Hill establish their own community, with drug dealers at the top of the hierarchy. Strangely, these drug dealers promote order by creating unwritten rules, which Duck refers to as “interaction order,” that govern safety in their neighborhoods. These unwritten social regulations are often misunderstood by mainstream society. In order to survive in Bristol Hill, one must understand these informal laws. These regulations exist to help the inhabitants adapt to poverty and to avoid imprisonment, especially because the strengthening war on drugs has resulted in the mass incarceration of drug dealers.

Essentially, Bristol Hill has its own culture, a concept that fascinated Duck. Even in an area with sparse economic opportunities, subpar educational offerings, and gang violence, this culture attracts many Bristol Hill inhabitants, causing them to willingly spend their entire lives in this “ghetto” neighborhood. The sense of comfort and community which attracts inhabitants to Bristol Hill stems from the role that each civilian carries out in this society. Therefore there is some level of mutual respect between members of the neighborhood. Each inhabitant is like an actor in a play with roles they must fulfill to ensure that the Bristol Hill neighborhood functions safely. This situation resembles the dramaturgical theory, especially since one’s role in the community does not necessarily coincide with one’s personal beliefs. For instance, there is a tension that exists between acquiring the money needed for survival through dangerous means such as drug-dealing and protecting one’s family. While the average individual can rely on law enforcement to keep them safe, negative stereotypes of the Bristol Hill community influence the police’s perspective on Bristol Hill residents, often incarcerating these impoverished citizens rather than protecting them. Therefore, Bristol Hill residents rarely enlist the help of the police.

Interestingly, drug dealers in this neighborhood are respected, perhaps even revered. Coinciding with Merton’s Deviance Typology, drug dealers fall under the category of “innovators.” Rather than being labeled as criminals by their neighbors, they are seen as entrepreneurs, earning money despite living in situations that make survival difficult. They are also seen as protectors, ensuring that gangs and authority figures do not harm their loved ones. In Bristol Hill, drug dealers fulfill the role that law enforcement and government usually fulfill for other neighborhoods. Drug dealers of Bristol Hill work from street corners rather than from a single location to ensure their success. It is difficult to catch these drug-dealers red-handed with drugs or weapons in their homes since they hide drugs and weapons under “trash piles” around the neighborhood. Although a bystander may think that the Bristol Hill residents cannot clean up after themselves, the drug dealers depend on these piles of trash to keep their business flourishing. These trash piles are a survival mechanism for drug dealers who want to avoid incarceration and provide money for their families. In order to avoid incarceration, drug dealers lure young black teenagers into their drug-dealing lifestyle, especially by using minors as “stick-ups,” making minors hold drugs if law enforcement officials chase them. The logic behind using “stick-ups” is that minors will receive relatively lenient prison sentences for drug offenses compared to adults. This rite of passage for adolescents also allows drug dealers to determine which young community members can be trusted to keep the secrets of their industry.

In order to infiltrate this community, Duck also had to contribute to the community in some way. He eventually played the role of a mentor or a teacher in Bristol Hill. By becoming a mentor to the residents, Duck could learn about their personal narratives. While statistics cannot enlighten mainstream society as to why the people of Bristol Hill decide to remain in the neighborhood even if they have the means to move out, Duck’s research allowed him to explain this phenomenon very well. These residents opted to stay in an area where they were familiar with the unspoken rules rather than moving to an unfamiliar neighborhood to improve their lives.

This book seeks to answer a fundamental question that mainstream society often asks: If the conditions in impoverished African American suburban communities such as Bristol Hill are as horrible as they seem, then why are the civilians so reluctant to move out of the neighborhood? Is there really no way out? This book is mostly centered around the African American population since the majority of Bristol Hill inhabitants are people of color who live in poverty, receive little education, and face violence. However, white people also live in the neighborhood, either as members of a service team or as people who have lived in the neighborhood for a prolonged period of time, before Bristol Hill became a predominantly African American neighborhood. Comprehension of the social nuances of Bristol Hill is vital to the integration of these white individuals into the community. In order to assimilate into this community, one has to understand that one’s appearance, gaze, walk, and demeanor conveys a message to the gang members that govern Bristol Hill. In order to remain safe, one must learn about all the accepted behaviors. However, it is evident that there exists a gap in understanding between the mainstream society and the African American community within Bristol Hill. The illegal means of money-making, the protection provided by drug dealers, the inherent distrust of authority figures, and the adaptation to an impoverished lifestyle makes it difficult for Bristol Hill residents to adjust to alternate ways of life which makes it difficult for them to integrate to mainstream neighborhoods. Duck successfully portrays this situation through his subjects’ personal narratives. He uses this evidence to explain why many individuals and their families choose to remain in the ghetto despite having acquired the money to leave Bristol Hill in search of better opportunities.

Overall, this book succinctly yet analytically interprets personal narratives which made the book well-organized, informative, and easy to comprehend. Duck’s critics point out that he collected experimental data from a single neighborhood which provided him with a small sample size. However the depth and personal level of his research seem to compensate for the small sample size. The book provides readers with a new perspective on ghettos by applying social theories to the research of contemporary issues such as poverty and the racial divide. Therefore, it is important to read this book to understand the inhabitants of ghettos as well as to bridge the gap in understanding between mainstream society and impoverished communities which engenders and exacerbates many social and legal issues discussed in this book.

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