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Book Review | No Way Out: Precarious Living in the Shadow of Poverty and Drug Dealing

Published onJun 01, 2017
Book Review | No Way Out: Precarious Living in the Shadow of Poverty and Drug Dealing

Waverly Duck. No Way Out: Precarious Living in the Shadow of Poverty and Drug Dealing. University of Chicago Press, 2015; 192 pp.; ISBN: 9780226298061.


No Way Out: Precarious Living in the Shadow of Poverty and Drug Dealing examines how the residents of “Lyford Street,” an impoverished Black neighborhood, organize for survival against the backdrop of “increasingly desperate circumstances.” Decades of deindustrialization and misguided social policies have left the neighborhood economically and socially isolated. Unemployment and poverty are rampant for young men of Lyford Street. Stripped of educational or economic opportunities, the drug trade has become their “principal employment.” However, against the “stereotypical image of the drug infested ghetto,” Waverly Duck compels us to see Lyford Street as a place with a unique social order that offers opportunities and even safety to its residents.

Lyford Street is part of a small, northeastern American city (pop. 33,000 in 2012) Waverly Duck calls “Bristol Hill.” In 2005, Duck was drawn into his field site through a chance encounter. He was asked to testify as an expert witness on behalf of a young men, “Jonathan Wilson,” from Lyford Street—accused of murder and accessory to murder. Duck set out to contextualize the young man’s life story and his pathway into drug dealing in the environmental constraints of an economically-poor neighborhood with a flourishing drug trade—a context the young man had grown up in. To prepare his testimony, Duck began to emerge himself into the community and the lives of its residents. Far beyond his initial scope, he continued his ethnographic research for seven years.

The main argument of the book is that the residents of Lyford Street, faced with environmental constraints on opportunities and resources, develop practices that allow them to survive their daily struggles and to make sense of their lived experiences of poverty, yet maintain a positive self-image against the stigma of poverty. Moreover, the author shows how these practices and discourses over time lead to stable nets of reciprocal expectations and implicit rules that guide their everyday actions and interactions in the neighborhood.

In the introductory chapter Waverly Duck positions this perspective against culture of poverty approaches and argues that culture is not a cause of poverty and that it is, moreover, malleable and depends on the structural conditions under which it develops. Isolated from the concrete social conditions and settings for which practices and discourses developed, for instance when seen through the eyes of policy makers or researchers, they might seem as irrational decisions or even as signs of social disorganization or moral decay. Understanding crime and deviance through Duck’s framework requires a focus less on personal characteristics or moral failings of offenders and more on the social expectations of the settings they live in.

The first two chapters of No Way Out outline Jonathan Wilson’s pathway into drug dealing and discuss the characteristics of the drug trade and drug dealing careers of Lyford Street. Drug dealing in there is shaped by its location next to an expressway that allows buyers easy and fast access to the drugs without ever having to leave their cars: For the predominantly White, suburban customers, Lyford Street functions as a drive-through for powdered cocaine. Duck observed how the location, the customers, and the product shape the organization and characteristics of the drug trade in the neighborhood. For instance, he observes that drug activities ebb and flow with the time of the day and week―the drug trade is especially prevalent in the evening hours and during the weekends when the customers with regular jobs stream into the neighborhood. Therefore, the dealers higher in the local hierarchy take the more lucrative evening shifts while younger and less experienced dealers are relegated to morning and midday hours. Drug dealing in Lyford Street is not, however, organized by gangs, as Duck stresses, but rather by individual drug dealers who have often known each other since childhood or have family ties with each other. The drug dealers also work together during shifts as order takers, money collectors, and drug deliverers. Without any formal organization, the drug trade activities within shifts as well as the organization of spots for drug activities are guided by tacit understandings of hierarchies based on age and experience. However, drug dealing careers are dangerous and dealers must prepare for possible stick-ups as well as the seemingly inevitable arrests. Instability of social and economic conditions as well as violence are so closely connected to the interaction orders that evolve around the drug trade of Lyford Street.

In the chapters three, four, and five, Waverly Duck contrasts insider perspectives on Lyford Street with outsider perspectives, and shows how the differences in experiences and expectations can lead to misunderstandings and prejudice. For instance, when outsiders, such as public officials, the media, or the police, discuss crime and violence in this predominantly Black and economically-poor neighborhood, they rely on understandings and descriptions of gang activities and senseless violence. However, from an insider perspective, as Duck shows in a vivid discussion of a series of murders connected to Lyford Street, clear individual motives are visible. Similarly, chapters six and seven describe the lived experiences of economic hardship from the perspectives of Lyford Street residents. Duck shows here how diverse policies, such as child support laws or zero-tolerance policies, were made without attention to the daily experiences of the low-income residents of neighborhoods as Lyford Street and how they exacerbate economic and social isolation. Duck here reiterates his argument that social policies meant to elevate the situations of the economically-poor need to start with their experiences and their practices of survival. Moreover, he argues that policy makers need to understand that the effects of individual policies and social institutions on the lives of low-income Americans cannot be understood in isolation, but that the focus, especially for profound social change, needs to be on the interplay of social institutions and policies and the structure of reduced opportunities they concertedly produce.

No Way Out is a slim book of roughly 140 pages. It is an ethnographic study that keeps theoretical and methodological discussions to a minimum and foregrounds the lived experiences of its characters. The theoretical arguments and concepts Duck uses to make sense of the participants’ stories are woven into and reiterated throughout the chapters, but the strength of No Way Out lies in the thick descriptions of the participants’ experiences and their shared space―Lyford Street. The profound contributions of the book arise from its unusual field side as an urban ethnographic study. As Duck stresses, Lyford Street, as part of a smaller urban area, might be different from impoverished neighborhoods in major US cities. And the observations Duck can make about its chronic poverty and the drug trade complement other urban ethnographic studies that address gang-related behaviors and social disorganization. Duck contrasts these studies with the picture of a neighborhood “highly organized” for survival. While survival refers foremost to surviving economic hardship, it also means maintaining meaningful relationships with friends and family, and maintaining positive identities against stigma and cultural violence.

However, the brevity of the book may also constitute a limitation. For instance, Duck claims that the drug trade in Lyford Street and its organization differ from what we know about drug trades in other impoverished US neighborhoods; however, discussions of aspects that differ and what factors might lead to its deviating organization are not fully developed. Similarly, claims about failures of policies based on the lack of taking the lived-experiences and the knowledge of residents into account and advocating to use a more holistic approach to counter poverty might have intuitive appeal, but discussions of concrete examples are absent and leave readers wondering how to move forward. Moreover, the argument that we need to address challenges for low-income residents in impoverished neighborhoods in its interplay and based on their historic development is not fully extended to a critical argument that identifies the processes behind the structural inequalities or the motivations of the actors that drive the convoluted system of multiple inequalities. Despite these minor limitations, No Way Out extends debates relevant to readers interested in crime, social disorganization, or urban ethnography and provides remarkable conceptual tools to foster our understandings of social inequalities.

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