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About the Talk

This ethnographic study of an impoverished African American neighborhood challenges the common misconception of urban ghettos as chaotic places where drug dealing, street crime, and random violence make daily life dangerous for everyone. The interaction order that prevails on Lyford Street ensures that residents can go about their lives in relative safety, despite the risks that arise from its embedded drug trade. This neighborhood is beset by familiar problems: failing schools, chronic unemployment, punitive law enforcement, and high rates of incarceration. Yet residents are knit together by long-term ties of kinship and friendship. Their interactions are based on reciprocity, which involves a profound sense of fairness and accountability. As vivid case studies of individual lives demonstrate, people’s difficulties flow not from their values or their failure to take personal responsibility but from the multiple obstacles they encounter. For example, since no legal jobs are available nearby, you have to drive to work, but if you haven’t been able to pay traffic fines, you must drive to work without insurance, which can get you jailed. If you have no resources, caring for your children is a serious impediment to earning money to support them, and vice versa. No Way Out explores how neighborhood residents make sense of their lives within severe constraints as they choose among very unrewarding prospects, rather than freely acting on their values. The vast social distance between those who create public policy and those it is supposed to serve means that mainstream institutions not only limit people’s life chances but constitute a system of collective punishment.

About the Speaker:

Waverly Duck is an urban sociologist and Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of No Way Out: Precarious Living in the Shadow of Poverty and Drug Dealing (University of Chicago Press 2015), which was a finalist for the American Sociological Association’s 2016 C. Wright Mills Book Award. His research examines the social orders of poor Black neighborhoods, as well as manifestations of race and gender among the upwardly mobile, using ethnographic and ethnomethodological approaches that focus on how meanings are created and sustained in contexts of inequality (interactional, neighborhood, and organizational). His research extends further into a broad range of topics, including the social organization of communication in settings troubled by autism, welfare reform, and gender disparities.