The Moral Economy of Violence in the US Inner City

Curr Anthropol. 2014 Feb;55(1):1-22. doi: 10.1086/674613.


In an 8-week period, there were 16 shootings with three fatalities, three stabbings, and 14 additional "aggravated assaults" in the four square blocks surrounding our field site in the Puerto Rican corner of North Philadelphia. In the aftermath of the shoot-outs, the drug sellers operating on our block were forced to close down their operations by several mothers who repeatedly called the police. Drawing on the concept of moral economy (Thompson, Scott, Taussig), Mauss's interpretation of gift exchange, and a political economy critique of hypercarceralization in the United States, we understand the high levels of US inner-city violence as operating within a moral logic framed by economic scarcity and hostile state relations. Residents seek security, self-respect, and profit in social networks that compel them to participate in solidary exchanges of assistive violence dynamized by kinship and gender obligations. A hierarchical, extractive drug economy fills the void left by deindustrialization, resulting in a dynamic of embodied primitive accumulation at the expense of addicted customers and chronically incarcerated just-in-time street sellers at high risk of assault. Nevertheless, the mobilization of violence organizing the illegal drug economy also follows ethical norms and obligations that are recognized as legitimate by many local residents.