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To Know or to Criminalize: Relationships and Non-Passages between Public, Academic, and Governmental Knowledge about Narcotics

September 23, 12:15 pm - 1:15 pm

Critical scholarship on criminalization has called attention to the prominent role that anthropologists and sociologists of crime have played in reinforcing discourses and practices of criminalization. Some scholars even suggest that all academic examinations of criminalized practices among marginalized peoples inevitably bolster punitive state interventions, for they perpetuate the continued association of those peoples with crime in scholarly discourse. This talk grapples with these claims in two ways: first, by asking the opposite question: what role do ethnographic ignorance and silence, rather than knowledge and discourse, play in projects of criminalization? Second, the talk proposes public secrecy as a productive site for the ethnographic study of the relationships and gaps between public, academic, and state knowledge – connections and impasses that are often assumed, rather than contextually explicated, by the aforementioned scholars.

The talk draws on several years of cross-regional ethnography on drug economies and drug-related policing and militarization in two very different places on the American continent: the predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood of Kensington/North Philadelphia and the Afro-Indigenous Moskitia region of Central America (Caribbean Nicaragua/Honduras). These are contexts where criminal justice officials, police officers, and soldiers resist becoming knowledgeable about narcotics in multiple ways. To complicate matters further, local residents are differentially subject to regimes of public secrecy around narcotics in accordance with the regional organization of political and economic power, and in keeping with narcotics merchants’ differential position in that organization. Instead of assuming a straightforward complicity between scholarly, public, and state knowledge, a robust critique of criminalization requires this kind of ethnographic inquiry into the relationships and non-passages between the production of knowledge and criminalizing practices.

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