Sandra Bucerius, Unwanted: Muslim Immigrants, Dignity, and Drug Dealing. Oxford University Press: New York, 2014; 272 pp; ISBN: 9780199856473; CAD $43.84
Reviewed by: Jona Zyfi, Centre for Criminology and Socio-legal Studies, University of Toronto, Canada
Sandra Bucerius takes us on the other side of the Atlantic, introducing the unmapped lives of fifty-five male Muslim immigrant drug dealers from the streets of Frankfurt, Germany. Having spent five years in the field, her impressive ethnography reveals rich and fascinating insights on not only illicit drug economies, but also on gender inequality, the intersections of class, race/ethnicity and religion, as well as, the participants’ perceptions of mainstream society and their engagement with the formal economies.
Bucerius begins with an in-depth and rich description of the German historical backdrop and the social structures that lead to the systemic exclusion of immigrants in dominant society, particularly from the labor market. Focusing on the rigid educational system and the German immigration policies, Bucerius situates the young men within the broader societal structures, allowing for a nuanced and multifaceted analysis. Through the eyes of the study participants we come to see German society as racist and exclusionary, particularly towards Muslim immigrants. Muslim children are placed in the lowest educational tracks (ie. Hauptschule), deprived of German citizenship despite being born there, and denied access to social rights that accompany citizenship.
These policies and practices hinder their opportunities to participate in mainstream society, leading the young men to resent the system and turn to their neighbourhood of Bockenheim as a space to belong. Also, the constant threat of deportation to their parents’ countries of origin further alienated and marginalized them from German society. One of the only times they felt confident in identifying as German was in comparison to the East Germans, who still experienced tension with West Germans. Bockenheim greatly assisted in the construction of their identity. It allowed them to be German while providing the much needed sense of distinction between German society and that of their parents’ countries of origin.
A minor criticism in regard to the above is her argument that the young men had internalized the notion of symbolic violence. She claims they were unaware of the structural limitations and inequalities while growing up and understood their poor educational attainments as a product of individual failure. However, on many occasions throughout the book we see that the young men are very aware and cognizant about the German discriminatory policies and the socio-economic, as well as cultural limitations it has on immigrant families, particularly their children. Bucerius had all the data available to elaborate on this theoretical concept, but chose not to pursue it.
However, Bucerius uniquely connects the young men’s cultural and religious beliefs to the drug market. She explains how these beliefs and their exclusion from mainstream society assist in their rationalization of crime, as well as, the construction of status hierarchies and their world views. For example, their dichotomy of pure and impure helped them deem what was moral and immoral, dirty or clean, and also impacted their beliefs on women and marriage. In turn, the young men considered Germany as an impure, dirty and undeserving country thus, they had no moral dilemmas with dealing drugs, using it as a medium to earn not only income, but respect and status.
A possible criticism in relation to the above, is that while Bucerius touches upon hot European topics like immigration and Islam, and opens a dialogue on German immigration policies, the original contributions of her work were not placed within the broader literature of drug dealing in a European context. Until now, the dominant ethnographic literature on drug dealing and street culture comes from the U.S. Thus, her work in a European setting is refreshing, but it is not always clear what is an interpretation of existing literature, and what are new observations and perspectives stemming from her field work.
It is worthy to point out that, most of her original contributions stem from her unique position as a female ethnographer. In a world where women are viewed as subordinate and only defined by men, Bucerius showed remarkable courage as a researcher. Being locked up in closets and even sexually threatened by the young men, she downplayed the risks associated with her fieldwork and was forced to constantly negotiate her position. Ultimately, her perseverance allowed her to gain their trust. But even then, she was only ever considered in the role of a little sister.
Nevertheless, her unique status allowed her to gain a first-hand glimpse at the complex and multifaceted lives of the young men. She describes the young men’s integration within the formal economy in great detail, such as their co-operation with local business owners, cab drivers and doctors. Moreover, in contrast to much of the U.S. literature, she explains how the key interest for these dealers was small-scale business. They wanted to avoid police attention, detach themselves from older former dealers, and emphasized they were more about sustainable business than drug use and violence. Drug dealing too, was to maintain a lifestyle and not to survive.
Despite not actively looking for a way out of the drug economy, the young men had a very clear pathway out of dealing. Illustrating a life course perspective, they were waiting for the big significant life event to make them quit, (ie. A wedding to a pure virgin Muslim). Thus, even though they justified their involvement in the drug economy in relation to Islam, the marriage and living a pure moral life as a decent Muslim was actually their primary way out of the drug economy.
It is these in-depth accounts that especially set Bucerius’ work apart from those of other drug market scholars. It is also worthy to point out that, Unwanted was published through a university press. The few criticisms aside, this book has made a significant and important contribution to ethnographic, as well as crime, immigration, drug market and street culture literature. With the compelling and rich accounts of young people in the drug economy hopefully, this book will have an impact beyond academia.