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No Way Out

Precarious Living in the Shadow of Poverty and Drug Dealing

No Way Out

Precarious Living in the Shadow of Poverty and Drug Dealing

In 2005 Waverly Duck was called to a town he calls Bristol Hill to serve as an expert witness in the sentencing of drug dealer Jonathan Wilson. Convicted as an accessory to the murder of a federal witness and that of a fellow drug dealer, Jonathan faced the death penalty, and Duck was there to provide evidence that the environment in which Jonathan had grown up mitigated the seriousness of his alleged crimes. Duck’s exploration led him to Jonathan’s church, his elementary, middle, and high schools, the juvenile facility where he had previously been incarcerated, his family and friends, other drug dealers, and residents who knew him or knew of him. After extensive ethnographic observations, Duck found himself seriously troubled and uncertain: Are Jonathan and others like him a danger to society? Or is it the converse—is society a danger to them?

Duck’s short stay in Bristol Hill quickly transformed into a long-term study—one that forms the core of No Way Out. This landmark book challenges the common misconception of urban ghettoes as chaotic places where drug dealing, street crime, and random violence make daily life dangerous for their residents. Through close observations of daily life in these neighborhoods, Duck shows how the prevailing social order ensures that residents can go about their lives in relative safety, despite the risks that are embedded in living amid the drug trade. In a neighborhood plagued by failing schools, chronic unemployment, punitive law enforcement, and high rates of incarceration, residents are knit together by long-term ties of kinship and friendship, and they base their actions on a profound sense of community fairness and accountability. Duck presents powerful case studies of individuals whose difficulties flow not from their values, or a lack thereof, but rather from the multiple obstacles they encounter on a daily basis.

No Way Out explores how ordinary people make sense of their lives within severe constraints and how they choose among unrewarding prospects, rather than freely acting upon their own values. What emerges is an important and revelatory new perspective on the culture of the urban poor.


“Remarkably original. No Way Out is deeply infused with knowledge of the ethnographic literature that has identified today’s still acute policy issues in poor, urban, mostly black—and often crime-ridden—communities. To read this book is to be assaulted by the realities of Bristol Hill—and other places like it—and to become aware of the fine lines binding the heroic to the tragic in the lives of its people. No Way Out does what few other books of its kind do. It makes multiple contributions to the scholarship, while telling the stories of Bristol Hill in a way that is plain for anyone to understand.”

Charles Lemert, senior fellow, Urban Ethnography Project, Yale University

“Original, thickly described, and well-written, No Way Out powerfully represents a world that outsiders rarely view up-close. Duck is the consummate urban ethnographer; he puts you there. Nothing short of brilliant—this book is a remarkable achievement, and will become an enduring contribution to the urban literature.”

Elijah Anderson, author of Code of the Street and The Cosmopolitan Canopy

“With skill, sagacity, and sensitivity, Duck delves beneath the hype that dominates perceptions of neighborhoods with street-based drug markets and sheds new light on the residents of one such area with evocative depth and complexity. Through this lucid portrait of daily life forged under the unfathomably harsh conditions of poverty in America, we come to understand the individual and collective strategies people develop to bear the unbearable by creating a sense of order and community. Yet resilience and fortitude cannot conquer the powerful societal forces that keep generation after generation confined to these oppressive territories. No Way Out is a haunting, thought-provoking read that lingers long after we turn the final page.”

Megan Comfort, author of Doing Time Together: Love and Family in the Shadow of the Prison

“Duck’s research undeniably enriches the urban sociology and delinquency literature. The distinction that he outlines between the cultural codes of a neighborhood and its inhabitants’ personal values is particularly interesting. Indeed, several examples of empirical research measure culture by interrogating individual beliefs, interpreting expected social practices as what people really want for themselves.”

European Journal of Sociology

No Way Out provides a sophisticated, nuanced, theoretical, and pragmatic understanding of lived experiences and social processes in a criminalized African American community. . . . It is a must-read for students of urban ethnography. Duck teaches us how to develop knowledge from multiple vantage points about the multiple realities that our participants live and experience; he teaches us to reflect critically on our positionality as knowledge producers, narrators, and theory creators; and he gives us a lesson in developing research with a purpose that is translational and aims to improve the conditions of the populations we study. . . . No Way Out gives us a solid way in. It teaches us to be nuanced and multidimensional about our research with marginalized populations, while giving us conceptual tools to continue to develop and build on as we move forward in our endeavor to understand justice, inequality, social process, and social change.”

Contemporary Sociology

Table of Contents


Introduction: Precarious Living

ONE / Jonathan’s World

TWO / Drug- Dealing Careers

THREE / The Rise and Fall of Lyford Street

FOUR / Snitching, Gossip, and the Power of Information

FIVE / The Politics of Murder and Revenge 

SIX / Collective Punishment: Black Men’s Reflections on Everyday Life in Bristol Hill

SEVEN / Benita’s Story: Coping with Poverty in the Age of Welfare Reform

Conclusion: Understanding Everyday Life in the Shadow of Poverty and Drug Dealing



Society for the Study of Social Problems: C. Wright Mills Award

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