Street Addicts in
the Political Economy

Alisse Waterston

"This sorely needed viewpoint in the social study of addiction has never been tackled with the comprehensiveness and theoretical sophistication that Waterston brings. Nor has there ever been a greater need to have these viewpoints of research examined."
—Anthropological Quarterly

In this book Alisse Waterston reveals the economic, political, and ideological forces that shape the nature of street-addict life. Disputing the view that hard-core, low-income drug users are social margins situated in deviant subcultures, the author dispels popular images of the mythic, dark dope fiend haunting our city streets. Using dramatic, first-person accounts from New York City addicts, Waterston analyzes their position in the social structure, the kind of work—both legal and illegal—they perform, and their relations with family, friends, and lovers. She presents a moving account of daily life from the addict's point of view and demonstrates how addicts are structurally vulnerable to the larger sociocultural system within which they live.

Waterston seeks to connect micro-, or street-level, ethnographic data with macro-level understanding of the political economy. In addition she attempts to extend social reproduction theory to redefine the social organization and social processes that characterize racial and ethnic relations, gender relations, relations centering on sexuality, and the social conception of drug use and users. Using ethnographic data, Waterston portrays addicts as members of the class of working poor that has emerged in New York City, especially in the past fifteen years. She describes how these people have been displaced by gentrification and the diversity within the group: men, women, black, white, Latino, homosexual, heterosexual, homeless, and housed.


Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 1995, Bjorn Skorpen Claeson
Waterston's book is lucidly written and alive with street addicts' dramatic narratives and analyses of their lives and circumstances. The book is important and innovative. It clearly and effectively dispels the stereotype of the dark dope fiend haunting our city streets and provides a structural understanding of drug phenomena. Waterston has written a timely, sensitive and compelling book about a people whose lives are all too easily dismissed by conservatives and liberals alike. In a political climate that has proceeded from "Just Say No" to "Three Strikes You're Out," Waterston's perspective is sorely needed.

Journal of Social Distress and the Homeless, 1995, Charles Winick
Waterston provides a fresh and illuminating anthropological perspective on the life and life-space of the street heroin addict in New York. The texture and topography of the addict's daily existence have never been presented in such detail and vividness. The relationship between homelessness and drug use, and the role of public shelters in the lives of the homeless are presented with a candor and reality that are extraordinary. With sensitivity, care and precision, Waterston has examined victims of social distress who are the subject of this landmark book.

Contemporary Drug Problems, 1994, Mercer L. Sullivan
Waterston's study of the lives of heroin addicts and polydrug users on the Lower East Side of New York City breaks new ground in drug studies. The book moves swiftly and efficiently from fascinating narratives to clearly stated interpretations of their significance. This tight organization of sprawling ethnographic material is commendable. The book presents a lot of rich material. The holistic anthropological approach employed here successfully broadens our view of addicts' behavior, showing how they cope with diverse domains of daily existence and how social institutions themselves define and reinforce different patterns of behavior among addicts. The author wants to help us understand that street addicts do other things besides hustle drugs all day long - that they work and seek food, shelter and human companionship - and she succeeds.

American Anthropologist, 1996, David Maynard
This book offers both emotionally powerful narratives from marginalized people and a generally quite persuasive theoretical contextualization of those narratives. This is a valuable book and I highly recommend it.

The Social Context of Addiction, October 5, 2000, Merrill Singer
In this volume, Waterston brings a political economic theoretical perspective to the analysis of a large corpus of face-to-face interviews with active street drug users. The initial chapter lays out the theoretical orientation, namely that rather than focusing narrowly on moral, psychological, or cultural defects in the drug user, understanding drug abuse as a social phenomenon requires an analysis of the social relations in society, including those of class, race, and gender. As part of this discussion, Waterston critiques the "deviance" model of drug abuse and shows that you cannot comprehend drug use without analyzing drug control policies. The remainder of the book uses this perspective to examine the daily lives, behaviors, survival strategies, thoughts and concerns of not-in-treatment drug users on the streets of New York City. In this analysis, Waterston puts a very human face on the often faceless and usually condemned users of illicit substances. This is an excellent study of drug abuse in America today and is highly recommended. Unlike many books on drug abuse, this book has a sound theoretical foundation and a very humane approach to the people under study.

Eleanor Miller, Professor of Sociology, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, peer reviewer, Temple University Press
Waterston's work is innovative because it breaks new ground in the area chosen for analysis - the social conception of drug use and drug users and its effects. The author has tackled a huge and multifaceted theoretical problem, and is, to my knowledge, the first to have done so. Waterston is the first to try to fit all the socio-economic pieces together. Given her task and the fact that she is at the frontier, I think she's done a very impressive job. The book is engaging...well written and definitely held my attention.


          1. Toward a Political Economy of Drugs
          2. Homelessness and City Shelters
          3. Making a living
          4. Crime and Punishment
          5. Medical Solutions
          6. Lovers and Other Strangers
          7. Drugs Culture and Society