How can we think of life in its dual expression, matter and experience, the living and the lived? Philosophers and, more recently, social scientists have offered multiple answers to this question, often privileging one expression or the other - the biological or the biographical. But is it possible to conceive of them together and thus reconcile naturalist and humanist approaches? Using research conducted on three continents and engaging in critical dialogue with Wittgenstein, Benjamin, and Foucault, Didier Fassin attempts to do so by developing three concepts: forms of life, ethics of life, and politics of life.
In the conditions of refugees and asylum seekers, in the light of mortality statistics and death benefits, and via a genealogical and ethnographical inquiry, the moral economy of life reveals troubling tensions in the way contemporary societies treat human beings. Once the pieces of this anthropological composition are assembled, like in Georges Perec's jigsaw puzzle, an image appears: that of unequal lives.
Most incidents of urban unrest in recent decades - including the riots in France, Britain and other Western countries - have followed lethal interactions between the youth and the police. Usually these take place in disadvantaged neighborhoods composed of working-class families of immigrant origin or belonging to ethnic minorities. These tragic events have received a great deal of media coverage, but we know very little about the everyday activities of urban policing that lie behind them. Over the course of 15 months, at the time of the 2005 riots, Didier Fassin carried out an ethnographic study in one of the largest precincts in the Paris region, sharing the life of a police station and cruising with the patrols, in particular the dreaded anti-crime squads. Far from the imaginary worlds created by television series and action movies, he uncovers the ordinary aspects of law enforcement, characterized by inactivity and boredom, by eventless days and nights where minor infractions give rise to spectacular displays of force and where officers express doubts about the significance and value of their own jobs. Describing the invisible manifestations of violence and unrecognized forms of discrimination against minority youngsters, undocumented immigrants and Roma people, he analyses the conditions that make them possible and tolerable, including entrenched policies of segregation and stigmatization, economic marginalization and racial discrimination. Richly documented and compellingly told, this unique account of contemporary urban policing shows that, instead of enforcing the law, the police are engaged in the task of enforcing an unequal social order in the name of public security.
It is a simple story. A 37-year-old man belonging to the Traveller community is shot dead by a special unit of the French police on the family farm where he was hiding since he failed to return to prison after temporary release. The officers claim self-defense. The relatives, present at the scene, contest that claim. A case is opened, and it concludes with a dismissal that is upheld on appeal. Dismayed by these decisions, the family continues the struggle for truth and justice. Giving each account of the event the same credit, Didier Fassin conducts a counter-investigation, based on the re-examination of all the available details and on the interviews of its protagonists. A critical reflection on the work of police forces, the functioning of the justice system, and the conditions that make such tragedies possible and seldom punished, Death of a Traveller is also an attempt to restore to these marginalized communities what they are usually denied: respectability.
The prison is a recent invention, hardly more than two centuries old, yet it has become the universal system of punishment. How can we understand the place that the correctional system occupies in contemporary societies? What are the experiences of those who are incarcerated as well as those who work there? To answer these questions, Didier Fassin conducted a four-year-long study in a French short-stay prison, following inmates from their trial to their release. He shows how the widespread use of imprisonment has reinforced social and racial inequalities and how advances in civil rights clash with the rationales and practices used to maintain security and order. He also analyzes the concerns and compromises of the correctional staff, the hardships and resistance of the inmates, and the ways in which life on the inside intersects with life on the outside. In the end, the carceral condition appears to be irreducible to other forms of penalty both because of the chain of privations it entails and because of the experience of meaninglessness it comprises. Examined through ethnographic lenses, prison worlds are thus both a reflection of society and its mirror. At a time when many countries have begun to realize the impasse of mass incarceration and question the consequences of the punitive turn, this book will provide empirical and theoretical tools to reflect on the meaning of punishment in contemporary societies.