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Wacquant is currently a Professor of Sociology and Research Associate at the Earl Warren Legal Institute, University of California, Berkeley, where he is also affiliated with the Program in Medical Anthropology and the Center for Urban Ethnography, and Researcher at the 'Centre de sociologie européenne' in Paris. He has been a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows, a MacArthur Prize Fellow, and has won numerous grants including the Fletcher Foundation Fellowship and the Lewis Coser Award of the American Sociological Association.
Wacquant was born and grew up in Southern France, and he received his training in economics and sociology in France and the United States. He was a student and close collaborator of Pierre Bourdieu. He also worked closely with William Julius Wilson at the University of Chicago, where he received his PhD in 1994. Wacquant has published more than a hundred articles in journals of sociology, anthropology, urban studies, social theory and philosophy. He is also co-founder and editor of the interdisciplinary journal Ethnography as well as a collaborator of Le Monde Diplomatique. His primary research has been conducted in the ghettos of South Chicago, in the Paris banlieue, and in jails of the United States and Brazil.
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Wacquant's work explores and links together diverse areas of research on the body, urban inequality, ghettoization, and the development of punishment as an institution aimed at poor and stigmatized populations. His intellectual trajectory and interests are dissected in the article "The Body, the Ghetto, and the Penal State" (2008)
In his work, "Deadly symbiosis: when ghetto and prison meet and mesh" in Punishment and Society 3(1) (pp 95–134), he offers a middle-range theory, relevant mainly to American racism against blacks in contemporary society. According to Wacquant, African-Americans now live "in the first prison society of history" (p. 121). The 'hyperghetto' constitutes the fourth stage in the development of 'peculiar institutions', following (sequentially) slavery, Jim Crow, and the early ghettos. According to him, the ghetto and the prison are for all practical purposes indistinguishable, reinforcing each other to ensure the exclusion of African-Americans from general society, with governmental encouragement. As Wacquant vividly characterizes it: the prison should be viewed as a judicial ghetto and the ghetto as an extrajudicial prison. Taken together, these constitute part of a 'carceral continuum'. To understand this concept, Wacquant argues for a single analytical frame unifying expansive 'prisonfare' and attenuating workfare, resulting in a deepening marginalisation and social and political subordination of stigmatized and defamed 'surplus' populations. Inspired by Bourdieu, Wacquant analyzes the structural constraints and consequences, but like Bourdieu endeavours to provide a more nuanced analysis than, for example, a reductionist Marxian economic analysis (cf. Rusche and Kirchheimer's Punishment and Social Structure (see Wikipedia article), referenced by Wacquant in his Punishing the Poor (2009)).
The ghetto and the prison are now locked in a whirlpool, when it is no longer clear which is the egg and which is the chicken: the two look the same and have the same function (p. 115). The life in the ghetto almost necessarily leads to more criminal behavior, yet Wacquant presents statistics that show that the distribution of crime between black and white has not changed. Instead he shows that a black, young, man is now "equated with 'probable cause' justifying the arrest" (p. 117). And in the prisons, a black culture is being reinforced by "professional" inmates, a culture which later affects the street.
In his book Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer, Wacquant denounces popular mainstream conceptions of the underclass and argues that the boxing gym is one of the many institutions that is contained within, and opposed to, the ghetto. He also explores, through an account of his own experiences as an apprentice boxer in a black ghetto of Chicago, the elaborate process by which the "body capital" of these athletes is formed and managed, and in doing so, building upon the work of his mentor Pierre Bourdieu, he argues convincingly for the development of a 'carnal sociology'.
- Bourdieu, Pierre and Wacquant, Loïc (1992) An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
- Wacquant, Loïc (1999) Penal ’common sense’ comes to Europe - US exports zero tolerance April 1999 Le Monde Diplomatique. (original french version, ita version)
- Wacquant, Loïc (November 1999) Les Prisons de la misere. Paris: Editions Raisons d'agir. ISBN 9782912107077
- Wacquant, Loïc (2001) 'Deadly symbiosis: When ghetto and prison meet and mesh'. Punishment & Society, 3(1): 95-133.
- Wacquant, Loïc (2004) Body and Soul: Ethnographic Notebooks of An Apprentice-Boxer. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195168356
- Wacquant, Loïc (2005) Pierre Bourdieu and Democratic Politics. Cambridge: Polity Press. ISBN 9780745634876
- Wacquant, Loïc (2008) Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality. Cambridge: Polity Press. ISBN 9780745631240
- Wacquant, Loïc (2009) Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity. Durham: Duke University Press. ISBN 9780822344049
- Wacquant, Loïc (2009) Prisons of Poverty (expanded edition). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 9780816639007