Global Outlaws by Carolyn Nordstrom

602297.jpgNonfiction — print. University of California Press, 2007. 235 pgs. Purchased.

Nordstrom’s book was the second I read for my class on illicit commodities/trafficking, but it has the distinction of being the one that excited me about the class. Subtitled “Crime, Money, and Power in the Contemporary World”, this book recounts Nordstrom’s travels through Africa, Europe, Asia, and the United States following the illegal trade in goods from cigarettes to food to blood diamonds to arms to pharmaceuticals to people. In roughly that order and through “stories”, Nordstrom shows how the mundane of a war orphan selling Marlboros in Angola is connected to the transnational networks that smuggle people (including herself) and drugs through ports across the world.

Throughout the book, Nordstrom shows how there are shades of gray when it comes to illegal trade. Acts of illegality are not homogeneously evil and paint them as such with a wide brush ignores the different approaches needed to address these crimes. The smuggling of cigarettes cost UK taxpayers 2.5. billion pounds every year, but how can you prosecute a war orphan selling cigarettes in an attempt to pull himself out of poverty? This side of illegal trade, which appears rather ordinary and common, will not attract as much attention as corrupt government officials, for example, but it is the side of illegality that appears to dominate illicit trade.

Utilizing ethnographic concepts and practices, Nordstrom’s book equates to an anthropological study of illegality and illicitness often times ignored or undervalued in the literature. Her use of isolated communities and cases uncovers the larger players and forces at work in our globalized economy, and her bottom-up approach matches how the small-scale builds up the large-scale, transnational industries operating under the radar of the common man.

Nordstrom’s readable text and presentation moves this problem from the jurisdiction of the state and academia and into the minds of the public. I cannot, and will not, claim much knowledge about this issues; my two majors tie me to visible/legal and the borders of the nation. But I learned so much from this book that I’m confident you will to.

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