GETTING COZY WITH GANGS
Sudhir Venkatesh was hardly the sort of person you’d expect to find wandering around the housing projects of inner-city Chicago. “With my pony-tail and tie-dyed shirt, I must have looked pretty out of place,” he confesses at the beginning of Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets. But Venkatesh wasn’t interested in fitting in. He was interested in proving a point.
As a first-year graduate student at the University of Chicago, he was already skeptical of the way his professors conducted their research. According to Venkatesh, they were too caught up in the statistics of crime and poverty and not interested nearly enough in actual people. So, in 1989, this Indian-born Deadhead who grew up in a California suburb decided to correct this oversight.
Gang Leader for a Day provides an often compelling, if amateurishly written, account of his quest. Under the protection of J. T., a middle manager in a citywide crack-dealing operation, Venkatesh sets himself up at the Robert Taylor Homes, one of the nation’s largest and poorest housing projects. Over seven years of study, he hangs out with gangsters, witnesses drive-bys and—remarkably—even participates in the beating of a man accused of abusing his girlfriend. Venkatesh’s research provides groundbreaking insights into the corporate-like hierarchy of drug dealers. It reveals the intricate shadow economy of the high-rise hustlers and the ways legitimate neighborhood businesses support it. And, most effectively, it offers a heartbreaking glimpse of how residents struggle just to survive in a place where even emergency vehicles fear to venture.
“Always know somebody at the hospital,” one young woman tells him. “Always have somebody you can call because that ambulance never comes.”(1)
Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets by Sudhir Venkatesh (The Penguin Press, 302 pages)
San Francisco Chronicle, 2007
1 If you read the entire review, you’ll see that I raise questions about Venkatesh’s ethics:
What kind of sociologist takes years to figure out that cavorting with drug dealers might pose ethical problems? Or that actually taking over a gang for a day—a gang that deals crack, pimps women and administers various forms of violence—might “lay a bit out of bounds of the typical academic research”?
This was not a concern shared by William Grimes, reviewing for the New York Times. “Without question, Mr. Venkatesh is dazzled by J. T. and seduced by the gang life,” Grimes writes. “He maintains enough distance, however, to appraise the information he is given and to build up, through careful observation, a detailed picture of life at the project.”
As it happens, it was Grimes’s own New York Times that reported, in 2012, about mounting concerns over Venkatesh’s ethics. Aside from various financial irregularities associated with his work at Columbia, the article takes up his writing in Gang Leader for a Day:
For example, the book includes page after page of dialogue, rendered between quotation marks as though verbatim, despite his acknowledgment that he rarely took notes in real time. (Other sociologists say there is no clear standard for quotations in ethnographic studies.)
The book also shows him stepping off the sidelines to shape events directly, even engaging in legally dubious acts like helping to steer the gang’s activities for a day or kicking a Black King member’s assailant in the stomach.
“Legally dubious”? Quite the understatement.