Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Sudhir Venkatesh's Gang Leader for a Day

Sudhir Venkatesh's Gang Leader for a Day (2008) is a thought-provoking and well-written book.  He is a sociology professor at Columbia, and the book chronicles his graduate student experience at the University of Chicago in the late 1980s and early 1990s as he spent an enormous amount of time in the Robert Taylor Homes housing project in Chicago.  He gets very close to a gang leader, J.T., and studying the urban poor there becomes his dissertation.

There are a lot of great angles in this book, once you get past the author's self-proclaimed "rogue" status and his "who me?" stylized naivete.  Part of the problem is that he published the book a full twenty years after the events occurred, so he has to recreate his "non-tenured, non-Harvard-Fellow-non-Columbia-endowed chair" self.  Yet even two decades ago he was 100 percent establishment, which he sometimes acknowledges behind the "rogue" self-label.

Either way, his basic argument is that to understand urban poverty, you must immerse yourself in it.  Periodically, then, the story moves to methodology as he criticizes social scientists who crunch numbers without even seeing the people they're studying.  For Venkatesh it is not merely an academic debate, because he also argues that such studies end up advocating policies that won't work (though it is worth pointing out that he does not really suggest any policies that would work).  Instead, he spends years examining and probing the complex web of relationships in the Robert Taylor Homes.  Residents, gang members, building leaders, prostitutes, mothers, the homeless, the unemployed, the underemployed, not to mention the police, are all interacting in ways that aren't immediately visible.  They are all, as one woman put it, hustling.

All of them also try to rationalize that hustling.  J.T. is insistent that his gang is really a community organization, providing services that otherwise would not exist.  He would go around trying to recruit teenagers to join, telling them they could become "black businessmen."  That many people in the building are addicted to the crack he sells seems not to bother him.  Ms. Bailey, the building president, demands kickbacks for all sorts of things, yet sees herself as the one person who can get things done when the housing authority refuses to act.  All of those relationships were fascinating--they got beyond the stereotypes and highlighted how tightly bound together all of these people were.

The book ends with welfare reform and the demolition of all the buildings.  Given how long ago that was, it left me wondering how much had changed.  The downside of studying one group of people (really, one building in particular) is that we don't know how generalizable the results are.  Venkatesh notes that not all gangs are run like J.T.'s, so are residents of all buildings--of all densely populated urban poor areas--embedded in the same types of relationships?


pc 9:05 AM  

I've not read Gang Leader for a Day, but I remember really liking Venkatesh's Off the Books. The same idea that everybody was just hustling one way or another was very prominent. I'm not sure how unique it is, but it was certainly unlike anything I've ever read.

Anonymous,  10:14 AM  

Agreed with the previous comment - Off the Books is a much better book than Gang Leader, though much less sensationalistic. It is the core of Venkatesh's dissertation research, and explores policy issues in a more systematic way. Gang Leader is a good airplane read; Off the Books is a piece of social science.

Greg Weeks 11:30 AM  

Interestingly, the residents also make him understand that he's hustling too. He needs information to write his dissertation, and does what he can to get it.

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