Review: Gang Leader for a Day

by Kim on January 15, 2010 · 25 comments

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Title: Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets
Sudhir Venkatesh
Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir
Year: 2008
Acquired: Purchased

Rating: ★★★½☆

Two Sentence Summary: As a grad student, Ventaktesh befriended J.T., a gang leader from the projects in Chicago. Over several years, the two formed a tense friendship that allowed Ventaktesh unprecedented access to the inner-workings of life in the area and the gang’s role in the community.

One Sentence Review: Ventaktesh’s methods and lack of awareness of the implications of his project were frustrating, but the book should be read because it provides an intimate look into a world most people would prefer to ignore.

Long Review: In his first semester of graduate school, Sudhir Venkatesh was eager to impress his professors and figure out what his research interests might be. When asked to do some survey work in the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, Venkatesh approached the task with the sort of naive enthusiasm one might expect from a new student. Within hours of starting his survey, Venkatesh found himself being held hostage by members of the Black Kings, the gang that controlled most of the area.

Unexpectedly, Venkatesh made friends with the local leader of the Black Kings, J.T. This friendship gave Venkatesh J.T.’s support to spend more time in the neighborhood, asking questions and filling in details for what turned out to be an intensely detailed economic and ethnographic survey of the Chicago projects.

In Gang Leader for a Day Venkatesh chronicles more than a decade of working with and researching the members of this community and the complicated relationship between the gang and the community as well as J.T. and Venkatesh.

I can’t thank Jill (Fizzy Thoughts) enough for pushing me to read this book. After I commented on her review last year, she e-mailed me with some other thoughts about how much parts of the book reminded her of what I do as a journalist. She suggested the ethical conflicts and insider issues would be fascinating, and she was right. When Venkatesh enters the neighborhood, he brings with him many of the simplistic beliefs about how life in an area controlled by a gang works. The strength of Gang Leader for a Day is the way Venkatesh shows his process of learning what life there is like and articulating those findings to a reader.

I was surprised to learn how the gang is both a harm and a benefit to the community. While the gang does conduct drug business in the area, members are also charged with protecting residents and keeping order in the projects when the police won’t do anything. While members of the community pay “taxes” to the gang for these services, without the gang enforcement things in the projects might be even worse than they would be without the gang.

J.T. is also a fascinating central character for this story. Smart, funny, charismatic, and ambitious, J.T. is an interesting mirror for Venkatesh and the similarities between the two definitely raises questions about circumstance and opportunity. The men are pretty similar, but their life circumstances couldn’t be more different. The book doesn’t explore these themes in much depth, but it’s an intriguing background question.

I can’t say that I entirely agree with Venkatesh’s methods or his continued arguments that he didn’t realize some of the implications of his research. At one point, Venkatesh does a detailed set of interviews to see how the underground economy — services, food, prostitution, childcare, others — of the project works. When J.T. and other local leaders ask Venkatesh to share his findings, he gladly discusses his research. Only later does he find out that J.T. used those findings to crack down on everyone in the projects who was earning money and not paying dues to the gang. Venkatesh compromised his research subjects in a way that can’t be fixed, and his insistence he had no idea what would happen seems to ring hollow.

Other academics have criticized the book extensively for these methodological and ethical lapses, and those criticisms are valid. It’s a fine line to walk between researching a community in order to benefit them versus researching to benefit yourself. Venkatesh has made a lot of money as a result of this book and his ongoing research, and I’m not sure the members of the Robert Taylor Homes have seen much of that come back to them. That’s a sticky ethical question the book didn’t seem to answer in any great detail.

The book is also much less academic than one might expect of something written by a professor. There aren’t many citations or acknowledgments to previous researchers who did intense ethnographies, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem. This book is less about sociological methods than it is a memoir looking inside what it means to do research and be welcomed into a world most people never get to see. After finishing, I was eager to read some of Venkatesh’s more serious nonfiction on the projects in Chicago and issues for the rural poor including Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor and American Project: The Rise and Fall of the Modern Ghetto.

Ultimately, I think this book accomplishes what most light nonfiction/nonfiction memoirs try to do — tell an interesting story in a way that makes a readers want to learn more about the subject behind the story.  I suggest anyone even a little interested in these topics should read the book.

Other Reviews: | Fizzy Thoughts | At Home With Books | Devourer of Books |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

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