Review: Gang Leader for a Day

by Kim on January 15, 2010 · 25 comments

Post image for Review: Gang Leader for a Day

Title: Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets
Author:
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!

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathy January 15, 2010 at 8:35 am

I saw Jill’s review of this book too and was fascinated by it since I went through a period where I read all the books about gangs I could find. (I think that period was sparked by West Side Story.) I’m amazed at the way the author approached the subject, though.

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Kim January 19, 2010 at 3:59 pm

Kathy: I was amazed by his methods too — it takes a lot of dedication (and bravery) to get that invested in a place and the people who live there. The book reiterated a lot of the themes I learned from Random Family, another great book on this issue.

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COS Giants 360 December 10, 2010 at 3:08 pm

One implication of Venkatesh’s research is that he starts to become more active in the lives of the Robert Taylor residents. So overall, we too agree with you Kim and Kathy.

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Kim December 13, 2010 at 6:08 pm

COS Giants 360: You make a good point – his research starts to be impacted by his subjects, and he starts to impact the research.

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Jeane January 15, 2010 at 10:58 am

I never really thought about gangs being beneficial to a community in any way. This seems like a book that would really open my eyes.

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Kim January 19, 2010 at 4:06 pm

Jeane: I was surprised about that too. The gangs do cause problems — violence, drug dealing, and creating a community where the police don’t want to venture. But in many cases, the gang does help protect some of the people in the community that the gang is, essentially, in charge of. It’s a complicated issue, and one that I think the author does a good job explaining.

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COS Giants 360 December 10, 2010 at 3:19 pm

In discussions of Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day, one controversial issue has been how the gang is portrayed. On the one hand, Jane Dailey of the Chicago Tribune argues that Venkatesh romanticizes the gang activity. On the other hand, both you and Jeanne seem to say Venkatesh opens people’s eyes to the inner workings and organization of gang activity, including the benefits. Our own view is that he walks a thin line, trying to be accurate with his descriptions.

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Kim December 13, 2010 at 6:10 pm

COS Giants 360: I gould agree – I think there’s a tricky balance between understand gang impact and glamorizing what the gang does. It’s hard for me to say exactly how well Venkatesh does this, but he certainly tries to.

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Florinda January 15, 2010 at 4:01 pm

I have this in TBR and hope to get to it before too long. I read an excerpt from it that fascinated me, and I’m looking forward to the whole thing. You make some good points about the ethical implications of creating a work like this.

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Kim January 19, 2010 at 4:07 pm

Florinda: It’s a fascinating book, and one that leaves a lot of questions unanswered. I think it gives just enough information to make someone interested in the topic want to dig further. I’m hoping his more serious nonfiction fills in some of the holes that were in this book.

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Jenny January 15, 2010 at 5:55 pm

I think sociology/anthropology is so interesting for many of the reasons you mention – I can see how a person in this situation would make such a mistake, but I think afterwards he should acknowledge his mistake, and the predictability of it. :(

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Kim January 19, 2010 at 4:08 pm

Jenny: I very much agree. The author does acknowledge the mistake, and in the book points to how bad it was, but it’s hard to overcome something like that. He lost a lot of trust of the people he was interviewing and, ultimately, made their lives more difficult.

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Alyce January 15, 2010 at 6:49 pm

I think part of what I liked about this book was that it was in a memoir form, and that it was so light and easy to read. I’m not sure if I’m ready to tackle his other books, just for that reason.

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Kim January 19, 2010 at 4:09 pm

Alyce: The form is one of the book’s strengths — it personalizes a topic that can otherwise be difficult to understand or relate to. And the memoir form gets at some of the ethics and challenges of the research, something more straight nonfiction wouldn’t be able to do.

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softdrink January 15, 2010 at 9:47 pm

Venkatesh is mentioned in Superfreakonomics, as well. He seems to be the rock star of sociologists. It does make me wonder what, if anything, he’s given back to the communities that he’s studied and profited from.

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Kim January 19, 2010 at 4:10 pm

softdrink: Yeah, he is a sort of rockstar of the sociology world. And his research lends itself to that sort of bad-ass persona, I suppose. I hope he’s given back, although I didn’t do much research to look into that question. He owes them a lot.

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Aarti January 17, 2010 at 11:08 pm

I didn’t know about the ethical dilemmas with this book. Thanks for the information! I have wanted to read it but I don’t know. I often feel like books of this sort present information but there is never any “Now this is what we should all do” sort of thing at the end. It just kind of shows you something (often depressing) and then you finish the book and don’t really know how to react to it. At least, for me. I always feel like I should do something afterwards but feel the authors don’t give any real CONCLUSION, if that makes sense.

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Kim January 19, 2010 at 4:12 pm

Aarti: Sure, I’m glad it was interesting! And I definitely see your point — I like books that give some sort of action step at the end. I can’t remember if this book has one explicitly or not, but I think the implicit implication is that it’s important not to generalize about people’s situations too much or automatically assume anything about the people you meet. And that society as a whole needs a more open discussion about how to deal with problems that come up in these neighborhoods, maybe even working with gang leaders to create someplace safer for everyone.

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Anna January 18, 2010 at 7:57 am

Given my sociology degree, it’s not surprising that I find books like these fascinating. His methods sound like they leave much to be desired, though. That’s really too bad.

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Kim January 19, 2010 at 4:13 pm

Anna: That part was hard to read. At points, I just wanted to smack him over the head because he was being so naive about issues that could get people in a lot of trouble.

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Ed November 15, 2010 at 10:50 am

I thought this one was just amazing. An honest look at the effects of drug prohibition. Why can’t we admit it’s the same mistake that alcohol prohibition was?

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Kim November 15, 2010 at 7:13 pm

Ed: I agree – it was interesting to see the way a drug culture emerged in the neighborhood and how it impacted the residents. A lot of that was very sad.

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Monica Torres April 21, 2011 at 12:55 pm

Sudhir definitively, passed initiation test, initiation to prove his tough sociological reasons to get his surveys and effectively make a book.

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Jessica November 27, 2012 at 8:32 pm

To Kathy and Kim, I highly recommend the movie “City of God” if you haven’t seen it. I have a Sociology degree and am particularly interested in social inequalities, urban poverty and the criminal justice system. The film centers on Brazilian gangs comprised of children/youth in the favela (slums) and it is extremely sad at points, but overall, it is a fascinating story.

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