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Puff The Magic Sociologist: Sudhir Venkatesh, Gang Leader For A Day, A Rogue Sociologist Takes To The Streets

April 7, 2009, 2:32 pm

Longtime followers of this blog know that it is my deepest wish to write a book that will be sold one day in airports. Why airports? Well, some time ago a clever capitalist figured out that among the lay audience who passes through airports a certain percentage will want to read something of greater intellectual substance than a Jodi Picoult novel (of course, many academics see travel as a perfect excuse to read romance novels.) Because of the captive audience airports represent, travel has become an opportunity to sell more good books, as well as magazines that offer ten helpful hints to keep a husband sexually content. Some of these volumes are easy to sell in real life (anything about the Civil War, memoirs of addiction); and others may be harder to sell in real life (excellent non-fiction and, well, academic books) than they are to sell in the airport.

I often buy serious books being marketed to the average intelligent reader in order to figure out what I too might do to become an airport author. In passing through the Detroit airport week before last, I picked up the book I am reviewing today. I had heard Sudhir Venkatesh on National Public Radio a few weeks earlier; he is the author of Gang Leader For A Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes To The Streets. Despite my reservations about what I had heard Venkatesh say on the radio, I decided to give it a whirl.

Verdict? I think this book is really disturbing, and if I were a practicing ethnographer rather than a historian I might be even more offended. The mainstream reviews of this book give little hint of this. They are remarkably, and similarly, bland. (Here is one by William Grimes of the The New York Times.) They are all more or less written from the book’s publicity materials, down to sometimes identical phrases about Venkatesh putting away his clipboard and learning to ask the right questions. So I feel that I am contributing to the public discussion in a useful way when I say: I think Gang Leader For A Day is one of the worst, and certainly least original, ethnographic accounts of a black community I have ever read. Venkatesh’s “hero social scientist” narrative, and the many ethical flaws in his field research that he tries to blur by making his own personal growth the centerpiece of the book, causes me to conclude that if this book is taught at all it should be taught as a perfect example of an academic exploiting a community to advance his career. There are many flaws, but perhaps the worst is not even what Venkatesh did as a graduate student in perhaps the most prestigious sociology department in the country, but his commentary on and lame excuses for his own behavior as a researcher.

Venkatesh’s heroic view of himself as a “rogue” academic depends in part on everything he has written being new and fresh, which it is not, particularly when you consider that he is writing about Chicago, one of the most intensely studies cities in the country. And while some of his more academic work might be path-breaking, his desire to be seen as roguishly cutting edge in this book causes him to be self-serving in ways that are more than borderline unethical. For example, he fails to acknowledge any significant work on black poverty that preceded his own, except allusions to contributions in the field by his advisor, William Julius Wilson. One thing a knowledgeable reader with even light acquaintance with his field will see is that nearly all of Venkatesh’s insights about the role women play in the informal economy of the Robert Taylor Homes can be found in Carol Stack’s All Our Kin, originally published in 1974. Nowhere in the book (there are no footnotes and no bibliography) is the work of this path-breaking feminist anthropologist mentioned; nor do we see any acknowledgment that Black feminists like Johnnie Tillmon have been theorizing the condition of Black women on welfare since 1970. One might also point to the work of anthropologist Karen McCarthy Brown or historian Annelise Orleck. There is no reference to any memoirs like Doreen Ambrose-Van Lee’s memoir of growing up in Cabrini-Green (another Chicago Housing Authority project), Diary of a MidWestern Getto Gurl; or reference to accounts of black urban poverty by sociologist Elijah Anderson and journalist Alex Kotlowitz.

What is more disturbing to me, frankly, than Venkatesh’s failure to acknowledge other academics, is the cavalier way in which he describes and excuses his ethical failings as a researcher in the field — and if he expresses doubts about what he did from time to time, none of those doubts seems to have stood in the way of realizing his academic and financial ambitions. During the course of the book, he fails to file a plan with the Institutional Research Board until he is well into his field work. He hides what he is doing from his mentors (but does learn to play golf so that he can spend more quality time with his famous advisor.) He lies about the nature of the work he is doing (by omission and commission) to “J.T.”, the gang leader who is his principle informant and his protector. He puts the lives and livelihoods of members of the housing project in danger through his self-important tattling about his research findings to J.T. When told explicitly by faculty and by an attorney that participating in illegal gang activities puts him at risk of criminal prosecution Venkatesh is a little alarmed, but keeps doing it. He participates in a gang beating; and, in the centerpiece of the book — in which he claimed to have become “gang leader for a day” — he represents himself as having “crossed over” to experience J.T.’s world as J.T. himself lives it. But Venkatesh evades actually doing anything so that he doesn’t have to explain to J.T. why, for example, a sociology grad student can’t punish a shortie with two shots to the mouth during the course of his research. Towards the end of the book, the gang’s “accountant” gives him a set of notebooks that allow Our Hero to write a path-breaking article about underground economies: T-Bone, who gave him the data, is later killed in prison. While Venkatesh makes a point of saying that T-Bone never squealed on the gang, of course he did — by giving Venkatesh the data. It isn’t as clear to me as it seems to be to Venkatesh that, unless J.T. and his gang have no access to the internet, they would not have known this by simply Googling him and coming up with the article.

In fact, the principle narrative of the book is not life in the ghetto, but rather Venkatesh’s ascent to the height of respectability and academic success set against the destruction, dispersion and failure of the community he observed. Venkatesh wins fellowships; the gang members and community organizers who run life in the Robert Taylor Homes simply “disappear.” Eventually, when Venkatesh no long needs J.T., he ditches him. This occurs when Venkatesh follows his fate to Harvard, where he writes his dissertation as a member of the Society of Fellows. “For a time I thought that J.T. and I might remain close even as our worlds were growing ap
art,” he writes on page 277, as he explains how he wrapped up the research by simply leaving behind the people who had fed him, sheltered him, protected him, and given him a career. This sentiment might be more accurately rendered as: they stayed in the Ghetto, the city of Chicago tore their homes down, and I went to Harvard –life is so unfair. In what is typical of the book (admission of what he did wrong, and that he hurt people, coupled with justifications for having done so) he continues:

“Don’t worry,” I told him, “I’ll be coming back all the time.” [Another lie, but not on the scale of the Big Lie, which was that Venkatesh was planning to write J.T.'s biography.] But the deeper I got into my Harvard fellowship, the more time passed between my visits to Chicago, and the more time passed between visits, the more awkward J.T. and I found it to carry on our conversations.[Translation: he began to figure out I was a big fraud, but fortunately, this awkwardness did not cause a man who beat people up for lesser insults to hurt me.] He seemed to have grown nostalgic for our early days together, even a bit clingy [emphasis mine]. I realized that he had come to rely on my presence; he liked the attention and validation.

I, meanwhile, grew evasive and withdrawn — in large part out of guilt.

In this scenario,Venkatesh is playing Wendy to J.T.’s Peter Pan: guilt though he may feel, it is time for the rogue sociologist to grow up, marry, and get tenure at an R1 university. And I don’t really see guilt here, frankly. I see a sociologist with a literary agent, becoming wealthier and more famous by exploiting the endless fascination that respectable people who live in comfort (and ride on planes) have for the poor. But what I also see is the recuperation of the “hero social scientist,” who does what he wants and exploits who he wants on his way up the career ladder, without regard to any of the research ethics that have been developed over the years to govern such ignorant and irresponsible behavior. Perhaps Venkatesh’s work for an academic audience is more careful and respectful than his attempt to engage a popular audience, Gang Leader For A Day: I hope so.

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Hot off the presses: a conference honoring Carol Stack, and celebrating the 35th anniversary of All Our Kin, will be held at Yale University, May 1-2, 2009. Go here for details.

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