Gang Leader for a Day

by on January 9, 2008 at 8:19 am in Books | Permalink

Here is my review of Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets.  I found this a difficult review to write.  The book is very interesting and Venkatesh is one of the world’s best and leading social scientists (and I don’t say that lightly).  Still, I thought his book was…how can I put it….somewhat evil, if I may call upon that old-fashioned concept.  The book required him to work with, and often encourage, a vicious gang leader for up to six years.  For instance:

J.T., the gang leader at the
center of the story, and of Mr. Venkatesh’s research, becomes wrapped
up in the idea of having his own biographer. Eventually it became his
obsession that Mr. Venkatesh record the details of his life, including
the shakedowns. In part, this was J.T.’s narcissism, and in part he
needed the motivation of an observer. Most of all, J.T. seemed to enjoy
having an audience: "I realized that he had come to rely on my
presence; he liked the attention, and the validation," Mr. Venkatesh
reports. None of J.T.’s underlings were qualified for the role of
courtier, but the highly intelligent and nonjudgmental Mr. Venkatesh
was perfect.

Here is my conclusion:

When it comes to understanding
the world, biography is truly the underappreciated method in the social
sciences. The life of the individual reveals what is otherwise hidden
in abstract numbers or faceless questionnaires. Mr. Venkatesh is to be
applauded for his path-breaking work and his compelling exposition.
He’s lucky that he didn’t have to pay a high price, but by the end of
the story the reader is wondering whether someone else might have, due
to Mr. Venkatesh’s unintended encouragement of J.T. Yes, evil really
can be attractive, and the biographical achievement here is splendid,
but when I return to the thought of encouraging and feeding the ego of
a gang leader for six years running, I can’t bring myself to be
attracted to this book.

I would recommend that you read Gang Leader for a Day, but ultimately I could not shy away from writing a negative review.  Let me know what you think.

Peter January 9, 2008 at 9:25 am

Did you get the impression that the gang leader committed some crimes solely because he had an observer to motivate him? That would seem to be the crucial question.

Constant January 9, 2008 at 10:46 am

Gang leaders aren’t the only morally questionable subjects for a book. Shall authors shy away from writing books about government leaders? Governments are regularly criticized for the evil acts they commit, and these acts are regularly on a scale which dwarf anything gang leaders are likely to do. And yet I don’t see any hand wringing about biographies of government leaders. On the question of whether writing the book causes the gang leader to commit additional evil acts – isn’t that precisely what is going on with journalists and terrorists? Terrorists commit their acts in large part because they expect journalists to spread the word about their deeds. Is it evil, then, for journalists to report terrorist attacks?

TomG January 9, 2008 at 11:33 am

Interesting, of the boundaries of journalism in terms of ethics, and the delineation between neutral (ie. ‘good’, or at least
‘not bad’) and flawed or even ‘evil’ involvement. When is someone crossing the line – to perhaps even acting as accomplice to
anti-social or unlawful behavior? How can it ever be known to what degree that author’s behavior (granted I haven’t read the
book) influenced the actions of his subject? A host of moral questions arise – from utilitarian topics as “end justifies the
means” and “for a greater good” (comment by Brent Buckner above), as well as instinctual or ontological ones such as “it feels
wrong” or “it’s playing with fire (ie. the devil’s handiwork) – so no good can ever come from it.” Our company ethics classes
always sum up ethical dilemmas by defaulting to “if it seems wrong to do, it is” – erring on the side of caution. But there’s
stories of under-cover agents that need to do ‘wrong’ in order to win the confidence of those they’re penetrating – so there’s
much gray to go around.

guy in the veal calf office January 9, 2008 at 2:12 pm

I would recommend that you read Gang Leader for a Day, but ultimately I could not shy away from writing a negative review.

That’s squirrelly. The review itself says “Most of all this is a story of male friendship” and claims the book does not teach “why crime is high, how the drug trade works, or why so many people seem to make dysfunctional lifestyle choices.” The review indicates that the author practically suborned crime and, by inference, buying the book encourages it as well. So it is a non-fiction male bonding-through-crime biography that might encourage crime.

Yet, you “recommend† that we read the book? Sorry, you “would recommend†. Why the subjunctive tense here? It reduces the concreteness of the verb “recommend† to what purpose?

haniberi January 9, 2008 at 4:09 pm

Columbia’s, indeed just about every university’s, Institutional Review Board will be thrilled to hear more reasons for shutting down research into the uncomfortable sides of life. I take your point and it is worthwhile for social scientists to be even more aware of these sorts of issues but there is real value in letting the light shine in, even if what we see is very, very ugly.

Steve Sailer January 9, 2008 at 8:49 pm

Sounds a lot like “The Last King of Scotland.”

Zigurrat January 10, 2008 at 1:31 am

This is similar to the questions that have been raised in regard to ethnography more or less forever. You become a participant/observer in a group and your observations become the raw material of your career. Maybe the group practices infanticide or euthanasia. Fine if you are dealing with tribal societies, I suppose, but the presumption is that the group has its own ethical system that is appropriate for that particular culture. Anthropologists have pretty much run out of their raw material — autonomous primitive cultures, so have been looking for substitute ‘subcultures’ within contemporary society for at least the last half century. After all, they need their raw material.

I would skip all the hand wringing and simply go back to Durkheim’s ‘Rules of the Sociological Method and note that, “crime is “bound up with the fundamental conditions of all social life” and serves a social function. He stated that crime implies, “not only that the way remains open to necessary change, but that in certain cases it directly proposes these changes… crime [can thus be] a useful prelude to reforms.” In this sense he saw crime as being able to release certain social tensions and so have a cleansing or purging effect in society. He further stated that “the authority which the moral conscience enjoys must not be excessive; otherwise, no-one would dare to criticize it, and it would too easily congeal into an immutable form. To make progress, individual originality must be able to express itself…[even] the originality of the criminal… shall also be possible” (Durkheim, 1895).”

A little crime is a symptom of a vital society.

SR January 10, 2008 at 11:17 pm

Polly: This was Venkatesh’s first serious project, he wasn’t an experienced social scientist when he started this… arguably it’s only the naiveté of youth that made him authentic enough to be able to do this research.

Devo January 19, 2008 at 11:56 pm

I was reading excerpts of Gang Leader for a Day, and it basically documents slum life, but you can’t look at it from an ethical or moral angle. You have to look at it as a combination expository book on gang life as well as a biography of JT. As for Tyler saying that JT may have overstated himself, yes, it might be true, but then again in any sort of sociological study where the author is put into the same situation as Venkatesh, you have to expect this sort of thing to happen. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing either, and as software development india said, the bad aspects are definitely overshadowed by the amount of quality information gained in the subject.

Helen January 27, 2008 at 7:04 pm

I will read this as I found his previous book while looking for something else at the Library. ‘Off the Books’ was also very interesting…I know poverty but only had to do some hustling not what the South Chicago women had to do to survive. Is that where Michelle Obama hails from? Also, is this where Obama’s alleged slum landlord holdings can be found? Hillary threw that barb out and it made me wonder where in Chicago Obama had worked.

Prince Akbar January 30, 2008 at 11:58 pm

I am a former member of Louis Farrakhans Nation of Islam. I read this book mainly because the author succeeded in an area that was my biggest weakness as an activist and as a black man who outgrew his poor neighborhood. This author befriended and got to know poor people up close and that takes a lot. I use to hate my leaders in the NOI pressuring me to sell the Final Call in projects and poor neighborhoods. Though I agreed with black power and the uplifting message Farrakhan had on the inside, on the outside I was a bourgie black college student with the same fears of the black underclass as any white liberal or conservative. I respect the author for being open minded and courageous enough to hang with people society is afraid of and just wants to lock up. This book should be presented to congress and political leaders to understand crime and poverty. I wish I wrote this and I wish I lived among my brothers who are struggling in these poor neighborhoods with no hope. The author is a modern day WEB Dubois. I am 40 minutes into the audio book and I am full of vivid pictures and ideas all because this indian dude chose to do more then sell a paper to a gangbanger and pressure him to go to a march. The author went home with the gangbanger, met his children, his baby mama’s, HIS MOTHER, and dared to ask the gangbanger baout his life and dreams. Louis Farrakhan should invite this author to the mosque to teach us how to help our brothers in the projects even more. this book is almost better then Malcolm X.

Chance February 14, 2008 at 2:45 am

I picked up this book because I was curious to know what it was like to live on the ‘other side’. I stumbled upon this thread and was saddened by some of the above postings lacking in knowledge of what it’s like to live in the world Sudhir experienced. I am not a socioligist, doctor of any kind, just a Chicago woman, born and raised here and applaud this man for doing so..outside of his element. He trusted J.T. who let him into a world most of us would wane away from.

I don’t think he (Sudhir OR J.T.) was looking for attention in the “look at what I’ve done” (can you tell I’m not as educated as you in my words) but more so..look what’s around you, this is real, this is what is really happening…or happened – in inner cities. These men took a chance on one another in a world and grew together you and I would never trespass on.

They BOTH gave me a birdseye view on a life that I would be TERRIFIED to live in yet thousands of men, women and children do.

Thank you Sudhir and J.T. for letting us into your lives and be safe.

Erin June 27, 2008 at 9:55 pm

Sudhir Venkatesh’s ‘Gang Leader For a Day’ is a disappointment. His biographical achievement here is nothing THAT new. (Try reading some Balzac when you get a chance Sud.)

To me he seems unbelievably surprised and re-surprised at the base level of abuse people pull on one another. I’m at the point in his field work when “Be Be† gets the shit beat out of her and nobody wants to call the police. Sudhir can’t understand why. The residents mumble that there’s no point in calling because the cops won’t come anyway.

That is somewhat true, but couldn’t the reason also be vertically profit motivated? It seems obvious that one CPD response unit for one beat-up woman would shut down J.T.’s crack operation, which in turn would shut down the summer parties, which would shut down the prostitution, which would mean that Ms. Bailey wouldn’t get her cut of the whores’ earnings which in turn would give her motive to strong-arm more money out of residents for things like replacing front-doors in winter – yeah that’s probably why nobody wants the cops there.

Did Sudhir explore this possibility? So far, no.

The high-rises were an awful form of public housing. That was a “known known† long before Sudhir showed up. But why were they so bad? That’s the real question, isn’t it? If it isn’t the real question, what is Sudhir doing there?

Dave December 8, 2008 at 10:23 pm

No Erin, speaking as someone who lived as a white man in a real bad ghetto for three real long years, I can tell you with a high degree of accuracy that the cops wouldn’t come, and if they did, they wouldn’t do much of anything useful. I read about Sudhir’s data gathering in Freakonomics; I didn’t know he’d released a book. I’ll have to check it out.

And no “one visit” by the cops wouldn’t shut all that down, not by a long, long chalk. It’s a different world with a totally different set of rules.

jar mobile February 9, 2010 at 5:54 pm

thank you for this article

Carrie March 4, 2010 at 9:18 pm

I’ve just finished reading Gang Leader for a Day and your review of the book. Are you suggesting that JT would not have committed some of the crimes described in the book if not for Mr. Venkatesh as an observer? I don’t doubt that JT enjoyed the attention. However, he was committed to the gang life long before and well after Mr. Venkatesh’s involvement. These events would have happened with or without an observer.

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