Gang Leader for a Day

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.


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