Monday, October 6, 2008

Book Recommendation: Gang Leader for a Day

The last couple weeks have just flown by, and I somehow never found time for a blog post. I did find time, however, to read an excellent book that I picked up a couple months ago: Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh. If you have a few spare hours, and a few spare dollars, I'd recommend picking up a copy.

Venkatesh is a Professor of Sociology at Columbia whose exploits were chronicled in Freakonomics, but this book chronicles his story before he ascended the ranks of academia. Back when he was a frustrated grad student (like me) he strolled into the projects one day trying to pilot some survey questions and impress the faculty. He accidentally walked in on a gathering of gang members who immediately became suspicious of him. The gang's leader eventually decides that Venkatesh isn't a bad guy and offers to show him how the gang works. The bulk of the book chronicles the six years he spends observing a crack gang, wandering through the projects, and learning first-hand about the lives of the people there.

The living conditions inside the projects are appalling, but not particularly surprising. What I thought was more surprising was the level of complicitness between the gang, the building leader, the housing authority, and the police. The gang helps out the community in a lot of ways and, in exchange, the community looks the other way. Indeed, there seems to be more enmity for the police and the government than for the gang.

Perhaps the most shocking scene in the book is when a handful of police officers march into a gang party. I assumed that mass arrests were going to take place but, instead, the officers demanded that the gang leaders put all of their cash and jewelry into bags that the officers passed around and then left with the loot.

When people hear "gang" or "projects" they assume the worst. But, in the end, it's clear that there was a functioning community behind these. The people he chronicles are poor and they struggle, but they have relationships and they help each other out -- just like any other sector of society. The gang is not simply "evil" and the projects are not simply "bad." The people and their situation is complex, as life always seems to be.

For once in my life, I don't really have any pointed criticism for the book. That's partially b/c it's more of a narrative than anything else -- it reads like a novel -- and partially b/c I really have no idea what he saw and how accurately he describes it. In the end, Venkatesh is mostly content to describe and leave judgment to the reader. My main lament is that he didn't include more stories and observations -- the book is less than 300 pages and I'd have to imagine that he has thousands of pages of field notes.

In addition to being interesting and informative the book is a quick read. It leaves me wishing that more academics could write in such an engaging fashion. And that more academics could write such illuminating pieces on such important topics.


eduwonkette said...

Venkatesh's other books - "Off the Books" and "American Project" - have more traditional ethnographic field notes and observations included, so you might check those out next (in your free time, of course;)

Anonymous said...

The book definitely goes on my list to read. Your description brings up the subject of description in general. While it may be true that the plural of anecdote is not data, I have formed the opinion in recent years that plain, simple, accurate, and extensive description is a necessary basis for any field of study. I have also formed the opinion that this basis is woefully lacking in education. I have expanded these thoughts a little at

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the book recommendation. I read "Freakonomics" a few years ago and really enjoyed it - including the part on Venkatesh's infiltration/study of the gang lifestyle.