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January 17, 2008

How a sociologist became "gang leader for a day"

Cool item from the Crime and Justice newsletter compiled by Ted Guest:

How Sociologist Became "Gang Leader For A Day"

For seven years, sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh led a  double life in Chicago, reports National Public Radio. For days, Venkatesh stayed inside one of Chicago's  worst housing projects living with poor families and hanging out with gang members. Then he returned to he tony Hyde Park neighborhood, where he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago.

Now at  Columbia University, Venkatesh ventured into Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes housing project in the  1990s to do research for his doctorate. He befriended the leader of the Black Kings, one of the largest and most violent crack-dealing gangs, and led the group for a day. Venkatesh's new book, Gang Leader for a Day, describes his years inside the projects and how residents and gang members interacted, coexisted, and raised families. Venkatesh's guide during his research was J.T., the leader of the Black Kings who took an interest in the budding academic and showed him the ropes inside the projects. Though J.T. had a college degree, he left corporate America to run a drug operation that made him up to $100,000 a year. National Public Radio

By coincidence, I recently started reading Venkatesh's earlier book about the Robert Taylor Homes, American Project. The writing style is atrocious but the content is fascinating.

In the course of his Chicago fieldwork, Venkatesh obtained the hand written records of a crack dealing gang in the Taylor Homes. Economist Stephen Levitt drew heavily on these records for a chapter of his successful popular work, Freakonomics. The chapter is called "Why Do Crack Dealers Live With Their Mothers?"


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yeah, venkatesh ain't a great writer, but there's a lot to learn from his non-judgemental fully-immersive more sociological approach to research.

I read OFF THE BOOKS, a book which is filled with all sorts of interesting info but contains not one metaphor, simile or other literary device.

(those interested in Venkatesh and his subject matter should probably check out David Simon and Ed Burns "The Corner" a book they wrote together after spending extensive time in Baltimore's open air drug markets)

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