Monday, July 27, 2009

Academic hustlers

I just finished reading Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streetsby Sudhir Venkatesh. Venkatesh was a PhD student in sociology at the University of Chicago in the 1990s and spent much of his time in a Chicago project interviewing drug gang members and poor families. Most famously, he's the one that collected the data on gang member pay that eventually became part of the book Freakonomics (which I highly recommend for anyone that hasn't read it yet). I recommend Gang Leader for a Day to anyone that hasn't experienced poverty, especially in America.

I've been meaning to read it for a while and just got around to it. The timing was fortuitous as I've started watching the Sopranos. It also comes on the heels of the Henry Louis Gates Jr. arrest. The people who Venkatesh interviewed were very distrustful of the police and I expect none of them would be surprised about the arrest.

For me, the biggest contribution of the book is the reminder that poverty happens the same way everywhere in the world. Similar to my experience in Uganda and southeast Asia, people in the projects stick together and help each other out, using an extended family network to provide important temporary support.

Venkatesh labels himself a rebel sociologist because he does the unthinkable and actually goes out to talk to the poor. This is really not as strange as he makes it sound: anthropologists have been doing this for a long time. He does add a nice structure to the understanding of how the people interact that most anthropologists don't do, but it never really comes together. This is because he never is able to understand the whole picture, in part because of what it means to be doing the work he is doing. In order to get the information he needs he has to give up some freedom in order to secure his safety with the local gang.

Part of it is his freedom to move around. The gang does not want him to go everywhere and speak to everyone (the police and those most negatively affected by the drug gang, for instance), so in fact his access is very censured.

More importantly though, he loses his moral freedom. He watches, and in some cases participates in, some morally questionable activities and, scared to lose his access, does not speak up to the people around him. He presents himself as a naive person in the beginning, just trying to find out how things work.

In the end though, he recognizes a very important point about his own work, and I think an important point for all academics: he is a hustler. He wanted his data and he would do whatever it took to get it. Like the guys selling crack on the corner, the pimps, or the woman selling candy out of her apartment, he was looking out for his own benefit first.

This may sound like a harsh comparison, but, aside from a short lived writing class he taught and the talking therapy he gave to killers, he did nothing for the people of Robert Taylor Homes. Like a reporter that takes pictures of a burning building but won't help people get out, he simply recorded horrible events.

In a number of cases, he actually made many people's lives much more difficult, especially the people that told him about their side incomes. He shared this information with the gang leader, who promptly taxed their previously unknown income.

I have a strong moral requirement for research, and "do no harm" is just the beginning. While I loved the book, Venkatesh really is just suggesting that talking to people isn't what makes a rogue academic, its actually helping people.

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