Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Puff The Magic Sociologist: Sudhir Venkatesh, Gang Leader For A Day, A Rogue Sociologist Takes To The Streets

Longtime followers of this blog know that it is my deepest wish to write a book that will be sold one day in airports. Why airports? Well, some time ago a clever capitalist figured out that among the lay audience who passes through airports a certain percentage will want to read something of greater intellectual substance than a Jodi Picoult novel (of course, many academics see travel as a perfect excuse to read romance novels.) Because of the captive audience airports represent, travel has become an opportunity to sell more good books, as well as magazines that offer ten helpful hints to keep a husband sexually content. Some of these volumes are easy to sell in real life (anything about the Civil War, memoirs of addiction); and others may be harder to sell in real life (excellent non-fiction and, well, academic books) than they are to sell in the airport.

I often buy serious books being marketed to the average intelligent reader in order to figure out what I too might do to become an airport author. In passing through the Detroit airport week before last, I picked up the book I am reviewing today. I had heard Sudhir Venkatesh on National Public Radio a few weeks earlier; he is the author of Gang Leader For A Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes To The Streets. Despite my reservations about what I had heard Venkatesh say on the radio, I decided to give it a whirl.

Verdict? I think this book is really disturbing, and if I were a practicing ethnographer rather than a historian I might be even more offended. The mainstream reviews of this book give little hint of this. They are remarkably, and similarly, bland. (Here is one by William Grimes of the The New York Times.) They are all more or less written from the book's publicity materials, down to sometimes identical phrases about Venkatesh putting away his clipboard and learning to ask the right questions. So I feel that I am contributing to the public discussion in a useful way when I say: I think Gang Leader For A Day is one of the worst, and certainly least original, ethnographic accounts of a black community I have ever read. Venkatesh's "hero social scientist" narrative, and the many ethical flaws in his field research that he tries to blur by making his own personal growth the centerpiece of the book, causes me to conclude that if this book is taught at all it should be taught as a perfect example of an academic exploiting a community to advance his career. There are many flaws, but perhaps the worst is not even what Venkatesh did as a graduate student in perhaps the most prestigious sociology department in the country, but his commentary on and lame excuses for his own behavior as a researcher.

Venkatesh's heroic view of himself as a "rogue" academic depends in part on everything he has written being new and fresh, which it is not, particularly when you consider that he is writing about Chicago, one of the most intensely studies cities in the country. And while some of his more academic work might be path-breaking, his desire to be seen as roguishly cutting edge in this book causes him to be self-serving in ways that are more than borderline unethical. For example, he fails to acknowledge any significant work on black poverty that preceded his own, except allusions to contributions in the field by his advisor, William Julius Wilson. One thing a knowledgeable reader with even light acquaintance with his field will see is that nearly all of Venkatesh's insights about the role women play in the informal economy of the Robert Taylor Homes can be found in Carol Stack's All Our Kin, originally published in 1974. Nowhere in the book (there are no footnotes and no bibliography) is the work of this path-breaking feminist anthropologist mentioned; nor do we see any acknowledgment that Black feminists like Johnnie Tillmon have been theorizing the condition of Black women on welfare since 1970. One might also point to the work of anthropologist Karen McCarthy Brown or historian Annelise Orleck. There is no reference to any memoirs like Doreen Ambrose-Van Lee's memoir of growing up in Cabrini-Green (another Chicago Housing Authority project), Diary of a MidWestern Getto Gurl; or reference to accounts of black urban poverty by sociologist Elijah Anderson and journalist Alex Kotlowitz.

What is more disturbing to me, frankly, than Venkatesh's failure to acknowledge other academics, is the cavalier way in which he describes and excuses his ethical failings as a researcher in the field -- and if he expresses doubts about what he did from time to time, none of those doubts seems to have stood in the way of realizing his academic and financial ambitions. During the course of the book, he fails to file a plan with the Institutional Research Board until he is well into his field work. He hides what he is doing from his mentors (but does learn to play golf so that he can spend more quality time with his famous advisor.) He lies about the nature of the work he is doing (by omission and commission) to "J.T.", the gang leader who is his principle informant and his protector. He puts the lives and livelihoods of members of the housing project in danger through his self-important tattling about his research findings to J.T. When told explicitly by faculty and by an attorney that participating in illegal gang activities puts him at risk of criminal prosecution Venkatesh is a little alarmed, but keeps doing it. He participates in a gang beating; and, in the centerpiece of the book -- in which he claimed to have become "gang leader for a day" -- he represents himself as having "crossed over" to experience J.T.'s world as J.T. himself lives it. But Venkatesh evades actually doing anything so that he doesn't have to explain to J.T. why, for example, a sociology grad student can't punish a shortie with two shots to the mouth during the course of his research. Towards the end of the book, the gang's "accountant" gives him a set of notebooks that allow Our Hero to write a path-breaking article about underground economies: T-Bone, who gave him the data, is later killed in prison. While Venkatesh makes a point of saying that T-Bone never squealed on the gang, of course he did -- by giving Venkatesh the data. It isn't as clear to me as it seems to be to Venkatesh that, unless J.T. and his gang have no access to the internet, they would not have known this by simply Googling him and coming up with the article.

In fact, the principle narrative of the book is not life in the ghetto, but rather Venkatesh's ascent to the height of respectability and academic success set against the destruction, dispersion and failure of the community he observed. Venkatesh wins fellowships; the gang members and community organizers who run life in the Robert Taylor Homes simply "disappear." Eventually, when Venkatesh no long needs J.T., he ditches him. This occurs when Venkatesh follows his fate to Harvard, where he writes his dissertation as a member of the Society of Fellows. "For a time I thought that J.T. and I might remain close even as our worlds were growing apart," he writes on page 277, as he explains how he wrapped up the research by simply leaving behind the people who had fed him, sheltered him, protected him, and given him a career. This sentiment might be more accurately rendered as: they stayed in the Ghetto, the city of Chicago tore their homes down, and I went to Harvard --life is so unfair. In what is typical of the book (admission of what he did wrong, and that he hurt people, coupled with justifications for having done so) he continues:

"Don't worry," I told him, "I'll be coming back all the time." [Another lie, but not on the scale of the Big Lie, which was that Venkatesh was planning to write J.T.'s biography.] But the deeper I got into my Harvard fellowship, the more time passed between my visits to Chicago, and the more time passed between visits, the more awkward J.T. and I found it to carry on our conversations.[Translation: he began to figure out I was a big fraud, but fortunately, this awkwardness did not cause a man who beat people up for lesser insults to hurt me.] He seemed to have grown nostalgic for our early days together, even a bit clingy [emphasis mine]. I realized that he had come to rely on my presence; he liked the attention and validation.

I, meanwhile, grew evasive and withdrawn -- in large part out of guilt.

In this scenario,Venkatesh is playing Wendy to J.T.'s Peter Pan: guilt though he may feel, it is time for the rogue sociologist to grow up, marry, and get tenure at an R1 university. And I don't really see guilt here, frankly. I see a sociologist with a literary agent, becoming wealthier and more famous by exploiting the endless fascination that respectable people who live in comfort (and ride on planes) have for the poor. But what I also see is the recuperation of the "hero social scientist," who does what he wants and exploits who he wants on his way up the career ladder, without regard to any of the research ethics that have been developed over the years to govern such ignorant and irresponsible behavior. Perhaps Venkatesh's work for an academic audience is more careful and respectful than his attempt to engage a popular audience, Gang Leader For A Day: I hope so.

*******************************************

Hot off the presses: a conference honoring Carol Stack, and celebrating the 35th anniversary of All Our Kin, will be held at Yale University, May 1-2, 2009. Go here for details.

39 comments:

DOD said...

I guess I don't quite understand the problem. Your first set of critiques amount to this being a popular, rather than scholarly book; no citations, insufficient survey of the literature, etc. I don't think that's a very serious problem.

Your other complaints are more substantive; I am no ethnographer, so I have no idea what professional standards he violated - You post doesn't go into too much detail about it. What did "gang leader for a day" actually entail?

And as for lying to JT, jeez, what do you expect people to do? Was Venkatesh supposed to accurately forecast the future dynamic of their relationship?

Does that fact that one of his subjects later died somehow reflect badly on his work? You write as though Venkatesh should have been more of a social worker. Is pursuing an academic career a betrayal of your subjects? Again, it seems you want Venkatesh to be a social worker.

I guess I really just don't understand what animates these criticisms. That may just be my lack of familiarity with the field, but it seems like you are being excessively curmudgeonly.

Ahistoricality said...

How is this any different from Harlan Ellison's literary ethnography of gangs and prisons?

I am no ethnographer, so I have no idea what professional standards he violated

Most of them, I think.

Historians can barely do oral history interviews without getting permission from an IRB (and fighting most of the way); how the hell did he get permission to run the streets and actually do participant observation under such uncontrolled circumstances?

Digger said...

"how the hell did he get permission to run the streets and actually do participant observation under such uncontrolled circumstances?"

I remember hearing an interview with him on NPR; if I remember correctly, he DIDN'T get permission. He just kinda went out and did it. Then apparently took the "it's easier to apologize then get permission" approach after the fact. Which apparently, his institution let him get away with.

Sisyphus said...

There was a great review of this book in _The Nation_ when it came back that basically likened him to yet another corrupted bureaucratic structure in _The Wire._

DOD, I haven't read the book, but Nation review summarized it as Venkatesh interviewed everyone in the projects and found out exactly how much money they made as part of his study of the "informal economy" and then didn't realize, supposedly, what a bad idea it would be for him to show all of this info to JT. Basically he got the non-gang members to trust him and then showed all their info to the gang, who then went and extorted them. That makes him less of an objective ethnographer and more of one of JT's henchmen in disguise.

Anonymous said...

I agree with DOD about the popular vs. scholarly book point, but the generally unethical nature of this project is a different story. I read an interview with Venkatesh a few years ago and found it appalling - glad to hear his behavior is not (even close to) the norm among sociologists.

Lauren said...

I thought this guy sounded familiar. He was on a This American Life show a while back. I thought his was an odd kind of life for an academic, but I'm a historian and don't get to hang out with my people...
http://www.thisamericanlife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?sched=1265

historiann said...

What kind of evidence did Venkatesh present that he had actually done this field work? Does anyone but him know of the real identities of any of the people he writes about? This project sets off my B.S. detector--that his dissertation and subsequent book were works of fiction might explain a lot (i.e. why he never got permission to do the field work, why J.T. and the gang apparently don't use the google and why they're not looking for their cut, etc.)

Still, fiction or not, I think this book illustrates some of the pleasures and perils of publishing with a trade press. No peer review, no footnotes, no citations (although those last two are more at the discretion of the author than the first. We can all think of trade press books that include the scholarly apparatus, after all.) Something about this just seems wrong.

grumpyabdadjunct said...

I once trained as an anthropologist and ethnographer, and I still use ethnography as a main methodology; I am also an ethics instructor. I was appalled when I heard about this research, and when I heard Venkatesh talking about it on the radio. He has broken many of the 'original' tenets of ethnography by 'going rogue' and not following ethical guidelines (more on this below), perhaps worse his home institution let him get away with it and then to compound it all a commercial, lay-persons publication of the research further exploits his research participants. The whole situation is awful.

The tenets of ethical research in disciplines like Social Science (which includes Sociology and Anthropology) is that you are supposed to declare yourself as a researcher and stick to that role. Even in participant observation (where you take part in many and diverse activities within your research community) you still maintain your primary role as a researcher. You are supposed to attempt to influence events as little as possible. One of your goals is to 'do no harm' - you aren't supposed to engage in activities that harm (in the wide sense of the term) your participants. An you always, always, must attempt to seek permission from your participants, and most of the time this means written permission at some point of the study.

All of this is very difficult to negotiate during 'live' field work, particularly in complex and violent situations and sometimes these guidelines are in fact impossible to apply. To clarify for DOD, no one is expected to be a 'social worker' but all researchers are supposed to treat their participants with respect and dignity and be aware of their safety and the possible negative outcomes of being involved in their study. Many studies are abandoned due to potential harm to participants, and this should have been one of them.

To give a little historical context, disciplines like anthropology and sociology were born out of Colonialism and thousands of people died being studied, either from disease brought be researchers, or from being exposed to danger from disclosing things that people with power shouldn't be disclosed, or from literally being studied to death. We used to put their bodies on display in museums (yes, live people as well as dead ones) and did shamefully disrespectful things to them. That is why there are now strict ethical guidelines that are almost universally applied, and while sometimes they may go too far in this case they weren't applied at all to the great detriment of the community being studied and the discipline.

For more information about the guidelines that Venkatesh should have been following see here:
http://www.asanet.org/cs/root/leftnav/ethics/code_of_ethics_table_of_contents

Katrina said...

Wasn't this the same guy featured in one of Malcolm Gladwell's books? (was it 'Blink'?) - the theme was why drug dealers live with their mothers.

PhDinHistory said...

I think it was Freakonomics. I got the sense that Sudhir was pretty green behind the ears as a grad student and that Steven Levitt took him under his wings.

Anonymous said...

I am an anthropologists by training as well and I agree, he violated some of the core tenets of the field. More than that, some of those ethical violations were put into place to protect vulnerable populations from the kind of exploitation TR implies in her review (I haven't read the book) & that more than anything is why they matter.

TR- I also just wanted to say I appreciate the run down of feminist, and particularly black feminist, texts that predate his work and are neither cited nor reflected (intellectually coopted but not adopted praxis by any means from what you outline here). Sadly this too is becoming a trend in which authors get feminist cred by recreating the work of primarily black and queer feminist authors without citing them.

Writing that, and reading this, makes me think maybe I should get the book. It might be teachable in the methods class as an example of where hubris can lead one astray.

PS. the "Then apparently took the 'it's easier to apologize then get permission' approach after the fact." was one many are advised to take when they might not get approval or get it in time. I like to believe most don't follow it.

Laleh said...

Here is the Nation review:

http://www.thenation.com/doc/20080204/conover

ks said...

Ack, I have a student in an AAH course I am currently teaching giving an oral review to the class on this book (student's choice) next week. How can I NOT buy and read this book, esp. because I know said student is super impressed with it??? Okay, so maybe I won't BUY it...but if I do it can go on my shelf of books I love to hate. I have lots of those. Sometimes I even find it enjoyable to assign them. Don't we all do that, just a bit?

Thanks for a very thoughtful analysis of all that you believe is wrong with this book. I don't know why so many commenters have this knee-jerk desire to be contrarians on your blog. I think you ROCK! Keep up the excellent critiques.

Anonymous said...

Oh stop it TR, you're just jealous that Venkatesh is a full professor holding a named chair at an Ivy League institution, while you struggle in total obscurity. This man is a great sociologist and a pathbreaking researcher.

Tenured Radical said...

Anonymous:

Not total obscurity. At least I'm not Anonymous.

Digger said...

KS: Inter-Library Loan. Then your $ don't go to the publisher or author, and you support your ILL.

Anonymous: "...who apparently got someone dead."

JackDanielsBlack said...

I dunno, TR, it seems to me that Venkatesh put himself at considerable personal risk to write this book, and that should count in his favor. Since the book is not a scholarly work, but a memoir/storytelling book, it seems to me that it should be judged based on the story it tells rather than by academic standards. It is really more like the book "The Corner" or the TV series "The Wire" than an academic treatise. And it is a well-written book; of the 74 Amazon reviews that are out there at the moment, 71 are favorable. And I agree with some of the other commenters--there is a whiff of sour grapes in your post.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear Jack:

If there is sour grapes, I'll have to take it to therapy -- but I don't think harsh critiques, which this blogger, for example, is famous for, must reflect envy. If it does, more than one commenter to this blog needs to take it to therapy too. Harsh critiques can be produced by contempt, or (gasp), genuine disagreement. And several social scientists have weighed in to these pages to say that the critique is correct, even when coming out of the mouth of pathetic little me.

I don't excuse Venkatesh for stealing ideas of other people and publishing them without attribution. You can't critique Ward Churchill and then excuse other people. Furthermore Venkatesh is not identifying as a novelist or a journalist: the subtitle clearly uses his academic creds to give the book authority.

I think the book is popular because it purports to give a privileged view into a community closed to many people; it makes the community look exciting in all the stereotypical ways; and it the end of hte book all these self-important black men are revealed as a bunch of losers.

But, y'know, MOO.

JackDanielsBlack said...

Ah, but Venkatesh in his title calls himsel a "rogue" sociologist, which I guess is sort of like being a tenured "radical" -- it gives you some leeway, no? And unlike Ward Churchill, Venkatesh is probably not a phony Indian.

JackDanielsBlack said...

And isn't it a little strong to accuse Venkatesh of "stealing" the ideas of others? Do you have any real evidence of this? Can two researchers not arrive at the same conclusions independently?

And I never thought I'd see the day when you pointed to KC to justify yourself! Is he your role model now?

Kate said...

As a sociology graduate student in another, less prestigious department some 80 blocks south of Venkatesh's department, I can tell you with some authority that within sociology, there has been some negative reaction to "Gang Leader." A good comparison would be to the work of Mitch Duneier's work on urban street life (he pays out royalties to the people whom he followed for "Sidewalk" for example, unlike Venkatesh who admits he does not have contact with his research participants) or perhaps David Brotherton's work on gangs (where he collaborated with leaders of the Latin Kings on writing that organization's history, and not only acknowledges their contribution, he too distributes royalties). Perhaps I am biased because both are members of my department, but most people I've talked to about Venkatesh bash his book, his research, his ethics, his everything.
Just as Humphrey's "Tea Room Trade" became the classic example of how NOT to conduct sociological research, Venkatesh is slowly becoming vilified as how NOT to do ethnography. The problem is, of course, that u-grads and grad students alike see how he "got away" with his work and then say "why can't i do that?" especially as your dissertation proposal winds its way through the ever slow IRB review. It is because he fails to follow ethical standards that we who are dedicated to the already dubious ethics of ethnography (with its history as a science of colonialism as a previous poster rightly pointed out) must suffer ever more.

On the flip side, though, is the political split between the "prestigious" departments and the less prestigious departments. Sociology needs to waken to our Ivy bias, especially as the standards of research and rigor at Ivy league institutions crumble. There is also an increasing split between those doing more cultural studies oriented or sensitive work and those who continue in the same vein that produced showmen like Venkatesh. Because of this split and the continued Ivy bias, there has not been enough criticism of Venkatesh and his ilk. Hopefully the coming leadership of Patricia Hill Collins for the American Sociological Association will help to change that.

Anonymous said...

Nobody has really pointed out the biggest problem with this book, which is that it's deathly boring and unoriginal. I had to stop after 50 pages because of the jarring contrast between the author's perceptions of his own originality, daring, and flair, and his actual qualities. I wonder how many people have actually made it through the book? (And yes, I read some very long, scholarly books and articles for a living.)

student said...

The quote about how the book was "boring" is a ridiculously stupid statement. If you read on after your whopping 50 pages... you would find that Sudhir Venkatesh put himself in danger every single time he ventured into the projects. you should surely rethink your academically profound comment. have you ever even read a book?

LSaldana said...

I have to agree with historiann. I think there is a bigger problem beyond the author's lack of ethical behavior. I simply don't think that much of it is true. I read it cover to cover and I could not help but question whether anyone in the academic or publishing industries bothered to check whether his story was true. I just find it too easy that T-Bone gave him a treasure trove of data just because the author was "interested in how we do things."

Amanda Crowe said...

The author, Sudhir Venkatesh, describes his experiences when researching gang and tenant life in Chicago.This book essentially describes how he managed to obtain the data in his research, and at the same time shows how the people (the gang members, the prostitutes, and the leaders etc.) lived in the projects.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your review of Gang Leader For A Day and for your acknowledgment of the exploitation within.

I finished the book last night and was left with a great sense of disgust. It seems incredibly obvious that Venkatesh exploited the residents of Robert Taylor to an extreme degree. Toward the end of the book, he seems to reference his exploitation but does so in a self-aggrandizing manner. He begins to call himself a "hustler", taking Ms. Bailey's hint that "we are all hustlers here". There are so, so many things wrong with his book. But here, we see one that book exploits and adds to the multiple instances of sexism. Throughout the book, he does not hold back to express dismay and discomfort with Ms. Bailey's exploitation of the Taylor residents for her own gain. Yet, when he finally recognizes (and proudly accepts) the reality that he has done the same, he doesn't use any of the ugly language he used to describe Ms. Bailey. Instead, he boastfully calls himself a hustler - as if to claim some sort of street cred.

I didn't believe him every time he played dumb and expressed naive dismay over the consequences of his words and behavior. As a couple others have mentioned, I too found myself wondering if it was all true - or if Venkatesh took fictional liberties in an attempt to boost his career.

Venkatesh mentions that JT is "meticulous" in his efforts to avoid leaving evidence trails. He cites JT's incredible memory and how he never writes anything down, choosing instead to memorize the pay rates and details of his several hundred gang employees. He also repeatedly mentions JT's paranoia. I find it hard to believe that with such meticulous thoughtfulness, and increasing paranoid, that JT would have allowed T-Bone to maintain a whole collection of notebooks detailing the gang's illegal activities and finances (especially once the RICO cases got heated). Adding to the fishiness of this scenario, is Venkatesh stating that T-Bone keeps his financial notebook on his person at all times. This is a huge contradiction to JT's obsessive dictatorship and rules about not carrying anything on person that would lead to arrest or lead back to JT. Fishy, I say.

At best, it is a disgusting display of exploitation and blatant disregard for ethics. At worst, it is a self-aggrandizing tale based on the continued exploitation of poor people of color.

Arvind Venkataramani said...

but there are always complexities, even to this story. Act 3 of this This American Life episode: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?sched=1265

girl x said...

Idk how long it's been since the last comment on this post, but I found it googling around trying to find Vanketesh's dissertation. I came across this book because it literally fell in my lap. I'm starting graduate studies in social word at the U of C in autumn, and they mailed me a copy of the book, along with an explanation and a couple of study questions for an event to be held during orientation week. (Sort of bums me out that this alumni connection is going to pad Vanketesh's pocket but in my own self serving manner, is encouraging for my own future alumni status).

I'm nearly done with the book now and as it winds down I'm filled with such disgust that I can hardly force myself to finish it. The naive schtick quickly became apparent as a sympathy ploy, and many things seemed far too pat to be true, but his readiness to cast off these people he claimed to have meant so much to him once they've worn out their usefulness is sickening. I'm glad I came across this article and its comments because for a minute I couldn't quite pin down where the sinking feeling in my stomach was coming from.

It doesn't become apparent until the final chapter that Vanketesh had become - perhaps gleefully so - one of the same corrupt bureaucratic figures that he railed against himself. There were little hints all the way through: characterizing JT as desperate for his scholarly validation, championing himself as saving Price's life (for dragging him into a lobby after he'd been shot in a knee), and the ubiquitous "why gee golly I just don't get it" attitude he displayed at every facet of poor community life, despite "studying" the tenants a good three or four years into his research. But it isn't until he's ready to write that big dissertation and wrap up his time in Chicago that he totally casts off these people who invited him into their lives, helped him secure his own fortune and even in many cases oversaw his personal safety. Maybe most disturbing is the candid honesty with which he reveals this. He revels in using these people, dismissing them, happily acknowledging the manipulative ways he convinced them to share the information he needed.

I think this book is much more useful in the view of social work, a profession dedicated to helping and improving - not just reporting - the lives of its subjects. Not because it covers any ground that hasn't already been explored elsewhere (would this book even have any popularity in a post- The Wire world which, hey, did it about 20 times better?). But because it shows just how exploitative and self serving those professing to want to help can be. This book would be better served as a precautionary tale other than any legitimate or defining resource.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone on this list read either "American Project" or "Off the Books"? It seems horribly unfair to criticize the popularizing elements of a book (not enough references) which is clearly intended to be commercial, and not respond to his more scholarly works, which have many of the elements that are absent from Gang Leader.

In terms of the ethics of the research, I think people are massively underestimating the difficulties of doing this kind of research. He made some mistakes, clearly, but at the end of the day, he went into dangerous situations, and got information, particularly about the inner dynamics of gang life, particularly with respect to payment, that is, to say the least, very rare in the subfield. It goes without saying that getting in with a gang is obviously not the same as going to hang out at a school or a doctor's office. He also was remarkably candid about the mistakes he made in Gang Leader, which is also to his credit.

My own issues with his work, particularly American Project, is that the ethnographers are looking at the issue from the wrong end of the telescope -- he emphasizes local resilience of the housing project residents, when the big picture story is the declining political economy story well told by WJ Wilson and others.

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Anonymous said...

Just stumbled across this thread. I assigned this book to my undergraduates (100 level urban policy course) this semester, because I think it paints a plausible picture of the underground economy and the way communities can create quasi-governments when officials actors abandon them.

I think your criticisms of his research practices are valid, but you don't address the substantive aspects of the book, which I think are quite strong. That said, I will definitely think twice before assigning this again.

amu said...

I just have one doubt, if he was truly worried about poverty in the U.S. in-spite of belonging to India why did not he work this 'hard' for Indian community and poverty back there? Whereas everyone knows India is third world country. Only 1 answer comes in my mind, after all this research he definitely achieved some academical prestige, fame,popularity and even the 'greens'. Did he really do anything new or just did the same things as other sociologists did? Did he follow a new way to do this? How much of his 'gain' really belongs or should go back to the community? People who took him inside their homes and made him feel as a part of their family and shared the sorrows and pain about one of the toughest time Chicago city has ever been through, he rat out on them for money, degree, fame was that very ethical of him? Even after seeing all this and making big bucks out of it a generous person would dedicate a part of it to the community did he do it? At the end this book really depressed me towards his attitude and insanity for using someone to whom he called 'friend' once.

Flannery said...

Thought I would turn you on to more bad research, more potnetial harm by the infamous 'rougue sociologist.' The worst bit is how it has been taken up by news outlets and widely disseminated.

http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/01/ff_sextrade/all/1

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/ny_crime/2011/02/27/2011-02-27_very_friendly__but_for_a_fee_hookers_flocking_to_facebook.html

Anonymous said...

I came across this post because I gave one of my classes an assignment to write a review of Off the Books (also by Venkatesh). I do this with any book I assign for review to catch plagiarism. I find your critque very unfair and uninformed. First, Gang Leader is not a scholarly book -- it is meant for a broader audience and is, in fact, a memoir. Second, if you had read American Project and Off the Books, you would clearly understand that Venkatesh's research is very real and methodologically sound. He made mistakes for sure, and I'd say perhaps there is some self-absorbed, instrumental, and ego stuff going on with Gang Leader. But I have no doubt that he spent a great deal of time in the Robert Taylor Homes, as well as in the nearby neighborhoods. Like his previous books, it is also well-written and conveys a clear story -- something that academics tend not to be very good at. I believe that this is way Gang Leader became a NYTIMES Best Seller. Lastly, if you think he didn't create lasting bonds with the residents you're wrong. He's still in contact with 200 families from Robert Taylor and continues to work with them.

Lee said...

To all those people who have left negative comments, I am sure you are just jealous of Venkatesh's achievements. He is a tenured full professor (endowed chair) at an Ivy League school and has a big international profile. He has just been named Academic Director of the Berlin School of Management's MBA program. He is well published and has made numerous documentaries. He makes the study of sociology accessible. If he was a dud, do you think the great William Julius Wilson would have sponsored him at U Chicago?

Tenured Radical said...

How sure are you that jealousy is the only issue? Take the ethical questions seriously before you publish on this model.

Anonymous said...

There's an increasing trail of evidence that there is no J.T. - he is a complete fabrication of Venkatesh's writing. A former cop in Chicago is writing a report on this at present, one that should be released by August 2011.