May 1, 2011

Book Review: "Gang Leader for a Day" (Penguin 2008).

This is a fascinating book about the informal economy, gangs, drugs and poverty. It is the result of sociological and ethnographic research that the author, Sudhir Venkatesh, conducted in a Chicago project. The study focuses on the project called Robert Taylor, which use to be one of the largest in the city (it was demolished a few years ago). Population wise, the project was the equivalent of a small city. Sudhir spent around six years visiting frequently the project. The leader of the gang in the project, the Black Kings, befriended him. Sudhir witnessed shootings, and he even became a leader of the gang for one day - therefore the title of the book.

Sudhir started his visits to the project when he was a PhD student of sociology at the University of Chicago. His friendship with the main leaders of the project allowed him have access to information that otherwise would have never been public. For example, the financial records of the commercialization of cocaine.

The book is now one of my favorites. It vividly tells the complexities and beauty of ethnographic research. My appreciation of ethnographic research was heavily influenced by two books: Stranger and friend: The way of an anthropologist by Hortense Powdemaker, and Money has no smell: Africanization of New York City, by Paul Stoller. Gang leader for a day joins this list now.

The life of ethnographers in the field is complex, especially because their emotions mix themselves with the object of study. It is almost impossible to be objective. Sudhir says this clearly when the leader of the gang tells him:
"Either you'r with me or you're with someone else." In this world there was no such thing as neutral, as much as the precepts of my academic field might state otherwise.
The book offers a large menu of interesting experiences and ideas. For instance, the world of a gang and the world of a corporation such as McDonald’s are very similar (Steven Levitt explains in this TED video). In both organizations there are executives at the top of the hierarchy that earn 200 or 400 thousand dollars a year (or even millions). At the other extreme the sellers in the streets earn salaries that could be under the minimum wage. Concepts like franchise, mergers and acquisitions apply really well to the operations of the gang.

According to the book gangs generate and enforce informal institutions. This makes one think about the current situation in Mexico, and Central America. If Sudhir's results can be generalized in any way one can conclude that gangs respond the economic incentives (in very complex social environments). They also fill out an institutional vacuum, especially when the policy does not do its job. As it happens in several parts of Latin America, in the projects people were scared by the police. Sudhir cites the manager of the Black Kings:
A drug economy, he told me, was 'useful for the community,' since it redistributed the drug addict's money back into the community via the gang's philanthropy. [A sort of corporate social responsibility?]
Mexico and Central America witness high crime and violence due to gangs fighting for trade routes. This book is relevant to this situation because it presents the dynamics of the distribution at the other side of the commercial chain, in the distribution in the US. Although his field work was made more than ten years ago, during the pick of the commercialization of crack and cocaine, the book is relevant for current discussions. Obviously a large part of the profits of this business, that extend itself from the projects in Chicago to the Amazon and Putumayo jungle in Colombia, stay in the US.

The book is also valuable in terms of the method. Sudhir actions and decisions in the field are examples of the do's and don'ts. His findings suggest that economics and ethnography, and sociology, can complement themselves. In fact they can be excellent complements, instead of substitutes. The collaboration between Sudhir and the University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt has generated a fair amount of academic articles that have helped us understand the underground economy (see this one on prostitution, for example).

Sudhir is a professor of Sociology at Columbia. He has become a very prestigious scholar. At the end of his book he tells an advise that his father told him regarding grad school, the advice is very valuable for those who plan to study a PhD:
Write every day, visit your professors with well-formed questions, and always read everything that is recommended, not just what the professor requires.
When I finished the book I felt a gigantic emotion, a sort of pride for our work as social scientists.   

No comments:

Post a Comment