International BS Book Club V: Gang Leader for a Day

It’s been a long time between book reviews on here. Here’s a tome I picked up on my way home from the US earlier this year (and read from cover to cover on the flight from LA to Sydney).

Suhhir Venkatesh Gang Leader for a Day Gangleader book cover FreakonomicsSome of you may have read the very popular Freakonomics, If so, you no doubt recall the fascinating discussion of the machinations of running a Chicago street gang (i.e. regarding incentives, monitoring, trickle down of rents/profits) and specifically a drug-dealing business.

Much of that material was based on research by Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociologist from the University of Chicago, who spent almost 10 years undertaking PhD research in a housing project near said college.

This book sees Venkatesh reflect upon his extraordinary journey from naive scholar to…well, a still pretty naive scholar. His process of embedding himself in the gang, mainly by hanging round and asking questions, is really a tale of blind luck coupled with an apparent lack of forethought about the risks he was taking.

The organisational insights gathered through his immersion are occasionally profound, although in many ways they were clearer in the Freakonomics chapter, and their implications more adeptly explored therein.

The gang is shown to be a complex hierarchy of relationships, with sophisticated monitoring mechanisms, incentive schemes (not just financial, but also with rewards built around status, sex and privilege) and extra-legal enforcement (i.e. punishment by force and/or exclusion).

Anyone who has watched more than a few episodes of The Wire (the TV series about Baltimore gangs and police) will find this all pretty familiar. There are parallels to strategy in most chapters, which should not surprise. These guys are running a lucrative set of businesses in some hotly contented markets.

Given that this book doesn’t add too much more to our understanding of gang mechanics, what does it provide? Well, for any budding scholars, especially those contemplating anthropological work around organisations, you do get some refreshing insights into what is involved, and what can go wrong.

Venkatesh repeatedly makes some astounding errors in judgement about the implications of his questions, his actions and his associations. He sporadically puts subjects’ lives at risk, yet seems to learn so little from these mishaps. Perhaps the biggest lesson from this book might be the reinforcement of the stereotype of us academics as pretty socially ackward (possibly borderline autistic)?

Nevertheless, this is a rollicking read that lingers long after you’ve raced through it. It just doesn’t make you want to join a gang, or a PhD programme.

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