It’s nice to see Stephen J. Dubner, of Freakonomics fame, lending some of his publicity lustre to sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, who’s written what promises to be a fascinating book on his field work for his dissertation – as a participant/observer in the gang life of the Chicago projects:
Now a professor of sociology 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 country’s largest and most violent crack-dealing gangs, and led the group for a day. Venkatesh’s new book, Gang Leader for a Day, captures his years inside the projects and how residents and gang members interacted, coexisted and raised families.
Via barry at investigativeblog, you can follow this link to a podcast of an interview with Venkatesh. The purpose of the research is described in this piece from the Chicago Sun-Times, which also features a podcast of Venkatesh reading from his book.
I’m also pleased to see a revival of this sort of ethnographic observational fieldwork in the sociology of deviance, which has become too obsessed with a narrow instrumentalism in proposing policy for crime prevention, or various theoretical dead ends. It’s reminiscent of the work of the originator of labelling theory, Howard S. Becker, who wrote his dissertation while working as a jazz pianist in the 50s and published a book in 63 on what would these days be called the “night time economy” of drugs. It’s fitting that Venkatesh did his graduate work at Chicago – the Chicago school of sociology lives on.