Just finished reading Gang Leader for a day by Sudhir Venkatesh. I had first read about this book in Freakonomics where Levitt & Dubner talk about the economics of a drug gang and how a low level worker in a gang barely makes minimum wages. It had piqued my interest even at that time, so I picked it up next time I was heading for a long flight. Its the best sociology book I have read for a long time (maybe ever), that makes a group, a lifestyle come alive. Its not fiction, but its absorbing enough to rival great fiction.
It is written by a graduate student at University of Chicago, Sudhir Venkatesh. He is doing a survey on poverty in the projects (the infamous Robert Taylor Homes in South-side Chicago) in 1989. Some gang members from the Black Kings think he is from a rival gang and hold him overnight. He becomes friendly with the gang leader JT and spends the next six years hanging around with the gang, learning how they operate, how the economics work, what lives in the projects is life, how the gang thinks of itself not as a “gang” but a “community group”, how well-meaning governmental plans never end up helping the poorest, how the police is often working in hand with the gangs.
Venkatesh articulates some of my own dissatisfaction with academic life. When I was at Brown University and at UC Berkeleu, it felt too isolated, too ivory tower. When I discovered the web, and how you could build for it and constantly iterate, it seemed a far more exciting prospect than sitting in a lab doing made up experiments on people. He writes about this again and again, how to isolation of researcher from the very people they are studying bothers him.
Please add a comment if you have read this book. Would love to know what others thought.