Book Review: "Gang Leader for a Day" by Sudhir Venkatesh

Happy new year 2017! My latest book review is of Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh. The author is a sociologist who has meticulously documented his time in the 1980s as a PhD student in sociology, getting a deep, extended, first-hand look into the world of crack cocaine gangs in Chicago. He describes the progression of his relationship with the leader and close associates of a particular gang, the tenants and managers of the building that gang primarily operated in, the daily activities and quality of life of the gang members and building tenants, and even his own stint at leading the gang (in a very limited and supervised way) for a day. He further goes into the various moral quandaries that he finds himself in as he spends more time with this gang, with regard to when he should report something to the police, when he should step into a situation himself (thus inserting himself into a situation that he should be externally observing from an academic perspective), and whether his research will ultimately be essentially voyeurism writ large if he can't convince himself that publishing his findings will ever lead to measurable improvements in his subjects' lives, given the rampant corruption and cycles of poverty and crime prevalent then in Chicago.

Despite being nearly 300 pages, the book is extremely engaging, and the stories that he has documented have been masterfully crafted into a compelling narrative that flows very quickly and easily. I could really get a sense for the developments in his ability to conduct this research, his relationships with various tenants and gang members, and his comfort in such settings, going from the initial feeling of being very out of place, to the part in the middle where he still feels unsteady directly commandeering the gang (for a day, even in a limited and supervised capacity) despite his growing understanding of the gang's operations from the perspective of an outsider, to the part following that detailing his increasing comfort in seeking out broader perspectives from the community at large given his greater experience in conducting such research over time; I further liked how he ended the book by neatly wrapping up his narrative, mentioning his moves to Harvard University and then Columbia University, while still emphasizing that the story of the cycle of poverty and crime doesn't end so neatly for his research subjects, echoing what he says throughout the book. More than that, given that my upbringing as the son of immigrants from South Asia born and brought up in comfortable middle-class suburbs is quite similar to that of the author (except that he was born in India and brought with his family to this country at a very young age) and given that my family is extremely wary of me going into any situation that would remotely put me in danger (especially given my disability and skin color), this book really resonated with me. It felt thrilling for me to essentially vicariously experience this part of his life in such vivid and moving detail; I especially enjoyed reading about how a man who was fearlessly observing drive-by shootings, participating (however minimally) in gang retribution, and the like would still remain a principled vegetarian through it all, which I found deliciously ironic (and I realized that in a similar situation, I would actually probably do the same). One criticism of this book that I've seen online is that the author can be condescending and self-centered; given that this is a nonfiction book for general audiences, given that the goal is to weave his observations into a narrative, and given that he remarks throughout the book on the idea that there is no true neutrality and that he is inevitably going to be part of the story (on one side or another) that he is trying to document, I feel that anything else would have just been less honest in the end. I would highly recommend this book, and I do wonder how much relevance it could continue to have when considering the state of inner cities now, 30 years following this research, with the renewed emphasis on issues of police brutality, systemic racism from governmental institutions, and so on.

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