Friday, January 18, 2008

New Gang Ethnography

I haven't had a chance to read it, but Sudhir Venkatesh's new book, "Gang Leader For A Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets" sounds like it comes from the participant observation realm of sociology and criminology.

"Mr. Venkatesh got rid of the clipboard and the questionnaire, but not his fascination with life in the Chicago housing projects. He stuck around, befriended a gang leader and for the next decade lived a curious insider-outsider life at the notorious Robert Taylor Homes on the city’s South Side, an eye-opening experience he documents in the high-octane “Gang Leader for a Day.”

"In a bit of bravado Mr. Venkatesh, who now teaches at Columbia, styles himself a “rogue sociologist.” Dissatisfied with opinion surveys and statistical analysis as ways to describe the life of the poor, he reverted to the methods of his predecessors at the University of Chicago, who took an ethnographic approach to the study of hobos, hustlers and politicians. Much like a journalist, he observed, asked questions and drew conclusions as he accumulated raw data."

The review seems to imply that Venkatesh didn't make his motives of study known to the population outside the gang he was studying. As a result "he is perceived as part of them and therefore someone to steer clear of. Most residents avoid him, he writes, or limit their conversation...a glaring omission." It also implies Venkatesh was less than candid with his academic advisers concerning his research.

Nevertheless, the book comes from the tradition of William Foote Whyte's "Street Corner Society" (1943), one of the first major ethnographies on street gang leadership, and as such might be a valuable contribution to our understanding of modern gang activity from an interactionist perspective.

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