“Gang Leader for a Day” by Sudhir Venkatesh


Everyone who read the most popular book by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt”Freakonomics” will surely remember one of her heroes Sudhir Venkatesh – a young and courageous American sociologist who in the late eighties had infiltrated the Black Kings gang. For several years of close communication with all sorts of “Hasler” (so called systemic offenders in America), Venkatesh managed to collect sensational material that turned all the ideas about the life of the city floor and formed the basis of the most famous “Freakonomics” headline – “Why do drug dealers continue live with your parents?”

Dubner and Levitt describe Venkatesh as a kind of merry daredevil who is ready to do anything to satisfy his own scientific curiosity. This description, in general, corresponds to the image that he himself draws in his book – at least in part. However, the word “partly” in this case is extremely important.

In his memoirs (“Gang Leader for a Day” is a memoir, not a scientific work) Venkatesh tells how he became interested in the life of Chicago’s lower ranks, and, armed with self-made questionnaires, trustingly went to the most dangerous of the districts built up with social high-rise buildings. Miraculously, having escaped at the first meeting with local thugs (them to death offended by the word “blacks” – they themselves called themselves “niggers” and nothing else), gradually Venkatesh integrated into their environment, and leaving their naive questionnaires went to work on a “included observations”. The leader of a large division of Black Kings (the chaotic at first glance, the criminal world turned out to be very similar to a hierarchical business corporation) took the young sociologist under his wing, thus opening him access to all the secrets of life outside the law. Thanks to his patronage, Venkatesh became a frequenter of gangster parties, a gangster showdown and an interlocutor of prostitutes, a witness to everyday violence and the best friend of local hangouts.

It is a real pleasure to read the witty and colorful short stories included in the book, reminding both “Shantaram” and “The Godfather”. However, there is another semantic layer in the book Sudhir Venkatesh, which is much darker and less obvious. “Gang Leader for a Day” is not only and not so much a report on a risky scientific experiment, as a classic story “amongst others, among others”. Delving into the life of the criminal base, getting used to understanding and even loving these people in their own way, Venkatesh does not become one of them – the gulf that separates a long-haired Indian-vegetarian with a diploma of a prestigious university in his pocket from half-literate black lumpen is still insurmountable. However, at the same time, a gulf of no less depth arises between himself and his “civilian” friends: they are repelled by his methods, and his life, so ordinary and normal, is boring for him. Thus, the book Venkatesh only at first glance seems to be a hymn to scientific fearlessness. In reality, “Gang Leader for a Day” is a bitter, ridiculous and completely fascinating story about what a “field” researcher has to pay for success, about loneliness, alienation and other things that few people know and almost no one speaks aloud.


2 Responses

  1. Mac Stipes

    2019-03-15 11:56 PM

    You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this topic to be really something which I think I would never understand. It seems too complex and very broad for me. I’m looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!

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