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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Gang Leader for a Day. Not.

I'm always way behind the times with my reading. Too much that is really interesting has been written in the past for me to keep up with what is being written in the present. This Christmas I finally got round to Sudhir Venkatesh's Gang Leader for a Day  (GLD) which has been sitting on my shelves, the shelves of a bookstore near you, or more likely an Amazon warehouse since 2008.

I should say that I came to this book with mixed preconceptions. This is a trade book so I wasn't expecting to read an academic monograph, which is just as well because this really is a book for a popular audience. I don't have a problem with that. Pop sociology is good, as long as it is good sociology. 

I haven't read anything else by Venkatesh, but people whose judgment I respect tell  me that his more academic work is worth reading. I'm aware that there is a minor industry in taking pot shots at him which I guess goes with the whole trade book celebrity territory.  I know that a lot of ethnographers are upset with him - he seems to produce the same reaction as Nigel Barley does among UK anthropologists. I'm also aware that he was involved in some nasty business at Columbia involving the auditing of research spending. I've got no special insights into that and in any case it is irrelevant to evaluating GLD. 

Let me say straight off that I enjoyed the book, not as much as I enjoyed watching The Wire, but it helped pass a few hours sitting around in airports. I actually found myself counting the parallels with The Wire, especially in the cast of characters: the gang leader who studies accountancy, the ghetto entrepreneur who collects scrap metal, the bent cop, the gang member that dies in jail and so forth. Not too surprising though as GLD and The Wire deal with much the same sort of communities.

The title of the book is, of course, a big come on. In fact Venkatesh isn't made gang leader for 5 minutes let alone 24 hours. What he actually claims happens is something a bit more like being a secondary school student on work experience who is allowed to shadow the boss for a few hours. He breakfasts in a diner with the boss and a few lieutenants while they talk over some issues that have to be dealt with and then trails around after the main man for a few hours while he deals with the routine business of supervising  the people who actually distribute the product on the streets. It's marketing,  what did you expect?

Quite a few people have gotten upset with the narrative style of the book. Venkatesh belongs to the Winston Churchill school of writing. You remember Balfour's quip about Churchill's history of  WW1: "Winston has written an enormous book about himself and called it 'The World Crisis'." It's true, the book reveals whatever it reveals about the projects and the gang through Venkatesh's first person narrative of journey and discovery. This would be totally inappropriate for an academic study, but for a popular book it doesn't seem to me to be such a bad way of telling the story. I'm not going to throw any stones: I use the first person narrative too much myself.

Now we get down to the matter. What did I actually learn from the book? To be honest, not much, or at least not much more than is obvious to anyone who has watched The Wire and lives in a part of a city with a flourishing street corner drugs market. Selling narcotics and protection is a business so it's not too surprising that running a gang that specializes in these things  involves similar management techniques to running any organization. The only real difference is that because you are operating outside of a legal framework the use of violence to defend and establish reputations is pretty crucial. If one of the street dealers cheats you, you can't let them off, or fine them. If you do that, they'll all be skimming. Two blows to the head seemed to be the standard tariff for a first offence. If you cheat again, one way or the other,  you are likely to disappear from the streets.

Also not too surprising is that if you take a bunch  of economically powerless, poorly educated and dysfunctional people and dump them  all in one place you pretty much have the Hobbesian war of all against all. Unless you learn to cooperate life is going to be nasty, brutish and short. In many cases it will be anyway, but there is no shortage of hustlers, gangs and "community leaders" who, for a price, can make things a bit nicer, a bit safer, a bit more predictable for you. Of course the same guys who are selling you order are also the ones who have an interest in there being some disorder in the first place.

 It's a delicate balance, but, to take an example closer to home,  there is some truth in what people used to say about the Kray's London manor. It was in their interest to keep certain types of activity off the streets. After all, you don't want the Old Bill hanging around too much and getting interested in what you are doing. In fact the police know some of what you are doing, but they are thinly stretched and  primarily interested in the higher regions of the feeding chain: as long as you do your stuff discreetly they have bigger fish to fry. If somebody gets shot or stabbed they can't ignore it and that costs you money.

So what didn't I like about the book? I don't buy that Venkatesh was really as naive as he wants us to believe. In one episode he  causes major harm to some members of the community he is studying by passing on information about their earnings to his gang leader. It's clear that he knew that one source of the gang's revenue was a 'tax' on the black economy earnings of  people living in the parts of the project they controlled.  Yet he reveals to the gang information about illegal earnings given to him in confidence by community members. Of course they get a knock at the door and a 'request' to pay up. Venkatesh claims that it simply hadn't occurred to him that this would happen. I find that difficult to swallow. Could somebody that naive really be a plausible candidate for a PhD at a major American research university?

The implausibility of the ingenue excuse is matched by the implausibility of some of the events Venkatesh describes. Some of these verge on the incredible. The project he studied was divided between two rival gangs with a buffer zone in the middle. We are told that after a while Venkatesh could wander reasonably freely in the part controlled by the gang that had taken him in, but that it was dangerous for him to venture into the part controlled by the rival gang. However the only community centre in the project was located in that other half and he attends meetings there accompanied by a community leader that can vouch for him. At one point he is asked to leave a meeting and he tells us that he then spent two hours wandering about on his own in territory that he had earlier described as extremely hostile. Maybe he was very brave, or very stupid. Or maybe something doesn't quite add up here. 

Its easy to pick out other implausibilities in the text, but my guess is that these might be nothing more than manifestations of poetic license in the telling of the tale. Probably all of these things happened or sort of happened but not quite in the way or in the order that Venkatesh narrates them. Again I want to say that I don't have a problem with that in a popular book. Reality is often boring and the material has to be arranged to make it interesting while maintaining the core of the truth.

What I did bridle at was Venkatesh's characterization of survey research. His depiction of survey research is really quite asinine. He  shows zero understanding of quantitative sociology and the best he can do is make a few jokes that do nothing more than display his complete ignorance of what it is about. Read the account, on page 16 of the Penguin edition, of his attempt at an "interview". It's so stupid it isn't even a caricature. I don't believe that anyone would go into the ghetto with a questionnaire that had as its first question: "How does it feel to be black and poor?". The writing up of this episode is really very arch. On one level the joke is on him, but there is a nod and a wink which says: "gee, those survey guys are so stupid". There was really no need for that - and no need for the sly digs at Bill Wilson. This aspect of the book left a sour taste in my mouth.

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