MARCH 2, 2014
SUDHIR VENKATESH went from being a scholarly celebrity to a public intellectual with Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets (Penguin, 2008), his narrative of his experiences studying poverty and the underground economy in the now-razed Robert Taylor Homes housing project in Chicago. The book, and Venkatesh’s utterly winning “rogue sociologist” narrator persona, just knocked me over in how effectively it explained not only the reality of urban poverty policy but also sociological research. It seemed like this book might really show college freshmen what research can be, and so I assigned it to a freshman cohort and brought the author to campus to speak. Venkatesh is a thoroughly impressive person. Tall, handsome, and charismatic, utterly at ease with himself, self-deprecating despite his accomplishments and fame, he connected with students and professors alike. Although he has done dozens of such lecture junkets to provincial universities, he seemed genuinely pleased to be in Pittsburgh, chatting up freshmen and enthusiastically going from classroom to coffee shop to lecture hall with random writing instructors and fellow sociologists. How could a person be so accomplished, work so hard, and be so congenial? He seemed a kind of ninja of academe.
Venkatesh’s visit came vividly back to me when I read his most recent book, Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York’s Underground Economy (Penguin, 2013). Like Gang Leader for a Day, Floating City is a first-person narrative that attempts to translate Venkatesh’s research, and its policy implications, for a general audience. Venkatesh is an ethnographer — he immerses himself in a population or subculture over an extended period, documenting their practices and beliefs in order to present that culture on its own terms, rather than according to the norms of outside or dominant society. His subject is the “underground economy,” particularly those forms of unregulated or illegitimate economic activity engaged in by the poor, focusing on the criminal corners: prostitution, drug dealing, extortion, and shakedowns overseen by (largely African-American) organized crime groups. Great scholars have often enjoyed a dramatic stroke of luck that helped them make their careers, and for Venkatesh, that coup de fortune came to him as a grad student when “T-Bone,” the accountant for the Chicago street gang the Black Kings, let Venkatesh study his books. No fool, Venkatesh jumped on his unique opportunity, publishing several groundbreaking articles based on the material. A cameo appearance in the surprise bestseller Freakonomics led to Gang Leader, to filmmaking opportunities, and to a kind of minor celebrity. (It also led to some tangled and potentially iffy grant money accounting, as The New York Times reported in 2012, but that’s not my topic here.)
Unfortunately, it also led him, and his editors at the Penguin Press, to produce a distinctly mediocre second trade book. It’s a shame, because, like few academics, Venkatesh really has the potential to bring the stories of the poor to a general public, and perhaps even to shape domestic policy regarding poverty and crime. But Venkatesh, and his editors, seems not to have understood the effect of extending the character of the “rogue sociologist” they created for his first book. Sudhir — his character in Gang Leader, a kind of paper-doll version of the real Venkatesh — doesn’t age well, and the narrative choices that worked so well in the earlier book cause Floating City to break apart from the centrifugal force of its disingenuousness.
Poetry, W. H. Auden famously said, makes nothing happen, and literary criticism, in which I was trained, is even more impotent. Academic sociology, though, isn’t always ineffectual, and over the years has influenced domestic policy and public consciousness: William Whyte’s The Organization Man, David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s The Negro Family, William Julius Wilson’s The Declining Significance of Race and The Truly Disadvantaged, just to name a few, have had real policy effects. (Wilson was Venkatesh’s dissertation advisor and onetime co-author.) In his scholarly monographs, his trade books, and his other projects Venkatesh seems to want to join this company, but to do so by straddling the divide between the academy and the general public, in the model of C. Wright Mills or Daniel Bell. And in his larger argument — that one must understand the details of the daily lives of the poor, cease stigmatizing them, and seek to understand and change the structural factors that keep these people disadvantaged and marginalized — he joins with sociologists like Philippe Bourgois (whose In Search of Respect documents the lives of Puerto Rican crack dealers in East Harlem in the late 1980s) and Mitchell Duneier (whose Sidewalk follows Greenwich Village street vendors in Giuliani’s New York), as well as passionate activist writers like Jonathan Kozol (Savage Inequalities), Alex Kotlowitz (There Are No Children Here), and most recently Michelle Alexander, whose The New Jim Crow got a recent shout-out from libertarian-leaning Senator Rand Paul. (Improbably, a group of Tea Party Republicans could make Alexander’s grim and impassioned protest against mass incarceration of black males the most influential policy book put out by the New Press, the late socialist publisher André Schiffrin’s nonprofit imprint.) But Venkatesh’s book also reaches for the emotional impact of journalistic accounts of urban poverty like Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family, which chronicles the lives of two Puerto Rican siblings in the central Bronx without taking an explicit stand or foregrounding the narrator in any way.
In Gang Leader, Sudhir is a goofy Deadhead from San Diego just matriculated in a doctoral program in sociology at the University of Chicago. He is also a Candide, a wise fool, ignoring the university’s admonitions never to venture beyond the well policed boundaries of Hyde Park into the parks and neighborhoods of the South Side. Sudhir is us, if a less savvy and more game version. Told to avoid Washington Park, Sudhir beelines there and affably chats up the fishermen and park bench beer-drinkers. In perhaps the book’s most indelible scene, he wanders up to the Lake Parc Place project, clipboard in hand, set to collect data from randomly selected residents for a quantitative sociological study. Rebuffed by the gang that controls the building, Sudhir makes the best of a bad situation and improvises. “How does it feel to be black and poor?” he asks the young Black Kings gangsters, offering a Likert scale for their response. Nonplussed and thinking the brown-complected Indian -American is a scout from a hostile Mexican gang, the Lake Parc boys hold Sudhir captive in a stairwell overnight while they debate the degree of violence to be inflicted upon his person (while offering him beers).
Sudhir is saved by the arrival of the gang’s captain, J. T., a college dropout who returned to street life. J. T. and Sudhir hit it off immediately, and the hard-bitten gangster offers the well meaning naïf a bit of advice: “You shouldn’t go around asking them silly-ass questions. With people like us, you should hang out, get to know what they do, how they do it. […] You need to understand how young people live on the streets.” And with this, the A-B-C plot moves forward. Sudhir watches J. T. and learns about the gang’s sometimes-parasitical, sometimes-symbiotic relationship with project residents; J. T. and the gang gradually accept and learn to trust Sudhir, and through them Sudhir encounters the people in their orbit; sophomoric Sudhir reaches out to others without authorization, ignorant of the ripple effects and damaging his relationship with his prize informant; Sudhir embeds himself into the ecosystem of the project; Sudhir and J. T. both move on when the project in question (the Robert Taylor Homes) is demolished.
Contrived and creakily novelistic as Gang Leader for a Day’s narrative voice and plotting are, for the most part the book works. Venkatesh’s goal — shared by many of the other sociological studies mentioned above — is to change American domestic and economic policy by making poverty visible, personalizing it, novelizing it. These writers, from LeBlanc to Kozol to Bourgois, want to make the poor into sympathetic characters, reasoning that middle-class audiences are more easily swayed by arguments made to the heart than those aimed at the head. Made sympathetic (or “relatable,” to use the term common among my students), these characters, whose choices are conventionally and dismissively framed as manifestations of the “pathology of the underclass,” become explicable, even reasonable. Crack dealing, shaking down prostitutes, even heroin trafficking become rational choices in the underground economy for poor individuals prevented from joining the legitimate economy by circumstance, bad decisions, or, most often, a combination of the two.
Venkatesh performs a neat, if not at all original, trick here, turning his argument about poverty into a bildungsroman and at the same time giving a lay audience a basic introduction to sociological and ethnographic methods: quantitative versus qualitative approaches, participant observation and its attendant ethical complications. When Gang Leader appeared, Venkatesh had already published a few articles drawn from his Robert Taylor Homes work, co-written the 2002 monograph American Project with his advisor Wilson, and published his own study Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor (for which he won several awards) in 2006. But the surprise 2005 trade bestseller Freakonomics, by economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner, showcased Venkatesh’s exegesis of “T-Bone’s” books in one chapter, and presumably that appearance brought Venkatesh to the attention of William Morris literary agent Suzanne Gluck and Penguin Press editor Ann Godoff, who saw trade potential. He’s not a natural writer for a broad audience, but if the book’s structure is simplistic and the prose workmanlike the subject matter is so fascinating that it offsets those flaws. Venkatesh successfully pieced together several genres and conventions to make Gang Leader a compelling read and a genuinely trenchant argument about the rationality of street-gang economics and the regulatory role gangs can play in an under-policed housing project.
Unfortunately, in Floating City the bolts are coming loose from the chassis of Venkatesh’s project, and the seams are straining. Sudhir returns, with all of his intrepid naïveté, but if Gang Leader’s Sudhir is a believable version of the younger Venkatesh, the narrator of Floating City has matured, and it isn’t pretty. Gang Leader plausibly puts us in the mind of a nervous, inexperienced grad student as he learns his trade, even though it came out when Venkatesh already held an endowed chair at Columbia and had become an experienced filmmaker. Floating City takes up Sudhir’s story several years later — after he has taken his PhD, spent three years in Harvard’s Society of Fellows, and been recruited to Columbia’s prestigious sociology department, longtime home of C. Wright Mills. Like its predecessor, Floating City moves back and forth thematically between ethnographic study of the underground economy and the personal and professional life of Venkatesh himself. But unlike Gang Leader, Floating City is diffuse, lacking the structural axes (the project building, gang captain J. T., and Sudhir) around which the elements of the earlier book rotate, and the book’s components never cohere.
It doesn’t help that the basic argument of Floating City sounds like the most hackneyed American cultural observation. Midwestern Chicago, Venkatesh learns, is a city of neighborhoods and stability, while cosmopolitan New York is a city of limitless possibility, where people come to reinvent themselves. You don’t say. In Floating City Venkatesh follows four primary characters (Analise, an Upper East Side trustafarian he had known at Harvard; Shine, a Harlem drug dealer looking to cultivate a whiter clientele; Manjun, an Indian immigrant managing a porn video store; and Margot, a sex worker turned madam) as they float through the city, untethered by the expectations that their communities and subcultures have placed upon them, looking to take advantage of the opportunities that arise. Like his subjects, Sudhir floats, finding the prospect of a traditional academic career stultifying, increasingly interested in expressing his ideas through films, trade books, and media appearances, but at the same time worried that his conservative department will hold these ambitions against him.
Oddly, Venkatesh puts Sudhir’s own story much more at the center of Floating City than it was in Gang Leader. But, to put it frankly, it’s hard to take the Sudhir of Floating City, and the obvious disingenuousness of the self-portrait in Floating City even makes Gang Leader’s Sudhir look more problematic in retrospect. In the earlier book, Venkatesh is slippery about specifics: the nature of his collaboration with Wilson, the duration and methods of his fieldwork, the sequence of events in the Robert Taylor Homes, his own growing expertise and status in the field. His failure to fully explain his methods — surely a choice made by Godoff, so that academic apparatus wouldn’t scare away general readers — is surprising for a sociologist, as is the oversimplified implication, present throughout Gang Leader, that quantitative work is a lesser form of sociology. (Again, I smell a trade editor here.) But the story itself, and the audacious appeal of the narrator, obviates these problems.
Not so in Floating City. Sudhir here is still insecure, worried about his career, concerned that his extra-academic dabblings in film and trade publishing will weigh against him when the tenure committees evaluate his file. This is a nice hook to bring in a nonacademic audience: fusty bow-tied profs who mistrust any work that the public can understand ranged against our young “rogue sociologist” who wants his portraits of the poor to have a real effect in the world — it’s Dead Poets Society with transcribed interviews! But the timeline just doesn’t work. Venkatesh came to Columbia in 2000, but Gang Leader didn’t come out until 2008, and his first film appeared in 2005. He published multiple academic articles and two highly regarded scholarly books in his first years at Columbia, and brought in several six-figure grants. To put it bluntly, I just don’t believe the Sudhir of Floating City, this tense young academic worried if he’ll be able to stay in the profession, because in the period he is narrating, Venkatesh’s job was already secure, and in fact he was already a star. (His few asides about his troubled marriage, though, are provocative and interesting, and beg a longer examination of the effect of this kind of time-intensive research on a scholar’s home life. Bourgois’s study, which offers a bit more detail about the tensions between his convivial fieldwork with heroin-sniffing drug peddlers and his home life with a young wife and a son with cerebral palsy, is similar.)
As much as I like Venkatesh and his work, I frankly find this phony portrait offensive. He was one of the golden boys of the social sciences, a can’t-miss prospect with every advantage and distinction in a brutal job market. I’ve known enough smart, talented, and accomplished aspiring academics genuinely in the precarious position Sudhir pretends to have been in that the book leaves a bad taste in my mouth. You earned your advantages and acclaim, I want to tell Floating City’s Sudhir. Don’t pretend you didn’t have them.
Nor is Venkatesh some sort of methodological or theoretical newbie, unaccustomed to thinking about the role of the ethnographer in the study. In 2002 he published a scholarly article arguing that ethnographers should use participants’ perceptions of the ethnographer as a component of interpretive analysis — knowing what these informants think of the researcher, he says, can help in the “general objective of determining patterns of structure and meaning among the individual, group, and/or community under study.” Here’s what they thought of me, here’s how it squared with what I thought of myself, and here’s how we can use this in the study: that’s sophisticated thinking. Thankfully, in Floating City he provides a slightly more nuanced understanding of the quant/qual divide, placing himself “in the middle” between the “public intellectual” tradition of “Mills, who combined vivid storytelling with thoughtful explorations of great national issues” and the “much narrower, lab-coat” push to make sociology a hard science. But this is misleading in itself, at least in how Venkatesh comes across in these books. Neither book provides even a hint of the data-driven approach that, even if he doesn’t employ it, he certainly recognizes as valuable; both books are purely qualitative.
If Floating City has a central argument or a core, it might be that for those involved in the underground economy, two factors determine whether one will “succeed”: the ability to identify and capitalize upon opportunities, and the willingness to create temporary alliances and “improvised communities” along the way. The book chronicles how his characters try, how some succeed, and how others fail by these terms. Sudhir puts himself among them:
In a vast city where I felt alone, in a country where I had been struggling to find my own way, I had searched out a small army of weary soul mates who did their best to point me home. […] These improvised communities gave support and also resonance. Their lives rippled through me, my life rippled through theirs, we extended our support systems outward through one another and into the beyond that threatened and beckoned us. The only real difference was that I was also taking notes, quantifying and categorizing, applying the tools of science to the journey we were all taking together.
Gang Leader for a Day succeeded in large part because of Sudhir, the narrative contrivance that helps a general audience engage Venkatesh’s subjects without preconceptions and at the same time understand the rarified project of ethnography. Just as Venkatesh needed J. T., we middle-class readers need Sudhir to guide us through this foreign world. But in Floating City Venkatesh doesn’t seem to know where to leave Sudhir behind, and where to rely on the assuredness of his remarkable and approachable scholarly work, which makes clear how (for example) sex work can be a “career” or a part-time job rather than a tragic fate. And uncommonly, Venkatesh is a better writer in an academic voice than in the stilted, dumbed-down prose of his trade books. Having spent a memorable day with him in person, I wanted to hear again from this aspiring public intellectual, confidently navigating the terra incognita between academic credibility and mainstream influence. Instead, in Floating City we get a cardboard cutout, a rehash, a trade editor’s idea of how to make a scholar “relatable” to a general audience.
Greg Barnhisel serves as an editor for the “Studies in Print Culture and the History of the Book” series at University of Massachusetts Press and a regional editor of Wake: Great Lakes Thought and Culture.