Saturday, June 07, 2008

Understanding Gangs

Gang Leader for a Day [A Rogue Sociologist Crosses the Line]
By Sudhir Venkatesh
London: Allen Lane [and imprint of Penguin Books]
2008. pp. 302. Price: Not Specified

I bought this book in Sankar's in the Bangalore Airport, before the HAL Airport closed down. The book looked promising, and in a way it lives upto it. The book hovers between serious academic work and popular writing; it ends up raising more questions than providing answers. I am sure that was the intent of the author. The book certainly merits discussion and larger debate.

This book is all about Sudhir setting off to understand urban poverty as a graduate student in the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago. Clearly, his first entry into the homes is in a typical research scholar mode, a clipboard carrying a questionnaire, with the list of homes that are to be contacted from a list generated that could be methodologically accurate, but he quickly proves the futility of this sort of work. No, he does not ridicule the methodology, he does not take potshots at the survey methods, but the sub-text of the book indicates that a broadbrush survey method possibly straitjackets something that could be very complex, and thus, the solutions or policy interventions based on such methods might actually turn out to be counter-productive if the nuances of the issues at hand are not clearly understood. While he does start his book by discussing the division between the quantitative oriented researchers and “ethnographers”, his initial entry point to the ghetto is with a structured questionnaire.

While Sudhir’s first brush with data has a touching sub-text and helps us enter into the homes, I keep wondering if he actually carried the questionnaire he describes in the book or he is just dramatising the event to get the readers a flavour of the complexity of the study by taking a rather extreme simplistic position.

For instance when he enters the apartment building, the questionnaire he has starts with the question – “How does it feel to be black and poor?” [p.14] with a multiple choice answer “very bad, somewhat bad, neither bad nor good, somewhat good, very good”. If this was indeed the questionnaire that Sudhir took to interview people, the futility of such a questionnaire is quite obvious. It does not take a knife wielding gang member to say “Fuck you!... You got to be Fucking kidding me…..” though the choice of words amongst the academic community would be much more civilised, without much of a change in the underlying sentiment.

While his interaction with JT a couple of pages later helps in unpeeling the layers of the issues involved in understanding any community through the same questionnaire, I would shudder to think that a graduate student actually goes around with a questionnaire drafted thus with a five point Rensis Likert scale!

Possibly this is indeed a caricature of the survey method questionnaire. But yes, this certainly is a good entry point to the myriad world that Sudhir enters. See the exchange with JT [one of the main characters who helps Sudhir to gain entry into the gangs and helps him understand the insider’s perspective] [p.16]:

“How does it feel to be black and poor”?

“I’m not black” he answered looking around at the others knowingly.

“Well then, how does it feel to be African American and poor?” I tried to sound apologetic worried that I had offended him.

“I am not African American either. I’m a nigger.”


“Niggers are the ones who live in this building” he said at last “African Americans live in the suburbs. African Americans wear ties to work. Niggers can’t find no work.”

This of course is the first encounter which teaches Sudhir that even when you do a survey, you need to understand how to frame questions and how to articulate them. Clearly this experience possibly was enough to put Sudhir out of the survey mode and move on. But what is remarkable about him is the experience he has that day, where he is threatened and almost killed, detained for the night, and advised that he can “understand them people not by asking silly-ass questions but by hanging out with them”. Any researcher would have scooted at this opportunity to get back to the warm confines of the University and changed the topic of research after a life threatening experience.

However, Sudhir goes back to JT the next day to tell him that he wants to hang out and understand them, thereby proving Stephen Dubner right. Dubner writes in his foreword “Sudhir Venkatesh was born with two abnormalities: an overdeveloped curiosity and an underdeveloped sense of fear”, both of which might be possibly true because one cannot imagine the situations that Sudhir has been in, and come out of.

Sudhir enters the Taylor homes in 1989 and the book recounts a series of incidents all the way up to 1996 when he finally decides to move on, with a Fullbright Scholarship, out of Chicago, thereby bringing his association with the residents to a natural closure. Ironically that is also the time that the Chicago Housing Authority decides to bring down the Robert Taylor homes, and thus the community with whom Sudhir had spent the seven years is also expected to move on, to a new area, and find a newer market and a newer community and work with new challenges.

While there is widespread poverty and squalor, it is not clear as to why the marginalised communities get into the type of work and life that they lead. If we are looking for answers for this question, the book rightfully does not provide any answers. In this case it is as if drug peddling and petty crime comes naturally for them. It is not that they do not have alternative vocations. Within the community you still find people who fix cars, people sell stuff, settle squabbles and deal with grocers and people who provide all sorts of ancillary services to the “gang”. While there is a fair amount of fiction that romanticises the way gangs operate, it appears from Sudhir’s book that such fictional accounts are not far from reality, except that they possibly are not as glamorised in real life as in fiction.

It is evident from the book that gangs like Black Kings operate very much like a hybrid of a corporation and the state. At one end there is a well defined hierarchy of people in the drug peddling business – starting the foot soldiers who sell the stuff all the way up to the people who supply it, including a fair description of Sudhir’s contact JT’s elevation in the hierarchy. JT seems to be somewhere in the middle of the hierarchy and since that is the level Sudhir has access to, the perspective we get is restricted largely to the level of JT in the hierarchy and we do not move upwards. The only occasion we get to see higher-ups is when Sudhir is provided access to a “gang party”, but that portion does not turn out to be very insightful.

However, we do get a fair perspective of the line below JT, which includes a myriad of people, some involved in the gang and some providing peripheral services. Not strangely it also includes a few policemen who are also entrenched and are from the “community”. To understand the “community” better, it is possibly also important to ask why so many people are a part of the system? Are they around out of choice? Would they want to move out? The answer for this is somewhat mixed. But this answer is quite important for external “community based organisations” making “interventions” in the lives of the people in such ghettos. If we get the tone of the book right, these interventions are seen by the community as a free lunch to be taken as and when available, while continuing to lead their own life on their own terms. For instance there are conversations where it is evident that some of the members of the “community” are not happy, but they say “I mean, you’re stuck. These niggers make your life hell, but they are family. And you can’t choose family…”[p.89]

Sudhir captures the dilemmas of people entrenched in a given state of affairs. There is this eternal dilemma between working to avoid starvation and getting through school. In a series of questions which instead of Sudhir, Ms.Bailey from the community asks, and makes Sudhir answer, there is an obvious conclusion. Sudhir’s rhetoric to Ms.Bailey about research that indicates “..if kids can get through high school, they have twentyfive percent greater likelihood of escaping poverty..” [p.149] to be futile.

For within the ghetto, the Taylor homes, there are poor, there are people eking out a living and making ends meet and there are also people who have risen up the hierarchy in that segment, owning Malibu cars, which are in turn washed by somebody else in the settlement, without any financial return because they are bartering their “protection” by providing this service – A surrogate for taxes to be paid for the well being of citizens.

The motto of the place is not “how” the problem is taken care of, it is more “whether” a problem has been taken care of, methodology be damned [p.164]. The exchange on whether the methodology is also important leads Sudhir to a roadblock, where out of exasperation he says that it is “an awful way to live”, for which the response is that “Now you are starting to understand…. May be you’re even starting to learn”. Well the learning is not only for the author Sudhir, but much of it is for the reader as well.

Sudhir writes with a great sense of detachment, possibly now that he is far away from action and in the safe confines of the University. He offers little by way of analysis, but just narrates a story, leaving the readers to draw their own conclusions. The style of the book is that of a dispassionate narrator of a series of events. The series of pictures provided by Sudhir, his episodic narration of his experience in the Robert Taylor homes is good enough for us the piece the story together.

The book is interesting for the fact that, very few research would have had this privileged access to write such an account from the gangs who live in “communities” [and do not like these being called projects] which house an interesting world of drug peddlers, petty criminals and law breakers who operate in a well oiled corporate structure, which has its own hierarchy, promotions, rivalry and market shares!

The book also raises several issues pertaining to the ethical behaviour of researchers and what one should do in various instances. The behaviour the researcher is put to test in several occasions, some knowingly and some very unwittingly. For instance when we academics go into the field as researchers, we are usually going with a position that there is a community out there to be studied. Little does Sudhir [or any other researcher] realise that when he starts his work that he himself could be carefully studied and used by the community. In this case, given the vulnerabilities that the gangs suffer from, Sudhir is constantly being watched not only by those who have provided him access to the settlements, but also by every person with whom he is interacting. Inadvertently Sudhir ends up taking sides on a couple of occasions [or is perceived to be taking sides, or being an “agent” of JT], and also falls into the trap of squealing on some of the underlings of JT to him, without actually realising that he was squealing. His own notes that he makes are being carefully examined by the people who are feeding him with the information. Therefore valid questions could be asked as to how objective a “participant” observation could be. Where does participation end and observation begin? And as far as the community is concerned, where does sharing of data end, and pretention begin.

While these issues are not clearly articulated by Sudhir, he does articulate several other dilemmas for which there are no straight answers. When studying the gangs what happens if he is questioned by the police? Is he obliged to reveal the information? What happens if he knows in advance that the gang is planning a killing? How does he acknowledge the time and energy that the people have provided him so that his research can progress? Should he pay them? Should he make a positive intervention? Should he use his knowledge and get State sponsored interventions and direct them towards the community that he has studied, or should he dispassionately look them as “subjects” or “cases” and move on in life? While some of these questions pertain to the legality of operations and whether he is breaking the law of the land, several other questions pertain straight to the ethical dilemmas in research, and the desirable relationship between the researcher and the researched.

While one wishes that the views of Sudhir was more explicit, so that one could engage with the author, the book does not suffer badly because the views are not there. The style is quite engaging and the questions are constantly popped up for us to think about. This is also a good way of bringing a serious piece of academic research into a popular fiction like format. Sudhir needs to be complimented for that.


Anirban said...

Dear Sriram

The article on Ela Bhatt and SEWA was so amazing, wonderfully inspiring

Anonymous said...

Dear Sir,

Isnt this the same Sudhir quoted in Freakonomics? Vaguely remember a very similar story in the book

Anand - Batch of 09

ಎಂ.ಎಸ್.ಶ್ರೀರಾಮ್ said...

Anand, yes this is the same guy featured on freakonomics...