Thursday, December 26, 2013

Fleeting Views of a Floating City

Floating City
Sudhir Venkatesh
Allen Lane, 2013

Sudhir Venkatesh shot to fame with his book “Gang Leader for a Day” and also with his contributions to the chapters in Freakonomics where he analysed the behavior of drug peddlers and sex workers. “Gang Leader” was a departure from the usual works of sociology - it departed from known frameworks of social structures and frames, towards a participative ethnographic work. It was ground breaking in many ways: because of the methods; the ethical dilemma that these methods threw and the subject itself which looked deeply into the underground drug economy of Chicago. This work was a result of a much younger Sudhir, not trapped by fame of a relatively unknown student trying to get going on his doctoral thesis.

So when Sudhir came with his next book – looking at a different trade and a different city, he had already set the benchmark of “Gang Leader” and the expectations were that he would transcend his past pinnacle. However, Floating City disappoints – it is neither rich in its content nor in its insights; leaving us to wonder whether he was a one project wonder. We hope not.

The book has its contributions. However, these pale against the expectations based on his past work. The most significant insight we get is that the underground economy is not restricted to the poor, but has a seamless connection with the wealthy and the sophisticated. There are unusual suspects. In addition we find strivers trying to move from a street-side segment of the underground economy to the more sophisticated segments.

Readers’ dissonance about Floating City may be because of the un-organised nature of the trade that studies. Unlike drug peddlers of Chicago, who seem to be in a well-knit hierarchy – much like a corporate empire and living in close proximity (of the erstwhile Robert Taylor Homes), his subjects in New York come from smaller networks, and diverse residential settlements. In “Gang Leader” he discovers the relations between different players after understanding the network. Unfortunately Sudhir is lost in New York. Lost because, he is using the inter-relations between the different sets of people he talks to, to map the network. That is always much tougher.

Also unlike the carefree Sudhir of Gang Leader, here is a tenured Columbia University Professor who needs to worry about his reputation. In the earlier book, he shows the pressure to wind up his study only towards the end of the book. Now he is no longer the rogue sociologist and very much a part of the establishment. He has requirements to teach and publish – irrespective of whether he agrees with the type and nature of publications that are academically recognized and rewarded. It is evident through the book that a lot of his own personal problems of tenure, his divorce and the professional insecurities come in the way of the narration. He is no longer an outside analyst – or a fly on the wall – who is looking at the situation unfold, but by his own choice, an active participant in the deliberations.

Possibly the problem with the book lies in Sudhir’s inability to draw a line between the sociological elements that he needs to study as an outsider and the autobiographical elements that come in as a counter point. He could have chosen to write the book with a greater element of autobiography. But it would have taken a different shape. A good example of that is Aman Sethi’s “A Free Man”. Sethi goes in as a journalist, and while understanding the poor footpath dwellers of Delhi also narrates what it means to him. Sudhir is hamstrung with this image of being an academic. So he unfortunately keeps getting in his scholarly dilemmas into the narrative, never allowing the reader to even forget for a moment that he is ultimately a sociologist and this project is an academic work.

Studies such as this one are complex and cannot have a framework or a premeditated script. It is almost like writing a script for a documentary – you can only plan the subject, how you would conduct interviews, whom you would meet. Nobody can actually write the dialogues in advance or have a clear expectation of what emerges out the filming. When one does not have a clear frame the danger is in wonderment - like a child in a toyshop. If every person Sudhir meets is adding to the n (sample size) then there is a problem. Sudhir unfortunately is a victim of his success, his image constructed in our minds, and unfortunately, his image constructed in his own mind. This could have been a fascinating book if only he had shed his past. It could have been as fascinating if he had teamed up with somebody younger and unknown who could penetrate deeper into the underground economy. Unfortunately this turns out to be an attempt to live up to the past image and the halo created around himself. And that he does not live up to that image leads to a book like Floating City, which is a disappointment.

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