08 May 2008

First Thoughts On "Gang Leader For a Day"

As I mentioned a few days ago, Sudhir Venkatesh’s book “Gang Leader For A Day” is at the top of my reading list. Today I finally had some free time and dug in.

My initial reactions: it’s a fascinating book. Two chapters in, I’m definitely hooked. However, I’m not without some reservations. Venkatesh asks his readers to take a lot on faith; the nature of the book requires you to trust that the whole thing isn’t an elaborate fabrication, and that he’s honest both in his observations and recollections.

Although I’m certainly not one to cast aspersions – especially considering that I’m only a couple of chapters in – it would be difficult to fault readers if they decided to approach the book with a grain of salt. It is, after all, a premise that borders on unbelievability: a meek, bookish Sociology grad student at the U of Chicago walks up to a housing project and immediately forms a deep and lasting bond – “a strange kind of intimacy … unlike the bond I’d felt even with good friends” (p.23) – with a gang leader? It’s a hell of a premise.

Also, in terms of research methodology, what Venkatesh is doing is almost quaint, practically to the point of being 19th-century. In some ways, the premise of the book is essentially a ‘white man goes into the bush’ narrative. I’m waiting with bated breath to see how the book deals with this obvious issue, since I’m sure accusations of depicting the ‘noble savage’ in a tracksuit are something Venkatesh must have anticipated. At least, I hope so.

At any rate, the opening chapters suitably grabbed my attention. I have a few lingering reservations and doubts, but I’m certainly sold on reading it through.

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