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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Chilling Journey Into the Projects
Some time ago The Economist ran an article about the market for drugs, describing the sophisticated marketing strategies adopted by sellers - entry level products, loss leaders, special offers - in order to reel in the punters. Only at the end did the piece carry the reminder that oh, by the way, all of this is also illegal.

In a reversal of the process, Sudhir...
Published on 20 July 2008 by Steve Keen

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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing
I find it difficult to believe that someone involved in a masters program in sociology could have such a shallow and unworldly view of the people he is researching or should that be exploiting. This book says little and says it simply - The Corner and The Wire cover the same ground in a more challenging and apparently insightful manner.
Published on 20 Feb. 2009 by Woodjay


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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Chilling Journey Into the Projects, 20 July 2008
By 
Steve Keen "therealus" (Herts, UK) - See all my reviews
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Some time ago The Economist ran an article about the market for drugs, describing the sophisticated marketing strategies adopted by sellers - entry level products, loss leaders, special offers - in order to reel in the punters. Only at the end did the piece carry the reminder that oh, by the way, all of this is also illegal.

In a reversal of the process, Sudhir Venkatesh presents a largely jargon-free account of his ten-year sociological study of urban poverty, and particularly the attendant gang culture, in the projects of Chicago.

Moving to the city as a graduate student in 1989, Venkatesh wants quickly to make a name for himself and to that end walks unknowingly into the territory of the Black Kings (BKs) to ask the folks therein what it's like to be black and poor. Initially suspected of being a spy for a rival gang and incarcerated overnight on a urine-soaked stairwell by the BKs, Venkatesh soon becomes in quick succession a source of entertainment for, potential immortaliser of, and most unlikely confidant to gang leader JT.

JT himself is both compellingly charismatic and chillingly brutal in the disposition of his duties as a Director of the local BK enterprise. Venkatesh finds himself constantly conflicted by the activities he witnesses, fascinated by JT's leadership abilities and nauseated by some of his methods. On the pivotal Day for which Venkatesh becomes "Gang Leader" he is given an intimate view of JT's day as he resolves dilemmas many managers will recognise - agency problems, motivational issues, supplier relationships - sometimes in ways most of us as managers don't (often, at least!) resort to.

But this is about more than gangs. Venkatesh also details the complex social network that exists within the projects: the role the gangs play as enforcers in the absence of the police, the mutual support that exists particularly among the women, the operation of the informal economy, and the role of the various power brokers, official and self-appointed.

Sadly, the whole fragile structure unravels before our eyes as the authorities, in the name of progress, demolish the projects without the mitigation of providing an alternative for the powerless residents.

Through all this the author is both the key witness and also a vital participant: as with any research, it is impossible for him to have no impact on his subjects, and that impact is sometimes benign, sometimes detrimental. But there is little sense of excessive self-regard for his own role, and in fact he is quite open about his own inadequacies when confronted by the day-to-day challenges of project life.

All of this adds up to a compelling and sometimes disturbing peek into a life most of us will hopefully never have to experience. Venkatesh has done a good job of relating the tale, and at the end I found myself joining him in wringing hands with frustration that the world's most powerful economy has as yet shown neither the ability nor the will to eradicate the poverty that is all too prevalent within its own borders.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Solid Account of Life in the Chicago Projects, 25 Jun. 2008
By 
A. Ross (Washington, DC) - See all my reviews
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Like many others, I found the chapter of Freakonomics based on Venkatesh's data on drug dealing to be the most compelling of the book. So I looked forward to picking up this extended account of his journey into the murky world of Chicago public housing and the research he did there from 1989-95. His entry into that world is a decidedly naive and somewhat accidental one, as he commences work toward his sociology PhD at the University of Chicago by assisting in a research project. This project requires him to go to several apartments in a public housing high-rise to administer a rather ridiculous questionnaire. Unfortunately, the resident drug gang suspects him of being a spy for a rival gang and holds him overnight until their boss can decide what to do with him.

Fortunately, the boss ends up taking a shine to Venkatesh and allows him to hang out around the gang and its slice of the Robert Taylor Homes housing project. This one decision (based at least partially on the gangster's belief that Venkatesh will use the material to write a biography of him), grants the student and budding scholar almost unprecedented access to the day-to-day functioning of a street gang, as well as a passport to the roam around the projects talking to the residents about their daily life. Venkatesh is very up front about his naivety, his discomfort with the role he was playing to gain the trust of people, the complexity of needing to befriend them in order to hear their stories, and the benefit his access to their stories has had on his academic career. In the end, he concludes that he is just as much a "hustler" as those he meets throughout his seven years, taking advantage of others as needed, in order to survive.

The focus of the book is on his interaction with the "Black Kings" gang, however, much of the material on their workings is interesting but not necessarily revelatory Basically, if you've seen season one of The Wire, you'll be more or less equally up to speed on the mechanics of drug slingin' street gangs. This is at least partially due to the rather edited view of operations the gang afforded him. What's more surprising in his account is the naked power over daily life in the projects wielded by the female middle-aged president of the tenants association, who comes across as just as venal and egocentric as the gang leader. Indeed, she and the gangster had an established rapport and arrangement, in which she could tap the gang for "donations" for community events, or to police the buildings, in exchange for not raising a fuss about their drug dealing. Venkatesh also spends a fair amount of time with the regular "citizens" of the projects, as well as a few community workers and one policeman. A striking absence from his fieldwork is any attempt to interact with the Chicago Housing Authority, under whose auspices the Robert Taylor Homes falls, and whose utter ineptitude and corruption pervades the entire book.

The cumulative effect is a rare look at the networks of power within a poor urban community, as well as a cautionary tale about the strengths and weaknesses of the ethnographic process. I found myself rather more drawn to his stories of the various licit and illicit hustles people run in order to make ends meet -- it turns out these are the focus of an earlier work of his called "Off the Books," which I'll probably end up reading at some point.

Note: As at least one other reviewer has noted, those interested in the "participatory observation" approach to studying gangs would be well-advised to check out Martin Sanchez-Jankowski's Islands in the Street, based on ten years of fieldwork among 37 gangs in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston. Rather oddly, Venkatesh never refers to it.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Naive Graduate Student Learns about Life in the Projects, 6 Feb. 2008
By 
Donald Mitchell "Jesus Loves You!" (Thanks for Providing My Reviews over 124,000 Helpful Votes Globally) - See all my reviews
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This book is as riveting an academic research report as you are ever likely to read.

In Freakonomics, many people were fascinated by a section that described how most crack cocaine dealers lived at home with their mothers. Why? They make less money than minimum wage. The source of that factoid was research conducted on site by Sudhir Venkatesh, author of Gang Leader for a Day, who describes in this book how he did that research and came to make decisions one day for part of the Black Kings gang in Chicago.

In the process of reading this book, you'll learn more than you ever expected to know about the ways that the poorest people support and protect themselves. You'll also find how drug-dealing gangs are both a help and a hindrance to the poor.

More powerfully, you'll be exposed to the great difficulties involved in observing the lives of the poor and the gangs that spring from them. The moral and ethical dilemmas this book presents are almost beyond belief.

Professor Venkatesh was a graduate student at the University of Chicago when his curiosity about the school's neighbors caused him to draft a questionnaire and head for the largest local housing project. Once there, he was detained by the gang whose territory he had invaded. Knowing nothing of gangs, he spent an uncomfortable night wondering what would happen to him. He piqued the curiosity of the gang's leader, J.T., and was granted ever widening access to the gang's activities and to the lives of those in their territory.

Take a close look at those who need help before deciding you know the answers.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sociology Never Seemed So Utterly Compelling, 13 May 2008
By 
pjr (London, England) - See all my reviews
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I came across this book through a radio interview with its author. He came across well and the people on the programme couldn't praise it highly enough. Even then the thought of reading a sociological book about gang culture in Chicago still seemed a bit of risk. After all sociology is a bit, well, 80's.

Well this is one gamble that pays off. You do get a decent ammount of idea about how Prof. Venkatesh went about his study and also something about the process he should (and sometimes didn't) follow in order to get his research done. You also get an awful lot more. Orwell's "Road To Wigan Pier" and "Down & Out In Paris & London" evoked a clear sense of their surroundings and "Gang Leader For A Day" does just that.

Although not quite on a level with Orwell, Venkatesh's writing style is vivid, readable, and also very cinematic. This book is clearly aimed at an audience who may not usually read sociological tomes and the style is refreshingly free of a good deal of academic language. Reading this you do start to mentally cast the film version as the characters simply come to life off the page. Also, considering this is really meant to be academic research it has a wonderful driving plot. It would have been easy to have sat and read it all in one sitting. For not only are you fascinated by the information, you also want to know what is going to happen next.

Prof. Venkatesh has said that he doesn't believe anyone else could have been party to what he saw. Being of Indian descent is something of a novelty in the Chicago housing projects and so he had no cultural baggage in the eyes of his subjects. This gave him the chance to show the rest of the world what it is like to live in these conditions. It is not a pretty, or entirely hopeful story. This is the story of people getting by and making do by any means they have. That it turns out to be both compelling and moving at times is largely due to the wonderful writing talents of a very gifted individual.

This is a very interesting and powerful work will stand up with anything written in any genre you may read this year. This book is an amazing achievement, go seek it out.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Great book and a page turner., 23 Dec. 2014
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Academic meets The Wire.

Would love to see this made into a series. If it was fiction, we have some great characters and situations. It's moving and funny.

What I mainly took away from this book is the abuse of power, not just from the gangs and the police, but the corruption and perspective from City officials and social workers. There's a study that 5% of the population in ghettos account for over 90% of the serious crime. Those other 95% are just trying in survive and they have no one to turn to than the gangs and the corrupt officials.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant - would read again, 23 Sept. 2014
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This review is from: Gang Leader for a Day (Paperback)
I am an undergraduate university student studying Geography and was recommended this book as part of the qualitative research methods course I am currently taking. Gang Leader for a Day managed to seamlessly blend research theory (which can be somewhere dry!) with a great story and this result is a brilliant book. I would recommend this book to anyone studying research methods as it is a welcome change from other work published on the topic!
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What an eye-opener! Totally compelling, 2 Sept. 2008
By 
Sarah Durston (London) - See all my reviews
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At the beginning of `Gang leader for a Day', Sudhir Venkatesh is an incredibly naive Sociology student with a great deal of curiosity. Becoming frustrated with the dryness of his chosen subject and wanting to focus on `people' rather than statistics, he heads into the Chicago projects with a backpack full of questionnaires to go through with gang members. With what we later learn, he was lucky he wasn't killed. Sudhir meets the charismatic gang leader, JT, who for whatever reason takes him under his wing and gives him privileged access to life in the projects and gang activity (he does appear to think that Sudhir is writing his biography which might be why he is so co-operative.) Sudhir goes on to mix with the gang and other people in the projects for several years, becoming a trusted sounding-board for many.

This was an absolutely incredible book. Not only do we meet interesting people and learn how they cope with such a brutal way of life; we also learn about the role of the researcher and the way they interact with the subjects of their research. There are times when Sudhir admits to being naive or when he feels uneasy that he has stept over a line and all this is included in the book. One of the most eye-opening things for me was the section about the writing group that Sudhir set up for young women. To hear some of the stories and what these women do to survive was incredible. I could be incredibly naive, but the chapter about the Police was pretty shocking too.

I thought this was a wonderful book. Recommended.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars, 15 July 2014
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great book
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4.0 out of 5 stars good product, 6 July 2014
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This review is from: Gang Leader for a Day (Paperback)
good product
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5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, upsetting and even a little laugh-out-loud humour, 25 May 2014
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This book was referred to in a Sociology class I took in relation to covert participant observation. I am so glad that I decided to find it and consequently read it.

Venkatesh does come across as quite naive at times, quite frequently actually, but this makes the reader feel like they are right alongside him experiencing a Chicago gang for the first time. He touches on the social, economic and political aspects of the time (1980's/90's) which really helps you understand how the BK gang members and the community around them got to the physical and emotional states that Venkatesh observes them in.

Almost unwillingly I empathised with many of the criminals he meets, as does Sudhir. You get to follow the gang at its height and at its eventual lows while meeting an array of people that I would definitely never get too meet myself.

Overall I would definitely recommend this book to anyone and everyone who finds the premise and free sample interesting, it won't disappointed. It has even helped me consider going into Sociology myself in the future.
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Gang Leader for a Day
Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh (Paperback - 5 Feb. 2009)
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