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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 12 November 2013
Just over five years ago I spent a very short-seeming flight from London to Toronto reading Sudhir Venkatesh's first book, Gang Leader For A Day, recounting his field work as a sociologist in Chicago. It's totally fascinating, and when I read of the publication of Floating City I bought it without hesitation.

This time he's in New York, established as a professor at Columbia and looking for an angle in the sex industry. The book's title evokes the Japanese concept of the floating world, of prostitution and so on, but also including geisha. But it also here refers to the transience of the society into which the author, as an ethnographer, inserts himself, with a shifting population, shifting alliances, shifting relationships. People float in; people float out.

In the opening pages Venkatesh proves himself an astute observer, catching the expressions in people's eyes, inflections in their voices, and attitudes in their postures. He notes interactions, how people respond to each other, throughout.

His opening story is of how an acquaintance shocks him with a confession to being a madam, a sex broker, but unlike his usual subjects she is not poor but a bourgeois heiress. It is for him the latest in a long line of revelations which transport him out of his comfort zone, created in Chicago, of static neighbourhoods, which he begins to realise are not the norm, that life in some locales is in fact a "moving picture", in constant flux and difficult to capture. The world he conceived of as ordered, fixed and bounded is in fact chaotic and changing, with people constantly moving between boxes, often effortlessly, often consciously and willingly irrespective of the risks.

In Gang Leader, Venkatesh came over as sometimes quite endearingly naïve, and this persists. It may even be what makes him good. Things some of us may take for granted seem to surprise him, and he then makes us notice them too, whereas before we treated them as part of the furniture and never questioned them. In one hilarious episode he is confronted by a bouncer in a strip club, who to the author's apparent surprise is not impressed by his claims to be a sociologist conducting research into sex work (a similar episode in Gang Leader saw Venkatesh imprisoned in a urine-soaked stairwell by a gang suspecting him of being a spy for the opposition) and marches him, through a scene straight out of an episode of Law And Order, to an office in which a scantily clad woman is being interviewed by two managers, who also are unimpressed and have him turfed out.

Venkatesh's wanderings reveal a complex network of interconnections between the people of the area, from every corner of the world, and shatter a number of preconceptions: the sex workers he encounters are, in the majority, supporting not a drug problem but families, neighbourhoods and businesses. The players come across as hard-working and underpaid: they hustle, but usually not in a way that disadvantages others.

But the fragility of the network is cruelly exposed to Venkatesh one Christmas as he drops by to give a contact a present for his son, only to find the contact gone and his replacement hostile and unaware either of his predecessor or his whereabouts, and suddenly none of the hookers he knows is answering her phone. After a desperate search he finds his contact has fled, following a beating during a shake-down, and suddenly he's not the only one, as the neighbourhood gentrifies and the delicate web of support begins to unravel, an experience at least familiar to him from his time in Chicago.

But the gentrification has other consequences. It sucks in other immigrants as service workers who, unlike their predecessors in New York, are fragmented and unable to unionise, have little or no access to a route out, and are paid next-to-nothing, hence one in three are in poverty.

In search of new contacts, Venkatesh inadvertently finds himself bumping up against the other side of the coin, the rich, sometimes new inhabitants of New York, sometimes white, sometimes black or brown but with none of the street connections of his other subjects. He toys, amusingly, with the idea of a Coming Of Age In Samoa in reverse, but his early dabbling in the area is a disappointment: unlike his usual subjects, possibly flattered by the attention, the rich, white heirs and heiresses he encounters initially treat him as either the help or the furniture the help comes over to clean.

Meanwhile, his customary subjects are experiencing change all around them and trying to adjust; as he says, they do so in the way any entrepreneur confronted with "creative destruction" does, except they lack "legitimacy", legality and, often, even bank accounts, and certainly not a health plan. Nevertheless, the one thing they are not is passive victims.

Finally, Venkatesh finds himself a contact to ease him into the world of upper-end sex work, a sex broker who for a while had done the work herself. But he is also going through a wrenching separation from his wife, and his contact recognises his vulnerability and steers him away from the workers themselves, instead advising him to talk to other brokers. Very soon he realises the wisdom of this as he begins to realise once again, as he had in Chicago, the way the shadow economy regulates itself through the offices of informal mediators, and armed with this he begins to piece other experiences together into the touchstone of his craft, generalisability.

Soon after he engineers a real breakthrough, securing interviews with the sex workers themselves and, to his amazement, their clients. But here his constant reflexivity, his researcher's in-built self-questioning of motivations, kicks in to a point which he finds disturbing, and indeed by the end of the book it is apparent he has learnt a great deal about himself as well as his target environment.

Intrigued by the pop version of his research, I sought out a couple of the associated academic papers. My own academic endeavours have brought me into contact with other research connected with the sex industry, specifically the work of Lowman, O'Doherty and Bungay in Vancouver, and Sanders in the UK. Whilst carefully unemotive in tone, this work nevertheless highlights the dangers of the sex trade, also brought out in Floating City, and finds that one way sex workers guard against beatings and robbery is by working indoors and carefully screening their clients, rather than working on the streets where they are more open to predation by pimps, johns and sometimes the police. One of Venkatesh's conclusions, to the contrary, is that setting up indoors, and particularly the creeping professionalisation he observes, serves only to normalise and perpetuate sex work as an occupation, which he considers dangerous in itself.

So, thought provoking and a little controversial, with real implications for the way society is and could be. Floating City is that and more. It is also superbly and engagingly written, and the proofreading is, so far as I saw, perfect; excellent QA. As with Gang Leader, I found it hard to put down, and was sad when it ended. But that's partly because, as Venkatesh intimates, this is a story that really hasn't concluded, and is even now playing out on the streets of the cities of the world, not just those of New York.
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on 26 January 2014
What a difference a title makes, or even a subtitle. The version I read, the US edition which I received as a review copy, had the subtitle "A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York's Underground Economy."

This irritated me throughout the book, because I kept expecting Sudhir Venkatesh to "go rogue", and he never did. He perhaps got a bit more emotionally involved with his subjects than sociologists are supposed to, but he was always scrupulous about not affecting the outcomes, about being ethical and honest and reading people their rights before starting any interview. He was just a sociologist doing his research. It seemed to me that the "rogue" tag had been stuck on to make the book seem more enticing.

Fortunately the UK edition has the less catchy but much more accurate subtitle "Hustlers, Strivers, Dealers, Call Girls and Other Lives in Illicit New York". So we'll leave the "rogue" issue alone.

What this book does very well is to get under the skin of New York City and explore the lives of people in the underworld. It's written more as a memoir than as a work of sociology, so there are plenty of real-life stories and no tedious footnotes. I enjoyed the connections Venkatesh makes between the drug dealers and porn-shop clerks he studies and the "above-ground" economy.

"These people were seekers. As much as the peppiest young entrepreneur in any Silicon Valley garage, they dreamed of changing their worlds. And in their daily lives as ordinary citizens and consumers, their illegitimate earnings helped many legitimate businesses stay afloat. In that sense, they were pillars of the community."

He shows the impromptu communities that spring up within these criminal and marginal worlds, the unexpected ties that bind people to each other, even if only for a time. The floating city refers to the fluidity of many people's lives in a global city like New York, the lack of ties to particular neighbourhoods or other traditional social structures, the formation of more temporary communities. Mortimer, an ageing john, is touchingly cared for by local prostitutes as he recovers from a stroke. Manjun's porn store becomes a safe haven for sex workers. People come and go, and the communities spring up in unlikely places before dying or moving on. It's an interesting phenomenon to watch.

One fault in the book, though, is the way that Venkatesh makes himself the main character in the book, and then does nothing much of any interest. It's fine to get some insight into his research techniques and his ethical dilemmas, but it goes way too far. There are too many passages where he's worrying about where he's going to get his next interview from, or panicking over his project's lack of direction, and it's just not very compelling stuff. Here's one example among many:

"Whatever hopes I might have had about documenting the collision of worlds began to blow away in that cold autumn wind. I'd have to find another way to chart the connections the global city forged among disparate social types."

He's clearly trying to make himself into a character with something important at stake, but it doesn't really work. He also mentions a few times that his marriage is breaking apart, but tells us almost nothing about why or how or even who his wife is - we just get generalisations about being young when they got married and now having changing priorities. It feels as if the author is trying to make himself into an interesting character, but doesn't want to reveal too much of his personal life.

The overall effect of this is to make the book feel a bit flat. There's plenty of drama in the lives of the people Venkatesh is studying, and if he'd just related their stories, it would have worked better. Instead we spend a lot of time inside the head of an anxious sociologist, and it's not a good place to be.

So this book is recommended for its insights into the New York City underworld, but marred by its choice of focus.
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on 12 September 2015
Contains lots of interesting anthropology, but this book isn't as coherent, interesting or content-heavy as the previous work on Chicago, and doesn't get as much detail as other truly seminal works. Disappointingly navel-gazing at times
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on 31 August 2015
Very gripping, and at times introspective, look at New York's shadow economy.
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on 29 September 2015
This is a fantastic book I love me some Sudhir
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on 18 November 2014
interesting and entertaining
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on 11 October 2013
Although I am still reading the book, I have been impressed by SV's brave attempt to render truthfully the underbelly enonomy of the major US city (here New York and Chicago). When considering crime and its effects, we are apt to simplify the very great difficulties of earning a crust in a chaotic metropolis. This book teaches us to be charitable; it has so affected me. SV often expresses his sociological dream of getting to the heart of such sub-economies and possibility of integration with the 'acceptable' one; but also honestly warns us of the difficulty. He needs to be praised for making the attempt. It is an expose of a sort and never loses its interest. I would say that it is mandatory reading.
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on 10 November 2013
Very interesting 3/4 of this book with real gripping real life events discussed from a sociological point of view. However the author can get caught up in his own self importance rather than his subjects. Great read though
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