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on 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.