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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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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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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 25 June 2008
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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on 25 May 2014
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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on 8 February 2015
The lives that Venkatesh describes seem to be on the edge of an extreme but he raises many valid points that easily apply to other situations. There is such a stark contrast between the experiences of these people, the strategies the are forced by circumstances to employ and the mainstream experience. It comes as no surprise that general expectations and values are seen as invalid. There's quite a lot to be ashamed about too.
No wonder so many young people find education and the world of work to be so alien.
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on 6 March 2016
A book filled with insights into a world previously incomprehensible. Sudhir Venkatesh dispels the myths about gang culture and through his naive, brave curiosity, show us how the other half lives. A must-read for anyone who wants to understand urban life, anyone who values their standard of living, and especially for those with any prejudice against those who are different in any way from themselves.
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on 23 December 2014
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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on 8 May 2016
I give this American sociological ethnography, researched in the Chicago housing projects, my highest recommendation for other readers. Written by an Indian sociologist, born in India, raised as an immigrant in California, and transplanted to Chicago, the book is riveting and nearly impossible to put down at each reading.

Aside from learning all about life in the Projects and enjoying the story of getting to know the people in this book, I learned several important things which I never realized before.

This book showed me what life was like in every primitive society before the rule of law. One can either have a society where the Rule of Law is enforced, or one where the Law of Power is enforced.
Where we have the Rule of Law, everyone is subject to the rule, and laws and contracts are enforced. This protects the general public against HUMAN PREDATORS as THIEVES, as well as those engaged in "OUTLAW CAPITALISM."

What we have here in the Projects is a TRIBAL SOCOETY, where the leader (warlord) manages with a combination of POWER and CHARISMA. He takes a cut (like a 'federal' tax) off of EVERY activity that goes on in the complex, from selling candy, washing cars, prostitution, sub-lets, and of course, drug sales. There are smaller community leaders (smaller warlords, male and female) who also take cuts off a number of smaller activities (like 'local' taxes).

Reading this book helped me better understand the piracy in Somalia and why we are unlikely to see it eliminated in our lifetimes. Once a society has collapsed, it goes back to this warlord model. It takes a long time for a society to build out of that; such a society cannot easily be put back together. In fact, this model probably applies to more human societies, even today, than does the democratic model.

This book helped me to better understand government corruption in the developing world. A democratic model is trying to be imposed upon peoples who behave in a tribal and/or predatory manner with each other.

This is a model that the middle and upper classes in America are far enough removed from that they don't understand it. The whole model makes it difficult for people to get out of this life paradigm.

I especially learned that the MOST important business of government--more important than defense, or infrastructure--is REGULATION. Here we have everyone needing to be a "hustler" in order to survive. We have capitalism at it's most extreme and unregulated form. This book really showed me why it is important that capitalism continue to be regulated.

This book also had a lot to say about everyday micromanagement of the drug trade on the street level. It covered a different facet than many other books on the drug trade, which concentrate on the lives of the top bosses. I learned that selling drugs on a street corner is actually the drug industry's minimum-wage job, also undertaken for the maximum risk.

Anyone interested in these subjects should definitely read this book.
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on 17 July 2016
I'm a current sociology student and this book was recommended, however I would recommend it to anyone. It was gripping and so engaging, I really couldn't put it down. Even the end left me with a tear in my eye and I thoroughly recommended anyone to read it.
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on 23 September 2014
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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