exercises in compound storytelling

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Sudhir Venkatesh: Gang Leader for a Day

I was in Mesa Public Library in Los Alamos last night looking for books about population bottlenecks and branching probabilities and chanced across Sudhir Venkatesh's book Gang Leader for a Day on the one-week shelf. Like most people I first encountered Venkatesh in Freakonomics, but I've also heard him address the Commonwealth Club of California as part of the media blitz for the release of this book, so I've already heard at least part of the story twice.

I'm more than a third of the way through, and I really wish I didn't have to go to work today.

In the book Venkatesh is a graduate student in sociology at the University of Chicago, and while doing a survey of a nearby housing project he stumbles across J.T., a local gang leader who admits him into his world with the apparent aim of becoming famous. The book is unfolding as a sequence of anecdotes about J.T., his world, and their relationship.

There's also an underlying "fact vs. story" story as well: early on Venkatesh lays out the tension between two different schools of thought in sociology: one collects and analyzes big pools of data, while the other does fieldwork and tells stories about the intimate details of small groups of people. He's working for an advisor who is part of the former group, but he's stumbled into the the latter; he may be in danger of having to choose between being a scientist and being a storyteller.

Venkatesh is also telling a story that starts out by saying that sociology helps policy makers spend money in the hopes of breaking the cycle of poverty and finding a cure for various social woes, but his story is about a college-educated drug dealer who leverages his education to be a better drug dealer. Every so often this fact surfaces in the midst of another story; I'm hoping against hope Venkatesh eventually deals with it head on.

Freakonomics cast this story as being entirely about money, namely about how a gang manages its turf in an attempt to maximize profit, and I find myself reading the book as an expanded version of that story. It's a lazy way to read a book, and doing otherwise is a struggle. There's a lot more going on here than the movement of money, and I don't want to miss it.

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