The Ethnographic Adventure of a “Rogue Sociologist”: Gang Leader for a Day goes Hollywood

Thanks to “Anthroman” (also known as Dr. John L. Jackson, Jr., an anthropology professor and filmmaker, not to mention blogger) for his article in The Root, “Hustle and Show.” The article is about a book by Sudhir Venkatesh, co-author of Freakonomics, titled Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets, which is being adapted for a Hollywood film. The book is reported by Jackson to be an “ethnographic treatment of gang culture on Chicago’s South Side.”

Jackson explains that Venkatesh was,

a relatively naïve graduate student at the University of Chicago when he first started studying crack-dealing gangs in one of the country’s most notorious housing projects. Venkatesh embarked on a sociological journey that would educate him about the counter-intuitive inner workings of gangland economies and the brutal realities of what happens when material inequality gets racially and geographically entrenched.

Anthroman, sorry, I mean Jackson, wonders whether the film might inspire young people to venture into ethnography the way some were inspired by Indiana Jones to go into archaeology (really, that actually happened? how disturbing). He hopes the filmmaker, Craig Brewer,

can spend some time getting the fieldwork right, capturing what it actually means for ethnographers to live their research in the world, without all of the hyper-exoticisms that glom onto such depictions, then he might be able to show people just how ethnographers stumble upon social truths that are sometimes sublimely irreducible to statistical analyses.

Telling us more about the book and its author, Anthroman — damn, it’s infectious, I meant Jackson — says:

Venkatesh, who was born in India and raised in California, starts out so green when he embarks on his research that he doesn’t even realize just how astonishing his project will seem to students and teachers who find out about it. And what he ends up learning about the everyday workings of gang culture will force social scientists to rethink many long-standing academic assumptions on the topic.

The idea that a privileged sociologist from one of the most prestigious schools in the country would also be allowed to actually run the gang’s operations, even for a day, might also lend itself to some provocative moviemaking. Traditionally, ethnographers are taught that they must master the culture of the groups they study so completely that they should almost be able to see the world from that group’s point of view, as though they were natives, people born into the community. (Of course, if you’re like me, a black man conducting ethnographic research in black America-you have to prove something akin to the exact opposite.)

Anthropologists call this an “emic” perspective, something that can only be acquired with long-term participant-observation-many months, even years, of “deep hanging out” with the people being studied. Venkatesh not only provides us with a detailed rendition of how these Chicago gangbangers see their world, he also can demonstrate the limits of “emic” understanding by showcasing his own short stint at the helm of the gang.

The rest of the article really does a nice job of talking up the benefits of ethnography and the need for more profound and rounded (what Jackson calls “complex”) treatments of people living very difficult lives fraught with contradictions and grief.

Thank you Anthroman.