A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York's Underground Economy
by Sudhir Venkatesh
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A decade ago, Sudhir Venkatesh inspired the insular world of academic sociology with American Project, his closely observed ethnography of the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago. Venkatesh’s hard-fought insider access was hugely impressive: As he labored for years in the sprawling public-housing project, Venkatesh took participant observation to new heights, documenting the complex social networks that governed life in the Taylor homes.
By marrying the “thick description” pioneered by the esteemed anthropologist Clifford Geertz with an empirical grounding in the political economy of Chicago’s working poor, Venkatesh ably infused the familiar, dispiriting tale of the failure of the Great Society’s urban-renewal campaign with a more arresting counternarrative: the smaller, heroic efforts of the Taylor residents to scrape by, and forge the bonds of a thriving community, amid the crime and neglect of a de facto postindustrial Bantustan.
Venkatesh, now a professor of sociology at Columbia, has since turned his attention to the sinuous webs of urban vice, writing Off the Books (2006), a tour of Chicago’s extralegal underground economy, and the best-selling Gang Leader for a Day (2008), a visceral insider’s account of the city’s gang-led drug trade.
As he pursued such close-in accounts of illicit economies, the fashionable “global cities” meme—which lavishes attention on financial centers such as London, New York, and Hong Kong as linchpins of networks of international exchange—struck Venkatesh as undeniable if one-dimensional. By focusing so tightly on elites and financial