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123 of 133 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Sudhir, you're getting into something you shouldn't be messing with..."
Thus Reggie, a Chicago gang member, warned the author of this book. Thank goodness, Venkatesh wasn't frightened away, and the consequence is this narrative about a Chicago crack-dealing gang.

I first learned something about life in a Chicago housing project when I read David Isay's heartbreaking Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago (1999),...
Published on January 11, 2008 by Kerry Walters

versus
194 of 211 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting read that left me conflicted
This book is definitely an interesting read, particularly if you are not from the wrong side of the tracks. For most middle and upper class readers, I believe this is an insightful and voyueristic view of the lives that are so often forgotten about in this country.
Having grown up on the wrong side of the tracks and having lived in the projects for a time, I found...
Published on March 16, 2008 by Tethys


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194 of 211 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting read that left me conflicted, March 16, 2008
This book is definitely an interesting read, particularly if you are not from the wrong side of the tracks. For most middle and upper class readers, I believe this is an insightful and voyueristic view of the lives that are so often forgotten about in this country.
Having grown up on the wrong side of the tracks and having lived in the projects for a time, I found myself deeply conflicted by the author's portrayal of others and himself. In the end he is only somewhat honest with himself about being the biggest hustler of all in the book. How exactly do you eat people's food and sit on their couches and follow them around for six years and in the end say you weren't even friends? Is this simply artificial distance inserted to make himself seem more scholarly, or does he really feel this way about the people who greatly contributed to his career? He tries to distinguish himself from the very people he interacted with and at times participated in morally questionable behavior with by describing himself as dressing appropriately for an Ivy League professor while returning to visit the ghetto. This description of himself at the end of the book brought home sharply to me the reality that most people will take a look at this world, like the author, and then put it down and walk away from the very real needs that real Americans have and it left me frustrated and angry. For every person who makes it out, there are hundreds left behind and most people are unwilling or unable to do anything except close a book and forget. I highly question that anything will be done as a result of this work to significantly improve impoverished Americans' situations, a view that the author confirms.
For all of the conflicting statements about various individuals moral choices in the book, the real heroes are the people who are trying to make the best of a bad situation. J.T., the drug dealer who gave the author the unprecendented access, reflects the true complexity of his environment and the ways in which people rationalize what they have to do in order to make a life for their families. And in many ways all of the people who spoke with and participated in the author's journey through American poverty reflect the same principles and values that the rest of America have. We all make choices and do what we have to do to get by, no matter how cultured we pretend to be.
So while I am frustrated by the author's need to distinguish himself from the people who shared so much with him, I hope that this book makes people think about the people around them and the very real suffering that occurs in our own country. I know from having lived in a place not to far removed from what the author describes, I cannot turn away and forget. While other people see a middle class girl now, in many ways I will never be separated from that life and I know that even this book does not begin to address the long-term difficulties involved in irradicating poverty in this country. And the main reason for this is in this book: you can leave the projects, but it never really leaves you and thus many people end up back there no matter how hard they work to get out.
Gangleader for a day, therefore, should represent a reality check for America, especially as our economy slows.
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123 of 133 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Sudhir, you're getting into something you shouldn't be messing with...", January 11, 2008
By 
Kerry Walters (Lewisburg, PA USA) - See all my reviews
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Thus Reggie, a Chicago gang member, warned the author of this book. Thank goodness, Venkatesh wasn't frightened away, and the consequence is this narrative about a Chicago crack-dealing gang.

I first learned something about life in a Chicago housing project when I read David Isay's heartbreaking Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago (1999), and something about the street drug trade in David Simons and Edward Burns' grueling The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood (1998). Both have become classics. Sudhir Venkatesh's Gang Leader for a Day is, I believe, destined to join them as an on-the-spot narrative of gang culture of Chicago. Some of the people whose lives he tracks--J.T., Clarisse, Mama and Pops Patton, Reggie, Millie, T-Bone--grow on you until you feel as if you actually know them.

While a graduate student at the University of Chicago, weary of cold statistical analysis, Venkatesh began hanging out with the Black Kings, a crack-selling gang who headquartered in the Robert Taylor Homes projects. He wanted to get in touch with the gang subculture through direct observation. He entered into the project pretty naive and just a bit too full of himself. Seven years later, after following the Black Kings and establishing a relationship with their leader, one J.T., the things he'd seen and heard made him a lot more streetwise and a little less cocky.

During his seven-year study, "Mr. Professor," as J.T.'s mother initially called Venkatesh, learned that Chicago gangs, or at least J.T.'s outfit, lived in a culture of violence and machismo, but also functioned in an unexpected way as police in their own territory. From the perspective of society, they were lawbreakers. But at Robert Taylor Homes, they were also lawmakers, keeping a tight rein on adventitious violence and, through acts of "philanthropy," keeping the local economy fueled with drug money.

He discovered about halfway through his research with the Black Kings that he'd witnessed or heard about so many gang and drug deal activities that he'd do well to seek legal advice. When he did, he discovered (to his discomfort) that there was no such thing under the law as "researcher-client confidentiality," and that he was in a vulnerable legal position. At one point during his project, he actually worried that "he was falling into a hole [of criminality] I could never dig myself out of" (p. 250)

He realized that getting wounded in gang violence nine times out of ten meant either that nobody would call an ambulance for you, or if they did, that no ambulance would make a run into the inner city war zone to pick you up.

He learned that there's a city-wide organization and hierarchy when it comes to many Chicago gangs, including the Black Kings.

And from spending all this time with pushers, junkies, gangsters, civilians, hookers, and cops, and learning firsthand about their lives, he learned that it's risky to make holier-than-thou comparisons. When he bade J.T. farewell, for example, Venkatesh mentioned to the gangleader that he wasn't sure he was ready to jump into another longterm research project. J.T. cannily observed that there was little else Venkatesh was qualified to do. "You can't fix nothing, you never worked a day in your life. The only think you know how to do is hang out with n-----s like us" (p. 281).

An excellent, fascinating book, sometimes frightening, at other times unspeakably sad, and at still others funny: but always with the feel of authenticity and never sentimental. Highly recommended, as is his American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto (2002) and especially his recent (2006) Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor. In fact, the latter book could easily be read as a companion volume to Gang Leader for a Day.
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68 of 84 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating But Flawed..., July 20, 2009
By 
Snugs McKay (Middle America) - See all my reviews
Ever loved a song so much, you wish it had been written by a better band? That's what reading this book is like: Venkatesh gets three stars on the strength of his premise alone, but it only takes him about 4 chapters to spoil what he began. Here's what you can expect, once that 100 page honeymoon is over...

1.) Dialogue so false it makes George Lucas sound like a naturalistic writer. No disclaimer can excuse the dead ear Venkatech reveals whenever called upon to recount spoken words. The people with whom he interacts are voiced as sitcom-level caricatures; we meet the wise old woman who takes no guff, the insecure young tough, the smooth elder thug who maintains his rep with almost professional detachment, etc.

2.) A total lack of Academic responsibility. I'm not talking, as others have, about the moral questions raised by the author's witness of so many crimes - that's something you either forgive or not, before picking up the book. I'm talking about the fact that, for any given phenomenon, he only really entertains one theory, or one frame of explanation. The view of ghetto life he formed in the classroom is not one he's prepared to change, and he's really only interested in gathering details to fill out that view. But such is the problem - if you're not ready to change your mind on fundamental questions, then don't call it "research".

3.) An often shocking whiff of upper-middle class condescension. There is no easy way to this, so I'll just say it: the author treats his mostly black subjects with a smugness that is sometimes quite disgusting. It's a disguised, liberal kind of smugness, but it reveals what kind of expectations Venkatesh brought with him to the experience. He fawns over his subjects (never worse than with Ms. Bailey) so excessively, that it can only be the product of genuine surprise. Time and again, he seems to say: "Look at these wretches, how startling and cute it is when they say something clever!"

Now, in writing this I probably picked up a bit of steam, and overstated my case. No doubt about that, but in the interest of balancing so much uncritical praise, I'll let this stand...
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An awful lot like The Wire..., March 2, 2009
By 
Craig T (OH United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets (Kindle Edition)
....but not as good. Something does not ring true about this book. The dialogue, especially, seems very contrived.
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42 of 57 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointed, April 6, 2008
I am a graduate student in Sociology and received my BA in the same from Berkeley. I bought this book because I was trained by another sociologist who did extensive work on gangs and I was interested in comparing the two. As this is a sociological book, I expected the introduction to layout methodology and detail how the author dealt with this kind of fieldwork. I also expected to find some connection to sociology. This book is more like a novel than an academic work and I am quite disconcerted that it has gotten such positive attention.

For a graduate student, which Venkatesh was at the start of his project, to not understand that a sociological researcher is not covered by the First Amendment is startling. I learned this in my sociological methods classes as an undergraduate, how could he make it four years into his research before W.J. Wilson informs him he could be legally liable for watching illegal activities? Further, the continued use of deception in this research is ethically problematic as well. To allow J.T. to even partially believe that Venkatesh was writing a biography places the researcher in an ethical dilemma - one that Venkatesh minimally addresses. Venkatesh would have done well to address this issue, as well as issues of his personal biases (he comes from a privileged background), reliability and validity - all of which are important to a sociological book.

Finally, Venkatesh makes a patently false claim. At the end of the book when talking to J.T., Venkatesh states that there has never been an inter-city study of gangs that would allow for comparison across region. THIS IS FALSE. Martin Sanchez-Jankowski of U.C. Berkeley wrote "Islands in the Street" after spending ten years conducting participant observation research on gangs ALL ACROSS THE U.S. Sanchez-Jankowski's book is still in print and for Venkatesh to not even know about its existence indicates that he did little other research to go along with his field work. If he had conducted a literature review, this book would have been known to him. I believe that the heading "A Rogue Sociologist Takes to The Streets" is simply a grandiose self-reference designed to sell books. If you are truly interested in learning about gangs, check out "ISLANDS IN THE STREET."
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Amazing book - But I have ambiguous feelings about the author, May 17, 2008
This is a very readable book - sad, funny and haunting. However I have some very ambiguous and sometimes very negative feelings towards the author Sudhir Venkatesh, especially while reading his last chapter. For most of the book, the relationship between Sudhir and JT comes across as a warm and trusting freindship. I really was rooting for both of them: for Sudhir to be successful in his academic ventures and for JT - not to end up being killed or land in jail. But the last chapter was very off-putting. I was pained when Sudhir says JT wasn't his friend and he doubts whether he ever was. He also sounds very condescending when he describes JT as being clingy. It really appears that Sudhir was really using JT for his research and all the "friendship" and camaraderie was just playacting - a means to an end. In the end Sudhir made his academic career out of the people who befriended him and after his mission was accomplished, he has discarded them like a used glove.
I am an Indian-American and I am proud of the success and acclaim that Sudhir Venkatesh has recieved first for his part in "Freakanomics" and now for "Gang Leader For a Day". However as a fellow South Indian, I would like to remind him of another South Indain virtue: Do not kick down the ladder that you climbed on to fame and fortune.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Ethics, who needs 'em?!, February 28, 2010
By 
T3 (Minneapolis, MN United States) - See all my reviews
Gang Leader for a Day is certainly an entertaining, captivating and quick read. It's a page-turner, I'll give it that. But, it left my stomach churning.

This book is a written account of Venkatesh's doctoral work at the University of Chicago's Department of Sociology (a legendary program). Yet, anyone familiar with social science research will be left befuddled upon reading this book. Venkatesh skirts the explicit ethical requirements of social research throughout his project, to an amazing and sickening degree. He exploits the already-marginalized population of poor Blacks for his personal gain - lying to them throughout his project, deceiving them of his purpose, and knowingly placing certain persons in harms way. For me, this book was an exercise in ego and exploitation, and a prime example of what NOT to do in research.

If it were simply a personal account of someone who hung out with gang members for the heck of it, it would still be an example of exploitation and entitlement - but it would end there. Unfortunately, it is the account of a successful sociologist who knowingly violated professional ethics and exploited an impoverished community for the betterment of his career. (for a more technical/academic explanation, see: Puff the Magic Sociologist from the Tenured Radical)

Read? Sure. But do so with a critical eye and some basic knowledge on the ethical obligations of social researchers.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Naive Graduate Student Learns about Life in the Projects, February 6, 2008
By 
Donald Mitchell "Jesus Loves You!" (Thanks for Providing My Reviews over 124,000 Helpful Votes Globally) - See all my reviews
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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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars I liked the book, but..., May 28, 2009
I was very concerned that Venkatesh was losing his objectivity in certain parts of the book, and in some instances I felt that he did outright. I was pleased to read that some of his academic supervisors and peers reigned him in about getting a little too close to the subjects of his field work, and their criminal exploits.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars quick read... but didn't have much depth, January 21, 2011
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I really wanted to like it because a friend recommended it and spoke highly of it. however, i found it very dull and half boring. i don't want to spoil anything for the soon-to-be readers of this book, so i won't mention details. i felt that the author used these people at the projects to achieve his greater good. he lied to them to get more information w/o their acknowledgment and had the audacity to print this book and mention that very fact. I understand that he's a sociologist and that it's his job to study people. to achieve his goal, yes, he had to "get in" with these gangs, but it just didn't sit well with me that this relationship resulted in nothing beneficial for the people who were studied. It really made me dislike the author more when he didn't even refer the gang leader a friend after spending many years by his side. all in all, i still recommend it but don't expect to be moved. it definitely was not a feelgood book.
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