Ivory Tower Dealer

In the NY Sun, Tyler Cowen reviews Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets:

I opened this book expecting to learn about why crime is high, how the drug trade works, or why so many people seem to make dysfunctional lifestyle choices. That’s not what I got. Most of all this is a story of male friendship and bonding — that’s right, I mean the bonding between the researcher and the criminal.

J.T., the gang leader at the center of the story, and of Mr. Venkatesh’s research, becomes wrapped up in the idea of having his own biographer. Eventually it became his obsession that Mr. Venkatesh record the details of his life, including the shakedowns. In part, this was J.T.’s narcissism, and in part he needed the motivation of an observer. Most of all, J.T. seemed to enjoy having an audience: “I realized that he had come to rely on my presence; he liked the attention, and the validation,” Mr. Venkatesh reports. None of J.T.’s underlings were qualified for the role of courtier, but the highly intelligent and nonjudgmental Mr. Venkatesh was perfect.

Others are not quite so generous toward Mr. Venkatesh. Ms. Bailey, one neighborhood figure, told him: “You want to act like a saint, then you go ahead … But you are also hustling. And we’re all hustlers … You’re a hustler, I can see it. You’ll do anything to get what you want. Just don’t be ashamed of it.” Mr. Venkatesh himself does not shy away from telling us about the more lurid appeal his project had for him: “By now I had spent about six years hanging out with J.T., and at some level I was pleased that he was winning recognition for his achievements. Such thoughts were usually accompanied by an equally powerful disquietude that I took so much pleasure in the rise of a drug-dealing gangster.”