Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Introduciing Sudhir Venkatesh: The Ghetto Economy

Sudhir Venkatesh is the graduate student from the University of Chicago that made Steven Levitt's and Stephen Dubner's first Freakonomics book so interesting--he is the one who brought in the great gang information and even the gang accounting for Levitt to peruse (as he says himself) at leisure.

He is not strictly an economist, so his vision of social activity is quite different. Nevertheless, he has studied economic phenomena (such as drug accounting and unofficial business) within the inner city. His work is genuine field work of the old style. In short, he lived it first, developing long-term relationships, which gained him more access and longer times to formulate and test his theories. His work is therefore a little more personalized than Levitt's. It is also terribly important because is not a hit-and-run intellectual exercise. It is the long way around getting a graduate degree, and at some risk to his health, indeed.

I was lucky to find that C-Span spent an hour with Mr. Venkatesh in its "Q and A" program. The following video is 58 minutes long. It was spurred by his most popular book, Gang Leader for a Day, but introduces his work in general. All of the video I am finding with Professor Ventakesh (now at Columbia) seems to be an hour long, which is not optimal for blog readers, I know. So the transcript of the talk is here. And since Professor Venkatesh took the long way around his sociology degree, we have a lot of personal witness to life in the Robert Taylor homes in Chicago--including some mistakes he made as well as the mother lode of information. He spent seven years at it.

He discovered an entirely different kind of government in the inner city. An entirely different economy. And in Gang Leader for a Day, he was able to access the workings of what I would call America's fastest-growing conglomerate--the crime conglomerate.

In my studies of gangs and gang economics, I have run into two remarkable men who have accessed the ghetto in a long-standing relationship AND studied it with academic rigor. Mr. Venkatesh is one. He is, further, an ambitious scholar. Without his interest, commitment and compassion, we would never get a glimpse of what we see here. 

So I think it's very important to view his work as a series of large clues and insights. The raw material may lead, certainly, to any solution he suggests, or any emotion he invokes. It may also lead to other conclusions of your own. But very rarely do we get to access someone with such an involved history of the details, as well as economic and social studies background, to translate for us. It's strong work. 

Mr. Venkatesh has his own Web site.
Books by Mr. Venkatesh:
Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Ventakesh. Available, and featured above.
Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor. Available.
American Project: The Rise and Fall of the Urban Ghetto. Available.

There are also several documentaries noted at his Web site. Not all of them are about economics or gangs, but a good many of them are indeed on this very important part of urban life.


Bob G. said...

I've said for a LONG time, that inner cities operate by "their own rules"...
Saw in in Philly, Camden, Columbus, and now Ft. Wayne.

There IS a "sub-culture" based in criminal activity with a promise of "family", complete with it's OWN set of (skewed) "values", priorities, and "language" (hence the term Ebonics), and it's as subtle as allowing small things to go unnoticed (often by design) IN the very city that SAYS it is trying to stem the tide of crime and poverty in a slum area.

An excellent example of how the Broken Window Theory grows almost exponentially.

Ventakesh has his finger firmly on the pulse of cities in this regard...and he's a good scholar.

The video is very revealing...and shows the "disposability" of many people...life becomes cheap in lieu of the gang mentality and the chance for "big bucks".

Another book I would recommend is called POOR SUPPORT by David Ellwood.
(poverty in the American Family)
Good read.

And a marvelous post!
Keep those hits coming!

Ann T. said...

Dear Bob,
Thank you for watching that video! Though it was long, I thought it was an easy introduction to what he has found.

Anyway, I have his longer books on my "to get" list and I will add the Ellwood to it. This is all critical to national health, IMO, and I want to know what to think and do.

Thanks for writing in! And you were very inspirational today! Even more so than usual!


the observer said...

Ann T:

Good stuff as usual. I have read Gang leader for a day. I need to watch your video.

Of course, some will always go the easier route of crime, but how much potential ends up being wasted in our economically deprived areas? How can we get the talented into the legitimate world?

Thanks for the post.
The Observer

Christopher said...

Another book from a Chicago academic (we produce the most brilliant minds on poverty, eh?) is When Work Disappears by William Julius Wilson. I don't agree with all of his methodology or conclusions, but it's a must read on urban sociology.

Ann T. said...

Dear The Observer,
Thanks for stopping in! I do think an hour is a long time when people are getting to all their favorite blogs.

Have a great day!
Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Dear Christopher,
Yes, I would like to read some of Wilson's work. Thank you for giving me a title.

I think Venkatesh trained under Wilson, so this could be a Very Interesting Discussion. I need a reading group, Badly.

Thank you,
Ann T.