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.