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Sudhir Venkatesh Becomes 'Gang Leader for a Day'

by Linda Kulman
Feb 5, 2008

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Sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh

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Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

Most people have never dared venture inside a gang selling crack cocaine — not to do research, anyway. But as a 23-year-old grad student in sociology, Sudhir Venkatesh went against the University of Chicago's strident warnings to stay within the bounds of safety, visiting one of the city's notorious housing projects.

Armed with only a clipboard and a survey on what it meant to be poor and black in America, Venkatesh was promptly taken hostage. Instead of being put off for good, he returned the next day with a better set of questions and wound up hanging out there for seven years to get the answers. The result is his new book, Gang Leader for a Day.

"This is the thing that surprised me the most," Venkatesh says. "I thought I was coming in there to be the expert and I ended up being humbled practically every day."

Although Venkatesh is the author of two earlier works, American Project and Off the Books, many readers first encountered him in the bestseller Freakonomics, where his research forms the backbone of the chapter "Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms?"

"Sudhir Venkatesh was born with two abnormalities," says Freakonomics co-author Stephen Dubner, "an overdeveloped curiosity and an underdeveloped sense of fear."

Dubner continues: "A lot of writing about the poor tends to reduce living, breathing, joking, struggling, sensual, moral human beings to dupes who are shoved about by invisible forces. This book ... shows, day by day and dollar by dollar, how the crack dealers, tenant leaders ... cops, and Venkatesh himself tried to construct a good life out of substandard materials."

This reading of Gang Leader for a Day was recorded in January of 2008 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

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Recorded at Politics and Prose, Washington, DC.

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