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SUDHIR VENKATESH SHARES STREET SOCIOLOGY 101

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April 2008
SUDHIR VENKATESH SHARES STREET SOCIOLOGY 101

Professor Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh—a former Deadhead (groupie of the band Grateful Dead) and a former Chicago ‘gang leader’—is hardly your typical desi. Yet he’s not really a rebel, either. Instead, he can be seen as an unconventional Indian American with the rational approach of a conventional academic. Except when it comes to personal safety. As a graduate student in Chicago, he almost got shot when he went to a gang-infested neighborhood and began asking naïve questions about their lives. He’d been initially mistaken for a rival Mexican gang member.

Venkatesh, though, has always been a good desi son, with a shrewd understanding of his family background. “There is one basic truth in the South Asian immigrant experience: Do as your parents tell you,” he declares in Gang Leader for a Day, his recent book. He wanted to study sociology, but his Indian-born father felt that bioengineering would be a more practical option. As a compromise, Venkatesh ended up studying theoretical math, which gave him a strong foundation for graduate studies in sociology. “I knew that my father supported me, and I even understood his rationale,” he writes. “We were immigrants with no connections, no wealth, and all we had lay between our ears; a math degree would at least guarantee me a job.”

In the late ‘80s, when he became a student at the University of Chicago, he was warned to stay away from places not patrolled by the campus police. Undeterred, Venkatesh walked alone and even played basketball in a so-called unsafe park, where he soon attracted curiosity. He was brown, dressed as a Deadhead, and a vegetarian to boot. He was unusual, to say the least, and even Venkatesh admits he was considered loopy for the correct reasons. But he took to this gritty outdoor life with zest, turning the street into his classroom. He reveled in the ethnic diversity of Chicago, which was a far cry from the ‘white-bread’ California suburb he’d grown up in. With the help of William Julius Wilson, his mentor and a renowned expert on poverty and race, Venkatesh went on to become an ethnographic rather than quantitative sociologist.   

Venkatesh’s association with a gang—especially J.T., the leader—forms the crux of the story, which first came to light in the bestselling Freakonomics. His incisive study brought him professional success (he now teaches sociology and African American studies at Columbia) and also a measure of fame. For his current project, he’s making a comparative study of urban poverty in the U.S. and France. During a final meeting with J.T., Venkatesh realized that the most unconventional thing he’d ever done was to gain such a lot from a man who was so distant from his academic life.


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