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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 February 2008, 14:17 GMT
Gangs, guns and a 'rogue sociologist'
Sudhir Venkatesh

American sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh spent seven years working under the wing of a notorious Chicago gang leader as part of some ground-breaking work on poverty in the United States.

But while the self-styled "rogue sociologist" as been feted for revolutionising the academic discipline, he has also faced criticism - accused of losing his objectivity through "tabloid sociology".

His academic research has been widely publicised - not least via the bestseller Freakanomics, in which his 2006 study of the economics of crack dealing was the subject of a chapter entitled "Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?"

Now he has stepped out from academia again - this time in literary terms - to pen a memoir on his colourful years spent with the dealers, gang members, squatters, prostitutes, pimps and activists of Chicago's deprived South Side.

Mr Venkatesh told the BBC about his experiences in an interview with the Newshour programme:

How did you start off?

I was a sociologist administering a survey and I walked up to a group of young men and I literally asked them how does it feel to be black and poor - and they laughed at me and they thought I must have been anything else other than a sociologist. And they actually kept me captive for 24 hours because they thought I was a rival gang member. I befriended them slowly and I realised that questions like that weren't going to get me the access that I needed.

There's a lot of ingenuity and creativity because the state has effectively withdrawn from this place.

The leader of this particular group was a charismatic young fellow named JT, who I write about, and he had a college degree so we had a mutual curiosity. And he told me if you really want to understand what street gangs are like you have to come and live with us and hang out with us, so I eventually ended up moving into this slum community for 18 months over a period of seven years.

I would actually live with people. I couldn't get an apartment myself and I didn't want to take an apartment away from somebody, but I had a chance to actually sleep on the couches and the beds inside people's apartments - and it was an extraordinary level of insight and access that people gave me.

Were people not suspicious of your motives?

I think so, in the beginning certainly and it really took me a good two years to really feel comfortable. There were a lot of people coming in asking questions for a day or two... I decided to just hang around for as long as I could and I think that's what helped separate me from others.

Weren't you compromising your objectivity?

I think that was the tension throughout the study, trying to figure out how to balance and involvement with the community, being there all the time and trying to remain objective. This is a very very poor community and it's a community that's based on the underground economy, the black market, so you are going to see unpleasant things day to day and you have to work out how to navigate those things without getting personally involved.

Crack cocaine
The academic unpicked the retail economics of crack dealing

I had to witness a lot of things, a lot of beatings, drive-by shootings, episodes of violence and I wrestled with, 'What does one do?' I learned very early when I approached the police and I said 'There's a lot of illegal activity going on' - they were the first ones to tell me 'We can't prevent crime from occurring, we can only make sure it doesn't get out of control'. So faced with that quandary, everyone in the community is an accessory because you are living in the middle of a criminal atmosphere.

I didn't feel compromised because the residents protected me, they gave me safe haven, they actually pointed out where I could and could not go - so I never had to participate actively in any criminality. Simply by the fact that I had to observe it though, that was rather unpleasant.

One of your conclusions was that residents took on the role of the state. Explain.

There was a family who lost their front door - and by lost I mean they couldn't get it fixed by the housing council and so, what do they do? Well they pay off the local tenant leader who pays off the street gang who then pays off a housing council official to then get the door fixed. It's in the middle of the winter so there is an extraordinary amount of self reliance: There's a lot of ingenuity and creativity because the state has effectively withdrawn from this place. In that void the residents come up and act as the janitors, the gang functions as the philanthropists and gives money to children and things like that, because they can't rely on anyone else.

What about the problems of intimidation?

The state right now in the US is busily destroying and demolishing these council estates and in their place creating mixed income housing developments

This is not a cosy atmosphere, the residents would like nothing more than to have a state that worked, to have a charitable base, schools that function - in its place they have to face this difficult situation of either patronising the street gang or doing without. So in situations where they have to put food on the table, they take money from people and participate in a drug economy when they'd much rather prefer not to.

Any conclusions about breaking this cycle?

The state right now in the US is busily destroying and demolishing these council estates and in their place creating mixed income housing developments where the middle class and the poor, the working poor, live together. That experiment is only now starting to get underway and we are seeing signs that when you engage in income mixing, generally it helps to alleviate problems such as gang activity and entrenched criminality.

I think that's one way out of it, but the problem is that you do have to have a safety net in place for the poor to be able to take care of themselves and we'll see with the next administration whether that safety net is going to be returned.

Do you have any regrets, did you ever go too far?

I think I had no choice if I was going to study the drug economy , if I was going to study street gangs, there was no choice that I had to observe this sort of thing. I have actually changed the nature of my work now. Now I give informed consent to people i let them know what the risks are of participating in my research - the police know exactly what I'm doing. I was 23 years old at the time and it was very difficult for me, so I learned by making a lot of mistakes along the way.

Mistakes such as overhearing the planning of criminal activity and not telling folks: 'Listen if you are going to talk about this then I have to leave the room because I will have to report this to the police'. Again in certain instances where I did tell the police they would tell me they can't do anything about it. So its a Catch-22, and you are not quite sure what to do - that's the difficulty of living in these places.

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