Gang Leader for a Day

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Gang Leader for a Day Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Sudhir Venkatesh's Gang Leader for a Day. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Sudhir Venkatesh

Sudhir Venkatesh was born in India and attended high school outside of San Diego, California. As he discusses in Gang Leader for a Day, his parents encouraged him to pursue a career in the “hard sciences,” and he majored in mathematics at UC-San Diego. He then switched, however, to sociology, and accepted a fellowship in the doctoral program at the University of Chicago, a department famed for its influential depictions of life in cities, and for its often quantitative emphasis (on, for example, demographic and economic statistics of communities under study). Venkatesh began observing communities in the poor, predominantly African-American South Side of the city under the direction of Professor William Wilson, an important figure in American sociology. Venkatesh’s academic struggles as a doctoral student, his budding research, and his attempts to reconcile the demands of that research with other aspects of his life make up the plot of Gang Leader for a Day, a memoir that accompanies his dissertation on urban poverty and off-the-books economies. Venkatesh was, until recently, a tenured professor and prominent sociologist at Columbia University. He now works at Facebook Research (a part of the technology company), where he analyzes “human-computer interaction.”
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Historical Context of Gang Leader for a Day

Venkatesh begins his research at the very end of the 1980s, when, as he describes, American society was changing dramatically. Welfare and other systems designed to help the urban poor (many of which were established via Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” of the mid-to-late 1960s) were being defunded, eroded, or altered as part of Ronald Reagan’s plan for diminished or nonexistent government interference in the private sector. This meant that, for example, public housing subsidies to large cities fell precipitously in the 1980s, and experiments in large-scale, government-supported living, especially for historically underrepresented minority communities, were no longer utopian ideas heralded by local, state, and federal politicians. Instead, places like the Robert Taylor Homes were characterized (as Venkatesh describes) as “blights,” bastions of entrenched poverty, crime and, illicit behavior. These local, state, and government policies continued to deemphasize or even ignore,housing projects and the people who lived in them – and politicians offered, instead, “mixed-income” housing solutions that often led to the breaking-up of families living together in housing projects, and to the “urban renewal” of places like the Homes for large-scale building projects (arenas, convention centers) or housing that favored middle- and upper-middle class working families. Thus Venkatesh’s subjects are understudied by researchers because they are barely supported by the governments charged with managing their apartments and policing their communities. Venkatesh’s work, in large part, examines how people live in environments so little depicted (and so frequently sensationalized) in the popular press of the 1980s and ‘90s.

Other Books Related to Gang Leader for a Day

Venkatesh’s memoir participates in two different literary genres or subfields. The first is the general-interest economics book, which can be summarized, essentially, by one volume: Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (economist and journalist, respectively). Venkatesh is featured in that text, and Levitt and Dubner attempt throughout to apply economic problem-solving strategies to issues not usually studied by economists. Thus Venkatesh’s work on the gray-market and under-explained interactions of sex workers with their johns, and of drug dealers with drug buyers, sheds light on common social and economic relationships that are not “official,” are untaxed, and are not out in the open. These relationships are, however, central to the economic systems of many communities, including places like the Robert Taylor Homes. A second literary movement of which Venkatesh’s work is a part is that of the memoir, or “self-writing,” in the 1990s and 2000s. These books cross literary genres: there are memoirs of artistic life (Mary Karr’s Lit and The Liars’ Club); of illness and feeling (Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams); of childhood (Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes; Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; Patti Smith’s Just Kids). Numerous contemporary critics have pointed out that this genre was and is, in many senses, more popular than the genre of the novel. Thinkers of the period (at magazines like n+1 and in forums like the New York Times) described this phenomenon, and devoted increased magazine-space to reviews and discussions of non-fiction accounts with narrative elements.
Key Facts about Gang Leader for a Day
  • Full Title: Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets
  • When Written: The early 2000s
  • Where Written: Chicago, Cambridge (Ma.), New York City
  • When Published: 2008
  • Literary Period: 21st-century non-fiction, Contemporary sociology
  • Genre: Sociology (in “general-interest” form); memoir
  • Setting: the South Side of Chicago, mostly in and around the Robert Taylor Homes housing projects
  • Climax: Sudhir kicks a man named Bee-Bee in the Homes, who was accused of beating his girlfriend – thus allowing other members of the Black Kings to apprehend him and beat him, as punishment.
  • Point of View: first-person

Extra Credit for Gang Leader for a Day

Dissertation. Venkatesh’s dissertation was published by Harvard University Press in 2002 and is entitled American Project. It contains more in-depth and statistically-rigorous discussions of some of the material featured in Gang Leader for a Day.