Throughout his research, Sudhir wonders how he can balance an “objective,” or scientific, account of life in the projects with an empathic, or emotionally-infused, view of that world. An apprentice sociologist, Sudhir identifies a divide within his own academic discipline. On the one hand, he perceives that his field is a “science” that hopes to “know” about the world of people and societies, without projecting the biases of those doing the research into the studied communities. But on the other hand, Sudhir recognizes that people are people—that he is, in part, cataloguing the whims, irrationalities, and passions of human beings, and that he too has these passions. Indeed, his intense curiosity and resilience—as many remark in the book, they are surprised to see him back at the Homes again and again—drive the research onward.
In a sense, Sudhir negotiates this divide by writing Gang Leader for a Day, a narrative and memoiristic account of his life studying the projects, and by writing his dissertation, a more sober, data-rich, and “analytic” view of the same community. But Sudhir negotiates this divide in other ways—or sometimes fails to negotiate it. He wonders, for example, whether or not he can participate in certain non-legal or paralegal gang activities, and what his obligations are as a researcher when serious criminal activity occurs. Sudhir wonders, too, whether he can help those in the projects who are in need—women who have overdosed, men who are jobless, children who are hungry. Does this intervene in, and change, his research?
The consequence of all this is a pragmatic conclusion on Sudhir’s part. He has no “theory” of the projects per se, but rather a set of overlapping, and not always coherent, hunches about what to do in the projects when—how to observe, how to research, how to show care to others. In this, Sudhir says that he trusts his “moral compass,” and that phrase might be understood as a stand-in for the kind of running compromise he makes, as a scientist studying the messy lives of people.
Objectivity and Empathy ThemeTracker
Objectivity and Empathy Quotes in Gang Leader for a Day
I hadn’t come for the crack; I was here on a different mission. I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and for my research I had taken to hanging out with the Black Kings, the local crack-selling gang.
How do an individual’s preferences develop? Can we predict human behavior? ... The standard mode of answering these questions was to conduct widespread surveys and then use complex mathematical methods to analyze the survey data. ... It was thought that the key to formulating good policy was to first formulate a good scientific study.
You got blacks who are beating their heads trying to figure out a way to live where you live! Don’t ask me why. And then you got a whole lot of black folk who realize it ain’t no use. Like us. We just spend our time trying to get by, and we live around here, where it ain’t so pretty, but at least you won’t get your ass beat. At least not by the police.
Go back to where you came from ... and be more careful when you walk around the city. ... You shouldn’t go around asking them silly-ass questions. ... With people like us, you should hang out, get to know what they do, how they do it. No one is going to answer questions like that. You need to understand how young people live on the streets.
Beer? ... You said I should hang out with folks if I want to know what their life is like.
We stepped inside an apartment furnished with couches and a few reclining chairs that faced a big TV. There was a Christian show playing. ... The domestic scene surprised me a bit, for I had read so much about the poverty and danger in Robert Taylor, how children ran around without parents and how drugs had overtaken the community.
Regulars like me, we hustle to make our money, but we only go with guys we know. We don’t do it full-time, but if we have to feed our kids, we may make a little money on the side.
He [JT] had no real sense of what I would actually be writing—because, in truth, I didn’t know myself. Nor did I know if he’d be upset with me for having seen him beat up C-Note, or if perhaps he’d try to censor me.
JT’s ambitions ran even higher. What he wanted, he told me, was to return the gang to its glory days of the 1960s, when South Side gangs worked together with residents to agitate for improvements in their neighborhoods.
Shorty-Lee was puzzled. He looked over to the three other BKs. They were toting spiral-bound notebooks in which they “signed up” potential votes. But it seemed that neither Lenny nor JT had told them there was an actual registration form and that registrars had to be licensed.
I was nervous, to be sure, but not because I was implicating myself in an illegal enterprise. In fact, I hadn’t even really thought about that angle. ... Only later, when I began sharing my experience with my advisers ... did I begin to understand—and adhere to—the reporting requirements for researchers who are privy to criminal conduct.
The next day I would wake up free of the hundreds of obligations and judgments I’d been witness to. But JT wouldn’t. He’d still bear all the burdens of running a successful underground economy...
For now, be careful when you help the women. They’ll take advantage of you, and you won’t know what hit you. And I can’t be there to protect you.
Do you want to write me another essay? Do you want to write about what just happened?
I spent the next few weeks turning the information in my notebooks into statistical tables and graphs that showed how much different hustlers made. I figured that JT would appreciate this data at least as much as my professors would...
The women wrote and spoke openly about their struggles. Each of them had at least a couple of children, which generally meant at least one “baby daddy” who wasn’t in the picture. Each of them had a man in her life who’d been either jailed or killed...
You didn’t have to get mixed up in this shit.
He must have heard that I’d helped drag Price into the lobby. I didn’t say anything. JT slapped my leg, asked if I wanted a Coke, and walked off to the fridge.
You think I don’t know who you [expletive] are? You think we all don’t know what you’re doing? If you want to play with us, you better be real careful. If you like watching, you may get caught.
You need to understand that the Black Kings are not a gang; we are a community organization, responding to people’s needs.
The pages of the ledgers were frayed, and some of the handwriting was hard to decipher, but the raw information was fascinating. For the past four years, T-Bone had been dutifully recording the gang’s revenues ... and expenses.
...perhaps the most unconventional thing I ever did was embrace the idea that I could learn so much, absorb so many lessons, and gain so many experiences at the side of a man who was so far removed from my academic world.