November 15, 2013

"Gang leader" becomes a "rogue sociologist"

Beyond pizza and hot dog styles, Chicago’s and New York’s darker sides differ too, according to Sudhir Venkatesh (Ph.D. ’97), professor of sociology and African-American studies at Columbia University.

Venkatesh described his new book, Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York’s Underground Economy, as a “270-page lesson in failure” at I-House Wednesday night.

Venkatesh spent his graduate years studying South Side gangs in Chicago, where residents tend to stay within their own neighborhoods; “in a box,” as Venkatesh put it. This makes it very easy for sociologists to “create a script” for people’s lives, based on their geographic location.

New York, according to Venkatesh, has an entirely different system, as demonstrated through two very different individuals engaging in its underground economy. One was a lower-class black crack dealer from Harlem, who, due to decreasing sales, wanted to start selling cocaine to wealthy white businessmen in Midtown Manhattan. The other, a wealthy white woman, ran a prostitution ring, in defiance of parental urgings to get a “nine-to-five job.”

“In New York City, people don’t sit in the boxes you want them to sit in, as a sociologist,” he said. “They tend to move around a lot and change their anchors often.”

Venkatesh said that this made it difficult for him to adapt to a new method of sociological investigation when he first went to New York in the late 1990s. In Chicago, Venkatesh could spend weeks in one location to gather information. In New York City, he had to keep traveling with people.

As for why individuals from more privileged backgrounds engaged in the underground economy, Venkatesh indicated it was because of a desire for excitement, and to “break out of the box” they are put in.

“There is a thrill you get from that kind of work. People cross worlds and change their station in life, and start moving towards each other,” he said.