What Do Nerds Dream About? Being Gang Leader for a Day

| Mon Jan. 21, 2008 6:05 PM PST

Or, at least, studying him.

In my fantasy life, I wouldn't be refurbishing a compound in Tuscany or climbing Mt. Everest with all the other mid-life crisis chicks. I'd be doing this—urban sociology WEB Dubois-style (he created the discipline, fyi). From the NY Times:

In a bit of bravado Mr. Venkatesh, who now teaches at Columbia, styles himself a "rogue sociologist." Dissatisfied with opinion surveys and statistical analysis as ways to describe the life of the poor, he reverted to the methods of his predecessors at the University of Chicago, who took an ethnographic approach to the study of hobos, hustlers and politicians. Much like a journalist, he observed, asked questions and drew conclusions as he accumulated raw data.
He also learned to hide what he was doing from his academic advisers. Mr. Venkatesh, reared in the comfortable suburbs of Southern California by Indian parents, crossed the line from observer to participant on more than one occasion as he penetrated deeper into the life of the Black Kings and its local captain, the ruthless, charismatic J.T.
When a rival gang sweeps by, guns blazing, he dodges bullets and helps drag a gang lieutenant to safety. When local squatters mete out street justice to a crackhead who has beaten a woman in the projects, he gets a boot in.

Not so much the helping adminster beat-downs part, but the fly on the wall, embedded study of urban culture. I've done a tad, but not nearly as much as I'd like. Instead, I bake cupcakes for the Jammie Day pre-school party and jealously read folks like him and her and him and her. Can't believe I almost forgot him!

Advertise on MotherJones.com

In the 'rogue sociologist's' defense, it's extremely difficult not to become embroiled in the lives, passions, crimes, defeats and just plain good times and tom-foolery of subjects whose lives you invade for weeks, months or years at a time. Hard to do unless they trust you (or, equally likely, they're showing off for you and/or are simply clueless as to how their lives will look on paper. Also, I figured out early on that being a woman can sometimes work for me on the beat; no one would think less of me for not helping them stomp someone, for example. Often—actually usually—I'm afforded extra protection when on ghetto patrol by men hoping to get interviewed or who think I'm simply insane for walking around asking foolish questions solo.) Yeah, sometimes, often, humanity trumps journalism. Thank God all I've got to do is ask myself what my mother would do, or not do in a tough situation, and my way becomes clear. Not easy, but clear; journalistic ethics can't hold a candle to Mom's (there are some good things about being raised by fire-and-brimstone, holy roller Southern Baptists). Teaching journalism now, my students are obsessed with what will get them sued. I tell them that what they have to worry about 99% of the time is living with themselves and what they've done to another human being whose only crime (unless you're that kind of journo) is catching your attention. I've left out things I know would make a difference to some readers and I've done that for all sorts of reasons (none of which have to do with covering my ass). Still, I wouldn't be human if I didn't continue to struggle with knowing about crimes that the police don't and 'problematic' behavior my subjects all too frequently feel safe doing in front of me. Behaviors that are almost always self-defeating. But I've learned to keep my advice to myself and crime solving to the cops. So, I'll leave judgements of this sociologist to others. And just read his book. And envy the hell out of him.

Oooh! Must reread her and her and...

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.