Courtesy of University of Chicago Magazine

Sudhir Venkatesh, AM’92, PhD’97, stands on a weed-punctuated sidewalk, arms crossed, one side of his leather jacket’s collar flipped up, a pinkie ring just visible on his left hand. The cover image of his latest book, Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets, could almost work for a gangster-rap album.

Venkatesh first visited Chicago’s Lake Park projects as a grad student in 1989, dressed like a Deadhead and carrying a questionnaire. Stopped by gang members, he read from his survey: “How does it feel to be black and poor?” He then offered a set of multiple-choice answers: “Very bad, somewhat bad, neither bad nor good, somewhat good, very good.”

First the gang members laughed. Then they held him hostage overnight, drinking beer and chatting. Released unharmed, Venkatesh returned—and ended up winning the protection of charismatic, college-educated gang leader J. T.

The research he collected became the basis for two books as well as the chapter “Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms?” in Chicago economist Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics (2005). Now a Columbia University professor of sociology and African American studies, Venkatesh is collaborating with Levitt to study the economics of prostitution in Chicago. He is also an aspiring filmmaker: his documentary Dislocation—chronicling the lives of families in the infamous Robert Taylor Homes after the buildings were scheduled for demolition—aired on PBS in 2005, and he is finishing a fictional short, Abhidya.

In His Own Words…

“Rogue sociologist”: That was definitely something that the publishers [Penguin Press HC] came up with. It was intended to show what was unconventional about this work in relation to contemporary social science. In this book, I tell the story of how one gets knowledge about the poor. That’s usually missing.

The only thing to fear: Fear is probably three-quarters perception. I came from an upper-middle-class suburb [Irvine, California]. When I was thrust into a new environment, I wasn’t really scared because I wasn’t really sure what to notice. If you don’t know that you’re supposed to be scared, you just end up hanging out longer than you should, which is what I did. I kept thinking, It’ll get better some day. And it didn’t get better.

Poverty cycle: After you’ve spent 20 years in a community, you start seeing the children of poor people end up in the same place. Watching a drive-by shooting or violence is certainly difficult. But the reproduction of poverty was the hardest thing to see as a researcher. It’s more protracted, like an IV drip.

What gang members’ moms think: It was very difficult for J. T.’s mother. Conversations at dinner were often very tense. She would reprimand him. She would ask him what happened to someone who had been beaten up, how long he would be doing this line of work. He would clam up and leave the room. But this was her son. She couldn’t abandon him.

Hollywood shuffle: The book was never written to facilitate the making of a movie, but it has been optioned by Craig Brewer, who directed Hustle & Flow (2005). Hollywood has tremendous license to play around with reality. I have absolutely no formal connection with the production process. I have no say in the creative process.

Background music: I’ve heard a lot of hip-hop because I’ve been in this world so deeply. I’m not a critic, but the images in hip-hop strike me as laughable. The disproportionate mass of hip-hop is by accomplished musicians with a discernible middle-class bent. These days I mostly listen to Blue Note jazz.

Originally published on April 28, 2008.