Book review: Gang Leader for a Day

This review is long overdue as I read Gang Leader for a Day this summer.  I try to read as much as I can, it keeps my thinking about social services fresh and exposes me to new realities and ideas.  Gang Leader for a Day, written by sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, highlights the living conditions and gang structure of an African American gang in a housing project in Chicago.  Venkatesh accumulated the information for the book over a multi-year ethnographic study.

The book is a quick, entertaining read, although I was disappointed that Venkatesh, writing for a wider audience, provides little academic analysis. The most useful takeaway from Gang Leader is that the residents of the housing project documented in the study view the gang as a part of the community, and not a solely negative one at that.  The gangs, while clear purveyors of drugs, act as a police presence for a community that has a poor relationship with the formal police force.  The gang also generates a lot of the community’s economic activity and actively donates to political causes and celebrated social service organizations.

In no way does Venkatesh come across as a gang sympathizer.  Rather, he is a realist, arguing that gangs play several roles in the community.  While I would recommend Gang Leader to someone looking for a fairly light read, I’m currently reading another Venkatesh book, Off the Books – the Underground Economy of the Poor which thus far seems to be a better blend of compelling ethnography and substantive analysis.