Any one who has read Freakonomics will be familiar with this story: A University of Chicago grad student does some research in the projects and ends up with a bunch of data about the finances of crack dealers. As it turns out, that was only the tip of the iceberg.
In Gang Leader for a Day, that grad student, Sudhir Ventakesh, tells the whole story. It all begins as a little quantitative survey conducted for one of his faculty advisors. It becomes a sprawling ethnography that takes place over the course of five years, against the wishes of his mentors and his own best judgment. Along the way, Sudhir sees the world inside the roughest projects in Chicago unfold before him in all its complexity. We meet a gang leader who deals crack and serves as a sort of social glue for the community. We meet a community leader who does what she can to help her fellow residents, all while taking kickbacks to better her own circumstances. We meet the police, charged with patrolling the projects, who never show up when called.
Ultimately, it’s a great piece of research, and a story well told.