A sociologist's account of 10 years spent with a Chicago gang taught me a bittersweet lesson about the way we perceive the world

In 2015, Mark Zuckerberg launched a Facebook-based book club that featured picks focused on “different cultures, beliefs, histories, and technologies.”

One of the books that Zuckerberg recommended is “Gang Leader for a Day,” by Columbia University sociology professor Sudhir Venkatesh.

The book chronicles an experiment Venkatesh undertook while in graduate school in the 1990s. He embedded himself in a Chicago gang — the Black Kings — and developed a complicated ‘friendship’ with one of the gang leaders, referred in the book as “J.T.”

I found Venkatesh’s account easy to read and engrossing, but troubling at times. I was bothered by the fact that he was always teetering on a fine line between being the “impartial observer” and effectively being part of the gang. He did, after all, immerse himself in the gang community for a decade.

Venkatesh had complicated relationships with most of his subjects. Sometimes he admired them, sometimes he feared them, and sometimes he gave the impression that he didn’t think highly of them. These feelings appear to have coloured his descriptions of his interactions, which made it difficult to determine how accurate they were.

At the beginning, Venkatesh’s enthrallment with J.T. was evident:

“[J.T.] was the one who had brought me in, and he was the only one who could open — or shut — any door. But beyond all that lay one simple fact: J.T. was a charismatic man who led a fascinating life that I wanted to keep learning about.”

Venkatesh’s witnessed several violent or illegal encounters, where, in most instances, he was a passive bystander. He admitted his difficulty in balancing acting as an observer, his moral compass, and his personal ambition regarding the outcome of his research:

“I began to contemplate the possibility that I would see more beatings, perhaps even fatal incidents. I still felt exhilarated by my access to J.T.’s gang, but I was also starting to feel shame. My conviction that I was merely a sociological observer, detached and objective, was starting to feel false. Was I really supposed to just stand by while someone was getting beat up? I was ashamed of my desire to get so close to the violence, so close to a culture that I knew other scholars had not managed to see.

In reality I probably had little power to stop anyone from getting abused by the gang. And for the first time in my life, I was doing work that I truly loved; I was excited by my success. Back at the university, my research was starting to attract attention from my professors, and I certainly didn’t want to let that go.”

Venkatesh’s struggle with objectivity shows that as human beings, we can never be completely free from our natural tendencies, social conditioning, and the influence of our surroundings. But we can be aware of their existence, and be honest about the role that they play when we form opinions.

Only then can we have conversations about the issues that divide society, and start the long journey to address them.

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