Gang leader for a day

I liked this book, Gang Leader for a Day, a lot. For those of you who haven’t already contributed to it having a sales rank of #360 on Amazon, do read it. Don’t be fooled by the title ‘rogue sociologist’ – Venkatesh is writing pure confessional ethnography, and he’s rather better at it than most.

I thought the sociological parts of the book were interesting too, but I’m blogging about this because of the fieldwork. I thought it was a great description for a number of reasons:

  • Venkatesh makes errors: in his case, they’re potentially life-threatening errors. He mentions it early on but it’s not clear until later that he hasn’t realised that he is part of the social network of the people he’s working with, and as such, has responsibilities and gets ‘played’.
  • The breathtaking lack of IRB supervision and consideration of the ethical and legal implications of what he’s doing were sort of interesting too. I’m lucky, my grad students go to places which are fairly safe, but I sometimes wonder what the duty of care is of advisors who approve topics that they know to be risky to the student. After all, the student is (usually) an adult who can make their own decisions, but presumably we do have *some* duty of care.
  • Venkatesh showed really well that different social systems have internal cohesion. That is, life in the Projects wasn’t just a non-functioning version of life in the suburbs, it has a functioning parallel economy working on principles more or less similar to the ‘mainstream’.

3 responses to “Gang leader for a day

  1. The ‘duty of care’ issue for student supervisors is one that has concerned me in the past, and still does. It’s true that students are adults and can make their own choices, but sometimes they are less informed than they might be about the local contexts of their fieldwork situations, and being less experienced may undertake more risky behaviour than their more seasoned colleagues or seniors. Of course things like tsunamis, earthquakes, revolutions etc cannot be predicted but there are other things that we as supervisors have to take responsibility for at least assessing the risk factors with the student, and where possible, preparing them for eventualities.

  2. There’s also the reverse: what if they take my advice but they know more about the local conditions than I do, and my advice is ok in general but very bad in that circumstance?

  3. I share your views on Venkatesh. I read it in a single sitting; couldn’t put it down.

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