The gulf that exists between life and facts about life is vast. The facts about life seldom reveals the real. It gives a different perspective, a perspective that carved out from tones of statistical data and complex mathematical methods. After being squeezed out the real essence: the human life with all it’s situations, struggles, aspirations, dreams and emotions; this quantified version seldom has soul of it’s own. However for all practical purposes, business as well as political , such perspective is indispensable. But to see and experience the life of a community in all it’s essence, the above mentioned perspective is grossly inadequate. Researchers, when they study a society, often fail to see both perspectives. This could be either of inaccessibility or the restrictions imposed by the scientific method they adopted. But Sudhir Venkatesh was courageous enough to take a different route that most of the researchers dare not even dream about.
This young Chicago university student broke conventions and flouted the established rules to learn and experience life in the most violent, dangerous communities of Chicago gang world. As Stephen Dubner phrased, with “an overdeveloped curiosity and an underdeveloped sense of fear” Sudhir walked into the crack gang infested life at Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago. Under the protection of gang leader J.T. he spend his next seven years living, observing and documenting life in the ghetto; Or to put in his own words: “how does it feel to be black and poor ?”.
The harsh life he witnessed there made him realize how inadequate and out of touch were the standard tools and social policies that sociologists had been employing to prevent hardships of the poor and unemployed. He found life in the projects were “too wild, too hard and too chaotic for the standard prescriptions that the social scientists could muster”. He observed how scarce resource availability pushed people to believe in the principle ‘end justify means’.
During his life at Robert Taylor Homes project he faced other problems as well. Once in the middle of a gang shootout he had to dodge bullets to save the life of a gang member. On another occasion he joined other gang members beat up one of it’s member. The legal implications of his association with gang members, his knowledge of their activities, wrath of corrupt cops, his fall out from the community’s trust when J.T. double crossed him, made his life altogether extremely risky. His luck was very strong. Undoubtedly it enabled him to complete his research work and came out of there without getting hurt.
The book provides great deal of insight on how such communities function, their social structure, their power hierarchy and economics. A good read.