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Sudhir Venkatesh, the rogue sociologist took to the Chicago streets in the most notorious housing projects in search of people to take part in his survey on urban poverty and crime. He entered a poor black crime ridden neighbourhood for seven years and his first question was, “How does it feel to be poor and black? ” Venkatesh was a first-year graduate student at the University of Chicago at the time. What he found in the abandoned apartment building was beyond his expectations.
He met a gang leader named JT and they would soon become friends as Venkatesh observed the gang life.
Venkatesh’s study is nonetheless gripping and nothing short of interesting, however it raises some ethical concerns regarding the relationships with the gang members as well as that of his professor. The largest ethical concerned is obvious when Venkatesh himself says that he was a hustler among hustlers, however the substance he was hustling was not drug or money – it was the participants.
It appears that Venkatesh used the gang members for his own personal advancement due to the fact that he received academic acclaims, a prestigious fellowship, a position at a renowned university, and general public recognition.
Meanwhile, the gang members he befriended are left with the same poverty and social marginality. Sudhir Venkatesh befriends JT, the leader of the Black Kings gang for purely personal motives. At the end of the study, JT and the members of the Black Kings have not benefitted from the study or gained anything from it.
On page 143 of the novel, Venkatesh states, “the next day I’d wake up free of the hundreds of obligations and judgments I’d been witness to. But JT wouldn’t.
He’d still bear all the burdens of running a successful underground economy: enforcing contracts, motivating his members to risk their lives for low wages, dealing with capricious bosses. I was no less critical of what he did for a living. ” In the very beginning, Venkatesh had told JT that he was going to write his biography when he was actually trying to understand the underground economy. He spent years in one of Chicago’s most dangerous slums and gained unprecedented access to the world of gangs and gang functionality.
Venkatesh was witness to numerous violent confrontations and occasionally he was a participant.
Venkatesh’s study violates some of the clauses of the Tri-Council Policy Statement that is used to control ethical conduct for research involving humans.
Venkatesh began his research without participants’ approval, “as we pulled up to my apartment, I realized that I had never formally asked JT about gaining access to his life and work. ” (page 35).
Venkatesh tells JT that he will write his biography, which would seem promising to someone as impoverished as JT, looking for a way to escape his lifestyle of deprivation.
Although the names and some of the identities in the book were changed, Venkatesh violated the participants’ privacy and confidentiality. The way he gained the participants’ trust was very manipulative and they were unaware that disclosing so much information would be detrimental in the end. In ethical research conduction, the researcher should balance the harms and benefits, focusing on minimizing the harm. Venkatesh never took any of these precautions, except those that involved his own life. In fact, the balance between harms and benefits was very off centre.
The gang members did not benefit at all, and one member, “T-Bone”, ended up in prison and eventually dead. Prior to the closing of the novel, the gangs ‘accountant’ gives Venkatesh some notebooks that allow him to write an insider’s perspective article about underground economies. The gang member, who gave him this information known as ‘T-Bone’, was later killed in prison. Ironically, Venkatesh makes a strong point of saying that T-Bone never sold out his allies but it is extremely obvious that he in fact did, by giving Venkatesh the data in the first place.
As soon as Venkatesh gains the respectability and academic success he had set out for, the gang members and the community organizers in the Robert Taylor Homes vanish. Venkatesh went on to Harvard University while the participants were left in the destruction and failure of the community they lived and would never escape. He also deceived his professor and dissertation committee about the extent to which he was becoming involved with the Black Kings. He openly writes about the illegal activity he was observed and never told anybody. In fact, he even did some illegal things himself.
Sudhir’s study was not only unethical, but he put many people’s lives at risk, deceived the leader of the Black Kings, JT, to get involved in the research site, and the only person who benefitted positively from this was Venkatesh. Venkatesh was immersed for nearly three years before he began talking to his professors about his dissertation topic. They were less than thrilled when they discovered the extent to which he was involved with the Black Kings. “As it turned out, they weren’t as enthusiastic as I was about an in-depth study of the Black Kings crack gang and their compelling leader.
They were more interested in the standard sociological issues in the community: entrenched poverty, domestic violence, the prevalence of guns, residents’ charged relations with the government – and, to a lesser extent, how the community dealt with the gang. ” Even when faculty and an attorney warn him that participating in illegal gang activities puts him at risk of criminal prosecution, he continues his research anyways. Venkatesh, who claimed to be writing JT’s biography, has everyone convinced.
JT’s mother was even deceived by Venkatesh, “My son says you’re writing about his life – well, you may want to write about this community, and how we help each other. ” (page 43). Sudhir had given not only JT but also his community a false sense of hope and security for his own self-serving motives. His motives are somewhat malevolent in that his research required him to work with and encourage a vicious gang leader for nearly seven years. During this time period, he gained the trust and friendship of many people that, in the end, he would turn his back on and take from them the hope of ever finding a life beyond community housing.
Venkatesh fails to acknowledge and excuses his ethical failings as a researcher. Throughout the entire study he never once filed a plan with the Institutional Research Board until he is almost done his research. He lies about the nature of his work to JT, the members of the Black King gang, and his supervisors. JT acted as Venkatesh’s main informant and protector, yet Venkatesh continued to endanger him. He consistently puts the lives of the gang members in danger through his telltale description of his research findings in regards to the gang and its’ members.
Venkatesh’s claim to become a gang leader for a day, hence the title of the book, is metaphorical at best. He evades doing anything seriously criminal in order to avoid having to explain to JT why a sociology grad student cannot actually physically injure or murder anyone for the sake of research. Venkatesh admits his wrong doings and the fact that he hurt people in his research, but he also attempts to excuse his actions: “For a time I thought that J. T. and I might remain close even as our worlds were growing apart.
Don’t worry,” I told him, “I’ll be coming back all the time. ” But the deeper I got into my Harvard fellowship, the more time passed between my visits to Chicago, and the more time passed between visits, the more awkward J. T. and I found it to carry on our conversations. He seemed to have grown nostalgic for our early days together, even a bit clingy. I realized that he had come to rely on my presence; he liked the attention and the validation. ” (page 277). Near the end of the book JT and the Black Kings were beginning to fall apart as the drug business began to falter.
As the gang and its members were continuously faced with shortcomings, Venkatesh was advancing further and further into academic success. “I, meanwhile, grew evasive and withdrawn – in large part out of guilt. Within just a few months at Harvard, I began making a name for myself in academia by talking about the inner workings of street gangs. While I hope to contribute to the national discussion on poverty, I was not so foolish as to believe that my research would specifically benefit JT or the tenant families from which I’d learned so much. (page 277. ) Even though he tries to redeem himself when he claims to feel guilty, it does not stop him from exploiting people in his self-bettering venture to gather information for his study. Quite frankly, his expression of guilt, may not be guilt at all, Venkatesh is quite simply a ‘rogue sociologist’ with a literary agent. However, it is important to keep in mind that due to the nature of the task, social researchers are often put in situations where they will make questionable decisions.
In the case of Venkatesh, he sometimes hovered over the notion that what he was doing wasn’t necessarily moral but in order to complete the task at hand, he felt it was required. If Venkatesh had conducted his research in an ethical and moral manner, it is likely that his study would not have been so interesting and in-depth. Due to the restrictions of the Institutional Research Board, this study would have never been possible. While Sudhir Venkatesh’s research methodology was largely unethical, it was nonetheless very interesting.
To give him credit, the way he conducted his research was extraordinarily brave as he immersed himself in a dangerous culture of crime and deviance. Venkatesh’s study is a perfect example of why the Institutional Research Board exists. The committee requires social researchers to create normative research models centered on ethics rather than compliance. It is very simplistic for the process to be ignored. An ethical study requires consent forms in order to ensure that participants were fully informed of what their participation would entail. Venkatesh never included this as a part of his research, which he admits in the book.
Venkatesh’s study is naturally controversial because not everyone agrees on what is labeled as ethical or unethical. It is ultimately up to the sociologist to consider research related dilemmas and resolve them in a conscientious way. Sudhir Venkatesh presented readers with a very interesting read. His claim to fame as a “rogue sociologist” was nothing short of the truth. It is highly doubtful that many sociologists would wander into the most dangerous and crime ridden neighbourhoods of Chicago and ask, “How does it feel to be poor and black? Venkatesh is lucky that he did not get harmed in the process, or killed for that matter.
Throughout the book, he comes across as nai??ve and almost too egotistical for the nature of his work and the situation he has immersed himself in. It appears that Venkatesh and JT are using each other mutually, that is a deception. Venkatesh uses JT to become involved in the Black Kings crack gang for the purpose of observing how gangs functions and how society responds to gangs. JT thinks he is using Venkatesh for future recognition as he told him he would write his biography.
This never happened. Venkatesh makes a bold statement when he claims that he became a gang leader for a day because in reality he avoided doing anything that could get him in serious trouble with the law. He claims to be a hustler among hustlers, but the only thing he is hustling is the hustlers themselves. Therefore, while the true hustlers are hustling drugs to make a meek living, they are being hustled by a sociologist who would soon become a success in the world of academia and leave the gang members in their destitute situations.
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