“Rogue Sociologist” Embeds With Prostitutes and Crack Dealers in NYC
By Maggie Severns – September 13, 2013
Mother Jones: In Gang Leader for a Day, you befriend a Chicago drug gang in order to analyze its social and economic structure. In Floating City, your new book, you explore the illegal underground economies of New York City. What was your intention?
Sudhir Venkatesh: We’ve been so enamored with our global cities, and we tend to focus on wealth and sometimes will forget the fact that 99 percent of the population in these cities has a much different experience. So I wanted to uncover that, and more and more I found that in my attempt to do that I had to take the underground economy more seriously. Not only the sex and drugs, which are two economies that are featured prominently here, but also people who are working off the books.
MJ: You wound up profiling people who work illegally, including a madam from a rich family-whom it turned out you knew previously.
SV: I had come in with the classic stereotypes. And those stereotypes are in the academic research as well. But when I went out to find those people, I saw something totally different: white, middle-upper class women coming to New York and dating, sometimes sleeping with people on the side but not making much more money, not necessarily wanting to support a drug habit, not necessarily wanting to leave the trade but looking at it as something that was a legitimate income source for them and something that was helping them become part of New York.
MJ: How would you approach them?
SV: It’s very difficult if they don’t look at themselves [as prostitutes]. And that’s often what happened-I would use words and people would come back and say, “Sorry I don’t see myself like that, I don’t want to participate in your research.”
I discovered more and more people, whether they’re making films illegally with cash or they’re an escort, they think about themselves as craftspeople, they think about themselves as having a skill and a passion and the underground economy is having a place to go where they can live out their dreams. They might be completely blind-we have a right to say that-but they also have a right to feel what they feel, which is that they’re following their passion.
They think about themselves as craftspeople, they think about themselves as having a skill and a passion and the underground economy is having a place to go where they can live out their dreams.
MJ: The dominant narrative is that as the rich become richer, the poor are being driven out of cities, and suburban poverty is on the rise. But clearly there are still people of all walks of life in the big cities.
SV: There’s an inability for them to be entrepreneurial. It’s very difficult to walk into a bank and say, “I’ve been doing this very creative, ingenious scheme. Unfortunately it’s illegal, but will you give me a loan anyway?” They remain excluded, so even while the underground economy is useful to the mainstream economy, individuals can’t necessarily translate the human capital that they’ve amassed working off-the-books into a legitimate career.
MJ: Aren’t some other countries trying to do exactly that, to make certain underground economies legit?
SV: In Latin America, in Africa, in parts of Southeast Asia, partly because of the scale of the workforce working off-the-books and partly because of the historic ineffectiveness of government in spurring business growth, the underground economy has just played a much more central role. In India even Grameen Bank, which is the formal program, was built on an informal credit scheme that had existed among Bangladeshi people for a long time.