A sociologist roughs up his field while piercing the veil of the Big Apple’s underbelly
Published: October 2, 2013
Sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh recently measured how disrespected his field is. Last summer, he asked Freakonomics.com readers to choose which social-science discipline to cut—psychology, political science, economics, or sociology—if one had to go. He got about 1,200 answers, a sample likely skewed toward devotees of University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt’s 2005 number-crunching, myth-busting book of the same name (co-written with Stephen J. Dubner). As many said “sociology” as all three others combined.
Despite being around as an academic discipline for more than a century, sociology seems not to have made much of a dent in public consciousness. It’s the field’s own fault, of course; its findings so often are couched in such dense numerical cryptography that only the academy understands them. Even studies that bust myths and explain nuances on important matters of the day don’t usually make the big public debate. Many may suspect sociology is so soft a science that it trucks in something more akin to The Colbert Report’s “truthiness” than actual truth.
But judging by Venkatesh’s new book, Floating City (Penguin), chronicling his decade of work decoding New York City’s underground economy, sociology might yet break out of the doldrums and join the larger discussion. After all, Venkatesh, whose bona fides are unassailable, is only in his mid-40s. He has many more years to help make the field relevant—or get kicked out of the academy for trying.
Venkatesh may be sociology’s savior or he may be its destroyer, but Floating City shows him negotiating its tenets and taboos, striving for elusive truths by bending the field’s boundaries. He’s doing this very publicly, with books, films, radio, and blogging, rather than bouncing his ideas strictly around in the echo chamber of scholarly journals, as his institutional overseers would likely prefer. But if sociology is going to command attention, it needs to be popularized without sacrificing its intellectual power, and Venkatesh is helping by openly grappling with some of the field’s chief conflicts and contradictions.
Sociology, for instance, has compensated for its softness by going for the numbers. If you can measure it, you can study it, so research efforts favor data-friendly aspects of society, like housing, poverty, and schools, over hard-to-measure ones, like black markets in illegal goods and services. When the understudied factor is large and integral—the underground economy has been pegged at about 20 to 40 percent of a city’s economy—then failure to account adequately for it can amount to a major blind spot.
The economy of crime is a permanent feature of life: Rules are forever being broken in pursuit of profit. Ubiquitous yet elusive, it buzzes with the sound of tax-free money being counted, its only constraints an unpredictable code of vigilante-enforced honor, the haphazard prospect of a government crackdown, luck, and the criminals’ own capabilities. Much of this activity supports or supplements legitimate pursuits, but its inherent murkiness makes it hard to gauge and easy to misunderstand—a well-suited target, then, for sociology’s drive to measure and comprehend how society works. But in trying to dissect the underbelly, sociology’s data-driven obsessions can hamstring its journalistic capacity to tell important stories—the ones that tease out what the numbers want to show but can’t. A journalist’s sensibility, layered atop a sociologist’s foundations, may help get at such immeasurable material, compelling society to absorb its lessons and learn.
So while Venkatesh painstakingly gathers and analyzes data to intellectualize the shadow economy, he also tells stories through sociology’s prism about the real lives of real criminals spanning class, race, and geography. In Floating City, Venkatesh’s straightforward, first-person voice propels stories of New York prostitutes, drug dealers, ID fraudsters, crime managers, and money launderers he encountered during his 10-year quest to detail the flow of off-the-books bucks in the Big Apple. Their stories reveal them as “strivers” operating in a challenging, changeable sector, and to succeed they adapt across a myriad of human experiences, developing qualities that help in the legitimate world too. The lives of poor strivers tend to shatter when they fail, while those with assets suffer setbacks of varying degrees but, rich or poor, they recoup their losses and resume their search for better ways to make a living, always with an exit strategy in the backs of their minds.
By “floating” across the city, weaving threads connecting neighborhoods, classes, races, and enterprises, aboveboard or not, these strivers create shadowy social networks that defy numerical description. Yet Floating City hints that these networks, if sufficiently understood, could spawn ideas about how to guide people into more productive, mainstream pursuits while relieving the government need to crack down so hard on underground ones. Such understanding could impart much-needed wisdom to the debate over how to manage crime and poverty in the big city.
Venkatesh’s challenge is to overcome sociology’s tendency to discount real-life narratives as mere anecdotes, while still holding tight to rigorous numbers-based analysis. While his peer-reviewed conclusions from a decade of collecting crunchable sex-work numbers in the New York area are still pending, Floating City is here now, showing how powerfully a sociologist can practice journalism by “floating” around in the underground economy. To help distinguish his popular work from his academic pursuits, Venkatesh styles himself a “rogue sociologist” in Floating City, as he did in 2008’s Gang Leader for a Day, which explored poor Chicago neighborhoods’ experiences with drug traffickers. By going “rogue,” he’s trying to synthesize his field’s rich storytelling potential with its numbers fetish and find new ways to tap into obscure truths for popular consumption.
Judging by Floating City, it’s working—and if it keeps up, after a while, maybe survey respondents won’t be so eager to kill off sociology.
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