Field of Science

Gangs and Homeostasis

"To live outside the law you must be honest"
-Bob Dylan

I just finished "Gang Leader for a Day", a memior in which sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh recounts his days as a University of Chicago graduate student, most of which were spent hanging out in the Robert Taylor Homes with one of Chicago's most successful crack selling gangs.

My personal interest in gang culture began with my teaching days on the west side of Chicago. Over the course of my first year I gradually realized the extent to which gang affiliations were affecting the culture of my classroom and the school at large. Four sesasons of The Wire widened my interest by showing how the drug trade intersects with every other aspect of city life.

Venkatesh's story starts with an ill-advised trip to a local housing project as a first-year sociology student, in which he tries to get anyone to answer the asanine survey questions he has prepared (question one: "How does it feel to be black and poor?") He is detained overnight and nearly killed by the local gang members on suspicion of being a scout for a rival gang. But their leader, J.T., recognizes Venkatesh for the naive outsider he is, and advises him to dispense with the surveys. "With people like us, you should hang out, get to know what they do, how they do it."

The rest of the book, and indeed Venkatesh's entire graduate research, is predicated on the unlikely interest J.T. takes in Venkatesh and his project. He believes Venkatesh will write his biography (Venkatesh does little to contradict this misconception) and gives him guided tours on nearly every aspect of the gang's operations, often trying to cast himself as a philanthropic community organizer. In time, Venkatesh's research branches out to other forces in project life: prosititutes, odd-job hustlers, community workers, religious leaders, CHA (Chicago Housing Authority) representatives, and police, each playing complex and often morally ambiguous roles.

There is much of interest here from a complex systems perspective, but the place to start is probably the multiple roles the gang plays in project life.

First and foremost, the gang is a business. It exists to make money, most of which goes to the upper management. In the case of the Black Kings gang that ran the towers in this story, the business was primarily crack cocaine, though they also extorted "protection" money from other formal and informal businesses in and around the towers.

However, because of the nature of the business, it wouldn't do to have cops, social workers, and other civil servants roaming around the projects. The gang was largely effective in keeping these unwanteds out, but this meant there was a vacuum in terms of keeping order, resolving disputes, and looking after children. The gang stepped in to fill part of this vacuum. They helped negotiate conflicts between tenants, and mete justice when it seemed necessary. Sometimes they even helped clean the tower hallways. And J.T. instituted a rule that no one could join the gang unless they had graduated high school.

Despite J.T.'s talk of helping the community, the primary reasons for this behavior were financial, not altruistic. Any violence in the building would attract the attention of the cops, which in turn would disrupt operations and scare away customers. It was therefore in their interest to resolve disputes peacefully, or to administer punishment so that a wronged party would not take matters into their own hands. Keeping teenagers in school would also cut down on unwanted violence, and produce workers better able to handle money.

The relevant complex systems principle here is homeostasis: the regulation of one's internal environment. In order to compete effectively against other forces (gangs, police, etc.), the Black Kings had to reduce competition and discord within their own gang and the community in which they operated.

There's so much more to Venkatesh's story than I could possibly relate here, so I'll end by giving the book a full-throated recommendation. Although his naivite is often cringeworthy, his experiences provide a window into a complex world that operates so differently from the societies most of us inhabit.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating, particularly from a systems perspective. I'll read it. Thanks.


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