Summary: In Sudhir Venkatesh's book, Gang Leader for a Day, he's billed as a "rogue sociologist," but the truth is his ethnographic method of research is anything but rogue. Sociologists have been conducting ethnographies for quite some time, as this method has long been recognized to have several distinct advantages over other research methods. In this video, which is based on the book, Venkatesh explains that he started the research by tracking down a number of gang members in a poor community and asking them questions about their everyday lives. At first, the gang believed he was a member of a rival Mexican street gang, and held him hostage for a day, before finally letting him go and ultimately agreeing to let him tag along as they went about their daily lives. The clip is useful as a rather vivid explanation of an ethnographic research design. In addition to touching on many of the distinct characteristics of ethnographic work, the clip can serve as a launching pad for discussing many of the method’s strengths. For instance, working in this tradition, Venkatesh was able to build trust with gang members, allowing him to work out a number of the details of gang life that likely would not have been disclosed in a survey or interview. Unlike other research designs, by spending a long period of time in the community the gang controlled, Venkatesh was able to bear witness and analyze emergent, often unanticipated phenomena. Similarly, the ethnographic method allowed Venkatesh to acquire more of a processual understanding of the interactions between the gang and community, and in many ways, exploded the myth that the gang’s interactions with the community were strictly coercive. As Venkatesh recounts, the gang often gave people small gifts of cash to help people get by and ultimately win their favor. As for weaknesses, while it is tempting to conclude from the video that ethnography is an inherently dangerous method, there are no protocols forcing ethnographers to choose dangerous research sites or put themselves in harm's way. Instead, the findings from ethnographies tend to be limited to the local group or population being studied. In other words, the findings often lack generalizability. Note that this is the second video on The Sociological Cinema featuring the ethnographic field work of Sudhir Venkatesh.
Submitted By: Lester Andrist