Sudhir Venkatesh helps make sociology appear “less stodgy” yet generates controversy

A profile of sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh in the New York Times suggests he has “succeeded against long odds in making sociology seem less stodgy.” Here is how the article suggests he has done this and the controversy that has developed:

[B]y writing in magazines, being featured in the book “Freakonomics,” and even appearing on late-night television, he has succeeded in bringing that research out of the academy and into the public realm…

And at Columbia, where he briefly led the university’s largest social science research center, he was the subject last year of a grueling investigation into a quarter-million dollars of spending that Columbia auditors said was insufficiently documented, misappropriated or outright fabricated…

Beyond the content of the book, its basic style raised eyebrows. “Gang Leader” includes the kind of satisfying narrative arcs and dramatic characters (like the street hustler who reveals that he not only went to college, but also studied sociology) that have more in common with Hollywood films than with most dry academic discourse…

Camille Z. Charles, a sociologist who runs the Department of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said she was even more disturbed by the “thrill” he described at being around drug dealers — like his fantasy that one meeting he attended would involve “half-naked women sitting poolside and rubbing the bosses with sunscreen.” In an essay in the journal Sociological Forum, Professor Venkatesh responded to such criticism by saying he “hoped that my readership would understand urban poverty as they followed my own self-discovery of these conditions — specifically, as I discovered my own stereotypes to be faulty. In a memoir, one has to admit one’s own failings.”

Such situations have always interested me. In this genre of situation, a sociologist does things that many sociologists could only dream of: reach a broad public audience with their work. Despite all the talk about public sociology in recent years, how many sociologists have truly accomplished this? Yet, those who are able to do this tend to run into arguments like those outlined in the article: they are accused of taking liberties with their narratives and making it more appealing for the public and they are accused of not respecting their subjects by opening up the stories to public interest and entertainment.

Of course, such arguments happen with lesser known works as well. I’m reminded of a very public exchange between several ethnographers, Loic Wacquant, Elijah Anderson, Mitchell Duneier, and Katherine Newman, in the early 2000s about how ethnography about marginalized groups should be undertaken. And there are plenty of conversations in the field about writing and how it can be done better or worse. Because of its broadness of topics and a variety of research methods, sociology as a discipline tends to have these kinds of lively debates.

To sum up, when the New York Times discusses debates among sociologists, does this display how science really works (scholars trying to come to a consensus with a dose of personalities) or does it suggest that sociologists can’t agree and this torpedoes attempts at public sociology?

(A later note: how many sociologists really disagree with what Venkatesh did in Gang Leader for a Day? Anywhere even close to a majority? I wonder if this article is highlighting some vocal/well-placed dissenters.)

2 thoughts on “Sudhir Venkatesh helps make sociology appear “less stodgy” yet generates controversy

  1. he seems to be in trouble not for his research but for possibly embezzling a quarter million dollars from his employer. gangsta for a day — white collar criminal 4 life!

    Like

  2. Pingback: Good data is foundational to doing good sociological work | Legally Sociable

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