Posts Tagged ‘Sudhir Venkatesh’

Social ScienceBill O’Reilly!

Lately, some of my Facebook friends have been posting a link to Herbert Gans’s 2002 entreaty to become public sociologists. In it, Gans states that anybody can become a public sociolgist but cautions that “Audiences are the ultimate gate keeper” and that “public intellectuals must be willing to speak to topics that interest them, and with frames and values that are comprehensible and acceptable to them.”

The above photo, in which a bookstore’s Social Science section (which consisted of one shelf) has been overrun by Bill O’Reilly, indicates that we might not be doing the best job of this. The Social Sciences section was next to the politics section, so it is likely that these books overflowed from there (although I would argue that they don’t belong there, either!) but I couldn’t find a single book on this shelf that was actually based on social science research. The next shelf was related to crime and was filled mostly with the “true crime” genre.

I think that Nathan Palmer’s recent reminder that, for our students, we are the public face of sociology is important, but we still appear to be failing Gans. If none of sociology’s best sellers appear in a bookstore in a rural area of the country and people’s idea of sociology itself is derived from Sudhir Venkatesh’s appearance on the Colbert Report, then maybe we are too focused on what our colleagues think of our work and not focused enough on what our neighbors think of it.

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links via your news feed.

Read Full Post »

This time via the Freakonomics blog, where he says that all of this is stupid and discusses his views on ethnography, stating:

The other storyline speaks to the core of academic knowledge. When you live with people, or spend years with them, as the means of obtaining your data, what are the evidentiary standards that you should follow? “Ethnographic” work is fuzzy. I’ve never lied, made up characters, or otherwise misrepresented facts. The struggle arises in ensuring that your memory adequately recorded the events, and then validating them before you go to print. Neither are very straightforward or easy to accomplish, particularly when you study crime and marginal social groups. The University prohibits me from using real names, so third-party validation is difficult to achieve. So, in practice, I work in teams, where many people can discuss what we all saw. I’ve collaborated with students and faculty in all of my research — with gangs, sex workers, public housing residents, etc.

In general, I think there is a healthy and vigorous debate among ethnographers about how our work should be conducted. This includes how we should write for the public, and I think we could all do a better job of making our work more accessible and enjoyable to read.

I’m not sure that his view of himself as a “rogue” sociologist and statements about “fuzzy” ethnography support his claims of rigorous data collection.

Read Full Post »

Columbia sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh was in the news on Friday, not for being a “rogue sociologist” as much as for potential misappropriation of funds as the head of Columbia’s Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy. As noted in the New York Times:

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.

According to internal documents from that investigation, which were obtained by The New York Times, the auditors said that Professor Venkatesh directed $52,328 to someone without any “documented evidence of work performed.” He listed a dinner for 25 people, relating to research on professional baseball players; auditors found that only 8 people had attended, and that the research project had not been approved.

He charged Columbia for town cars to take him around, to take his fiancée home from work one late night, to take someone — it is not specified whom — from Professor Venkatesh’s address to a building that houses a nail salon and a psychic. All told, auditors questioned expenses amounting to $241,364.83.

More interesting to me than this is a little bit of insight into Venkatesh’s own myth-making:

He signed on for a research project led by William Julius Wilson, a pre-eminent scholar of race and poverty, for which Professor Venkatesh says he approached strangers, questionnaire in hand, and asked, “How does it feel to be black and poor?” (Possible answers: very bad, somewhat bad, neither bad nor good, somewhat good, very good.) But he quickly came to see the folly of this approach, he has said, and ditched the questionnaire in favor of just spending time with his subjects, time that rolled on into years, as he tried to learn about their lives on their terms, not his.

The story, which he has recounted in two books and numerous speaking engagements, is a good one: it allows Professor Venkatesh to laugh at himself, yet also implies that he was more authentically engaged with poor black people than his professors were. But Professor Wilson, for one, was surprised when he read it. “I asked him one day: ‘Where did you get that questionnaire? I don’t remember ever giving you any questionnaire like that!’ And he said, ‘Well, it wasn’t yours.’ ”

Professor Wilson, now at Harvard, describes his former student as brilliant, creative and “able to easily establish rapport with different people.”

“He has a very pleasant personality, and he makes people relax.”

He was also savvy in the realm of academic politics. “The other graduate students were envious that he was able to command a lot of my time,” Professor Wilson said. “I’m a very busy person.”

Professor Venkatesh later revealed how. “I found out later when he wrote the book ‘Gang Leader for a Day’ that he took up golf as a way to spend more time with me,” Professor Wilson said.

The story as a whole is somewhat strange, since it talks a lot about Venkatesh’s background in what could be a much shorter article about the potential misappropriation of funds, but it is always interesting to see a sociologist discussed by a major media outlet. Venkatesh has responded via Bwog, the online extension of Columbia’s monthly Blue and White magazine for undergraduates. In part, he states:

That said, I was not successful in implementing changes or, candidly, in paying careful attention to record keeping of my own. The audit document discussed in the Times article was the beginning of an inquiry, not the end. The administration asked me to address a range of issues, which I did honestly and forthrightly. Was I a good bookkeeper? Not by any stretch. I was overwhelmed, I was working both at Columbia and at the FBI, and I struggled to keep up. So ethically, I felt it important to return approximately $13,000 for which there was inadequate documentation. I then took a partial leave to deepen my work at the FBI.

The article also suggests that I work outside the boundaries of mainstream sociology. I plead guilty. My discipline is stuffy and losing relevance daily in the academic and public eye. But, I have never been anything other than scrupulous, honest and ethical in my research, and I have always safeguarded the risk of my research subjects at every moment. With pride, I can say that, as a filmmaker and scholar, I have been working in some of the most difficult research field sites, in our nation’s inner cities with marginal populations, for two decades.

It is nice to see that the scandal hasn’t stopped him from mythologizing himself at the expense of the discipline!

Read Full Post »

Aside from hearing about the latest research in one’s area of interest and worrying about the academic job market, I think that one of the most interesting aspects of attending ASAs comes through encounters with “famous” sociologists.  Obviously, some sociologists have published more visible work than others, but the likelihood of somebody’s sociological fame extending out into the real world is near zero.  Despite the media blitz surrounding Gang Leader for a Day, for example, I highly doubt that Sudhir Venkatesh gets recognized on the street.

I wonder if this lack of recognition outside of sociology is what causes some big-name (or even medium-name) sociologists to be such ridiculous assholes.  While lots and lots of well-known people are nice, interested, and respectful, there seems to be a handful of status-happy tag checkers who give everybody else a bad name.  One such person stepped between a friend and I and the person we were talking to and was reportedly delighted at the fact that she ended our conversation by doing so.  In fact, the conversation had been rather awkward (as conversations with that person tend to be) and this bout of jackassery provided us with a good opportunity to continue on our pursuit of lunch.

If you ever catch yourself thinking that you’re a famous sociologist, I think that the key is to put this thought in perspective.  While the individual described above and others like her may think, “I”m a famous sociologist, bitch!” the rest of us are thinking, “You’re just a famous sociologist… asshole.”

Read Full Post »