Subscribe to Christianity Today
Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor
Harvard University Press, 2009
448 pp., $23.00
by Peter J. Hill
Not many sociologists enjoy name-recognition outside the confines of their profession. Sudhir Venkatesh is an exception. His 2008 book Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets, published by Penguin Press, has made him an academic celebrity of sorts. But before this popular book, Venkatesh published academic studies of the drug trade, high-rise public housing, and—in 2006—"the underground economy of the urban poor." Indeed, the last of these, Off the Books, could be regarded as a companion volume to Gang Leader for a Day. Between 1995 and 2003, Venkatesh gained the trust of residents in an area of ten square blocks that he calls "Maquis Park," a ghetto neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. During this time he walked the streets, interacting with store owners, drug dealers, pastors, street hustlers, and other interesting characters.
The world that Venkatesh describes in Off the Books has surprising similarities to middle-class America. People struggle with numerous constraints, but they find that production and exchange are at the heart of survival and that entrepreneurial talent and the ability to deal with complex social situations lead to success. This is not a world in which there is no order, or where most people simply while away their time waiting for someone else to meet their needs.
Many descriptions of ghetto life focus on certain pathologies that create economic and social problems, and those may well be important in explaining why life in Maquis Park differs in certain respects from much of the United States. Certainly the high number of female-headed households and the lack of male commitment to children and family have had a significant effect on the economic situation in this neighborhood. Venkatesh reports that in one block, 16 out of 21 inhabited housing units are headed by females, and in another only two of 22 households have a nuclear family arrangement. A number of commentators have argued that pervasive attitudes ...