Not so long ago I attended a seminar with the appealing title What is the Matter with Sociology? A Seminar on being a public intellectual. The ‘intellectual’ who was going to enlighten us on this occasion was Sudhir Venkatesh, and on the event page he was described as a “William B. Ransford Professor of Sociology and member of the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University. Dr. Venkatesh is known for his best-selling urban ethnographies, including Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist takes to the Streets winner of the Best Book award from The Economist…”
Admittedly, I hadn’t heard of him before the public lecture he gave the day before. I was intrigued by his research topic, and attending the lecture and seminar seemed like a righteous way to procrastinate from working on my thesis.
His talk mostly centered on his research concerning youth violence in Chicago’s neighborhoods. I haven’t read the book Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist takes to the Streets so it’s not my intention to criticize or support the main arguments of this work. Even though, I am amazed at the self-aggrandizing title, not to mention the cover picture with him taking on a tough pose next to a staircase. Blessed be the tenured professor, who daily loadeth us with intellect, even the God of our salvation. Selah (Psalm 68:19 – my interpretation). Excuse my cynicism, or don’t, but, it’s not to be interpreted as an all out negation of the tremendous integrity many in that privileged position do display!
Be that as it may, in this short stream of thought I want to highlight a peculiar distressing thought he displayed after I posed a question regarding his own upbringing in an upper middle class milieu and the way it relates to his research participants. I was pointing to the ways he positions himself among them, which the naive and foolish me thought would be in some sort of friendships. I know, strange of me to assume that the people ‘researchers’ spend so much time with in the field could be considered friends.
He went on to explain that he doesn’t consider them as friends, even though, he is godfather to some of their children. He is after all a scientist, and in order to produce valuable data (you know for the sake of the state – Staatswissenschaft/statistics) one cannot become too intimate with the subjects. Lest we forget, the governing/governed dichotomy should not be undermined too much!
Seemingly the legion of feminist and post-colonial critiques on such an objectifying and dehumanizing gaze have not penetrated to all upper echelons of the intellect.
This piece is not meant to single out one person. I simply used this example because it was the latest one I encountered in a long list of crap ‘intellectuals’ say and do.