forrest stuart and the public good of ethnography
There are hundreds of gangs in Chicago these days, a splintering that occurred in the wake of the collapse of the traditional “supergangs” like the Black Disciples and Vice Lords in the ’90s. As dangerous as their predecessors, they operate as block-level factions, making the city a complicated patchwork of warring territories. In a relatively recent phenomenon, many of these gangs produce drill music—a Chicago-born low-fi version of gangsta rap, full of hyperviolent boasts and taunts. (Think NWA, but grittier and without the hooks.)
By keeping their ears open, these kids I was interviewing can quickly figure out whose territory they are in. If they are walking through a neighborhood and hear a certain kind of drill coming from a passing car or a phone speaker, they know that corner belongs to the gang Diddy Grove. If they’re in Diddy Grove territory and notice songs by O-Block, that tells them Diddy Grove and O-Block are likely cliqued up.
After I’d been talking with these kids for months, one of them told me his older brother, Zebo, is a member of the drill gang Corner Boys Entertainment. (Zebo, CBE, and subsequent names in this story have been changed, as have a few identifying facts. As a sociologist, I granted anonymity to my subjects so that they would open up to me without fear of being prosecuted. The National Institutes of Health has certified this approach to my study, and that prevents law-enforcement authorities from compelling me to provide information on illegal activity.) I knew CBE’s music—the gang is one of the best-known drill-rap outfits in the city—so I was interested in talking to Zebo. His brother offered to make an introduction.
I met Zebo the next day, and we talked for hours. He told me how drill perpetuates gang wars, how it’s an engine of both truces and feuds. He told me how CBE members will retaliate violently if a song by another gang insults their friends or relatives. He kept returning to a refrain, one I would hear many times during my field research: ‘This is not just music. It’s not just a game. This shit is for real.”
What’s striking about Forrest’s work–and you see it in his book as well–is his ability to communicate some pretty compelling arguments about inequality and other social problems (homelessness, violence, gangs, police harassment) via straightforward and approachable narratives. It’s a way to do ethnography I really admire, and it can sometimes be lost in an effort to use ethnography for a certain kind of positivist knowledge production or a kind of theoretical problem solving. I don’t have a problem with the latter method, of course, and it probably describes me, or at least it’s how I’d like to describe myself. But I think it’s fair to say that if you want to use sociology to change the world, it’s best to keep the theory to a necessary minimum and show very concretely how (and to the extent possible, why) the social problem at hand works the way it does. Forrest is really good at that (so, of course, are Alice Goffman and Matt Desmond, as well as Allison Pugh, Katherine Newman, and dozens of other great ethnographers). Which isn’t to say those folks can’t do theory (indeed, many of them have great writing on theory as well); it’s just to say these specific arguments are generally not directed towards that narrow branch of knowledge known as “sociological theory.” They of course *are* doing theory inasmuch as they’re making arguments about why and how a certain social problem exists and maintains itself. But they’re also–and that’s why Forrest’s article is so good here–telling stories. It’s a really important way to do social science, and it can too often be lost, as Abbot talks about in his call for a lyrical sociology. Storytelling really does matter. It can even make a difference.
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