Gang Leader for a Day and Freakonomics have an obvious genealogical relationship. Levitt, self-described “rogue economist” co-author of Freakonomics, and Venkatesh, self-described “rogue sociologist” author of GLFAD, have collaborated on much-discussed papers using very unique data on the finances of a gang. The story of how the data came into Venkatesh’s possession is told both in Freakonomics and GLFAD. The person who gave the ledgers to Venkatesh is called “Booty” in Freakonomics and “T-Bone” in GLFAD.
What’s interesting is that the two accounts each read very compelling in their respective narratives, but if you put them side-by-side, they don’t line up that well at all.
Freakonomics: “Booty” is motivated by suspicion he was going to be killed by the gang for helping to bring about an indictment.
GLFAD: “T-Bone” is motivated by suspicion of being turned over by the gang to the police.
Freakonomics: Venkatesh did not want the notebooks at first.
GLFAD: Venkatesh was immediately “delighted” to receive the notebooks.
Freakonomics: Clear implication that “Booty” was killed by the gang because he was “being blamed by the rest of the gang for bringing about the indictment.”
GLFAD: “T-Bone” dies in prison, “celebrated in death for never having cooperated with the police to sell out other gang members.”
To be clear, my presumption is that GLFAD has the authoritative version of events, since Venkatesh is the one who actually interacted with “T-Bone”/”Booty”. And besides, Freakonomics already had to retract its story of the guy who supposedly singlehandedly undermined the Ku Klux Klan by giving away their secret rituals, and Freakonomics also repeated the racially unfortunate urban legend about the existence of black twins named Orangejello and Lemonjello (oh-RANJ-eh-lo and leh-MOHNJ-eh-lo; citation to an anecdote from a prominent sociologist). In any case, I don’t even mean this as any especial criticism of Levitt, who has done a number of papers that I respect a great deal. I do think the discrepancies might say something about issues that surround aspiring to write a social science trade book that sells to the masses.
I mean, it’s a great story that a gang member whose life is being threatened by a gang gives the ledgers to a reluctant ethnographer and then is killed by the gang soon thereafter. It’s also, given the account of events in GLFAD, just plain untrue.
(Previous post by me on GLFAD here. No, I do not plan on writing a series.)