Sudhir Venkatesh suggests a sociological examination of New York City’s informal economy in an innovative narrative that combines fieldwork account and memoir. His ethnography of drug traffickers and sex workers provides an opportunity for him to consider the limitations of “academic sociology.”, he declares that in New York, a “new world of permeable borders beckoned [where] the criminal underworld interacts with the mainstream world to make the world of the future.”

Book in Focus: Floating City by Sudhir Venkatesh - Sheet1
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Venkatesh’s decade of study into the rich Upper East Side socialites and Midtown merchants, the drug gangs of Harlem and the sex workers of Brooklyn, the artists of Tribeca, and the escort services of Hell’s Kitchen has resulted in Floating City, a memoir of sociological analysis.

Venkatesh arrived in the city after doing important studies in Chicago, where crime remained stubbornly localised, with gangs sticking to their housing complexes and crooks sticking to their corners. However, in Floating City, Venkatesh reveals that New York’s underground economy unifies rather than separates its residents: a massive network of “off the books” transactions that connects the city’s high and low worlds. He demonstrates how trade in narcotics, prostitution, and illegal labour transcends the traditional barriers between affluent and poor, revealing a city woven together by the underground economy’s invisible threads.

Sudhir Venkatesh’s attempts to get entry to New York’s informal economy are central to the storyline, which also includes peeks into Venkatesh’s job and divorce. He is hired by Columbia University after spending his graduate degree studying the Chicago ghetto, with a specific concentration on the drug trade. He wants to examine the informal economy once more, but this time in New York and with an emphasis on sex work. Subsequently, he meets the book’s different protagonists, beginning with Shine, a heroin dealer: Manjun, the proprietor of a porn store; Angela and Carla, two destitute sex workers; and others. Analise, a Harvard student from an aristocratic and rich family who also works as a madam, and Margot, a cooperating madam. By the conclusion of the book, these persons had either vanished, died, or refused to speak with Venkatesh.

Venkatesh immerses himself in this uncharted territory, following a group of a dozen New Yorkers involved in the shadow economy. Manjun and Santosh, Bangledeshi store clerks, navigate vast networks of illicit goods and services, connecting curious visitors with sex workers and drug traffickers. Angela and Carla, Hispanic prostitutes, feel safe enough in the new city to leave their old areas in search of more pay, but they forego all the safety they enjoyed while their clients were known locals. Rich uptown ladies like Analise and Brittany have the city at their fingertips, yet they both turn to sex work as a method to supplement their income without relying on their families’ money. Shine, an African American drug lord headquartered in Harlem who aspires to get into the elusive, luxury cocaine market, is Venkatesh’s biggest ally. Shine embarks on an aggressive campaign of self-reinvention, leaving behind the certainties of race and class with the tenacity of the greatest entrepreneurs, despite his lack of contacts among rich whites. 

Floating City is a personal reflection on the challenges of ethnography. As Venkatesh writes, “many social scientists study inequality for their entire lives—I was hardly the only one—but there were probably fewer than a dozen who chose direct interpersonal contact over weeks and months and years” (p. 250).

The informal economy and inequality: 

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The informal economy is discussed in depth in this book. Manjun, the porn store owner who leases out his back room to sex workers and then vanishes, is a particularly heartbreaking storey. Manjun would not have done the things he did if he had been able to have a decent-paying job as a postal worker instead of having to labour in the informal sector. Venkatesh investigates the workings of sex work brokers (also known as pimps or madams), a notably understudied topic of sex industry study.

In the informal sector, it is impossible to ask the court system to look at a dispute impartially and enforce a resolution supported by the police’s coercive power. As a result, there is violence. Shines thrashes people, Manjun is thrashed, Carla is thrashed, and no one reports it to the cops or the courts since selling drugs or sex is forbidden. The informality of the sex industry puts sex workers in particular at risk.

Floating City is a poignant reminder that informalizing impoverished people is arguably the greatest way to make their life even more unpleasant at a time when European politicians are considering criminalising sex industry (through consumers). When one is inclined to marvel at the agency and creativity of players engaging in the informal economy, the book’s emphasis on dispute resolution is a wonderful approach to keep track of the broader picture. In Floating City, the informal poor are not romanticised.

Inequality is addressed in a detached yet forceful manner throughout the book. Floating City has a strong political and moral undertone when it comes to racial and social injustice, yet Venkatesh isn’t one for exclamation marks and self-righteousness. This argument is made by an apparently benign musing on “cultural capital” and the notion that success in informal New York is dependent on so-called “soft” skills: “In the new world, culture dominates.” Venkatesh is enthralled by the unseen power that keeps the impoverished from crossing borders and shields the wealthy when they are in need. This unseen force is cultural capital, which makes impoverished people seem poor even when they strive not to, and which surrounds wealthy people with ease and privilege. Precisely about the sense of entitlement of the rich, Venkatesh writes that “My first thought was that money could never buy this, but then I realized that only money could buy it” (p. 224).

The author has a keen feeling of compassion and the capacity to transform academic sociological ideas into a comprehension of the challenging lives of the urban poor. Less effective are his musings on his own shifting personal circumstances, which include divorce and the hardships of academic careerism and his attempts to watch Manhattan’s feckless social and career practises. Despite the overall narrative’s unwieldiness and indulgence, Venkatesh has created a single voice in urban sociology, and his immersive research and ideas remain incisive and unique. Readers who are interested in the connections between class, affluence, and crime will like this book.

The book is evocative rather than exhaustive, it is thought-provoking because it develops a research object that should appeal to the majority of individuals interested in the social sciences, and it questions the way academics present their findings.

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Vrushti is an undergrad architecture student, who believes that design is where expression meets intention, her perception of the world has evolved as she delved into the possibilities of art and philosophies. She now believes that the world is a delicate balance of logic and emotions, she tires and oftentimes fails to do justice to both perspectives.

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