Posted: June 4th, 2021

Comparisons from Chicago and Corporate America

Sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh has managed to uncover and expose the clandestine labor of an urban ghetto in south Chicago, but more importantly he relates the illegal brokering business of this community to the economic and social procedures at any work place. Just like Venkatesh, I have chosen to use a pseudonym for the company in which I have observed, we will call this workplace Acme Advertising. At Acme I have uncovered evidence that hierarchal structure and so-called “turf wars” are much the same as it is explained by Venkatesh in reference to gangs and other illicit activities.
Socially, Acme Advertising is filled with superficial relationships that are maintained only for survival of the group as a whole and for economic benefit. Arguments can begin over small issues and escalate to the point for the need for mediation. Advertising dollars do not remain static for all, as one business may get a better rate than another and bartering or trading advertising space for goods and services is also noticeable. For this reason, it is very clear that Venkatesh was correct that the brokering that occurs in the ghetto is similar to the bartering and bargaining that goes on in corporate America.
Acme advertising is a company dependent on the relationships between the employees and their clients and these relationships constantly change. Customers leave the company for other avenues in which to do business, prices have to be constantly negotiated so that client relationships can remain stable and protected, and the hierarchy of the advertising executives constantly evolves when there are fresh faces or a new sales leader. This is very similar to the text and the social systems apparent in the gang members and other residents of Marquis Park.

The intricate way in which the members of the ghetto survive is very dependant upon the pool of resources that is available in the area. People new to the neighborhood are tested and many times charged more for goods and services (be it licit or illicit activity). Established customers in the neighborhood, however, are charged less and give more fringe benefits, such as paying for what was needed at a later time or other types of negotiation, this was seen as necessary in the ghetto, as people there could easily travel to other neighborhoods to get what they needed.
The best pricing and products also produced the best business people or gang members with respect going to those who constantly worked to keep the flow of money coming in to the leader and, in turn, being spent by the leader in the neighborhood. Sales leaders at Acme see the same respect and admiration from others. Due to the highly competitive nature of the work done at Acme Advertising, many arguments are initiated over seemingly trivial events, just as in Venkatesh’s book.
These arguments usually stem from jealousy and frustration due to the fact that one employee is doing better than another, just like in the neighborhood, many times these struggling business people end up leaving the business as the gang members leave the neighborhood. Instead of moving on to a new neighborhood, however, most of the gang members leave due to death or incarceration. A frequent cause of both murder and arrest is the crossing of turf boundaries.
This is more than the simple, trivial arguments that are common, this is a very serious issue. Just as the consequences for gang members, who cross into another gang’s turf are dangerous, so are the consequences for a salesperson, who attempts to cross into a co-workers territory. The consequences for this can result in the ruin of reputations, which can be said to equal death in terms of a person no longer being able to maintain their livelihood.
Executives at Acme Advertising will go to great lengths to keep their positions and keep clients happy. Many times bartering or trading is done in the advertising world and it is the most similar activity in corporate America and the Chicago ghetto. Marquis Park only functions when members of the community do what they could do best in terms of work or trade for work. At Acme, many advertisers will not take such a monetary risk as to pay for ads with cash only.
Sometimes trades make up a small percentage of the total and other times it is 100% trade for anything from plastic surgery, dental work, and gift certificates for upscale restaurants. Many of these goods and services are, in turn, given to other advertisers as incentives. High functioning employees are also given trade material as bonuses, so in this way everyone associated with the company benefits, just as the people in Marquis Park all benefit.
It is fair to say that just as the ghetto is dependent on bartering, so is Acme Advertising and probably many other similar firms in America. In conclusion, utilizing the participant observation research conducted by Venkatesh and comparing it with an analysis of Acme Advertising does prove that the clandestine world of the urban ghetto and the corporate world of advertising are very similar. By observing and reading, these connections have become more and more clear in terms of the level of competition of both the groups studied and the conflict that ensues from this activity.
Similarly, the intricate weaving of relationships and the importance of being successful on one’s turf can be seen too. Bartering is an essential part of both businesses and the fact that some activities are licit while others are illicit does not seem to have an effect on the differences in the social an economic procedures. In short, work is work and relationships are relationships. References Venkatesh, S. A. (2006). Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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