Crime can be socially constructed. Both On the Run and Off the Books highlight the ways crime can be socially constructed, through erroneous models of deviance, through labeling, and through inequitable access to social, cultural, economic, and political power. Moreover, the socially constructed types of crime emerge often as a product of anomie: the negation of the norms of the dominant culture due to the strength of the subculture. Deviant subcultures, or at least those labeled as deviant, exhibit signs of anomie. They often have their own internal, self-generated, self-regulating set of moral codes and norms. A prime example of the ways deviant subcultures generate their own internal set of norms is in fictive and real tales of mafia life, in movies, books, and television. The creation of mafia, gangs, and other types of organized crime reflects sociological theories of crime rooted in conflict theory, strain theory, and anomie. In Off the Books, Ventakesh follows several different types of subcultures and the individuals that inhabit those worlds. Off the Books provides a nuanced and in-depth insight into the social construction of crime via the creation of deviant subcultures, and the creation of in-group vs. out-group statuses. The insight into urban subcultures that Venkatesh provides is invaluable, because it reveals the diverse responses to being marginalized, poor, and disenfranchised.
Venkatesh's insights are supported widely by sociologists and criminologists, as well as writers. In "The Real Economy," Viviana Zeilzer also discusses the role of the gray and black market economies, in direct response to reading Venkatesh's work Off the Books. Thus, the specific encounters that Venkatesh details in Off the Books reveal the differences between formal and informal systems of exchange, and how those seemingly distinct modes of cultural interaction are actually mutually dependent. Although all of the people that Venkatesh describes in Off the Books bear exploration in terms of how they highlight different aspects of social, economic and political power, there are a few characters that can be focused on for rich discussion. For example, Pastor Jeremiah Wilkins features prominently in Off the Books. Wilkins is keenly in touch with his people and serves in a position of leadership. Pastor Wilkins's role is unique in the urban landscape because he provides a moral framework for what the dominant culture would deem deviant behavior.
As Venkatesh points out, Pastor Wilkins is engaged in philanthropic activity in his own right. After the death of Big Cat, Pastor Wilkins fills a great void in the local social and cultural economy, as well as its actual financial coffers. "Big Cat not only helped Marlene to police younger gang members; he also gave money to her block club for kids' parties," as well as providing security at night (Venkatesh 4). To fill this void, Pastor Wilkins knew right away there was a need for "a new source of philosophy," (Venkatesh 4).
Unlike some of the other members of the urban enclave that Venkatesh describes, however, Pastor Wilkins remains with one foot firmly in the dominant culture. Understanding both the internal world of the "ghetto," and the external world of the dominant culture places Pastor Wilkins in a particularly powerful position. He has two perspectives, both equally valid. Pastor Wilkins understands the role, presence, and function of the suburbs, and thus has insight into the normative structure of suburban America. That normative structure might not hold much sway over the likes of Big Cat, but it does filter into the ghetto via Pastor Wilkins.
Whereas many of the entrepreneurs in the ghetto use "creative hustling schemes" to bolster the local economy, Pastor Wilkins is restrained by his title, position, and need to maintain a reputation and tie with the dominant culture outside the ghetto, in the suburbs (Venkatesh 6). Pastor Wilkins is like other religious leaders "who do not boast a wealthy congregation that commutes from the suburbs, and who instead counsel and console those near to them: the poor, the delinquent, the marginal, the disadvantaged, and the criminal," (Venkatesh 6). Access to the types of public health and social services that Pastor Wilkins and others like him offer means economic and social betterment for the community regardless of what sort of gray and black market activities might take place within. As Venkatesh points out, the law enforcement officers also understand that the ultimate goal of their work is public safety and not to enforce petty laws that do not necessarily promote community welfare.
Pastor Wilkins is described as a "leader in gang intervention," placing him in a position to effect positive change in the community (Venkatesh 72). He "had been working to reduce street gang violence and had two decades' experience with conflict resolution over underground economic issues," (Venkatesh 85-86). Pastor Wilkins had been around the area and worked there before, and during, Big Cat's rise to power. The way Wilkins carefully navigates between the dominant culture norms and the norms of his community proves that it is possible to create solutions that benefit all, without resorting to heavy-handed law enforcement measures that only serve to further denigrate, impoverish, and marginalize the individuals in the ghetto. Wilkins understands, as others in the community, that gang life has an entire economy built up around it. Many people in the community depend directly on that grey economy, and there is no need to struggle unnecessarily to transform the nature of that economy. Instead, it is better to form strategic partnerships and alliances within the community. This is how Pastor Wilkins survives and thrives, and helps others to do so. He mediates, providing counseling that sees all sides of the problem.
Even so, Pastor Wilkins does not perceive himself as a hero; he is just doing his job in the service of the lord (Venkatesh). Pastor Williams finds ways to use "tremendous innovation" in the negotiation process (Venkatesh 215). Part of the need for "tremendous innovation" in the negotiation process has to do with the fact that Pastor Wilkins negotiates between two different normative structures: the normative structure of the dominant culture and the normative structure of the subculture permanently labeled as deviant by the dominant culture. Pastor Wilkins' own struggles "to come to terms with illicit, criminal, or morally reprehensible practices reveals the enormous significance of the underground…as a space in which to grapple with problems of identity and belonging," as well as a space to generate material survival needs (Venkatesh 223). Part of the reason why Pastor Wilkins personally was able to negotiate two different worlds is that he came from a low-income and disenfranchised background giving him empathic understanding.
As Zelizer points out in "The Real Economy," segregating the world by labeling one subculture as deviant does damage and destruction for the whole society. The labeling process prevents the economic, political, and social empowerment of the disenfranchised community by barring its participation in the dominant culture. There is nothing "right" or "good" about the dominant culture economy other than that it is supported by dominant culture law and ethical codes. The subculture has its own laws and ethical codes, because it cannot rely on the protection of the dominant culture in its time of need. Pastor Wilkins provides the support and counsel otherwise unavailable on the streets. The most important errors in the dichotomy between "real" and "black" economies are clear: one is that "it rests on the idea of a proper segregation between the worlds of organized rationality and disorganized sentimentality," (Zelizer190). Moreover, the informal economy "has historically been the arena within the great bulk o production, consumption, distribution, and transfer of assets has always occurred," (Zelizer 190). From this perspective, bartering and evasion of authorities are legitimate responses to the parameters of doing business in the underground economy.
Pastor Wilkins has built his spiritual plan on helping those in the underground universe to develop moral standards and convictions, and offer support and counseling in times of need. As such, Pastor Wilkins is clearly a local "stakeholder" just as a community member in the dominant culture is a "stakeholder" to what takes place in their social arena (Venkatesh 309). Pastor Wilkins therefore has vested interest in creating and maintaining law and order, peace and prosperity, in the community. When local gangs have disputes, they cannot settle those disputes in the law courts of the dominant culture. Cut off from institutional support, the local economic organizations have to create their own rules of business. Some gangs, however, are much less formal than others. The Black Kings have a formal hierarchy and the organization is run much like a business organization in the outside world is run. Other gangs are loose and less entrenched in the community. When external and potentially hostile organizations encroach on the economic wellness of the community, it is up to mediators like Pastor Wilkins to find diplomatic solutions rather than militant ones. Most of Pastor Wilkin's most challenging moments with gangs and also with Gary Davis and Carter were rooted in the Pastor's ability to mediate and negotiate.