Robert Vargas

Robert Vargas

Urban violence does more than just dominate headlines. It can impact the way cities function, affect the political landscape, and define global perception. In this issue, Dialogo sat down with Robert Vargas and Ben Lessing to discuss their research into urban violence, criminal conduct, and its impact on the social constructs that define these cities.

Vargas is the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Director of the Violence, Law, and Politics Lab. His award-winning book, Wounded City: Violent Turf Wars in a Chicago Barrio, brings political sociology to the study of urban violence by showing how ward redistricting shapes levels of block-level violence in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago. “Some might argue that there is no strong organized crime in Chicago,” Vargas says. “But in the past, Chicago looked a lot like Latin American cities in terms of the role organized crime played in the everyday functioning of politics.”

Benjamin Lessing

Benjamin Lessing

Benjamin Lessing is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science. He studies organized violence involving armed groups that do not seek formal state power, such as drug cartels, prison gangs, and paramilitaries. His first book, Making Peace in Drug Wars: Crackdowns and Cartels in Latin America, examines armed conflict between drug trafficking organizations and the state in Colombia, Mexico and Brazil.  “Many in my field study sort of civil war and insurgency,” he says. “I'm more focused on organized criminal groups with a capacity for violence.”

Both have received support from the Social Sciences Research Center (SSRC) and the Center for International Social Science Research (CISSR).

Dialogo: Tell us about your research and its exploration of the impact of violence in urban environments.

Vargas:  I work broadly in urban and political sociology. My current focus is trying to understand historical change in ward redistricting in the cities of Chicago, St. Louis, and Milwaukee. I’m comparing areas that have remained in the same political districts since the beginning to areas that have consistently gone to and from different districts, to understand what political power looks like spatially in these cities. All of this work is part of the Violence, Law, and Politics Lab, which is funded in part through support from the university and SSRC.

Lessing: My work focuses on criminal conflict, which is armed violence and the threat of armed violence involved in criminal groups. My first book was about conflict between powerful drug cartels and state forces: visible, destructive conflict. My more recent work is moving into a subtle realm of coercion and authority, where criminal groups are governing not only the criminal underworld, but also large slum regions in Latin America, where millions of people live in informal urban areas.

My current book project looks at prison-based criminal organizations, or prison gangs mostly in Brazil, that have learned how to control crime on the outside from within prison. In some cases, they come to govern entire slum areas, imposing rules, order, and even taxes on civilian residents in these peripheral or informal zones, which are often very poorly served by states.

Dialogo: Robert, tell us about the history of the Violence, Law, and Politics Lab.

Vargas: It was born out of a National Science Foundation Career Award I received while at Notre Dame, and when I came to UChicago, the Division generously offered additional support.

The lab is composed of three or four teams of undergraduate, and graduate students who are each working on different components of a broader research agenda to link political processes with violence that happens on the ground in cities. The project started off with digitizing a lot of historical homicide data and political maps from these cities, which generated so many discoveries that we shifted the focus to understanding what is going on with redistricting before we try to connect it to violence.

Currently, I have one team digitizing maps from the last 100-to-200 years to observe the change in the political districts and patterns of redistricting. Then I have a second team doing historical archival work on each street of these cities, to understand what informed the drawing of these districts.

My third group are artistic students who are using the data visualizations to create a hybrid science-art project through paintings maps on canvas. These students are experimenting on a bunch of canvases to find ways to produce pieces of art as a way to exhibit findings from our project.

Dialogo: Ben, what methods are you using to conduct your research?

Lessing: I’m currently using a method I call replicated ethnographic observation.

It is difficult to study criminal governance in a comparative way. Surveys and censuses rarely ask about gang rule, and even if they do people may be afraid to report. You might go live in a slum community to get a sense of who controls what, and how residents view the gang, but then you've only really observed one community in a single city. I've been trying to scale that up by working with anthropology professors in Brazil along with a number of masters and doctoral students.

Each student completes a standardized report on criminal governance documenting all the things gangs do in the specific community where they are doing field research. It’s an ample inventory of about 90 items that gangs might possibly govern, control, and regulate. (For example, loud music, entry in and out of the community, domestic violence, spats among neighbors, drug consumption, and so on). I also visit as many of the communities as I can, and do prison visits where possible to understand what gang power really looks like on the inside.

With these techniques, I've been able to compile measures of gang governance in multiple communities across multiple cities.

Dialogo: How do you gather that data?

Lessing: I started building datasets of what gangs do in Brazil; one looks at orchestrate terror attacks, usually mass bus burnings, that can bring cities to a standstill. These attacks used to be relatively rare, and only happened in Rio or São Paulo, but in the last 10 or 12 years they've spread throughout the country. They cause a great deal of mayhem and panic, though the gangs deliberately avoid fatalities -- they will get everybody off the buses before they burn them. In fact, where gangs are hegemonic or reach a peace agreement, homicide rates can actually fall.

And in a lot of places where the prison gangs govern, residents are thankful for their presence. Their lives get materially much better when these sophisticated gangs show up, pacify smaller and more violent street gangs, and start putting in place basic rules.

There are a lot of paradoxical dynamics you can get at by systematically collecting this data on when and where these attacks occur.

Dialogo: Is that dangerous?

Lessing: Visiting a prison is pretty safe, unless you happen to be there during a riot. You don’t always get to go into the galleries, or talk to gang members, so it’s frustrating, but when you get an interview, the subjects are often very forthcoming. For example, I interviewed a member of a sophisticated prison gang that keeps incredible internal bookkeeping. They had Excel spreadsheets, and personnel records for every member. He was understandably proud of their system.

Visiting favelas requires local contacts who know the community; they won’t take you anywhere unsafe, for you or for them. So the safety concerns are manageable, and the visits are useful to gutcheck what you're reading from secondary sources. It’s also incredibly valuable to hear people describing in their own words what's going on.

Dialogo: Do you see overlap or connections between your areas of research?

Lessing: Right now I'm grappling with how to study the spread of politics and nationwide gangs in Brazil in a way that is meaningful and scalable. Then trying to figure out what to do with the data once it is generated. Of course, you try to publish results in a journal, which is interesting and part of our job, but I'm blown away by Rob’s creativity of using art as a data visualization strategy.

I also see a lot of similarities in the study of redistricting affecting patterns of violence, and the micro’level changes breeding in these urban populations. I think in both of our work, it turns out to be a major factor in the quality of life and what's going on in these places.

Vargas: The funny thing is that with sociological literature on violent crime, the state is almost entirely missing. It puts me in an opportunistic spot to use digitization to explore all of the connections between state action, policy change, and changes in the daily lives of people on the ground.

Hearing about Ben’s work in the context of Latin America helps me develop a language to understand the dynamics of what could be going on in Chicago. It’s helpful to rely on work done in other parts of the world to best describe some of the pitfalls of local government in the US context.

Lessing: I have experienced the mirror image of that idea. I don't study the United States, but the more I study organized crime in Latin America, the more I realize it's not as different as we imagined. California prison gangs control a lot of what happens on the street in neighborhoods. Maybe it’s not as extreme as Latin America, but studying one can give insights into the other.

Dialogo: What impact do you both hope to have with this research?

Vargas: I'm hoping my research gets people to think about redistricting differently. In the US, redistricting is often conceived of as a battle between partisan political parties. By revealing the social consequences of redistricting I'm hoping to motivate broader discussions about how to re-draw political boundaries, and letting the people be at the forefront of decisions to re-draw districts.

Lessing: My book is ultimately about the transformation in gangs that has occurred in part because of mass-incarceration policies in these communities. Brazil is the third largest incarcerator in the world – the United States is number one. Throughout the Americas you have countries experimenting with mass incarceration as a way of dealing with fundamental social problems. My book speaks to the dark underbelly of those policies.

A lot of work has been done by American social scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists about the dark side of mass incarceration in the US. By looking at other high incarceration countries in the western hemisphere, we can shed light on a different kind of outcome, in which mass incarceration helps the crime organize itself.

The advent of mass incarceration has helped organize the criminal realm. There are now powerful gang organizations with thousands of members spanning multiple countries, and they have very sophisticated business dealings. This growth was fed by mass-incarceration policies and the endless expansion of the prison system. I'm not saying tear down all the prisons. But I do hope to open people's eyes to a serious set of side effects of mass incarcerations.

Dialogo: What impact does funding opportunities like CISSR and SSRC have on research? What other support have you found at UChicago?

Lessing: CISSR and SSRC have both have been incredibly supportive of my work. I’m a CISSR Faculty Fellow, so they've supported my ongoing field research in Brazil, which will make it possible to scale our criminal-governance questionnaire to six or seven different states in Brazil this year. The SSRC has also provided space for my coders, which has been really critical. Having that space so they can be together and talk, and help each other out, is so important.

The chance to be part of a UChicago research project also makes it easier to attract collaborators abroad. It lets them know that this is a project at the cutting edge and that it has backing. That makes it something that they want to invest their time in, and to involve their students in.

Vargas: When I give talks, it is crazy the number of people I have to thank who are part of my research. SSRC has given me funding and the space to house my whole team of RAs who are digitizing all of the data and doing the analysis. They’ve also let me turn part of it into a makeshift art studio.

Then there is Cecelia Smith, GIS librarian at the Regenstein Library, who trains all of my students to do the digitization work; and folks like Parmanand Sinha, Jeff Tharsen, and Brooke Leutgert at the research computing center (RCC) who helped me build the infrastructure to store the massive amounts of data we're digitizing. More broadly, the social sciences division has provided me with the expertise on the most cost-efficient ways to structure a massive data digitization effort. It is a multi-pronged team who all provide a vital source of support for a project that would otherwise be really hard to pull off.

Dialogo: How has UChicago’s research culture encouraged your work and the work of your peers?

Lessing: One thing that sets UChicago apart from East Coast Ivy Leagues is that it has always been a place where social science is the jewel in the crown. It’s a place where the whole university gets behind cutting edge social science research. That has certainly been helpful with my progression as a scholar.

Vargas: The University also has a history of supporting work that pushes the boundaries of what has already been done. That isn't always easy, but I think the simple act of having a space like the SSRC, is a huge step forward in supporting big ambitious projects. Without that support it would be really difficult to do this kind of work at any institution.