Two sociology professors’ survey of New York con artists and how these reviled but crafty opportunists manage to make a living in the city’s informal economy.
New York City is full of haves and have-nots. But as Williams (New School for Social Research) and Milton (Queensborough Community Coll., CUNY) point out, this description is incomplete because it does not consider one invisible but ever present community: the con artists who take to have. In this book, the authors observe how people locked out of the “masterful” con game of the American dream create, and master, new games designed to temporarily beat the larger con. They base their account, which they call a “collage ethnography,” on direct interactions with nine New York con artists whom they interviewed and followed over the course of several years. What emerges from this collaboration is an intriguing study of the many different types of schemes—for example, dice and numbers games, slum-jewelry and designer knockoff cons, and tenant hustles—in which these men and women engage. Beyond describing how these cons work, Williams and Milton examine the con artist community and the enterprising individuals who inhabit it. They also argue that opportunism is an art that requires mastery of many complex rules. Indeed, con games are really a form of “street theater” that manages to “seduce” unsuspecting citizens into participating in an unfolding drama. What makes the book especially fascinating is the way the authors demonstrate how con games are not restricted by class—or any other social marker. Such behavior also takes place among “respectable” middle-class professionals such as law enforcement officials and, perhaps less surprisingly, wealthy New York business executives. Bold and illuminating, the book is a reminder that no matter how poor or rich people may be, greed—and therefore the capacity to cheat others for our own gain—“is embedded in our social DNA.”
A thoroughly researched academic study accessible to general readers.