Watch Season 1 episode 1 of “the wire – Target “ and read this article. Then write a 300-500 Discuss the issues you noticed in the first episode and article. What do you think of the way the show depicts said issues? Is anything problematic at this point? Do you notice yourself taking sides as we meet the characters?
The Wire as Social Science—fiction?
Author(s): Ruth Penfold-Mounce, David Beer and Roger Burrows Source: Sociology, Vol. 45, No. 1 (FEBRUARY 2011), pp. 152-167 Published by: Sage Publications, Ltd.
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The Wire as Social Science-fiction?
Ruth Penfold-Mounce, David Beer
and Roger Burrows
Department of Sociology, University of York, UK
Sociology 45(1) 152-167
©The Author(s) 201 1 Reprints and permission: sagepub. co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav
DOI: 1 0.1 177/0038038510387199 soc.sagepub.com $SAGE
This article examines the HBO television series The Wire as an example of a popular cultural form that stimulates the sociological imagination. It provides some examples of how it functions to do this. A brief case study of one character – ‘Snoop’ – is examined to illustrate a set of more general observations. It is suggested that The W/re, although still containing strong narrative elements, provides an intriguing popular cultural example of what Andrew Abbott has recently called a ‘lyrical sociology’.
social science-fiction, sociological imagination, The Wire
The Wire s exploration of sociological themes is truly exceptional. Indeed I do not hesitate to say that it has done more to enhance our understandings of the challenges of urban life and urban inequality than any other media event or scholarly publication, including studies by social scientists . . . The Wire develops morally complex characters on each side of the law, and with its scrupulous exploration of the inner workings of various institutions, including drug- dealing gangs, the police, politicians, unions, public schools, and the print media, viewers become aware that individuals’ decisions and behaviour are often shaped by – and indeed limited by – social, political, and economic forces beyond their control.
Professor William Julius Wilson, Harvard University Seminar about The Wire , 4 April 2008 1
In a recent critical reflection on the current state of sociology, Osborne et al. (2008: 531) make the observation that ‘professional sociologists … are not the only people who investigate, analyse, theorise and give voice to . . . phenomena from a “social” point of
Professor Roger Burrows, Department of Sociology, University of York, Heslington, York YO 1 0 5DD, UK Email: email@example.com
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view’.Theygoontoenumerate’statis tionalists, communications analysts, cu makers, humanitarian activists, policy argue, sometimes ‘produce better so 532).Theyarenotaloneinmakingsuc observations, most recently in a syste and,ofcourse,CWrightMillswasclea nation’hewasnotreferringto’mer Indeed, Mills was often highly critical within his own milieu, and one cannot would have been just as disparaging of as he was of Parsons. Neither is it like intended by a ‘sociological im agination (Uprichardetal.,2008).Mills(1959:19 logical sensibility he was concerned with locations.Hefoundit,forexample,’in history’; whereas, in France, he notes th reflection since World War Two rests o fate in our time, yet these trends are ca
In a recent chapter (Beer and Burrows, 2010), two of us attempted to think through
some of the implications of these observations about the cultural location of a sociologi-
cal imagination for the contemporary analysis of both popular culture and the future of
academic sociology. As part of this we could not help but briefly draw on the example of
the cult HBO TV series The Wire which, as we discuss later, has been widely lauded by
professional sociologists, politicians, critics, journalists and others as being profoundly ‘sociological’.2 Since we drafted that chapter, popular interest in The Wire has escalated:
it has been shown on mainstream terrestrial TV in the UK, drawing a large and dedicated audience; it has been revealed as Barack Obama’s favourite TV show (Fletcher, 2009); the British shadow home secretary, Chris Grayling, has made a well-publicized speech3 drawing parallels between the ‘fictional’ world it presents and life in parts of Britain; and, it is now viewed as being so culturally significant that, in an unprecedented move, The Guardian newspaper has found it necessary to publish a 296-page guide to the show (Busfield and Owen, 2009). Given such interest, and the characterization of it as ‘socio- logical’, in an era where we hear much about the need to develop ‘public sociology’ – and of the necessity that our work should be able to demonstrate ‘impact’ – we thought it might be useful to return to The Wire again, as sociologists, to give it rather more sus- tained attention. Now we are clearly not alone in doing this within the academy.4 There is already at least one doctoral thesis on the topic (Sodano, 2008), at least two edited books (Potter and Marshall, 2009; Sabin and Gibb, 201 1), two special issues of academic
journals,5 and many other individual journal articles, of which Cormier (2008), Brock (2009), Dreier and Atlas (2009), Kraniauskas (2009) and Sheehan and Sweeney (2009) are indicative. There have also been a number of academic symposia about the show: an event with the same title as this article – organized by Burrows – held in Leeds in the UK
in November 2009;6 another at Ann Arbor, Michigan, in January 2009;7 and, perhaps
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154 Sociology 45(1)
mostsignificantly,oneheld to start because it was here t canceofTheWire-seetheq to the vision of the sociolog
For those readers unfamiliar outset. Despite never seeing been received to great critica abroad. It has been hailed as by Jacob W eisberg of Slate w description which is playfu show, written by journalist based on their knowledge and initially on the HBO cable n details of life on the housing consonants and nasal vowel so to produce an ‘authentic’ acc Americainparticular,butha
The W ire is distinctive in t banaladministrativeduties battle against crimes rooted deprivation – this is not to m dealing ‘precariať (W acquant authentic account is the foun
[W ]e are not selling hope, or au is making an argument about cultures of addiction, raw cap entertainment.Itis,I’m afraid
In each of the five seasons,
different facet of Baltimore
system and the print news m
visual novel allowing a fuller
development.Consequently, format demands that each se
of the show mean that tunin pentant about this ‘problem the casual viewer’.11 As a res been acknowledged as an aut and deep exploration of cont
In this article it is suggested sciencefiction.Asaworkof of ‘truth’ in the sense that,
truth by telling lies, as oppo Service, 2000). But the kind
the humanities and more aligned with logicalimaginationoftheviewer.Itis,w possess of the sociological im agination
Using selected scenes and characters fr focus on one character – Felicia ‘Snoop functions to stimulate the sociologica The Wire is distinctive in this regard; tion has long existed in literature, po feel, however, that it is worth our atten shift toward the increasing presence popular culture (Beer and Burrows, 20 and well-developed example;drawing ‘complex’approachestosocialphenom
The Wire’s authenticity has been achie gained by Simon’s career in journalism Baltimore.Subsequently,theshow foc from factual accounts and played out in loosely in the genre of crime drama ( intricate; as Sim on12 describes it:
[The W ire is] really about the Am erican c institutions have an effect on individuals, drug dealer, a politician, a judge [or] lawy with whatever institution you’ve committ
By portraying authentic socio-politica (Talbot, 2007). The writers effectively select and put into the show because, t 2007). W ith m any of the story lines an city life it encapsulates both casual cr both the police and the policed share not moralframeworks,wherethecrimina ‘moral’thantheauthorities;forinstan the central characters, Detective Jim m friend of the victim, a certain ‘Snot Bo
This kid, whose mama went to the troubl forgets his jacket, so his nose starts runn he calls him Snot. So he’s Snot forever. It d
The conversation continues and reveals his friends but every time he did, he’d they let him play? The response is ‘Go
156 Sociology 45(1)
down to the line about Ame
but also a clear concern for themselves.
Through the depiction of B mentsofhumanthought,m the dogmatic follower of a c to traditional m orality, is at t shown to never target ‘citize drug dealers, he does not ‘w swear.Thecharactersareus acters are inept or corrupt, ence in their city but are als
The authenticity of the show along with the series structure as a visual novel has led to The Wire moving beyond being merely recognized as well-made and written television entertainment. As we have already indicated, it has also been characterized as a fascinat- ing ‘scholastic’ study that is perhaps ‘the best ethnography we have of contemporary American society’.13 The Wire might thus be heralded as a new form of social science fiction; not the type of social science fiction that draws on science fiction genres to explore social issues related to technological change (Burrows, 1997; Taylor, 2008), but rather a form of ‘ social science- fiction’ that takes materials from good journalism and the social sciences and presents it in a compelling fictional form.
As a consequence of this reinterpretation, social science fiction can be taken in a different direction than that described by Taylor as being:
… deliberately evocative of Zizek’s notion of art’s ability to depict a decontextualized appearance that, although being virtual in so far as it is ‘inexistent’ in a materially grounded sense, it nevertheless produces an expression of a ‘real being’ that more linguistically neutral forms of communication struggle to match. (2008: 741)
Taking Zizek’s reference to ‘art’ to mean not just literature but mediated stories, this article argues that The Wire is able to provide a social science- fiction; an ‘inexistent’ tale that produces a ‘real being’, in a form that inspires the sociological imagination.
As social science-fiction, The Wire tackles contemporary sociological themes while also demonstrating sensitivity to local culture and making an argument about how struc- tural inequality is reproduced. The five seasons focus on poor people and poverty along- side a vision of official Baltimore as a heavy, self-justified bureaucracy. It shows the effects of the post-industrial transformation of the US economy through corner drug dealers, police officers concerned with producing crime metrics, politicians seeking acclaim, dock workers trying to survive and developers moving into abandoned urban zones, to name but a few. This juxtaposition of the organizational problems of the polic department alongside those of the drug gang controlling trafficking in West Baltimore
cleverly highlight how the heads o both struggle with management an interestedways.Withintherankso dedicated, talented and loyal are ofte
The authenticity of The Wire has the show to learn how to counter Sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh has al suading gangland acquaintances to w episode by episode blog he reflects 2009). Venkatesh writes in his last blo the last two episodes:
‘W e’ve see this shit already,’Shine told you’resittinginsomesuburb.Butfo you – someone who doesn’t really kno
It would appear that these ghetto dw also acknowledge it is not so far fr ofVenkatesh’sputsit:’Imean,wec Venkatesh’s blog and status as a socio resource is suggestive of the resonan
So The Wire might be thought of a ofAmericansocialurbandecay.Th Wire and it could be said that the s Consequently,thecharacters,nomat ultimately expendable for the sake o logicalthemeswithinBaltimorenot also makes connections to early Ch living breathing organism.
The show has a syncretic quality i challenge. It encourages the viewer to worlds that the story presented, and Simon in Alvarez,2009:22).By enco viewers to see, engage with and tes legalization project. This W ire story undertheformermayor,KurtSch advocated the legalization of drugs. Schmoke appears in the show not a
sioner advising the fictional m ay Colvin who has legalized drugs in portrayalofSchmoke’sownperson Baltimore’s drug problem by presen the possibilities, consequences and p
The W ire stim ulates the sociologica for instance, the chess scene from s
1 58 Sociology 45( I )
of the season’s best and has be critics alike. This scene clearly issues facing the individuals o dealer,teachestwomemberso chess using the game pieces as
In doing so he portrays his dif tion having to deal with unreli science. His elaboration on the where participation in drug se the central piece the King, D’A direction he wants (but only o watch his back. Capture the Ki the drug ring and D’Angelo ‘s
is used to embody Barksdale ‘s ‘go get shit done piece’ and ‘ain or Rook is the drug ‘stash’, wh otherpieces.Themostexpenda who don’t get to become king sceneinBaltimore)theyget’c theysomesmartasspawns'(Bo lookinginmoredetailathow ters and how, to relate this ba intersectwithsocialcircumstan
In what follows it is hard to ig in generating The W ire as ‘soci ‘device’usedinordertopromo generalstructuringofthemat other reasons, not least because sions between social structure other formats that do not neces a surreal-comedy might equa toward authenticity. Our point
is the sense of authenticity it cu exam ple of the sociological im a authenticity is not just down t course. Although in what follo possessing ‘authentic character sense of the authentic is achiev and scenery, language, props a
W ith the focus of The W ire bein acter should be portrayed in th ing that its choice of human c
would appear that The Wire is a new tak article, ‘authentic television’. Using ‘aut differentiate The Wire and its realism f uses its cast of characters to build up a As W ire actress Felicia ‘Snoop’Pearson what the show was about she was told (Pearson and Ritz, 2007: 220).
Wire characters are used to add a new this is particularly evident through cha show’s scenes. For instance in season on to hide from his wife that he has been w a real Baltim ore policem an’s experience.1 are replicated in The W ire, but also the on real-life Baltimore figures (Vine, retired Baltimore City Police homicide even replicating his cigar smoking, and based on an actual police inform ant of informant in Baltimore in the 1970s, w leading to around 500 warranted indivi hat trick, whereby a red hat placed on identify to the watching police which in thiswasimitatedinTheWire.Thepor effective that he was once handed a pa saying ‘Man, you need a fix more than Oscar’ (Alvarez, 2009: 96).
Not all the characters are based on act characters such as Omar Little, a ‘stick example, on a range of individuals who 2000s including Shorty Boyd, Ferdinan Little is even scripted to live out some o on, such as when he survives an improb to escape a gunfight. This is based on Do
jum ping from a rail bridge approxim atel hurting his ankle (Sepinwall, 2008). As sulating not just a single stick up boy b Baltimore’s ghettos, defined by their fe sic scene where Little, dressed in turqu stay in the waistband of his attire, visits stops to light a cigarette, a bag of drugs house in response to cries of ‘Omar com
In addition to this lifting of famous and history of Baltim ore, The W ire has bec actors and m any non-professional actors show the ‘faces and voices of the real c Baltimore figures have played minor ro
160 Sociology 45(1)
Governor Robert L Ehrlick former Baltimore police dep homicide detective in seaso Major who appears as a pat TommyCarcetti;DonaldWo five as a midnight shift hom ance of former major Kurt have played slightly larger r as a recurring homicide dete ment.Anotherreal-lifeBalt manderGaryD’Addario,wh as well as having a recurrin
Two other important insta Colesberry was the show’s e Following his death before f so that his character also die seasons the opening titles sho and Cole became mutually m further, for he is a long-tim name.Hewasnotcasttoplay
Dennis Mello who was nam CommanderwhenWirewrit TheWirehasgoneevenfurth to also cast those who are pr of the 1980s ‘Little Melvin’ TheWirewriterBurns,and the W est side neighbourho boy)playsoneoftwomens subsequently shot dead when
It is clear that the level and beyond the scope of this art to focus on in greater detail sociological content in The W served a custodial sentence f from season three onwards;sh
also called ‘Snoop’.
Felicia’Snoop’Pearsonwass a club. Describing her as ‘an her strength and her vulner She was hired to play a cold pinMarioStanfield.Snoop, with the aid of a nail gun a
Penfold-Mounce et ai 161
performance draws on her backgrou careinEastBaltimore,wheresheso incarcerated for more than seven y performance with her thick ‘Balmere to understand has led to rave review King, she ‘is perhaps the m ost terri
Pearson highlights the blurring of boundaries by playing a character that is not her
despite sharing a name and many attributes. She verbalizes the possible confusion in her autobiography, saying that ‘Real is pretend, and pretend is real. Snoop is real-life me and Snoop is pretend-life character on TV’ (Pearson and Ritz, 2007: 224). She expresses her perplexity for the television producer’s wish for authenticity:
TV cats talking about, ‘We want real people on this show. We want to show your reality.’ But by showing my reality, these motherfuckers are changing my reality.
The shiťs confusing.
By showing who I really am, they’re changing who I am. (Pearson and Ritz, 2007: 224-5)
The changing of Pearson’s ‘reality’ highlights not only the blurring of authenticity boundaries but also its impact. She confesses to being confused by reflecting that her own understanding and participation in her life outside of The Wire is shifting.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Pearson’s experience of playing a part in a show with blurred boundaries in turn blurs her understanding of her life and the show. Pearson admits that she found it initially difficult to commit fully to one or the other, as she writes:
I wake up in the morning, get dressed, leave my work on the block to walk into a world about make-believe work on the block.
But because I ain’t that sure the make-believe work is real, I keep my real-life work. My shops stay open [selling dope]. (Pearson and Ritz, 2007: 224)
Interestingly, her new acting career becomes the most authentic for Pearson and so she decides to commit to the pretend because ‘[t]he only way to leave my fucked-up reality is to throw myself into the pretend version of my fucked-up reality’ (Pearson and Ritz, 2007: 225).
The TV executives wanted Snoop to keep her own walk and talk along with her name. If Pearson felt ‘a line didn’t flow right or read real, they let me change it up. If I said, “This ain’t something Snoop would say,” they’d say, “Well, how would she say it?” I’d say it my way, and my way almost always won out’ (Pearson and Ritz, 2007: 288). This interweaving of Pearson with Snoop adds further complexity to the fluid boundaries of authenticity, or as Pearson writes, ‘Strange, but I didn’t look at it like acting. It was being.
I just had to be. On the show I had to be me: someone who hits the block’ (2007: 223). It would seem that for Pearson participation in The Wire was actually about buying into and believing in the blurred boundaries of authenticity. Consequently, her presence, like other Baltimore figures who perform in The Wire , adds an analytical depth at the nexus
1 62 Sociology 4S( I )
of fiction and social reality, en sociological issues.
If we reflect for a moment on logical issues that m ay then be materialfromwhichtodraw. female’soldier’operatinginthe dominatedsocialsetting.Weals ing to this masculine organizat process, alienation and a broade also provides insights into wha strong sense of belonging withi the wider public or those outsid what is perhaps worth noting in are choices that are influenced b self. It is here that the strengt we suggest that it might be reg
A ‘Lyrical Sociology9?
This article suggests that The W which, to quote Julian Barnes telling less of the truth by tel tion of people operating within provides the viewer with exper of the show. But we are not jus arguing that the show has thes
W e also m ake this argum ent bec issues that are being raised wit points, before concluding, we ta ogy that The Wire demonstrates we draw on the work of the so mightprovideausefulexampl within this vision, and by think social science-fiction that we ca ity of the show and the stimula
If we exchange the words ‘wr Abbott’s programmatic stateme sociology: ‘looks at a social situ affectinghumancomplexity,a minds – and even the hearts – o cal sociology is to stim ulate an suggestion is that this is someth should be on capturing the loca moralsensibilities.Thesearec
Abbott pitches his vision of a lyri prominent forms of narrative or ex incontemporarysociology.Asheex
Ourgeneralguidemustalwaysbethe social science – that is in som e profoun containnarrativeelements…Butitme telling of a story – recounting, explaini to com m unicate a m ood, an em otional
Abbott’sproblem,itwouldappear,is explanatory forms of communicatio suggested, The W ire accounts for a le some events leading nowhere and oth of course, that The W ire is not also range of strong narrative arcs – som point is that the telling of these mult show. There is no overarching story t clear narrative to follow throughou moments and events involving a cas examples we have already outlined s fact, it confuses and m ystifies, it c the people and events within it are t a strong sense of ‘social reality’ and withthe’downandout’Bubblesbei
Indeed, Abbott’s contention is that w embedding altogether'(2007:95).Ly or overarching theories but relies on ity and difference triggered by the t of what is happening as it plays out in suggestive of the local im pacts of t and the like – the deindustrialization the dock in season two provide an ex to allude to wider social forces. The hear the whisper of possibility and Abbott’s suggestion that the ‘central
tense yoking of the vertigo of indexi (2007: 95). It is by exploring this ‘ind and emotion between the depicted an betweenthem,thatalyricalsociolog
David Simon’s stated intent in creat to myself and the other writers – to liveintheAmericancity'(Walker, but has also gone far beyond this or exemplarofAbbott’slyricalsociolo
1 64 Sociology 45( I )
to that of complexity theory (Ur unpredictability of patterns of
A good example here would be mayor while he is receiving ora ways,impactingonthelivesof and deaths. Through its focus o basis for discussion and analys sexuality,employment,belongi
The Wire then presents both opportunities and challenges for sociology and the social sciences more generally. It provides a complex and sophisticated sociological narrative that deals with mainstream sociological issues, and it does this ‘lyrically’ within a format that accounts for complexity and the problems of simplified notions of causality. As such the show could be interpreted as doing our job for us, providing an accessible and detailed sociological account of the world for a wide international audience outside of the acad- emy. Clearly this might be understood to be one of those contemporary challenges facing sociology that are a product of the context in which it operates. At the same time we could take the show as a model for doing sociology, a way forward, or as a useful exem- plar of sociological themes and issues that can be shown to our students to help them understand the more mainstream sociological texts we ask them to read. What we do find to be really promising is that the growing interest and enthusiasm for The Wire is highly suggestive of a latent interest in sociology in the wider public that we might well be able to tap into to sustain student numbers, communicate with different audiences and, more generally, to imagine a vibrant future for the discipline in a context that is likely to be challenging over the coming years. The real difficulty will be in trying to take advantage of this opportunity.
We would like to thank the following colleagues at York and elsewhere for discussing Wire matters with us over the last few years: Rowland Atkinson, Nick Gane, Helen Hills, Brian Loader, Jon Minton, Simon Parker, Nicholas Pleace, Bev Skeggs, Emma Uprichard, and Simon Winlow.
1 . See http://www.iop.harvard.edu/Multimedia-Center/All-V… A-Compelling-Portrayal-of-an-American-City and Chadda et al. (2008).
2. See Parker (2009) for a parallel discussion on another HBO series, The Sopranos.
4. Just a few days before we first submitted this article, in the summer of 2009, the BS A on Face-
book posted this: ‘The Wire – Love it or hate it, there’s lots to fire the sociological imagination
in every episode. What’s your favourite season of the Wire and why?’
5. The first was the journal Darkmatter. See http ://www.darkmatter 101 .org/ site/ category/journa
The second was the journal City 14(5 Americaleftbehind’:Baltimore,TheW Parker.
9. For an excellent analysis of Baltimore and the wider context of socio-spatial change in urban America see Harvey (2000). Harvey, a leading Marxist geographer, spent most of his academic career at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
11. Lauren Laverne interviews David Simon, 15 July 2008, BBC 2, The Culture Show. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/cultureshow/videos/2008/07/s5 e7 wire extra/index. shtml
12. Simon, D. (2005) Season 1, Episode 1, ‘The Target’, Commentary track [DVD].
13. Is The Wire our best ethnographic text on the US today? Savage Minds: Notes and Queries in Anthropology , 25 February 2008. Available at: http://savageminds.org/2008/02/25/is-the-
wire-our-best-ethnographic-text-on-the-us-today/ 14. ‘The Wire Odyssey’, Season Five DVD documentary.
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Ruth Penfold-Mounce is currently a Lecturer in Criminology in the Department of Sociology at the University of York. She has research interests in the sociology of celeb- rity and cultural and theoretical criminology. Her first book, Celebrity Culture and Crime: The Joy of Transgression, was published by Palgrave in early 2010.
Penfold-Mounce et al.
David Beer is currently a University of York. He h culturalinformaticsands
other topics in journals Society,New Mediaand also the co-author (with N
Roger Burrows is Profes Sociology at the Univers social inform atics, health sciences. He is the autho
reports.Mostrecentlyhe geodem ographics and th in an age of digitalization
Date submitted November 2009 Date accepted February 2010