Academics tap The Wire to stimulate social debate

TV cult drama's storylines used to aid development of 'public sociology' strategy. John Gill reports

November 26, 2009

Drugs, guns and institutional corruption may be standard fare on the streets of Baltimore, the setting of the cult television show The Wire, but they are surely far removed from most academics' working lives.

This week, however, scholars are convening at Leeds Town Hall to analyse the HBO show, broadcast in the UK on FX and BBC Two, as an example of "social science fiction".

The conference has attracted almost 50 papers and an international audience of more than 100, with sessions such as "It ain't about right, it's about money" by Peter Moskos, assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, and "A man must have a code: the masculine ethics of snitching and not-snitching", by Thomas Ugelvik, from the University of Oslo's department of criminology and sociology of law.

Hailed by critics as one of the greatest television shows ever made, The Wire focuses on crime and corruption, as well as political and school systems, the impact on communities of dying industries and a host of other social issues.

Roger Burrows, professor of sociology at York, said the programme - created by former Baltimore Sun journalist David Simon - had "already been lauded by professional social scientists, politicians, critics and others as being profoundly 'sociological'?".

President Barack Obama has declared it his favourite show, and Chris Grayling, the Conservative Shadow Home Secretary, has drawn parallels between the series' depiction of life on the streets of Baltimore and crime in parts of Britain.

The conference was organised, Professor Burrows said, to take advantage of this interest at a time when academics in the field were being urged to do more to develop "public sociology".

"We were spending more time talking about the show than we were about work, so we thought we'd try to combine the two," he said.

"We spend hours and hours (as academic sociologists) writing papers that not many people read, but actually many of the issues that we try to write about - particularly people who work in urban or political studies - can be dealt with more analytically in entertainment."

The conference is due to take place on 26- November, and Professor Burrows said it is not the first time The Wire had been picked up as a subject for academic study.

There is at least one doctoral thesis on the topic, at least two forthcoming academic books, one special issue of a journal and many journal articles, he added.

"The show appeals to academics, people in the media and politicians because it talks to many of their concerns, but actually it's far more ubiquitous than that," he explained.

"I've been struck by how many young kids have got into it, usually because they think it's about bad language, drugs and violence, but actually - and I've spoken to my own teenage children and their friends about this - it gets them thinking seriously about politics, culture, race. Then, suddenly, sociology, economics and political science are a little bit more sexy than perhaps they thought they were."

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