the sociology of the wire

cities, media, visual

Omar, from The Wire

I’m not going to lie, I’m intensely jealous of anyone who gets to do a ‘Sociology of The Wire’ course and CMG and I have thought about co-teaching a class for years. It is a favorite amongst my colleagues, especially PI. Slate has a nice write-up about the phenomenon. There’s an on-line journal with a special issue on the show. A class at Middlebury has a blog about watching the show. When asked why he’s holding a class on the show, pairing episodes with readings from Elijah Anderson’s Code of the Street, Sandra Susan Smith’s Lone Pursuit, Bruce Western’s Punishment and Inequality in America, and Sudhir Venkatesh’s Off the Books, he told the writer: “Although The Wire is fiction, not a documentary, its depiction of [the] systemic urban inequality that constrains the lives of the urban poor is more poignant and compelling [than] that of any published study, including my own.” David Simon, the co-creator of the show, states that the value of The Wire comes from it’s ability to straddle ‘two myths’ (thanks PI):

To state our case, The Wire began as a story wedged between two American myths. The first tells us that in this country, if you are smarter than the next man, if you are shrewd or frugal or visionary, if you build a better mousetrap, if you get there first with the best idea, you will succeed beyond your wildest imaginations. And by virtue of free-market processes, it is entirely fair to say that this myth, more than ever, happens to be true. Not only is this accurate in America, but throughout the West and in many emerging nations as well. Every day, a new millionaire or three is surely christened. Or ten. Or twenty.

But a supporting myth has also presided, and it serves as ballast against the unencumbered capitalism that has emerged triumphant, asserting as it does for individual achievement to the exclusion of all societal responsibility, and declaring for the amassed fortune of the wise and fortunate among us. In America, we once liked to tell ourselves, those who are not clever or visionary, who do not build better mousetraps, have a place held for them nonetheless. The myth holds that those who are neither slick nor cunning, yet willing to get up every day and work their asses off and be citizens and come home and stay committed to their families, their communities and every other institution they are asked to serve – these people have a portion for them as well. They might not drive a Lexus, or eat out every weekend; their children might not be candidates for early admission at Harvard or Brown; and come Sunday, they might not see the game on a wide-screen. But they will have a place, and they will not be betrayed.

In Baltimore, as in so many cities, it is no longer possible to describe this as myth. It is no longer possible even to remain polite on the subject. It is, in a word, a lie.

david & anne

culture, tech

David in the Mall

Yesterday was the 300 year anniversary of the Statute of Anne, the foundation of copyright. Last week we talked about Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture, and I told my story about how UNLV students believed that the reproduction of David set in the mall of Caesars’ Palace is the real Michelangelo’s David. We talked about Walter Benjamin, and how the mechanical reproduction of the art object destroys its aura and whether the access that is gained through the process also has its shinier aspects (‘Hey, you get to have Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss hanging on your dorm wall.’) But to commemorate the anniversary, Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing has sharp things to say, that reflect on the object example I often use in class:

If there’s one lie more corrosive to creativity above all others, it is the lie of romantic individual originality. Today, ‘copyright curriculum’ warns schoolchildren not to be ‘copycats’ – to come up with their own original notions.

We are that which copies. Three or four billion years ago, by some process that we don’t understand, molecules began to copy themselves. We are the distant descendants of those early copyists – copying is in our genes. We have a word for things that don’t copy: ‘dead’.

Walk the streets of Florence and you’ll find a ‘David’ on every corner: because for half a millennium, Florentine sculptors have learned their trade by copying (but try to take a picture of ‘David’ on his plinth and you’ll be tossed out by a security guard who wants to end this great tradition in order to encourage you to buy a penny postcard).

images and collective memory


The New York Times has an article about how our collective memories on Eastern European Jewish life were shaped by a book called ‘A Vanished World,’ by Roman Vishniac. In the back of it, there are two pictures, below.

“Jewish Man Looking Through Iron Door, Warsaw, Circa 1935–38” and "Boy Playing, Lodz, Circa 1935–38

The caption reads: “The father is hiding from the Endecy (members of the National Democratic Party). His son signals him that they are approaching. Warsaw, 1938.” Supplemental text indicates that a lynch mob was coming. Upon closer inspection, it seems that Vishniac did a great deal of falsification after the war: about the number of pictures he took, about the fact he used a hidden camera (one can see his reflection in the eyes of some of his subjects), and that some of his pictures were staged. The worst, however, was that he altered captions, like these, to heighten dramatic scenes well after the war.

An israeli policeman protecting a Jewish-American student caught in a riot on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.

It reminds me of the Tuvia Grossman controversy, wherein an incorrect caption fused in the world’s memory a scene of an Israeli policeman beating Palestinians. Usually a good example to pair with Howard Becker’s Telling About Society.

Recently, Sociological Images has a nice discussion about how the ‘Florida Family Policy Council’ circulated an image of a lesbian couple who wanted to adopt a child, to alert their members of a recent judge’s ruling. Stereotypes abound. Guess which one was the couple seeking the adoption, and which was the image that was circulated. For what it’s worth, the group says that image on the right was of another couple also seeking adoption and that they’re sorry for the mix up.

Two Couples

new social conditions, new forms of interaction



One of my all-time favorite sociology books is Cressey’s The Taxi-Dance Hall. It is rich, deep, and lively. It chronicles the social interactions that arise from turn-of-the-last-century immigrants moving to a new city without their families and girlfriends, and how all sorts seek out the attentions of women through these dance halls. A ticket per dance (thus: ‘Taxi-Dance’):

The patrons of the taxi-dance hall constitute a variegated assortment. The brown-skinned Filipino rubs elbows with the stolid European Slav. (…) Gray-haired, mustached men of sixty dance a slow, uncertain one-step in response to the vivacious jigging of their youthful companions (…) Then there are pudgy men of forty or fifty who dance awkwardly (…) Young men are there too, boisterous youths who enter in groups of three and four and hang together at the outskirts of the side-line spectators. (…) May appear to be recent industrial recruits from the country, eager to experience some of the thrills of city life. Others may be foot-loose globe-trotters, hobo journeymen ‘traveling on their trade,’ for whom the normal steps in feminine acquaintanceship must be sped up. Still others, however, constitute a different type and suggest the sleekly groomed, suave young ‘business men’ of questionable antecedents. (…) Finally, there are a few men, handicapped by physical disabilities, for whom the taxi-dancer’s obligation to accept all-comers makes the establishment a haven of refuge. The dwarfed, maimed, and pock-marked all find social acceptance here.

Game Crush, the new Taxi-Dance Hall

And, for an updated version of this, New York Magazine has a fascinating article on bailarina bars: places for Spanish-speaking immigrant women to make money dancing for new immigrants and orthodox Jews. $2 a dance, $40 an hour, $500 a night. From the article:

Rosa started working at the Flamingo three years ago. The club had a reputation as one of the best bailarina bars in the city, and she’d been looking for a move up. She liked the fact that they opened at 4 or 5 p.m.—rather than 10 p.m. like most clubs. And Flamingo customers tended to go straight to the dance floor rather than sitting around and checking out the women for free. Plus, a phalanx of cameras, security guards, and bouncers put the kibosh on drug dealing, gang activity, and hands venturing too far below bailarinas’ waists. Rosa thought she’d make more money and have a better work environment.

Last week, a student mentioned something that reminded me of this. There is a website called ‘GameCrush’ that matches (presumably) boys and men with women to play video games with for $6.60 per game. According to one website, you can set your gaming mood from ‘dirty’ all the way to ‘filthy.’ I have to take their word for it, because a.) I don’t play those kinds of games, and b.) the website crashed due to over-demand on their servers.