Over the Wire

Dr David Parenti: We get the grant, we study the problem, we propose solutions. If they listen, they listen. If they don’t, it still makes for great research. What we publish on this is gonna get a lot of attention.

Howard “Bunny” Colvin: From who?

Dr David Parenti: From other researchers, academics.

Colvin: Academics?! What, they gonn’ study your study? [chuckles and shakes head] When do this shit change?

The Wire provides a fundamentally pessimistic vision of urban poverty, and a blistering critique of the many people that in large and small ways exploit the ghetto in their own interest. Academics thus join the ranks of drug dealers, corrupt cops, ambitious politicians, journalists, and many others who appear to offer simple solutions to complex problems, and then disappear when it no longer serves their interests.

But what interest does constantly debating and reverentially quoting the Wire serve for social scientists? Has a five season television series (and a very good one at that) become the sum total of our understanding of urban poverty and its problems?

Here at Harvard alone there has been a major symposium, a public forum, and an undergraduate class focused on the Wire in the last two years. Other major universities including Duke and Middlebury also have courses about the Wire. The series has become grist for journal articles and a repository of case studies and illustrative examples for seminars.

We should all be so fortunate to have that much influence.

The attention the Wire gets is understandable, and in fact, quite well deserved. Whatever quibbles one might have with its efforts to portray urban poverty in its full and sometimes ugly totality, the show engages with fundamental questions of scholarly importance including the pitfalls of the war on drugs, the failure of inner-city schools, and long-standing institutional corruption. The show is also damn good drama – and unlike many scholarly papers, it is at once gripping, clever, and funny.

My problem then, is not with the Wire itself, but with the troubling implications of allowing the Wire to influence academic thinking. Here’s a way of putting the point: the Wire sometimes feels like ethnography on the cheap. Instead of going through the difficult process of developing relationships with inner-city inhabitants, the “experiences” and “ideas” of such people can be gathered and reflected on by the researcher from the comfort of his living room. The obvious objection is that academics do both (or those who are like me at least read ethnography), and nobody actually thinks that the Wire provides an unfiltered representation of the urban experience. If the Wire captures ideas from ethnographic research that is a testament to its realism and to the research behind the show, research that is itself based on ethnography (the example that comes to mind is David Simon’s apparent referencing in Season 2 of Bill Wilson’s research on urban dislocation and the loss of stable employment).

Of course it is true that no sensible academic actually thinks that it’s possible to understand, say homelessness and drug addiction, simply by watching the story of Bubbles the dope fiend. But it is difficult to quantify how internalizing the ideas from the Wire might influence or shape our understanding of poverty – providing convenient caricatures of complex phenomena to draw upon in discussions with other social scientists. I’ve observed that my peers have reacted to the Wire, in turn, in mixed ways – with derision, cautious appreciation, and even full-fledged endorsement.

For now, I remain agnostic. Like many good works of fiction the Wire is best when it amplifies our capacity for empathy. I don’t discount the possibility that good fiction can help social scientists to achieve a sense of verstehen, and in this way, our field can sometimes be closer to a humanity than a physical science. That’s uncomfortable for those of us that hang our hats on scientific positivism, but even if we don’t all become literati, we could at least learn to write better and tell better stories.

Here at Harvard alone there has been a major symposium, a public forum, and an undergraduate class focused on the Wire in the last two years. Other major universities including Duke and Middlebury also have courses about the Wire. The series has become grist for journal articles and a repository of case studies and illustrative examples for seminars.

We should all be so fortunate to have that much influence.

The attention the Wire gets is understandable, and in fact, quite well deserved. Whatever quibbles one might have with its efforts to portray urban poverty in its full and sometimes ugly totality, the show engages with fundamental questions of scholarly importance including the pitfalls of the war on drugs, the failure of inner-city schools, and long-standing institutional corruption. The show is also damn good drama – and unlike many scholarly papers, it is at once gripping, clever, and funny.

My problem then, is not with the Wire itself, but with the troubling implications of allowing the Wire to influence academic thinking. Here’s a way of putting the point: the Wire sometimes feels like ethnography on the cheap. Instead of going through the difficult process of developing relationships with inner-city inhabitants, the “experiences” and “ideas” of such people can be gathered and reflected on by the researcher from the comfort of his living room. The obvious objection is that academics do both (or those who are like me at least read ethnography), and nobody actually thinks that the Wire provides an unfiltered representation of the urban experience. If the Wire captures ideas from ethnographic research that is a testament to its realism and to the research behind the show, research that is itself based on ethnography (the example that comes to mind is David Simon’s apparent referencing in Season 2 of Bill Wilson’s research on urban dislocation and the loss of stable employment).

Of course it is true that no sensible academic actually thinks that it’s possible to understand, say homelessness and drug addiction, simply by watching the story of Bubbles the dope fiend. But it is difficult to quantify how internalizing the ideas from the Wire might influence or shape our understanding of poverty – providing convenient caricatures of complex phenomena to draw upon in discussions with other social scientists. I’ve observed that my peers have reacted to the Wire, in turn, in mixed ways – with derision, cautious appreciation, and even full-fledged endorsement.

For now, I remain agnostic. Like many good works of fiction the Wire is best when it amplifies our capacity for empathy. I don’t discount the possibility that good fiction can help social scientists to achieve a sense of verstehen, and in this way, our field can sometimes be closer to a humanity than a physical science. That’s uncomfortable for those of us that hang our hats on scientific positivism, but even if we don’t all become literati, we could at least learn to write better and tell better stories.

About Brendan Saloner

I am a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in the Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholars Program. I completed a PhD in health policy at Harvard in 2012. My current research focuses on children's health, public programs, racial/ethnic disparities, and mental health. I am also interested in justice and health care.
This entry was posted in Blog posts and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Over the Wire

  1. Jack Cunliffe says:

    Perhaps it the other way round. Perhaps the Wire was only written after academic books first looked at these issues. Perhaps it is reflecting our discipline.

  2. Pingback: Short takes: Ethnography in a business setting « Deciphering Culture

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s