You should know by now that we, like most sociologists, are obsessed with The Wire. In the past, we mentioned a variety of syllabi using the The Wire, noted an academic conference on The Wire, and hyped a scholarly collection of resources on The Wire. But given our site's main purpose--teaching and learning sociology through video—we especially love The Wire that are useful for teaching important sociological concepts. In this post, we curate these posts based on key concepts.
Class and Class Consciousness
In this scene from season 1, D'Angelo teaches Bodie and Wallace how to play chess. D'Angelo likens each chess piece to a member of the gang hierarchy, illustrating the class structure and his consciousness of it. For example, the king is at the top of the hierarchy and allowed to do what he wants, the queen moves where ever she wants and gets work done, while the pawns protect the king. The clip goes further to demonstrate D'Angelo class consciousness, or how the class structure affects each person within the class hierarchy. He notes there is little mobility within the structure: "the king stay the king" even though he "doesn't do shit" and "everything stay who he is." Bodies resists this view of class, holding onto the ideology of the American Dream, and argues that "some smart ass pawns" can climb the hierarchy:
In this scene from season 1, the characters discuss value and production within capitalism. While enjoying a fast food lunch, Wallace suggests that whoever invented Chicken McNugges must be extremely rich because of their popularity, but D'Angelo explains that the worker who invented chicken McNuggets "is just some sad ass sittin' in the basement of McDonalds thinkin' up some shit to make some money for the real players." This reflects Marx's theory of value and exploitation, which explains how capitalism is structured to extract value from the workers (the true source of value) and funnel it into the hands of the owners (i.e. "Ronald McDonald" or more accurately, the stockholders). When Bodie responds "that ain't right", D'Angelo says "Fuck right. It ain't about right; it's about money" and explains that whoever invented the McNuggets is still "working in the basement for regular wage thinking of some shit to make the fries taste better."
Cultural capital refers to knowledge, skills, tastes, and dispositions necessary to succeed in a particular context. The concept is used to help explain economic inequality. For example, the cultural capital in this scene at a fancy restaurant (e.g. knowing appropriate behavioral norms, understanding menu items, being comfortable in that setting) could be helpful in a professional job interview or networking. Here, ex-cop turned public school teacher Howard "Bunny" Colvin has taken it on himself to help reach the badly underprivileged children who have been deemed essentially unteachable by their West Baltimore junior high school. After his students do well on a project, Colvin decides to take them out to dinner at an upscale restaurant. Initially the students are excited and pleased--but over the course of the meal they become increasingly uncomfortable and discouraged. Due to their lack of cultural capital, Bunny's students are clearly uncomfortable and feel a sense of powerlessness (see the full post from Sara Wanenchak).
The beginning of this second clip also shows how the students lack the cultural capital of professional settings. For example, they speak out of turn, disrespect authority, and speak inappropriately for the context. But when Bunny Colvin asks the students what makes a good "corner boy," the students come alive and quickly describe the necessary traits: "keep the count straight," "don't trust nobody"; and "keep your eyes open." Their knowledge about, and interest in, working the corner illustrates the cultural capital that the teenagers possess. It is useful in navigating the streets and being a successful member of the drug-dealing gang hierarchy. The issue is that broader society does not value this form of cultural capital, which is possessed more by poor, inner-city children. Instead, society values the kinds of cultural capital that are more common middle-class suburban schools and families. In other words, the problem is not that the boys do not have any skills, but they do not have a certain type of skills. The different values placed on cultural capital more common among middle-class families illustrate how they are more likely to reproduce their class position, thus reinforcing the class structure across generations.
Crime and Rational Choice Theory
In The Wire, Omar is a Robin Hood-esque individual who incessantly steals drugs and money from Avon Barksdale’s gang. In these two snippets from season 1, we first see Omar and his crew at night preparing to steal drugs/money (or “the stash”) from one of the Barksdale sites. Then the next day we see Omar and his crew try to carry out their plan. These scenes are an excellent illustration of rational choice theory, which purports that individuals are generally rational, potential criminals, who would engage in crime if they could get away with it. In other words, we have a sense of free will and weigh the pros and cons that go into committing different crimes. Rational choice theory, however, has a robust range of components. Specifically, all of us are potential criminals who 1) consider how crime is purposeful; 2) sometimes have clouded judgement about crime due to our bounded rationality; 3) make varied decisions based on the type of crime being considered; 4) have involvement decisions (initiation, habituation, and desistance) and event decisions (decisions made in the moment of a crime that should reduce the chances of being caught); 5) have separate stages of involvement (background factors, current life circumstance, and situational variables); and 6) may plan a sequence of event decisions (a crime script). (See the full post from David Mayeda).
Crime and Strain Theory
Robert Merton’s strain theory was an early sociological theory of crime. Merton argued that mainstream society holds certain culturally defined goals that are dominant across society (e.g. accumulating wealth in a capitalist society). His strain theory focused on whether an individual rejects or accepts society’s cultural goals (wanting to make money) and the institutional means to attain those goals, resulting in a typology of criminals and non-criminals: 1) Conformists; 2) Innovators; 3) Ritualists; 4) Retreatists; and 5) Rebels. In this first clip, gang leaders Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell debate how they can reclaim their top “real estate” for selling heroine. Avon states how he is a gangster, or from Merton’s perspective, an innovator. In contrast, Stringer Bell pushes to work with Marlo (another gangster not shown in these scenes) and eventually desist from the drug trafficking scene, making “straight money” as a conformist.. (See the full post from David Mayeda)
In the second clip, Johnny and Bubbles (two drug users in the show) debate how to make money, with Bubbles wanting to get paid helping the police, thus working toward being a conformist. But Johnny ultimately convinces Bubbles to help him innovate through petty crime simply to feed his addiction.
Other Concepts and Videos
Of course, The Wire is useful for teaching numerous other sociological topics as well. For example, concepts such as residential segregation, mass incarceration, the war on drugs, hyper-masculinity, and neo-liberalism are evident throughout the entire show.
In addition, a variety of supplementary videos are helping for understanding the context of Baltimore or to document broader patterns in a non-fictional context. Viewers may also want to check out Al Jazeera's news documentary on the drug war in Baltimore or this news clip on the use of the "n-word" in pop culture. This scholarly collection of resources on The Wire from The Centre for Urban Research can be useful for identifying further academic and multimedia resources for understanding and analyzing the show. What videos and resources have you found useful for watching The Wire in an academic context?
Paul Dean is co-creator and co-editor of The Sociological Cinema, and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Ohio Wesleyan University.
Originally posted on Teaching TSP
This year I taught Introduction to Sociology. In order to discuss the power of discourse in society, I showed by students Chimamanda Adichie’s 2009 TED Talk called “The Danger of a Single Story“. My students were enamored. We had a fascinating and engaging discussion about single stories and the ways in which they affected my students’ lives and their engagement with the world around them. As a result of this phenomenal class, I developed the following assignment that I thought other sociologists would like to adapt to fit their courses.
Last quarter I worked as a teaching assistant for my advisor Andy Szasz’s class on Contemporary Sociological Theory. This means that I attended lectures, graded student work, and led two break-out classes of 30 students each. Like the time I taught classical theory, I assigned the students the task of supplying me with a constant stream of media sources related to the class content. You can see the text of the assignment below, and read descriptions of how I used some of their media pieces in class below that.
After you choose your media piece, write a 1 page, type-written essay that includes the following:
- Short summary of the media item.
- Description of what sociological theory your media piece relates to, and how it relates to that theory.
- The strengths and limitations of your selected media piece for understanding the sociological theory in question.
- A description of how you suggest using this media item in section in order to help the other students better understand the sociological theory discussed in your paper.
The Frankfurt School, part 1
The Frankfurt School, part 2a: The Culture Industry
The Frankfurt School, part 2b: Consumer Society
- I used a video of a rapping toddler and a comedy sketch to help explain structuralism, read about it here. The comedy video also applies to some of Goffman and Garfinkle.
Goffman and Garfinkel
- See my post on using Pink Floyd to help students understand Foucault here.
Postmodernism and review
Tracy Perkins is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz with a focus on social movements and environmental sociology. Her master’s research analyzed women’s pathways into environmental justice activism in California’s San Joaquin Valley, and her doctoral research explores the evolution of California environmental justice advocacy over the last 30 years. See more of her work at tracyperkins.org and voicefromthevalley.org.
In a world where men and masculinity are valued above women and femininity and the voice of god sounds like a man. Can there be any sense of justice? Can a hero rise from the ashes that were this country’s dreams of equality?
Now read this with a nerdy sociologist voice:
In this piece, Nathan Palmer discusses how we manipulate our voices to perform gender and asks us to think about what our vocal performances say about patriarchy in our culture.
As a sociologist concerned with inequality, I think the juiciest question to ask is, are all voices treated equally? That is, do we empower some gender presentations and disempower others? This question is the central question explored in the movie In A World, which was written and directed by it’s star Lake Bell. The movie is about a young woman who is trying to break into the voice-over acting world, but struggles mightily because the industry is male dominated. In the movie and in reality, when Hollywood wants an authoritative voice, a powerful voice, or simply “the voice of god,” they turn to male voice-over actors more often than not. We should stop and ask, why is it this way? Are masculine voices just naturally more powerful? Nah—If you’ve spent anytime with opera singers you know that both male and female voices can rattle your ribcage. The answer then must be cultural.
In any culture the people in it use symbols to communicate with one another. They fill these symbols with shared meaning and connect them with other ideas and symbols. For instance, today we associate blue with masculinity and pink with femininity, but a hundred years ago pink was a, "a more decided and stronger color, more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” The point here is that any symbol, whether it’s a color or the sound of a voice, is not inherently masculine or feminine, powerful or weak, etc. As a culture we put the meaning into the symbols.
So what does it say about our culture if we associate power with masculinity? The answer is simple, it suggests that we live in a patriarchal society (i.e., a society that values men and masculinity above women and femininity). That’s why it was so surprising to me when I read/watched interviews with Lake Bell where she put the blame back on women and something she calls the “sexy baby vocal virus”1.
There is one statement in this film and I am vocal about it: There is a vocal plague going on that I call the sexy baby plague, where very smart women have taken on this affectation that evokes submission and sexual titillation to the male species...This voice says "I’m not that smart," and "don’t feel threatened" and "don’t worry, I don’t want to take charge," which is a problem for me because it’s telling women to take on this bimbo persona in order to please a man.
To be honest, I’m not sure what to make of Bell’s criticism of the women who use the sexy baby voice. She asserts that “these women” have been “victimized” and have “fallen prey to something," but then clearly seems to be angry at them for their use of the voice. Furthermore Bell’s critique of women’s voices takes a social issue (patriarchy and the devaluing of all things feminine) and redefines it as an individual problem. If the women who use the sexy baby voice are using it to present themselves as non-threatening or highly sexual, then where did they get the idea in the first place? I’m not sure if Bell is arguing that the sexy baby voice is a reaction to a patriarchal society or that it creates a patriarchal society.
In a world working through the issue of patriarchy, it would seem that even movies that are critiquing patriarchy can reinforce it.
- What do you think of Bell’s critique of the “sexy baby vocal virus”? Does she have a point, or is she blaming women?
- Describe at least 5 ways you perform your gender? Use examples that weren’t discussed in the reading.
- We use terms like manly men to describe the peak of masculinity and girly girl to describe the height of femininity. When we compare those two terms (manly man vs. girly girl) what do you notice about them? What does this tell us about what we value in men and what we value in women?
- What about our culture would need to change so that women’s voices are seen as equally powerful and authoritative sounding as men's voices?
- For the record, the sexy baby portion of this term owes credit to a particularly funny episode of 30 Rock which you can watch here.
Nathan Palmer is an educator, writer, speaker, and editor. He currently maintains the blogs SociologySource and SociologyInFocus, and he teaches sociology at Georgia Southern University.
Advocacy & Social Justice
Social Mvmts/Social Change/Resistance