public sociology

Is ‘The Wire’ the solution?


Recently I commented on twitter that ‘I can’t help but think that some academics are scared of research being accessible and understandable to publics…’ and in response Dave Beer (@davidgbeer) pointed me towards a paper from City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, action that he co-authored with Rowland Atkinson in 2010. It highlights some interesting points of the value of well made drama, such as The Wire and its ability to foreground social issues in a ‘thoughtful and experimental way’ (p.530). They go on to discuss the valuable role that such a series can play in adult education and engagement of publics with deeper understandings of society, more commonly restricted to academic outputs and the challenges faced when academics struggle to communicate with each other in across sub-disciplines, let alone across the public-academic divide . This paper addressed several of the issues I explored in previous blogs here and here but it also opened up two questions in my mind. Firstly, whether any of this is possible so long as the REF framework restricts what can be valued in terms of public ‘impact’ through restrictive criteria and whether need to admit they need help in doing this effectively. The second question sits within why a program such as The Wire has the ability to capture the public imagination in a far greater way than most documentaries.

I have already explored the question of the REF and it’s restrictions on what it considers to be impact on this blog and won’t go into too much depth here but bringing back into focus some thoughts I had previously is important, there is a thirst in the general populace for programming that turns its lens on the social world, surely it is vital that social scientists (and I use that term in the broadest sense) play a part in ensuring the version portrayed is accurate and helps break down inequality and stereotypes, opposed to re-enforcing them. The only way this is going to happen is through collaboration with writers, producers and directors of these kind of outputs. By becoming instrumental in the production of social representations, social scientists can aid in engaging the social imaginations of the general publics in positive ways to help reduce inequality opposed to in a way that perpetuates or amplifies it.

The fact that The Wire has been so successful and has captured the public imagination also needs to be reflected upon. Atkinson and Beer allude to this within their paper but I want to be more explicit on the issue and possibly challenge the question of how this could work as a research output that engages publics. Part of its success lies within its complex and provisional nature. The highly visual nature of the medium and the complex social narratives played out in front of the lens, not only of the main story lines, but the ‘background noise’ that also goes on, allows the viewers to take charge of their understanding, guided by the issues that the lens foregrounds for them. This is in stark contrast to the documentary that often narrates a god like perspective on the meaning of what is presented. By handing over ownership of some of the responsibility for making sense of what is presented to them, the viewer feels more compelled to engage in the world they are viewing and feels more investment in what they are seeing. Of course, this idea may sit uneasily with some academics, after all, the analysis and theorising is their domain, they have spent many years learning and developing their craft and knowledge about the social world, haven’t they? I would argue, however that in the case of a video based form of delivery, the skill of the academic lies within presenting the world to the viewer in a way that allows them to follow the same logics and understandings that the academic themselves follows and this can be done without telling the viewer what to think, but by carefully guiding their focus. Being able to guide focus in such a medium is a skill, one that academics are unlikely to possess but that many media professional possess. Therefore collaboration is the way to make this happen. What needs to be entered into, however, is a proactive dialog across the two fields, academics need to understand the value that the media professionals can add to their work in terms of engaging the public imagination. Likewise, media professionals need to understand the value that accurate representation and academic understanding of social process can add to their outputs in terms of enabling viewers to better relate to their programs, and thus engage with them, something that The Wire provides an excellent model for


Atkinson, R. and Beer, D. (2010) ‘The ivorine tower in the city: Engaing urban studies after The wire’, City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, action, 14(5) p.529-544


digital sociology, public sociology

Can peer reviewed journals and blogs co-exist as research outputs?

When academics suggest that peer reviewed journals are the only valid output for academic writing, my heart sinks. It is like saying “We’ve helped you develop a Sociological Imagination but now you have left the university, you must stop engaging, sorry!” Maybe i’m biased because soon I will lose my library access (until I start the PhD) and funnily enough, I want to continue engaging with sociological research. You see, without institutional affiliation, most of the world of academic research is off limits bar those teasers in abstracts unless perchance you are wealthy enough to subscribe to a range of journals. Being a member of professional associations (such as the BSA) does afford you access to some journals, but not all. This is not the only reason that I think blogs and digital open access platforms have a strong role to play in academic writing and I will try to shed some light on why both have equally important roles to play in modern scholarship.

Whilst I understand and appreciate the need for peer review in order to ensure research is being as thorough as it should be. The problem with the process is four-fold,: it is a time-consuming process and thus incurs expense for the publisher, is focused primarily on one way dissemination and, as is often missed, it to some extent controls and limits the possibilities of research.

Time is of the essence, unless of course you want to publish and then your exciting findings may not be public for up to eighteen months! Surely in a world that is changing as rapidly as the one we live in this is problematic. This is especially pertinent as was highlighted during the BSA Digital Sociology day today when working with digital platforms and tools that are transient and may be obsolete before a peer review article reaches publication.

My second argument, that of expense is a simple one, publishers need to cover their expenses some how and someone has to pay. At the moment that is either the user (through subscriptions, either personal or institutional) or the writer – as in the case of some of the new open access journals. If this is to continue, research bodies need to reconsider how research is funded so that the outputs, funded by public money are accessible to them (although in an age of austerity, this is probably as likely as the proverbial freezing of hades).

Thirdly, and most importantly in my mind, the peer review journal is a specific beast. It allows findings and opinions to be broadcast with little comeback or response from the audience and little understanding of how it was received past citation analytics. This is where blogs, twitter and digital publishing come into their own. These media allow readers to interact, to ‘favourite’ articles, to ‘like’ posts and to enter into a dialogue in which academics can refine and discuss their ideas, possibly clarifying misunderstandings. In this way, the research becomes engaging and thus reaches out to a wider interested audience. If you see people you follow on twitter discussing some research, you feel drawn to read about it yourself to draw your own opinions and enter into the dialogue yourself.

Finally, I want to touch upon a problem raised by Les Back @academic diary today when discussing the project he has been working on with Shamser Sinha about migrant communities. Details of the research can be found in the paper here but what I want to highlight are the two issues he raised in the peer review process of the research. Firstly, the reviewers struggled with the Ethics of the participant being named as an author and not anonymised and secondly that when it came to publication, they couldn’t understand why she didn’t have a university she was affiliated to. Both of these issues are remnants of a bygone day of research where is was something done to people, rather than with them. Often reviewers and journal editors find these issues hard to wrestle with whereas the process of blogging obviously doesn’t have those constraints. Similar problems also occur with non-traditional outputs, such as multimedia and to some extent visual elements beyond line diagrams and photographs that were intended to be reproduced in monochrome as generally journals are published in black and white which in some cases may remove important elements from the visual.

I am not, however, saying that blogging and unmonitored posting is unproblematic and I do acknowledge that review of work by colleagues is important in ensuring credibility of academic writing, but I would argue there is space for both and they should work in tandem to make research reachable to the widest possible audiences and to allow publication of work that is innovative and multi-sensory. I would also argue that blogging does have it’s own form of ‘peer review’ but that it takes place after publication through the comments and interactions of the reader.