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