Is ‘The Wire’ Our Best Ethnographic Text on the U.S. Today?

Who needs real life? My boyfriend and I have been working our way through the first four seasons of the U.S. television show The Wire, and I have concluded that it may be the best ethnography we have of contemporary American society. Who needs ‘real life’ when fiction, a TV show no less, does a better job of representing US culture(s) than many social science texts? Ostensibly a cop show about drugs and crime in Baltimore, the show illustrates in (sometimes puzzling) detail the culture of urban life: the language the show uses, from drug slang to white Baltimore dialect (see also Hairspray), alone is worthy of note. Exhibiting exquisite sensitivity to local culture, the show also makes an ‘argument’ about how structural inequality is reproduced. The most amazing thing about it is that it dares to be about poor people and poverty – topics which, John Edwards notwithstanding, seem to be verboten in American public culture. Class consciousness vanished from US TV sets sometime around the period when Roseanne was canceled. But The Wire shows the effects of the post-industrial transformation of the US economy in minute detail by finding connections between corner drug dealers, police officers concerned to produce promising crime stats, politicians hungry for acclaim, dock workers just trying to make it, developers moving into abandoned urban zones, and so on. In fact, I think the show is so good that one could structure a course around it. You could augment episodes with social science in a really captivating way. Potential texts/authors could include: David Harvey (naturally) on urban spaces, Carol Stack on kinship, Phillippe Bourgeois on drug dealing and masculinity, Douglas Foley on reproduction of class relations in education systems, Hortense Powdermaker on race and history, and so on. Any ideas out there on other texts that could be paired with The Wire?

The Wire in part draws its dramatic and ethnographic force from the fact that some of its most captivating characters are played by people performing versions of themselves. Here is an interview snippet with Felicia ‘Snoop’ Pearson, who plays a character named after herself:

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