what makes the wire (or any other work of art) sociological?

What makes a novel or a movie or a television show sociological?

The quick answer is I don’t know. But I have thoughts, some of them relevant to the the topic at hand, and others wondering how my hair looks.

Every sociologist I talk to about The Wire says it’s one of the most sociological shows they’ve ever seen. What does that mean? In its last season,The Wire throws around the adjective Dickensian in the newsroom it portrays, a wink at the critics who used the word to describe the show’s vast sweep and interest in the urban poor.

So is Dickens sociological by the transitive property? Maybe, but I’m not sure Dickens gets at what makes The Wire so interesting to sociologists, which is that it shows the overwhelming social force of institutions, organizations, and cultural inertia. I’ve always thought of sociology as an explanation for why you’re not as free as you think you are, and you just don’t get that in Dickens, for whom success really does seem to be the result of character. Dickens is obviously aware of the power of the environment, but he just can’t quite commit to the depressing certainty of it (The Wire is nothing if not depressing).

I know, I know: sociology is more than structural constraint. But the problem is that if sociology is the study of the social, then what show or movie or book isn’t sociological? I’m not sure what the answer to that is, but I’d be interested in people’s thoughts. Can a comedy be sociological? I’d say Veep is, and, in fact, I’d say it’s a better politics show than Scandal, The West Wing, or House of Cards precisely because of its sociological awareness of bureaucracy’s absurdity. But again, this gets back to the core importance of institutions, organizations, and inequality to North American sociology. One could do a sociological analysis of Friends pretty easily, but it’s hard to see how the show could itself be called sociological, except to say that sociological things happen in it, which is true for basically any work of art or entertainment about people.

So does anyone have a better idea or what makes a show, movie, play, book, sociological? Or a good example? Please share in the comments.

(By the way, thanks to Garnette Cadogan and Anne Marie Champagne for helping me make sure I’m not wrong about Dickens!)


Written by jeffguhin

May 6, 2016 at 1:29 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Zundel, M., Holt, R., & Cornelissen, J. (2012). Institutional Work in The Wire: An Ethological Investigation of Flexibility in Organizational Adaptation. Journal of Management Inquiry, 22(1), 102–120.

    Liked by 2 people


    May 6, 2016 at 2:58 pm

  2. The cynic in me would say that The Wire is more “sociological” because its values and perspectives comport closely with the values and perspectives of sociologists. If “sociological” primarily means “part of the sociological community’s favorite works,” then the label seems more like a signal for particular values.

    For me, what makes a work of fiction more or less sociological is the amount of attention paid to a larger system beyond the words and actions we see on screen or on the page. A more sociological work better connects individual characters and stories to a larger picture that extends past what we see on the screen or the page.

    Can a work of fiction be sociological without being set in a world like The Wire? That is, can a work be sociological without the contemporary setting and subject matter and verisimilitude? I think the answer in theory is yes. However, much in the same way that sociology in practice often becomes a study of American or Western society despite being ostensibly about all people, shows like The Wire have become low-hanging fruit for instructors. The “sociologicality” pervades the show in an obvious fashion, so it becomes an “easy” example of sociological works of fiction. Of course, the lack of variety in these examples suggests to students that only shows like The Wire can be sociological, so “sociological” becomes conflated with “like The Wire.”

    I do think that all works are sociological in some way. Of course, much of this depends on the interpretation or insight of the viewer or reader. Take The Bridges of Madison County. This is an intensely personal story, but viewers can still connect the individuals’ narratives to cultural shifts in marriage and family. Of course, the viewer has to do a lot more work to suss out this aspect of the movie. Perhaps we could say, then, The Bridges of Madison County is less sociological than, say, American Sniper (to hold the director and form constant) because the viewer has to work harder to connect the personal narratives to the overarching narrative.

    P.S. My favorite example of a sociological show is DS9. I always read Cardassia as “Israel” and Bajor as “Palestine.” To the Cardassians, Bajorans are terrorists. Many instructors would probably discount the “sociological” nature of DS9, but there’s some really interesting stuff about the social construction of terrorism in there, to pick out one aspect, that would be otherwise missed. Why does it always have to be about gritty portraits of the present? I like grit as much as the next person, but the most interesting part of sociology for me has always been its imagination.

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    May 7, 2016 at 2:38 am

  3. This is a good question. I have always considered science fiction a generally sociological genre, particularly work on dystopias or Utopias because they are focused on society, social engineering, etc. However, these usually lack the qualities of the Wire that make it sociological in that they are usually not realistic and pose philosophical social commentary about the nature of human beings and not really about social forces.

    What makes a show sociological might just be that it clearly captures complex social issues and demonstrates sociological concepts. This isn’t a great operational definition, but I’m thinking anything that would be really good to show in a class. One recent show that I think fits this is Master of None, which tackles race, gender, sexuality, etc in really interesting and smart ways.



    May 7, 2016 at 2:42 pm

  4. If a work hints at the fact that people are trapped in a system that limits their choices, even to a small degree, that would make it sociological. Henry James’s novels strike me as sociological, because many of the American characters end up being trapped in a European system that they don’t understand, or only understand too late.



    May 10, 2016 at 6:56 pm

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