KimaAs great a series as The Wire is, one of its major shortcomings is its lack of attention to women and girls. This does not mean The Wire fails to cover gender in the areas of crime, politics, education and work. But within those spheres, The Wire is more or less a drama involving heterosexual males. Hence, we get an array of stories illustrating various pursuits towards hegemonic masculinity.

Research on gangs in the United States shows that women are not absent figures, and under certain circumstances can achieve prominent gang status. Fortunately, at least two significant female characters emerge in The Wire whose attitudes, behaviours and positions within their respective workplaces reflect empirical gang research – Snoop, a gangsta in Marlo’s crew, and Kima Greggs, who isn’t in a gang per se, at least not in the way we normally think of gangs; Greggs is police.

A 2001 study with 369 gang-affiliated youth across 11 American cities (Peterson, Miller, & Esbensen) found that organisational sex composition within gangs influences how much power females and males attain. This study revealed that in youth gangs where there was a more balanced sex ratio, that is where there was a more even number of boys and girls, the female gang members engaged in significantly less levels of delinquency on 12 out of 14 measures.

In contrast, in youth gangs whose composition consisted of predominantly males and a proportionally smaller number of females, female gang members’ involvement in illegal activities were not significantly different from males’. In fact, findings from the study showed that for 12 out of the 14 delinquency measures there were no statistically significant differences comparing the male and female delinquency rates, including the measures for violent offenses.

The authors purport that these contrasting trends reflect organisational theory tied to gender and majority-minority relations:

…minority-group threat hypothesis suggests that as the proportion of the lower status group (i.e., females) increases, the higher status group (i.e., males) increases negative attention and control in an effort to maintain a dominant position. Thus, it would be in sex-balanced gangs – those with a sizeable proportion of female members – that the greater sex differences would emerge with regard to participation in delinquency. Our findings are in line with this prediction. Males and females in majority-male gangs did not report significantly different rates of offending, whereas males and females in sex-balanced gangs did. Thus, it may be that males in sex-balanced gangs, in which the percentage of females in nearly equal that of males, feel a gendered status threat and respond by narrowing girls’ opportunities for involvement in “masculine” activities such as delinquency. (p. 432).

To this end, although The Wire is probably inaccurate in portraying so few female characters, it is spot on in showing how female characters rise in prominence within largely male institutions. Take for instance Snoop, the only visible female gang member within Marlo’s crew. Snoop assumes masculine characteristics verbally (see her purchasing the nail gun, below; video can’t be embedded), through her attire, and behaviourally via her vicious criminality (Snoop shooting from the motorcycle, 2nd video).

Following Peterson, Miller, & Esbensen’s (2001) research findings, one would argue that Snoop is granted ascendance within the gang not only because of her masculine demeanor and brutal tendencies, but also because the sex-composition is so imbalanced in favour of males. As the only female within Marlo’s gang, women do not pose a gendered threat to the gang’s masculine order. Hence, Snoop is allowed to become “One of the Guys”, partake in work (i.e., valued criminal acts) along side males, and earn her way up within the organisational hierarchy.

Of course Kima Greggs is not in a gang the way we traditionally think of gangs. However, she also works in an overwhelmingly male institutional setting – the police force – where the law isn’t exactly always followed. Like Snoop, Kima assumes a traditional masculinity, which earns her peer respect and positions of power. And again like Snoop, Kima participates in workplace business along side her male counterparts. See the 2 clips below, where Kima clearly demonstrates highly masculine conduct (click on links, vid’s cannot be embedded):

One might argue that because the police force is similar to a gang in terms of its organisational, gendered composition and in terms of its masculine, violent inclinations, Kima is permitted to work at the detective level. If more women were in the police force and posed a greater numerical threat to the patriarchal stability, it is possible that even with Kima’s masculine attitudes and behaviours, she would be severely hampered in her career trajectory.

By David Mayeda

In the 1960s and ’70s, labeling theory (a.k.a., social reaction theory) gained criminological prominence. Demonstrating a shift towards the critical criminology school of thought, labeling theory questions the broader power structure by asking two overarching questions:

  1. How do those with substantial power in society label people with less power and their behaviors deviant?
  2. What effects do those labels have on the future lives and behaviors of the people being labeled?

Labeling theorists, such as Edward Lemert, note that almost all people engage in primary deviance – petty crimes (e.g., truancy, petty theft) during their youth. This is normal. However, when people engage in these types of behavior and get caught, sometimes the social reaction is overly punitive. When this happens, the normalized behavior is redefined as criminogenic behavior, and the individual’s identity transforms from normal, everyday kid to “screw up,” “problem child,” “criminal,” etc.

As the self-fulfilling prophecy manifests, the individual becomes ostracized from conventional peers and adults, and finds comfort engulfed by similarly defined peers, all leading to engagement in secondary deviance, where the individual’s roles and identities revolve increasingly around criminalized behaviors. In turn, the individual’s deviant master status is further cemented.

Labeling theorists also suggested a deviant master status gets cemented as one goes further through the criminal (or juvenile) justice system, from arrest to conviction to incarceration, and that degradation ceremonies in formal, state justice systems are highly effective in cementing the criminally stigmatized master status.

Also of critical importance, Howard Becker argued that moral crusaders were those with conventional power who thrust their values upon society by stigmatizing minority groups. Working in concert, moral entrepreneurs included those who would utilize propaganda purported by moral crusaders in order to profit financially through minority groups’ stigmatization.

This aspect of labeling theory is important to remember because it is those with power who create society’s rules and laws, and use the law to protect their privilege. Hence, moral crusaders and entrepreneurs have the social capital – the money, the connections, the clout – to work with media, businesses, and politicians in suppressing any contestation to the status quo by labeling threats as deviant.

Of course minorities are not only labeled deviant as criminals. Additionally, they can be stigmatized through labels tied to mental illness. Such labels rely on the medical field’s social prestige, and focus on individuals’ alleged mental health problems (e.g., inability to focus, propensity to resist authority, substance use concerns), thereby detracting attention away from broader social inequities that ultimately cause disproportionately high levels of mental health concerns in minority communities.

And now onto The Wire

In this series of clips from season four, we see “Major Colvin” (or “Bunny,” now retired from the Baltimore police force) working with a university professor and his graduate students. The team is running an experimental alternative middle school class for students who have not adjusted well to mainstream courses, which includes main character “Namond.” The alternative course’s developers feel by removing disruptive students, the mainstream courses can function more smoothly, while the sequestered students can receive more attention. Still in the class’s early stages, Namond, does not trust the situation he has been forced into:

Notice how at 0:45 of this video, graduate assistant, “Miss Mason,” labels students with a variety of mental health conditions. In doing so, concerns are individualized, disconnected from the poverty that encapsulates the students’ proximal surroundings, as well as from the extensive social stratification that characterizes Baltimore as a whole.

And at the end of the video as Namond challenges the class leadership, notice how he embraces his identity as a “troubled youth,” talking back to the teachers and offering his hands so he can be cuffed. He fulfills the prophecy tagged upon him, while engulfed by similarly defined students.

Now fast-forward to a point when this class has matured a bit. Most of the students have developed a better rapport with the teachers, but still question the value that their educational system offers:

Here the “corner boys” (and girls) educate the teachers on the ins and outs of slingin’ drugs. At 2:00, see how Major Colvin likens the education system to any other system that teaches youth to manipulate their surroundings, to “practice getting over, try runnin’ all different kind of games. You know it’s practice for the corner (where drugs are sold), right?”

Perhaps Major Colvin is critiquing the youth and their efforts in the mainstream education system. However, the youth go on to explain how the capitalist system works in their neighborhood, with the panopticon persistently present; someone with higher authority is always watching the subordinate workers to ensure management is not cheated. Here, we see the labeled youth, segregated from their peers demonstrate their skillsets, which have been ignored by the mainstream system.

And at 4:42, Namond returns to drive home labeling theory’s key dimension. Although these youth of color are labeled animals, larger institutions in society – Enron Corporation, government, alcohol and cigarette industries, sports – also cheat, and do so in much more profound ways as society’s real killers. “D” straight up asks, “And drugs, pays your salaries, right?,” revealing that Major Colvin and his colleagues may inadvertently be moral entrepreneurs who profit through governmental funding to run programs for youth that have been labeled “troubled.”

Namond begins to sum it up: “We do the same thing as you all. Except when we do it, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, these kids is animals,’ like it’s the end of the world comin’. Man that’s bullshit… Hypocritical.” Zinobia closes out, “I mean yeah we got our thing but, it’s just part of the big thing.”

Yup, but in accordance with labeling theory, those with widespread power who truly profit by exploiting others through the big thing (i.e., capitalism) are labeled innovative businessmen, not animals.

By David Mayeda

For Emile Durkheim, anomie was a state of normlessness, a society where individuals’ connections with each other had become frayed. This happened during times of massive social change and could lead to heavier patterns of suicide. For Durkheim, the other critical aspect of anomie was that it existed when there was an absence in social regulations that would help to guide behaviours. Or put in more Durkheim-esque terms, anomie equates to normlessness in social regulations.

That is partly what we see in this clip from HBO’s awesome drama, The Wire (season 3). Here Major Colvin (a.k.a., “Bunny”, pictured below) has established a safe zone of sorts for mid-level drug dealers from a variety of gangs. This sector becomes called “Hamsterdam” after a youth misinterprets the area being compared to Amsterdam where drug use is largely decriminalized. There are very little regulations in “Hamsterdam,” as the drug dealers may freely sell their products while law enforcement turns a blind eye, as long as there is no overt physical violence.

In short, dealers may deal, and users may buy and use without many legally enforced regulations or forms of social control. It should also be noted that Durkheim felt crime was a normal part of society. But, when the level of crime passed a certain threshold, then crime would no longer be considered normal and instead would be an indicator of society being truly sick. But before we get to the clip, let’s also account for Robert Merton’s rendition of anomie.

For Merton, anomie happened when there was a loss of means, meaning society didn’t care about the pathways by which people gained wealth, as long as they got wealthy (see also here). Or put another way, getting wealthy was more important than the processes by which someone made/got money. Likewise in this socially constructed environment of “Hamsterdam,” the means by which drug dealers make money is out of control. The goal is to profit, and there are no social morals that would otherwise guide people on how to reach those goals appropriately. Hence, the dealers (as directed by their superiors in the drug crews) will sell drugs to whoever will buy, something that’s facilitated in “Hamsterdam.”

In “Hamsterdam,” we see a combination of normlessness regarding both regulations and means…it’s total anomie for both Durkheim and Merton. Consequently, the levels of crime, and retreatism are astronomical. Even a seasoned character like “Bubbles” in this scene is deeply disturbed as he walks through the community. Of course as Major Colvin would like to point out, by decriminalizing drugs in one sector of the community, the rest of the community is much improved. Gang violence has subsided substantially across the broader sectors of West Baltimore. Unfortunately, unlike Amsterdam, public health-based social services are completely lacking in “Hamsterdam,” and only come in too late as Colvin’s social experiment is about to get shut down.

Okay, now let’s check out “Hamsterdam”:

By David Mayeda

How can one provide sociological analyses of The Wire without bringing in the complex character, Omar Little? Little (well, Omar) is a Robin Hood-esque individual who incessantly steals drugs and money from Avon Barksdale’s crew. In retaliation, Avon has Omar’s partner brutally tortured and killed, leading Omar to hold an even greater obsession in ripping off the Barksdale crew.

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. This is an excellent set of scenes one may use to better understand 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. Again, 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)
  6. may plan a sequence of event decisions (a crime script)
Here are the scenes:

Note in particular Omar’s bounded rationality – how his judgement is clouded by his despise for the “Barksdale Crew”, as Omar’s crew asks at night in the car why they need to keep hitting up the Barksdale stash houses, even though more vulnerable targets exist. Also take note of the crime script that is supposed to work out well, but doesn’t, since Omar and company are not aware of the amount of firepower present in the stash house being targeted.

By David Mayeda

Edwin Sutherland is probably America’s most well known criminologist. His theory of differential association has been incredibly influential in criminology. It posits that crime – like any other type of behaviour – is learned. And there are some specific components to Sutherland’s theory of differential association, seen below:

  • criminal behaviours are learned
  • learning of criminal behaviours takes place through criminal teachers
  • learning of criminal behaviours is more effective when the teachers have close, intimate ties with the learners
  • crime techniques become more intricate and refined over time
  • criminal behaviours are defined and valued in a favourable light
  • motives for crime are different from motives behind non-criminal behaviours

It should be noted that Sutherland actually focused his theoretical positions on white collar crime – arguing that all types of crime, irrespective of their class parameters, were learned. Still, the theory can be applied in a variety of class contexts.

Now let’s look at another clip from The Wire that freaked me out … until we saw its ending. And as the ending of this short scene is revealed, pay attention to how the different components of Sutherland’s theory can be applied.

Real quick, a little background on what’s happening here. In this snippet, young Mike is being chased by mentors Chris and “Snoops” – two hardened, ruthless gang members. But eventually we learn that the chase is an exercise for Mike, in which he demonstrates the knowledge required to effectively engage in a gun fight:

Clearly at 2:45 of the video, we see that criminal behaviours are being taught and learned. There are older teachers/mentors (Chris and Snoops), and they have very close ties to Mike. In fact, Mike turned to Chris during a time of need to take care of a family problem Mike couldn’t cope with himself. In this scene, we also see Mike demonstrate that he is learning the more detailed dimensions of shooting targets (where to aim, from what distance). And Snoops’s smile at the end as she says, “Aiight, boy’s learnin”, illustrates the criminogenic behaviours – and Mike’s progress in mastering them – are being assigned with positive values.

Stay tuned, more sociology and The Wire coming up…

By David Mayeda

Back in the 1950s as criminologists began to more seriously explore the sociological causes behind crime, Robert K. Merton put forth his perspective through strain theory. Merton argued that mainstream society holds certain culturally defined goals that are dominant across society. In a capitalist society, the dominant goal that most people aim for is accumulating wealth. Merton further argued that this goal of becoming financially wealthy was so powerful that the goal of getting rich itself had become more important than the means by which one attained wealth. In other words, whether you got rich via conventional/legal means, or via unconventional/illegal means, it didn’t matter, as long as you got your coin. For Merton then, there was anomie (normlessness) regarding the means.

Merton furthered this perspective by providing a framework by which sociologists could typologise criminals and non-criminals – strain theory. Strain theory argues that one must consider if an individual rejects or accepts (1) society’s cultural goals (wanting to make money), as well as (2) the institutional means by which to attain those goals.

To this end, five typologies were established:

  1. Conformists, who accept the culturally defined goal of financial success, as well as the institutional means society defines as appropriate to reach that goal (e.g., advancing one’s education, steadily working, saving money). Conformists follow rules and believe doing so will pay off financially.
  2. Innovators, who also accept the culturally defined goal of financial success, but do not follow society’s rules (i.e., laws) in their pursuit of attaining wealth. Innovators may not have the means to attain financial wealth (e.g., not enough money to further advance education), and/or simply not believe in the law. Hence, innovators turn to crime.
  3. Ritualists are those individuals who do not believe they can attain the culturally defined goal of accumulating financial wealth, but who continue to do so through society’s acceptable cultural pathways simply because they are supposed to (e.g., going to work and school, despite feeling such actions will never pay off).
  4. Retreatists are people who reject the goal of financial wealth, as well as the means society deems acceptable to get rich. Hence people in this group escape, or retreat from society, often times through substance use.
  5. Rebels are the last group who redefine society’s goals and create new institutional means of pursuing their unique goals. Rebels work outside of the established system. (See the framework mapped out by clicking here):

Okay, so let’s apply this theory to some examples from HBO’s television drama series, The Wire. In this first example, we see two snippets from Season 3 when characters Avon Barksdale (a west Baltimore drug kingpin recently released from prison) and his right-hand man, Stringer Bell, debate how they can reclaim their top “real estate” (or “corners”), where they would have the younger members of their crew sell heroine. Though not seen in these snippets, a new player named Marlo has entered the west Baltimore market and violently taken the most lucrative corners from Avon’s crew.

Listen to Avon and Stringer Bell discuss the pros and cons of going against Marlo versus trying to work with him. And more importantly listen to Avon – despite already having achieved extensive wealth – state how he would rather habituate by remaining a gangster, or from Merton’s perspective, an innovator. In contrast, listen to Stringer Bell push to work with Marlo and eventually desist from the drug trafficking scene, making “straight money,” much more so as a conformist.

Let’s also examine two other characters from The Wire – “Bubbles” and Johnny. In the early parts of this series, Bubbles and Johnny would be defined predominantly as retreatists, who aspire incessantly to get high on heroine. But over the series, Bubbles changes. As the two comrades walk down the street in this scene, listen to Bubbles talk of wanting to desist by becoming a “snitch” for the police. In other words, he is working towards becoming a conformist. Johnny, however, wants none of this:

Johnny temporarily convinces Bubbles to help him rip off the man on the ladder. And note in this particular scene,  Bubbles and Johnny are both innovators – working to get money via illegal means. Still, I would argue Johnny’s status stands predominantly as a retreatist, who innovates through petty crime simply to feed his retreatist addiction (i.e., retreat from society). And again, while Bubbles is an innovator in tandem with his friend in this scene, he is clearly working towards a life of conformity, seen more clearly when he disappears and decides not to take the money.

More analyses through The Wire on the way..