Wired?

HBO’s drama series, ‘The Wire’ is so fantastic that Sociology degree students are studying it at the University of York and Harvard, and I for one am not surprised. Not only is the show incredibly entertaining and engrossing, it is also  the most well observed and multi dimensional pieces of drama I have seen.

Perhaps part of the reason for the shows brilliance is the leg work that journalist David Simon put into researching the plethora of issues to do with crime and policing; Simon, the show’s creator spent a year with the Baltimore police force (resulting in the book, Homicide’ and further time on ‘the corner’ with the drug pushers (resulting in the TV mini series, The Corner). Former police officer and school teacher, Ed Burns also contributed to the writing, thus providing further narrative authority.

Furthermore, in order to heighten the verisimilitude further, Simon chose to use alot of non professional actors in minor roles, slang is so prevalent sometimes it is hard to understand and the narrative does not often fall prey to stereotype or cliche. It is novelistic in structure and the multi layered narrative is refreshing for viewers who wish to invest a little bit of brain power when consuming media texts.

It is such a great show for sociology students, it investigates crime, poverty, policing, racism, drug use, education, corruption, political intrigue, social class, ethnicity, sexuality, the ethics of journalism…the list goes on…

It does take a few episodes to get to grips with, but I assure you, like Barack Obama (whose favourite character is said to be a gay stick up man called Omar) you will be well and truly hooked.

Critical essay: http://york.academia.edu/RowlandAtkinson/Papers/272640/Non_Text-Based_Sociology_The_Wire_and_Its_Relationship_to_Public_Sociology_and_Progress

University modules: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/sociology-degree-students-to-study-the-wire-1974850.html

http://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2009/11/harvard-offers-sociology-course-about-the-wire.html

The border town

I watched a really shocking news documentary on Al Jazeera International  yesterday, it charted some of the extreme violence that is plaguing parts of Mexico such as Juarez (“one of the most dangerous places on earth”). http://english.aljazeera.net/InDepth/spotlight/mexicoonthebrink/default

The documentary was not scared to pull any punches, we saw a number of fresh corpses with blood spilling from gun shot wounds. A mother of one of the deceased boys was only metres away and her words (“I have a profound pain in my heart that will never leave me”) summed up the futility of the bloodshed and really encouraged the audience to personalise the deaths to some extent. Incredibly, it is claimed that 95% of murders are not investigated in Juarez.

Only around 2% result in convictions. According to borderlandbeat.com, murders in the city increased 40 percent in February 2011 over the same month the previous year: A total of 229 people in the city were executed in just one month, up from 163 in the same time period in 2010. The murder rate in the biggest city in the UK, London (7 million) pales in comparison to Juarez (1.5 million people ), in 2010, only 127 people were killed in London. 

It is clear that this region is largely devoid of what Functionalist thinkers class as “social solidarity”, the police enjoy very little public confidence, traditional institutions such as medical clinics are closing down largely to escape the violent threats of criminal cartels who demand protection money and law abiding citizens are suffering from the high levels of corruption and  .

Durkheim’s ‘anomie’ could be applied readily to the region; clearly there is a discontinuity between cultural goals and the accepted methods available for reaching them. Perhaps because Juarez is so close to the USA, Robert Merton’s ‘American Dream’ thesis might be relevant; those who are resorting to violence are perhaps motivated by the material gains that they witness from the border, yet of course find it very hard to reach these goals, thus criminality is a very tempting option especially when the world’s largest drug market is just a stone’s throw away. Although, fom a contrasting school, a Left Realist concept, ‘relative deprivation’ can also be applied to this increase in criminality – perhaps many Mexicans living in Juarez are not motivated by outright poverty, rather they are motivated by a relative poverty to that of their neighbours…

Having personally spoken to a number of Mexicans, it appears that whilst the media perhaps does often sensationalise the violence and general criminality, the excess of crime is a reality and it is clear that many parts of the country are experiencing a massive turmoil. Some argue that a lot of the violence would decrease massively if the U.S legalised the selling of certain drugs, others argue for a more repressive police approach, whilst others argue that social welfare programmes such as the ones trialled in Columbia (http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Americas/2010/0804/Colombia-offers-clues-for-solution-to-Mexico-drug-war) are the best solutions.

What is clear, is that the violence seems to be getting worse rather than abating.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/442618.stm

http://www.thenewamerican.com/world-mainmenu-26/north-america-mainmenu-36/6543-juarez-mexico-murder-rate-up-40-percent

MUSINGS IN QATAR PART 1

Doha, Qatar is a fascinating place to live, it is a country enjoying massive change thanks to the natural resources it enjoys (it has the world’s largest per capita production and proven reserves of oil and gas). Depending on the measure you look at, Qatar has often is said to have the highest GDP per capita in the world and it had the fastest growing economy in the world in 2010. This economic boom has driven an incredible revolution in all aspects of Qatari life –  skyscrapers, shopping malls and even a ‘pearl’ island has been reclaimed from the sea. A few years ago, Qatar was a little known backwater, but now Qatar has won the right to host the 2022 World Cup and it has had an influential hand in the recent ‘Arab Spring’.

  Yet, the economy is only a small part of the story; the country is ruled by an Emir (King), it is said    to follow wahhabism (the often criticised form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia), Qataris only form 15% (300,00) of the population (a population that has risen from around 22,000 in 1922 to 1.6 million today) and lastly, the small state enjoys close ties with the U.S and U.K.

Therefore it is definitely a rich (no pun intended) place for sociological exploration, I can imagine prominent structualist  luminaries such as Emile Durkheim and Karl Marx being particularly interested in how the burgeoning nation state maintains a legitmacy to rule, how Islamic norms and values are co-exisiting alongide a largely capitalist model of economics and how the country adapts and changes to maintain it’s western friendly stance.

I hope to add lots of posts and examine Qatar based on my own observations and readings whilst grounding these within sociological theory…

Waiting for Superman

Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim explores the US education system and presents a very depressing representation. Whilst the analysis at times is simplistic (“…until the 1970s the U.S had the best education system…”) and the narrative one sided, without doubt, Guggenheim presents a persuasive case for educational change. For example. he argues that there are over 2,000 ‘faliure factories’ in the USA, that in some high schools the drop out rate is 30%, an incredible amount. Interestingly, teachers in the U.S are heavily protected by unions and it is therefore very hard to dismiss failing teachers who enjoy the protection of tenure. Moreover, he highlights the cost of imprisonment in relation to education – education is cheaper. The ‘Knowledge is Power’ (KIP) programme appears to help overcome material and cultural deprivation and perhaps proves the sytem can overcome it’s shortcomings (http://www.kipp.org/). Amusingly, despite ranking 25th in Maths and 21st in Science (out of 30 developed countries) and 8th out of 8 for Maths in another study (DECO 2003) , Americans rank first in confidence!

Although of course the US is a very different society to the UK, there are definitely similarites between the two; many of the issues remain the same – overcrowded prisons, undereducated inmates, urban ‘sink schools’, an over representation of certain ethnic groups ‘failing’ in education and the lotttery of education.

Yet, I feel that there is a tendency to scapegoat teachers and lot of dubious statistics are used to back up his arguments. Guggenheim presents a reductionist argument claiming that teachers are the key determining  factor on a childs educational success. This of course is a very limited  premise – surely material and cultural deprivation are hugely important factors too! Tamin Ansary’s article “The Myth of America’s Failing Schools very much attacks Guggenheim’s claims:” http://www.infotk.com/digest/TeachersHelper/The%20Myth%20of%20America’s%20Failing%20Schools.htm

Yet, despite its shortcomings, it a very decent watch and really encourages us to reflect upon common sensical ideas about education systems.