Research suggests drug addiction influenced by environmental factors

New research from a psychologist suggests environmental factors play a large role in drug addiction:

Then, after that sample of crack to start the day, each participant would be offered more opportunities during the day to smoke the same dose of crack. But each time the offer was made, the participants could also opt for a different reward that they could collect when they eventually left the hospital. Sometimes the reward was $5 in cash, and sometimes it was a $5 voucher for merchandise at a store.

When the dose of crack was fairly high, the subject would typically choose to keep smoking crack during the day. But when the dose was smaller, he was more likely to pass it up for the $5 in cash or voucher.

“They didn’t fit the caricature of the drug addict who can’t stop once he gets a taste,” Dr. Hart said. “When they were given an alternative to crack, they made rational economic decisions.”…

“If you’re living in a poor neighborhood deprived of options, there’s a certain rationality to keep taking a drug that will give you some temporary pleasure,” Dr. Hart said in an interview, arguing that the caricature of enslaved crack addicts comes from a misinterpretation of the famous rat experiments.

“The key factor is the environment, whether you’re talking about humans or rats,” Dr. Hart said. “The rats that keep pressing the lever for cocaine are the ones who are stressed out because they’ve been raised in solitary conditions and have no other options. But when you enrich their environment, and give them access to sweets and let them play with other rats, they stop pressing the lever.”

But, might it not be easier as a society to blame individuals for drug addiction, a lack of willpower, a lack of good decision making rather than deal with the deeper underlying issues in impoverished neighborhoods? As a sociologist, I look at a story like this and see the power of the social conditions to influence an individual’s behaviors: if society offers few good options, drugs seem like a more rational alternative. This work might also fit with arguments Sudhir Venkatesh has made in the last decade or so about urban gangs: they are often characterized as blood-thirsty killers but they might be responding more rationally to contexts with few legitimate ways to achieve societal goals. In fact, as The Wire also suggested, these gangs might be set up as business-like structures that happen to use illegal means to reach commonly sought-after social goals like economic comfort and respect.

h/t Instapundit

David Simon, The Wire co-creator, to receive William Julius Wilson award

The Wire has been used in a number of college courses (one example here) and now David Simon, co-creator of the HBO series, will be awarded the William Julius Wilson award from Washington State University:

David Simon, co-creator of the HBO television series “The Wire,” has been named recipient of the Washington State University William Julius Wilson Award for the Advancement of Social Justice…

Wilson received his doctoral degree in sociology from WSU and is one of the nation’s leading scholars in the fields of African American studies, race, civil rights, poverty and social and public policy issues. He was the first person to receive the award named in his honor in 2009. He is scheduled to attend this symposium…

“We are honoring David Simon with this award because of his significant and innovative contributions to promote social policy, in particular by raising the public’s awareness of systemic social inequality, poverty and the complex way that social surroundings affect individual-level decisions,” said Julie Kmec, associate professor of sociology and chair of the committee organizing the event…

Three Harvard scholars, including Wilson, recently pointed out that the series has “done more to enhance both the popular and the scholarly understanding of the challenges of urban life and the problems of urban inequality than any other program in the media or academic publication.”

Several questions:

1. I wonder if this award for Simon, also a former journalist, is part of a larger trend (the ASA has been doing this for a few years now – David Brooks was the latest to be recognized) of sociologists recognizing journalists as key people/gatekeepers for spreading sociological ideas.

2. What other television shows accomplish similar things to The Wire?

3. I had forgotten that William Julius Wilson received his PhD from Washington State since he is more commonly associated with the University of Chicago or Harvard. Of prominent sociologists, how many have received degrees from places like Washington State versus the typical top-ranked programs (Harvard, Chicago, Berkeley, Wisconsin-Madison, etc.)?

Gangs in the suburbs

Suburbanites often dream that they have escaped or avoided the problems of the big city. But some of these issues are no longer just big city problems: gangs have been in the suburbs for some time now.

Gangs, once a threat confined to city streets, began expanding outward two decades ago. Now, suburban and rural communities are the center of a significant and growing gang problem, according to the 2009 National Gang Threat Assessment report.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation found that nearly all communities surrounding Nashville have gang activity, including the traditional suburbs of Nashville, such as those around Hickory Hollow Mall, and small towns in Williamson, Rutherford, Sumner and Wilson counties.

These smaller, residential communities offer fresh territory for selling drugs and that increases the gang’s revenue.

“There’s money out in the suburbs,” said Mike Carlie, criminology and sociology professor at Missouri State University. “There are people in the suburbs that want drugs.”

Growing up in a suburb of Chicago, I can recall when local law enforcement and other officials started talking about gangs in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was something that people in the community weren’t completely prepared for and that threatened the idyllic suburban lifestyle.

I haven’t read much research about suburban gang activity, particularly beyond inner-ring suburbs and in more affluent communities. I would be interested to know how it affects average suburban residents and civic organizations: are they willing to combat the problem and deal with some larger social issues or would they prefer to throw the book at gang members or would they move to further out or more affluent suburbs that don’t have a perceived gang problem?

One of my favorite scenes from Gang Leader for a Day involved the gang leaders meeting at a large suburban house to talk business. While the gang business, mainly involving poor neighborhoods in Chicago, was taking place, their kids were swimming in the pool and acting out the suburban lifestyle. What did the neighbors think? Even a more realistic show like The Wire is set in a place where the public would expect gang activity: run-down areas of Baltimore. Why not put together another show that takes gangs to the suburbs?This would perhaps be too scary for many Americans to consider.

“The Wire” creator defends depiction of Baltimore

In response to comments from the Baltimore Police Commissioner that the television show The Wire is going to harm  the city, creator David Simon defended the show:

Others might reasonably argue, however that it is not sixty hours of The Wire that will require decades for our city to overcome, as the commissioner claims. A more lingering problem might be two decades of bad performance by a police agency more obsessed with statistics than substance, with appeasing political leadership rather than seriously addressing the roots of city violence, with shifting blame rather than taking responsibility.  That is the police department we depicted in The Wire, give or take our depiction of some conscientious officers and supervisors. And that is an accurate depiction of the Baltimore department for much of the last twenty years, from the late 1980s, when cocaine hit and the drug corners blossomed, until recently, when Mr. O’Malley became governor and the pressure to clear those corners without regard to legality and to make crime disappear on paper finally gave way to some normalcy and, perhaps, some police work.  Commissioner Bealefeld, who was present for much of that history, knows it as well as anyone associated with The Wire.
We made things up, true.  We have never claimed otherwise.  But respectfully, with regard to our critique, we have slandered no one.  And to the extent you can stand behind a fictional tale, we stand by ours – and more importantly, our purpose in telling that tale.

It would be interesting to consider whether television shows and movies and other fictional works can have a significant impact on what people think about locations (and even further, whether it influences people’s decisions to move to certain places). The Wire was a critically acclaimed show but one with relatively low rating and even with more widespread DVD availability, it is still not a mainstream show.

There certainly is some link. Depictions of the inner city have impacted decades of suburban residents. I’m reminded of the Japanese businessmen who my father worked with when I was younger who knew two things about Chicago: it was the home of Michael Jordan and it was home to gangsters immortalized in film.

Now whether these depictions should reflect reality or some idealized or stereotyped view is another question. Simon defends The Wire on the grounds that the show was intended to showcase a different set of priorities:

But publicly, let me state that The Wire owes no apologies — at least not for its depiction of those portions of Baltimore where we set our story, for its address of economic and political priorities and urban poverty, for its discussion of the drug war and the damage done from that misguided prohibition, or for its attention to the cover-your-ass institutional dynamic that leads, say, big-city police commissioners to perceive a fictional narrative, rather than actual, complex urban problems as a cause for righteous concern. As citizens using a fictional narrative as a means of arguing different priorities or policies, those who created and worked on The Wire have dissented.

And this is a perspective or story that is rarely discussed in much depth.

I would be curious to hear how Simon would want people to view Baltimore after watching the show. Should they identify with the residents? Should they dislike the institutions? And ultimately, what should or could the viewers do to help change the situation?

More discussion about teaching “The Wire” at Harvard

The class revolving around the television show The Wire in the Harvard Sociology Department continues to draw attention. Here is a quick summary of the some of the public discussion:

In a Boston Globe editorial, Eugene and Jacqueline Rivers, co-founder of the Boston Ten-Point Coalition and Harvard University doctoral student, respectively, wrote in support of the class:

One of the most difficult challenges confronting intellectuals is how to discuss the relationship between race and poverty in Obama’s “post-racial” America…”The Wire” can usefully serve as a non-partisan political resource for engaging the issues of race and poverty.’

The two add that the show is smart and creative, and that it can lead to discussion about programmatic responses to systematic inequality in the inner city.

On the opposite end of the spectrum stands Ishmael Reed, a professor at University of California-Berkeley who also contributed an op-ed on the subject to the Globe.

Reed believes that professors like Wilson are more concerned with using “hot courses built around sensational popular culture like hip-hop and crime shows as a way of filling seats in their classroom,” than with seriously examining race and class relations. Reed contends that the show is riddled with stereotypes, and should not be utilized in a university setting.

I would be curious to hear about the outcomes of the course, both for students and faculty.

What these comments about this particular class are hinting at is that there is disagreement about how to best teach courses about race, poverty, and social class. There are numerous resources professors can draw upon, including a wealth of ethnographic work from the last twenty years.

Reasons for using The Wire in class

Two Harvard professors, one is sociologist William Julius Wilson, explain why they have built a course on urban inequality around the television show “The Wire.” In addition to how the show illustrates how the chances of the urban poor are limited by institutions, the professors argue “The Wire” is unique in its abilities to show the complexities of the real world:

“The Wire” is fiction, but it forces us to confront social realities more effectively than any other media production in the era of so-called reality TV. It does not tie things up neatly; as in real life, the problems remain unsolved, and the cycle repeats itself as disadvantages become more deeply entrenched. Outside the world of television drama, sociologists aim to explain what causes certain social conditions and then assess the merits of competing theories. The solutions, however, are usually less clear. “The Wire” gets that part right, too.

In my experience, television shows and movies are often terrible at depicting the real world. Perhaps it is difficult to avoid following a typical narrative arc or the need to entertain wins out. However, I’ve always thought that real life situations are usually more interesting than created stories.

When reviewing this show back in June, I mentioned about this course at Harvard and added thoughts about the sociological value of the show.

Chicago police and meeting with gangs

When the story came out last week that Chicago Police Superintendent Jody Weis had met with gang leaders to deliver a warning that the police would crack down if the violence continued, I wondered if there would be some backlash. Many people looking at this story might be incredulous: why didn’t the police just arrest the gang members? If they know who the people are who are responsible for the violence, why not crack down already? Why are the Chicago police negotiating with gangs?

Mayor Daley defended Weis today:

The mayor, who faces re-election in February, has been trying to address criticism about continued violence on city streets. One approach has been to send Weis out for more public appearances to talk about crime…

Today, Daley likened the idea to the negotiations between war combatants.

“It’s a good concept. You’ll sit down with anyone,” Daley said. “We’ll negotiate after the Second World War. We’ll negotiate with anyone to have peace. Even during the war. So you sit down with anyone. If you can save one life, if I can save your son’s life, you’d want me to sit down with them,” the mayor said.

While this may not convince people (just read the comments after the story), the story behind such negotiations is much more complicated. Sudhir Venkatesh’s research about poor Chicago neighborhoods reveals that the police and the gangs actually have a relationship. Gang members may be partaking in criminal activities but they are also active, powerful, and important actors in their community. It is not as simple as just going in and arresting everyone.

The TV show The Wire illustrates this gray area. In the series, the police are generally after the leaders of the gangs, the guys in charge. They could crack down on the small-time dealers or runners but others just pop into place. While the crack-downs may look good for the media (and outsiders looking in), it doesn’t solve the larger problems.

Both Venkatesh’s research and The Wire suggest the problems of these neighborhoods are deeper than the gang activity. There are persistent problems of poverty, a lack of jobs, a lack of opportunities, poor schools, broken infrastructure, and isolation from the outside world. How to solve these issues and the problems of gangs is difficult – and would require a much broader perspective than just counting the number of crimes, arrests, and meetings between the police and gangs.