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I'm a Sociology Professor at the University of Toronto. I write about gun violence, health disparities, and Hip Hop culture. When I'm not doing research, I like pop-locking, swimming, and learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is my first blog. I hope you like it.

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Crackhouse, Korean Killers, & Pedophiles

How did this guy become famous!?
I was channel surfing last night, when I happened to stumble upon a pretty good 3-hour block of reality programming.  Amidst the glut of bad reality tv starring Guy Fieri (e.g. Minute to Win It; Diner's, Drive-Ins, Dives), I found 3 very entertaining reality-based shows on MSNBC. 

Below are some short summaries followed by some thoughts:

1) The first show was a made-for-TV documentary called "Inside a Crackhouse."  The premise for this documentary was simple: Police outfit a crackhouse with hidden cameras; viewers get to see the inner-workings of a crackhouse.  While much of the documentary focuses on the organization and eventual demise of a Chicago-area drug-dealing ring called the "Titanic Stones," there are also small snippets of the film that show how the fall of this drug gang has impacted family members and friends of dealers.  For example, one interview features the mother of the gang's leader talking about her own personal addiction to crack and how she feels guilty and responsible for her son's prison sentence. 

A crackhouse in disrepair
--After watching this, I began to think about the dozens of crime dramas and movies that also have varying depictions of some of the themes featured in this documentary.  The Wire is a great example of this.  I always find it fascinating that many of my middle class friends absolutely love The Wire.  Some talk about it as if it's the best show ever made.  What makes these dramas about the urban poor so popular?  I have my own folk theories (which I'm happy to provide), but would love to hear your thoughts on this one. What do you all think? 

A Suh family portrait
2) The second show was an award-winning documentary called "The House of Suh."  This is a really great and richly-textured documentary.  In the 1990s, a woman named Catherine Suh convinced her younger brother, Andrew, to murder her then fiance, Robert O'Dubaine.  The documentary traces the series of events that lead Andrew--a young man portrayed as a "good Korean kid" with a "bright future"--to commit cold-blooded murder.  I don't want to give too much away, but the story is very complex and you get lots of firsthand interviews with Andrew, who's serving a life sentence in prison.  You also get a nice introduction to many of the culture clashes that characterize Korean immigrant parents and children who grow up in America. 

--After watching this, I began to think about a great Sociology course I took as an undergraduate at Berkeley.  In my 3rd or 4th year, I took an elective course taught by Pulitzer-Prize winning author/Sociologist, Robert Ofshe.  The course, which was titled "Thought Reform and Social Control" had one big take-away for me: Individuals, under the right circumstances, are capable of doing unspeakable and crazy acts that they might find morally repugnant in everyday life.  For instance, Ofshe showed us videos of false confessions obtained during police interrogations.  I distinctly remember him beginning a lecuter by asking, "How many of you would falsely confess to killing someone?"  Only a few of the brave raised their hands.  Ofshe then responded, "You might be surprised how easy it is to convince a person that they are a murderer."  The House of Suh sort of leaps off from this idea: You might be surprised how easy it is to convince someone to murder on your behalf.  What do you all think?

Caught before the act: Chris Hanson interrogating a would-be pedophile
3) The third show was "To Catch a Predator" with Chris Hanson.  Many of you might be familiar with this show: Local law enforcement and a group called Perverted Justice set up a sting operation in which they lure (some might say entrap) would-be pedophiles into situations in which they believe they'll be having sex with underage minors.  Upon entering these situations, said pedophiles are greeted by Chris Hanson, an MSNBC host who has transcripts of the online communication between the pedophiles and actors posing as underage children online.  Interesting moments unfold when Hanson asks pedophiles, "What are you doing here?"  Answers range from full-on confessions of guilt, "I knew this was a bad idea and I'm sorry," to attempts at feigning ignorance, "I was just cruising around the neighborhood and saw that the door to this house was open."  Ultimately, Hanson reads choice excerpts from the online transcripts and then releases pedophiles, who are tackled by local law enforcement upon leaving the sting. 

--This show always reminds me of a famous essay by Erving Goffman, who is one of my favorite sociologists.  In a classic essay, "Cooling the Mark Out," Goffman talks about how con artists control the emotional fall-out that a con victim experiences once they've been had.  To do this, con artists often employ someone whose main role is to "cool" victims--or more precisely, to get them to smoothly accept the fact that they've fallen for a scheme.  I think this is what makes To Catch a Predator so entertaining and painfully awkward to watch.  There is no cooling out here.  After learning that the jig is up, pedophiles are made to believe that they are entirely free to go.  Before exiting, some even thank Chris Hanson and swear that they will never do this again.  Then, as they take their first steps out of the sting, pedophiles are abruptly greeted by a swarm of police officers, who tackle the mark onto the ground.  Ultimately, there is very little variation in how this all plays out--and yet, it's still endlessly entertaining to watch.

Anyways, that's it from here.  If any of you have good recommendations on other reality TV, documentaries, or shows about crime and deviance, I would be interested in hearing from you!


  1. I am part of a criminal justice program where many of the faculty and graduate students (myself included) use The Wire in our classes and think of it as a high quality source of data on urban poverty, crime, and policing. It's so great because it complicates the issues. Nothing is black and white - no one is all good or all bad. Even the baddest gangsta of all time has a code. A dedicated cop has a serious alcohol problem and a shitty family life. The driving forces behind the drug economy are laid out in layers: policing, politics, greed, media, schools, poverty, family. No one escapes the blame for the issue. Because it's nuanced and because the writers are former cops/teachers/journalists, there is an authenticity to it that is not found in most scholarly work on the subject. Ever sit in on a CompStat meeting? Looks just like the one in The Wire.

  2. Hey there,

    Thanks for your response! I also think The Wire is one of the best and most nuanced crime dramas around. If you don't mind sharing, I'd love to peek at your syllabus and/or hear more about how you integrate The Wire into your courses!

    Anyways, I'm always struck by what appear to be class disparities in The Wire's fanbase. This is purely anecdotal, but I'm always fascinated by how many academics/middle class professionals love The Wire, and how few of the people I've met in urban poor areas share that opinion. In fact, many of the guys I've been following in Philadelphia prefer other HBO shows like The Sopranos and Game of Thrones over The Wire (which cuts a little closer to home).

  3. Joo, you know how much I love The Wire, its authentic and puts everyone on notice. We have had this talk before, but well done on the article.