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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!

Monday, July 4, 2011

On Armed Robbery

What do kung fu masters, inner-city armed robbers, and Jose Canseco have in common?  More than you might think...

My new book project, Wounded: The Aftermath of Gun Violence, is an ethnography of gunshot victims.  To say the least, this research has lead me to some pretty interesting areas of the city.  In the past 1.5 years, I've spent time with numerous young men who have been shot in armed robberies.  While many are random victims of gun violence, some victims were themselves offenders in the past.

One of the victim/offenders in my study, Paul, was a former stick-up boy who used to rob drunken patrons stumbling home from bars and nite clubs.  While hanging out near his old haunts, Paul has taken me to different areas of the city in which he used to wait for the unsuspecting passerby.  One such spot is a shaded awning that wraps around the side of a low-income apartment building.  Using the natural cover provide by the awning and the lack of lighting on this street, Paul used to sit quietly with his "Saturday Night Special," a Rossi .38 special snubnose revolver, waiting for the right person to stumble by. 
"Saturday Night Special"--an old Rossi .38 special snubnose
Although Paul estimates that he has pulled off somewhere in the ballpark range of 60-75 street stick-ups over a 3 year period, he admits that he wasn't always a skilled stick-artist.  Like other armed robbers (or anyone developing a new skill set for that matter), Paul was once a novice for whom armed robbery wasn't easy to pull off.  During early stages of his robbing career, Paul approached his would-be victim too excitedly scaring them away before he had a chance to get their money; still getting the hang of things, Paul's nerves often got the best of him, forcing him to abort his mission before committing the deed.

So, how did Paul become a competent armed robber?  Aside from commitment and practice, how did Paul improve his craft?

Enter a unique kind of performance enhancing drug: Xanax.  To help calm his nerves, Paul (and other stick-up boys I've followed over time) use Xanax--a powerful benzodiazepine used to treat anxiety amongst other conditions--to control their "performance anxiety."

In order to work up the steel needed to rob people, Paul and other stick-up boys used medications that help them calm down. 

This got me thinking about other ways in which people use performance enhancing drugs before engaging in some kind of high stakes performance.  As a kid, I was a huge Oakland A's fan.  Jose Canseco--the first guy to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in a season--was my idol.  I was crushed when I learned that he was juiced up on steroids during his years as an elite baseball player.

I was also reminded of drunken kung fu fighting.  During my years in college, I used to love watching "Legend of Drunken Master" starring Jackie Chan.  In addition to being a really cool martial arts movie, LDM is a story of a kung fu fighter who uses alcohol as a way to work up the nerve needed to take on throngs of other fighters.  Fictional hyperbole aside, drunken kung fu is a real practice, and isn't so different from drunken bar goers who develop "liquid courage" after a long night of drinking themselves into a rage.

Anyways, what do you all think?  Any other examples?