Policing the crisis, or, why we love The Wire

Rebecca Bramall, Ben Pitcher

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The Wire’s figuration of the complexity of the relations between the different social structures, institutions and agents that constitute contemporary urban life has been taken as evidence of its ‘sociological’ status. In this article we argue for a more reflexive consideration of the show’s appeal qua model social text. Rather than regarding The Wire as enhancing our understanding of the social, this article acknowledges, and offers a reading of, the show’s appeal to academics working in the humanities and social sciences. Often cited as evidence of the show’s ‘realism’, we suggest that The Wire’s celebrated, stereotype-challenging representations of sex, race, class and gender are a product of its audience’s yearning for ‘progressive’ representation. The Wire, we go on to contend, offers a seductively intelligible vision of social and cultural complexity similarly in concordance with left-liberal desires. Thinking reflexively about why The Wire focuses these desires, we provide a reading of the show as an animation of our relationship to the tradition of cultural studies. We suggest that the investigative ‘detail’ at the heart of the show – defined by its institutional marginality, interdisciplinarity, methodological innovation, ‘progressive’ staff constituency, and vocational commitment to a complex understanding of the social – can be read as an idealized representation of collaborative knowledge production. We reflect on this analogy as an expression of nostalgia for an earlier moment in the history of cultural studies before the neoliberal onslaught on higher education.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)85-98
Number of pages14
JournalInternational Journal of Cultural Studies
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2013


  • cultural studies
  • CCCS
  • The Wire
  • neoliberalism
  • research assessment
  • desire


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