March 04, 2019

A Sociological Road Trip (with Podcasts)

Jonathan Wynn (1)By Jonathan Wynn

My family just finished a long road trip from Massachusetts to Texas, and we listened to a lot of podcasts. (I’ll be a visiting scholar at the University of Texas at Austin.) I realized that the podcasts we listened to on the way, served as a kind of sociological road trip—a tour of a series of sociological topics: urban development, race, politics, cultural history, music, technology, and the criminal justice system. I think a sociology instructor could assign any of these series and have students connect their readings and lecture notes to their content. They are rich in description, and most are begging for some sociological analysis.

Our first stop was New York City, and there is no shortage of podcasts about New York. You could, for example, check out the 300+ episodes of “The Bowery Boys.” However, I love to listen to “Science VS” which is an ongoing series wherein the hosts try to tackle hoaxes and pseudoscience and just introduce audiences to a more scientific way of thinking. We listened to “The Science of Being Transgender.” (I’m cheating, a little. Gimlet Media, which produces a wide series of podcasts, is based in Brooklyn.)

From there, driving down I-95, we listened to “Out of the Blocks,” which is a project by WYPR Baltimore. Each episode is of a different block’s culture, people, and history, talking to everyday folks about what their lives are like. It’s a fascinating deep dive into the city. It reminds me of W.E.B. DuBois’ The Philadelphia Negro in its scope.

I think this would be such a great project for any sociology class to take on: interviewing neighbors, looking for community symbolic and physical cultural landmarks, and so forth. I recommend episode from August 27, 2018 on Odd Jobs. It is a great survey of a city’s formal and informal economy, as you listen to the stories of people who are fishmongers and fortune cookie makers, as well as someone who polishes headlights and another who sells loosies.

Then we went to Washington, D.C., through the Washington Mall during the government shutdown. Almost everything was closed. I spoke with a police officer working for free at the Lincoln Memorial. To help think through current politics there might be no better politics podcast right now than “Pod Save America.” It’s hosted by four former aides to President Obama.

From D.C., we took a long drive across Virginia along Route 81. Our next stop was Nashville, Tennessee. “The Promise: Life, Death and Change in the Projects,” is from Nashville Public Radio. Unlike the last few podcasts, The Promise is a six-part limited series on a low-income housing project, Cayce Homes. The area is set between the thriving downtown of Nashville and the up-and-coming hipster neighborhood of East Nashville. The city is promising that the area can be revitalized by replacing the Cayce Homes but—unlike other similar urban redevelopment projects—the city government will make sure everyone will have a home in the new facilities.

While giving a brief introduction to urban history and how infrastructure fueled racial inequalities, redlining, and racial tensions in the city, reporter Meribah Knight introduces you to Ms. Vernell, Big Man, Wolfgang, Vanderbilt professor Jim Frazier, and others. The Promise offers a sense of place, a sense of hope, and a real sense of the limitations. (There’s a real shocking twist too.) There is a great article examining the area of East Nashville by another Vanderbilt professor, Richard Lloyd. (There’s also a Science VS podcast on this topic: “Gentrification: What’s Really Happening?”)

Then we traveled to Little Rock, Arkansas. There’s a podcast called “Rock The Culture,” which is a solid review of issues for African Americans around the city, produced by Arkansas Times. One of the episodes I listened to was “Unify Our City,” a response to a recent Washington Post article about the city (from October 22, 2018) and another called “Little Rock Made Me” (from September 24, 2018). This is a classic format: two people having a conversation, and you get to listen in. (I’m a firm believer in listening to the voices of other folks.) These conversations weave together local and national politics, the minimum wage, mayoral campaigns, etc.

Our destination was Austin, Texas, and there were two podcasts focused on science education and communication. First is Adam Curry’s podcast, “No Agenda,” which isn’t so much about the city, but it’s a good review of technology and culture from one of the earliest voices of the digital age. There’s another podcast about Austin’s music and cultural scene, “The FeedBak,” hosted by Bak Zoumanigui.

On the way home I plan on traveling through Ohio, so I’m cheating here, but the next podcast I’ll check out will be Season Three of Serial. Serial made a lot of waves in Season One because it examined the trial of Adnan Syed, causing a reopening of his case (listen to it here, and there’s another HBO documentary coming on the case as well). Season Three, however, is about Cleveland and the criminal justice system. Journalist Sarah Koening wandered around a courthouse to find out “how it works,” to “see what we saw from the inside.” Some of the stories show how the criminal justice system works (“functional justice in Cuyahoga County”) and other stories where you are just puzzled as to how justice is at all possible, ever.

Travel provides great sociological lessons, giving us the opportunity to learn from new places and the people within them.

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