Story of a thesis (Part II)
Last time, I told you all about Baltimore and how the situation there is kind of crazy with regards to gun violence in general and homicides in particular. Today, I’d like to tell you about what the publicly-available data tell us. However, I’m not talking about data in the traditional sense. The traditional data is easy to understand. You can plot points on a map and kind of get a sense of what areas of Baltimore are the ones where the most homicides are occurring. You can then map out social inequities and inequalities and see that these areas overlay well with those areas with violence.
It should not surprise you that data from either Baltimore City, the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, or any other source of data tells a story that is cold, mechanical. They’re just numbers on a spreadsheet. There’s no pictures of the people being hurt or those doing the hurting. For that kind of data, we turn to a very new and recent source: Social Media.
For this, I’m going to tell you a story. Person A was killed a few days ago while sitting in a car with a friend. The friend survived, barely. Person A has an Instagram account. (I won’t link to it because, even in death, Person A deserves some privacy.) On his Instagram account, Person A mourns the death of many friends and acquaintances. And I do mean many. I stopped counting at eight.
I don’t know about you, but I have not had that many people of my same age and in my social circle get killed. (Your mileage may vary.)
One of the people that Person A mourns is Person B. Person B was killed this past February. A comment on the post about Person B is from Person C. Person C refers to Person B as her “baby daddy” and writes about how much she will miss Person B. If you were to click on Person C’s Instagram profile, you would then see that she claims to be the “Mrs” of Person D. Person D was killed in October of last year.
In this small social network of four people, three of them are dead to gun violence in Baltimore City.
The story doesn’t end there. I looked through Person A’s other posts and he has similar social contacts as several other people who they themselves have lost someone to gun violence. In my rough social network map I created, I counted about 30 people, with 12 of them gone since the beginning of 2015. They all knew each other. They all talked to each other through Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
Most of those who have been killed have posted pictures of themselves making gang signs with their hands, wearing gang colors, holding handguns, or flashing $100 bills at the camera, stating how great their lives “in the game” were. A couple of them even had well-produced rap videos about their lives in Baltimore and how they were respected and admired for their money and for the things they owned. And now they’re gone.
While this is only a small sampling of the social network of some of those killed in the last few weeks, it is quite astounding to me such a tight network of people — mostly young Black males — has such a high burden of all the homicides in Baltimore. It’s astounding because I’m looking at this from the outside as an epidemiologist. There’s an outbreak going on between these guys; Gun violence is spreading like a contagion.
This kind of finding would not be surprising to some researchers in Chicago. Papachristos et al found that a lot of the violence in Chicago could be attributed to a relatively small social network in that city. But their work is only the beginning of looking at violence as a contagion and understanding it. This is why my thesis will use social network data to map and analyze the relationships between victim and perpetrator, and between victim and other victims. It’s work that still has a ways to go:
“But the epidemiology of violence is still in its infancy, and as with any dimly understood virus, people are irrationally afraid of it—fearful they could pick it up on public transportation or by wandering into anywhere it’s been known to spread. Is it airborne? What kind of contact do you need to pick it up? What does “risky behavior” entail when it comes to catching a bullet instead of catching a cold?
Andrew Papachristos, a Yale sociologist, Chicago native, and graduate of Loyola and the University of Chicago, has spent much of his career thus far chasing these lines of transmission, literally building up social networks of violence from the traces people leave in the criminal-justice system before they’re shot or killed.
It’s a theory in its early stages, one Papachristos likens to the kind of epidemiological work made famous in the early years of the AIDS crisis, as the method of transmission was reverse-engineered from what victims did and who they did it with—and suggests the possibility that the treatment could be similar, to “flood the network with services” with support when a person is at risk.”
Indeed, it is necessary to quickly act on these outbreaks in order to contain them. When John Snow understood the transmission pattern of Cholera, he removed the handle from the water pump though he didn’t know that Vibrio cholerae was a thing. In the same way, we epidemiologists look at these things need to identify the “pump handle” of gun violence and intervene quickly and quite vigorously, lest we lose more young men to violence, young men with potential even if a lot of the society around them has pretty much given up on them.
I’ll tell you about some of these young men in the third part sometime soon.