Public Criminology and the Social Media Echo Chamber


When the news came from Ferguson on November 24th, it was hard to know what to do. Every sociologist and criminologist possesses some pertinent expertise, whether we study violence, law, race, or criminal justice and injustice. But how and when should we engage? The streets were alive with protesters, police officers, and journalists. The President was calling for calm, which was itself a polarizing message. And Facebook feeds flowed with horrifying videos, rage, and invective, as many were “defriending” and “unfollowing” one another until their social networks were fully purged or converted.

Public scholars can and should step up in such highly-charged political moments, but there was little room to maneuver in those first few days. A dispassionate rendering of cold social facts – on the legal intricacies of grand jury indictment, for example – would ring hollow to those who saw the events in clear moral terms. A straightforward presentation of a pertinent research study – on the effectiveness of police body cameras, for example – would redirect energy and attention away from larger questions. And, to the extent we could actually penetrate the teeming information space, our statements would be reduced to 140-character factoids and channeled to those predisposed to agree with us already. How can we do good public work under such conditions?

In the tense days and nights after the indictment announcements, sociologists such as Michael Eric Dyson and Doug Hartmann made insightful big-picture contributions. Some of us wrote op-eds or gave interviews, others spoke at demonstrations or held teach-ins, and many more revamped our regular teaching and research activities. Like many of you, I found myself in several community forums, most recently with a sitting judge and a television reporter who would moderate our discussion. The talk had been scheduled for months as a wonky “nuts and bolts of justice reform” discussion, but the sudden surge of interest in crime and punishment reshaped our agenda. It would have been foolish, if not impossible, to ignore the protests and issues occurring right outside the door. Interest was high. We moved the event to a larger hall when we reached capacity and we recorded the proceedings for later broadcast. As I looked around the racially and socially diverse crowd of journalists, students, lawyers, teachers, police officers, formerly incarcerated people, and community members, I knew that dozens if not hundreds of my colleagues were similarly engaged in their communities. I claim no special expertise on these topics or events, but I share these personal reflections and suggestions in hopes of encouraging other section members who might wish to engage the public.

Position and Language

When speaking with a public audience, I try to remember that there are other experts in the room. For example, a middle-aged white guy like me has little authority or legitimacy regarding the subjective experience of interacting with police as a young African American in the central city. Put simply, many in attendance did not want or need me to lecture to them about how their communities are policed. So my job was to give due attention to race and justice while also acknowledging the real limits of my perspective and the research evidence I would cite. Thinking a personal story might help, I opened by acknowledging the #BlackLivesMatter and #CrimingWhileWhite campaigns and briefly noting my own juvenile arrests – and how the “judicious and humane discretion” of three Minnesota police officers was so important in my life that I thanked them by name in my dissertation acknowledgements. After repeated exposure to the Michael Brown and Eric Garner videos, few in the audience would have argued that men of color have been getting the same breaks that I received. As importantly, few would have argued against providing the same sort of breaks to all young people. Yet framing the issue in this way also helped make such points without bashing or demonizing those police officers – several of them my former students — who showed up at the forum.

This was not the night for a PowerPoint presentation, as personal stories are often more effective than statistics in helping audiences evaluate and reframe their image of crime and justice. I also called out Emily Baxter’s Using evocative images and personal accounts, WAAC shows the blurriness of the criminal/non-criminal distinction. Terminology plays a similar role in public scholarship, where the wrong descriptor can quickly alienate half the audience. I try to use simple, neutral language to facilitate discussion, addressing people formally (e.g., as Ms. Johnson or Judge Castro, rather than as Angie or Lenny). In such forums, identifiers such as “police officer” or “formerly incarcerated” are more helpful and precise than terms like “cop” and “offender.”

Content and Context

Academics sometimes try to teach a whole semester’s worth of material in an hour, which dramatically exceeds anyone’s ability to process new information. I try to identify three to five key points and to make sure that they are well-supported in the literature. That is, that they are “near-consensus” areas in our field that the public might not yet appreciate. That night, I called out: (1) Tom Tyler’s work on procedural justice, and how treating people with dignity and respect engenders greater trust and legitimacy, regardless of the outcome of a citizen’s encounter with the criminal justice system; (2) social-psychological research on implicit bias, which shows that the great majority of Americans, including police officers and professors, hold unconscious group-based biases that affect our behavior; (3) a few well-chosen statistics on the basic race-specific rates of arrest and incarceration in our community; and, (4) the proportion of these arrests that are for low-level offenses that rarely result in prosecution or conviction. Local evidence is critical because the audience is far more engaged in practices close to home (and more likely to dismiss or discount bad things that happen elsewhere). Public criminology can also provide an important myth-busting function in such cases. For me, this meant calling out states like Minnesota and Wisconsin for having the nation’s worst racial disparities in correctional populations – a difficult but essential truth for the audience to grasp. Context is also important for drawing local, national, and international comparisons. For example, I explained how my home state was admirably stingy with prison beds, but profligate in putting people on very long probation terms.

Hope and Questions

Public events, to a far greater extent than academic talks, should leave the audience with a sense of efficacy, or at least hope for real change. I made sure to note that after four decades of rising incarceration, that criminal punishment had finally begun a modest decline. And, of course, that our community and the nation had enjoyed a 50 percent crime drop over the past two decades. To put this drop in perspective, I explained how this meant a decline from 100 Minneapolis murders in 1995 to about 40 the past few years. Nationally, I pointed to bipartisan reform efforts such as the REDEEM Act, cosponsored by Senators Corey Booker and Rand Paul. Locally, I identified bipartisan reforms such as the new Minnesota expungement law and a new ban-the-box provision that bars organizations from asking about criminal records on job applications, but permits them to inquire at the interview stage. I also tackled issues in my own area of research expertise, including local challenges to felon disenfranchisement and the broader problem of “piling on” so many collateral sanctions that they become criminogenic. In particular, I described recent testimony on behalf of six “model probationers,” who were hauled into court and charged with new felonies because they had voted while still “on paper.” A broad coalition was assembling to challenge the voting ban (including the district attorney charged who prosecuted those cases) and several audience members approached me after the event to ask how they could get involved. Finally, I spoke about the costs of diminished trust in the criminal justice system, including Todd Clear and Natasha Frost’s argument that the discretion to make back-end sentencing adjustments can help curb excess or gratuitous punishment – even, or especially, for those serving long sentences for violent crimes.

Public events work best when audience members have a chance to engage the speakers, and we received an impressive range of audience questions that evening. When asked about the prospects for a new social movement around criminal justice reform, I could applaud the efforts of students — and the members of this section — to shine a brighter light on crime, law, and justice in the contemporary United States. As a medical school colleague is fond of saying, sunshine can be a marvelous disinfectant. So too can public criminology.

For further reading, see Doug Hartmann’s Ferguson, the Morning After; Insights on Crime and Punishment from a Judge and a Sociologist, and Public Criminologies (with Michelle Inderbitzin).

Reprinted from Crime, Law & Deviance News, FALL/WINTER 2014 -2015.
Newsletter for the Crime, Law & Deviance section of the American Sociological Association

TSP’s Roundup: Jan. 22, 2015

RU012215 tintedWhat’s been happening in these here Society Pages? Good thing you asked!

There’s Research on That!

The Second Sex and Second-Class Citizenship, by Anne Kaduk. Pregnancy discrimination: There’s Research on That! Kaduk draws on articles from Reginald Byron, Vincent Roscigno, Jeanne Flavin, Lynn Paltrow, Stephen Benard, and Shelley J. Correll.

The Reading List:

Gay Marriage and God’s Gender, by Jack Delehanty. Research from Andrew Whitehead shows individuals’ ideas of a gendered god influence their opinions on marriage equality.

Individualism Increases Religious Pluralism, by Evan Stewart. In Sociological Science, Michael Hout and Claude S. Fischer revisit earlier data and try to explain religious disaffiliation.

Office Hours Podcast:

David Pellow on Nonhuman Members of the Community, with Erik Kojola. Pellow discusses his latest book, Total Liberation!, and how it helps us rethink who “counts” in community.

Give Methods a Chance Podcast:

Audrey Kobayashi on Focus Groups, Transnationalism, and Citizenship, with Kyle Green. Kobayashi joins the GMAC discussion to stump for the utility of focus groups.

Council on Contemporary Families:

Are African Americans Living the Dream 50 Years After Passage of the Civil Rights Act? by Velma McBride Murry and Na Liu. Data on education, wealth, income, health, and a variety of other measures paint a picture of persistent inequities.

Latinas Mystiques, by Lorena Garcia. Latina Americans are caught between expectations that hide the social forces restricting their opportunities.

Lesbian Mystiques, by Judith A. Howard. Even as prejudice and ignorance decline, discrimination remains a hurdle.

Scholars Strategy Network:

How New Digital Technologies Make It Possible To Privatize Censorship and Manipulate Citizen-Users, by Rex Troumbley. The consequences of “soft” technologies of control.

How U.S. Higher Education Promotes Inequality—And What Can Be Done To Broaden Access and Graduation, by Suzanne Mettler. Offering concrete ideas for policy change.

A Few from the Community Pages:

Our new book has arrived! We hope you’ll check out Owned, our look at the new sociology of debt.

Paying Tribute

You know he was a sociology major, right? I’m referring, of course, to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights leader whose legacy we Americans celebrate with a national holiday every year this very day. While I know that sociologists are wont to heroize individuals, I still can’t help but think that we don’t do enough to claim King’s legacy for our field. Its not his scholarship I am thinking of. It is King’s whole way of thinking about society, morality, power, and social change that clearly comes from his engagement with the traditions and theories of our discipline as well as his commitment to social action informed by that knowledge and insight. How to pay tribute and cultivate those connections? Here’s a few ideas:

1. See the motion picture “Selma.” I finally went to see the movie last night with my family. While the portrayal of LBJ’s relationship to King and the Civil Rights movement may not be entirely historically accurate, I felt the film captured the sociological essence of the struggle, tactics, and vision of which King was such a central part. There were also great scenes capturing aspects of the movement that sociologists have been at the forefront of researching and analyzing: organizational dynamics and conflicts; the tensions between instrumental politics and moral imperatives; the role of the media; and the discipline, training, courage, and conviction required for non-violent protest. And I’m no movie critic, but I thought the story-telling and cinematography was powerful. I can’t believe the picture didn’t receive more recognition from the Academy awards crowd.

2. Reflect on Colorblind Dreams and Racial Realities. You’ll probably hear or read some snippet of MLK’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech” today. (If not, here’s one YouTube link to the address.) I think this is the perfect moment for each and every one of us to reflect upon our colorblind ideals and how they stack up against the realities of race in contemporary America–and what kinds of action this may or may not prompt. On our home page today, we’re re-running a piece TSP blogger C.N. Le wrote on race, politics, and colorblindness on MLK day a few years back. Give it a read. You may not agree with all the points, but I bet it will get you thinking in a sociological fashion.

3. Re-read King’s Challenge to Social Scientists. In September 1967 when he was still only 38 years old, King was invited to give a “Distinguished Address” at the American Psychological Association’s annual conference in Washington, DC. The full text of his speech, which didn’t appear until after his shocking assassination, can be found here. The first part of the speech is a poignant reminder of the nature and urgency of culture and society in the late 1960s. However, what I find most provocative and inspirational is the last part where King suggests that social scientists–whom he addresses as “concerned friends of good will”–can make their greatest contribution to transforming society simply by “tell(ing) it like it is.”

Best of… 2014—Sociological Lens Edition


To close out the week of “Best ofs,” here are some 2014 faves from Sociology Lens:

  1. Goffman and the Web” Isigiura
  2. Old Enough to Know Better: The Decline of Deviance in the Young” Roger Tyers
  3. Valentine’s Day and the Sociological Power of Love” Scarlett Brown

Best of… 2014—Girl W/ Pen! Edition

Girl w PenThey’ve got pens (and keyboards), and they’re not afraid to use them! Here are a few of our favorites from TSP’s community page Girl w/ Pen! in 2014:

  1. Violence and Masculinity Threat,” Tristan Bridges and CJ Pascoe
  2. Hookups: Commuters Who Don’t, Women Who Do,” Virginia Rutter
  3. Life Goal: Make My Dad a Hard Core Feminist,” Karlyn Crowley

Best of… 2014—Scholars Strategy Network Edition

Screen Shot 2015-01-12 at 1.46.52 PMContinuing to roll out our choices for the Best of 2014 on TSP, today we’re highlighting the best of the Scholars’ Strategy Network:

  1. The Downsides of Excluding Millions of Immigrants from Health Reform, by Heide Castañeda.
  2. How Better U.S. Food Policies Could Foster Improved Health, Safer Jobs, and a More Sustainable Environment, by Nicholas Freudenberg.
  3. How “Gentrification” in American Cities Maintains Racial Inequality and Segregation, by Jackelyn Hwang.

Best of… 2014—Sociological Images Edition

soc images headerSocImages continued to #breaktheinternet harder than any Kardashian could hope in 2014. Here are a few of the biggest stories that should make it into your afternoon reading:

  1. #InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism. Lauren Kascak and Sayantani DasGupta.
  2. When Force Is Hardest to Justify, Victims of Police Violence Are Most Likely to Be Black. Lisa Wade.
  3. How to Change the World, One Shrug at a Time. Lisa Wade.

Best of… 2014—Cyborgology Edition

cyborgology headerTa-da! Again, through no scientific process—unless you count some triangulation of popularity per Google Analytics, being published in 2014, and home office favorite-choosing as “science”—here are our choices for the best of Cyborgology, 2014:

  1. What Was Ello? Nathan Jurgenson
  2. Causes and Consequences of the Duckface. Jenny Davis.
  3. An Attempt at a Precise & Substantive Definition of “Neoliberalism” (Plus Some Thoughts on Algorithms). Robin James.

TSP’s First 2015 Sociology Roundup

Ru011215Oh, it’s time! Since we last checked in, TSP has been abuzz, taking on topics from the sociology of protest photos to the construction of consent, how to best build a diverse coalition, and the glorious launch of our latest podcast, “Give Methods a Chance”! Here’s the news you need to know (and some stuff that’s just plain interesting):


The Social Construction of Consent,” by Jill D. Weinberg. You can’t get to “yes” without first asking a question.

Between Protestors and Police: How a Photojournalist Got ‘The Shot’,” by Josh Page. Oakland photographer Noah Berger talks exclusively to TSP about catching a shot that went viral. Related: “‘I Can Breathe’ and the Occasional Fear of Photographing Protest,” by Steven W. Thrasher on the Contexts blog.

There’s Research on That!

New Tech Gifts Bring Festive Firewalls,” by Evan Stewart.”

The Reading List:

Shared Values and Common Dreams,” by Erik Kojola.

First Comes Love, Then Comes… Union Membership?” by Anne Kaduk.

Seeing Gentrification Using Google Street View,” by Stephen Suh.

Praying Away Group Difference,” by Jack Delehanty.

Citings & Sightings:

Suicide and the Loss of Employment and Identity,” by Erik Kojola.

Office Hours Podcast:

Tim Pippert on Diversity in College Recruitment Brochures,” with Matt Gunther.

Give Methods a Chance Podcast:

Deborah Carr on Longitudinal Studies,” with Sarah Esther Lageson.

Francesca Polletta on Coding Stories and Studying Online Forums,” with Kyle Green.

The Editors’ Desk:

“Best of… 2014″—Council on Contemporary Families Edition.

“Best of… 2014″—Contexts Blog Edition.

Methods are Beautiful,” by Chris Uggen.

“Best of… 2014″—Grad Board Edition.

Scholars Strategy Network:

Are Americans Really Anti-Intellectual?” by Aaron S. Lecklider.

Helping the Growing Ranks of Poor Immigrants Living in America’s Suburbs,” by Els de Graauw, Shannon Gleeson, and Irene Bloemraad.

The Roots of Multicultural Diversity in Revolutionary America,” by Ben Railton.

Council on Contemporary Families:

Lesbian Mystiques,” by Judith A. Howard.

Greater Acceptance, Persisting Antipathy: Catholic and Jewish Americans Since the Civil Rights Era,” by Jerry Park, Joshua Tom, and Brita Andercheck.

A Few from the Community Pages:

The Last Roundup

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Our Latest BookOwned, on the emerging sociology of debt, is now available from W.W. Norton & Co.

“Best of… 2014″—Council on Contemporary Families Edition

Stars bigThe Council on Contemporary Families is TSP’s newest partner, but they’re already knocking it out of the park with great information and straightforward facts on American families today. Here are three of their biggest hits from 2014:

1) “Homesick Kids and Helicopter Parents,” by Susan Matt. Lately there’s been a lot of talk about the “boomerang generation,” so coddled by their hovering parents as kids that they are practically destined to come back home, a soft, unprepared generation not yet ready for adulthood. Weber State University historian Susan Matt checks the facts.

2) “In School, Good Looks Help and Good Looks Hurt (But They Mostly Help),” by Rachel A. Gordon and Robert Crosnoe. Picking up on the authors Wiley-Blackwell monograph, this article takes a second look at good looks, finding another form of inequality.

3) “Really? Work Lowers People’s Stress Levels,” by Sarah Damaske. The author of For the Family?, Damaske steps back to explain a consistent finding: people who work have better mental and physical health than their non-working peers, and the news is even better for women (how often does a sociologist get to say that?).