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 WeAreAllCriminals.com. 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

GMACMany TSP readers are more interested in research findings than the methodologies used to obtain them. But methods are often an important part of the story, such as new experimental studies that provide powerful tools for measuring discrimination. Backstage at TheSocietyPages, we’re constantly arguing about whether a study’s methods are strong enough to support its findings. And methods are so important that we won’t run a piece unless we agree the underlying research is methodologically sound — regardless of who produced it or where it was published.

So we’ve always wanted a front-stage spot on the site to geek out about methods and explore how we know what we (think we) know. That’s why we’re so delighted to welcome Give Methods a Chance to TSP. GMAC is hosted by Kyle Green and Sarah Lageson, two all-star TSP board members, podcasters, and exceptionally creative multi-method researchers and teachers. Their first couple podcast interviews will give you a sense of the site’s vision and mission: thoughtful discussions with Deborah Carr on how and why we do longitudinal studies, and Francesca Polletta on systematically coding and analyzing people’s stories. Like a good research design, their interviewing approach helps render complex ideas clear and comprehensible.

These podcasts are wonderful for researchers and readers eager to learn how first-rate scholars do their work, but they’ll be an especially useful resource for methods students and teachers. When instructors bring methodology alive for students, as Kyle and Sarah are doing, it has a lasting impact on students. As a department chair, I saw how alumni who pursued careers in business, justice, or social services routinely cited methods as the “sleeper” courses that paved the way for their success. And we hear similar stories from students who became social scientists (like Eric Hedberg, who just sent Facebook props for teaching him paired t-tests 15 years ago — along with his new article on the subject).

We also think Give Methods a Chance will show how sound methodology has far more to do with elegant design principles than technical complexity. As Paola Antonelli of the Museum of Modern Art puts it, good design “combines technology, cognitive science, human need, and beauty to produce something that the world didn’t know it was missing.” As you’ll see from Give Methods a Chance, the best social science does precisely the same thing.


TSP's Jon Smajda, multi-tasking
TSP’s Jon Smajda, multi-tasking
Our brilliant web editor, Jon Smajda, has been working overtime to bring a new look and feel to The Society Pages. Jon’s been after us for years to de-clutter these pages and to make it easier for folks to navigate. The new design should work much better for our mobile and tablet readers (desktops accounted for 85% of our traffic in 2012, but only 55% today) and Jon’s also dramatically improved our search functionality. Rest assured that you’ll still find all the same great TSP feature content on the new site (at the same URL’s no less) — just scroll down to find a handy directory for TSP features, Community Pages, and Partners. We’ll be building out our topics pages and introducing other exciting changes in the next few months, so we hope you’ll bear with us! As always, we’d love to hear your ideas and feedback — and you can congratulate Jon on his *other* new arrivals.

Creative Commons image by D. Morris
Creative Commons image by D. Morris

We place a high value on collaborative conversations at TSP. That’s one of the reasons we’re so delighted to welcome Feminist Reflections to our community pages. Gayle Sulik’s inaugural post offers a thoughtful invitation to a new space for engaging in feminist conversations about everyday life, for expanding feminist networks, and for celebrating feminist work.

We need a formal communal setting that is open to intellectual curiosity, the musings of everyday life and the emotions that set their tone, and the exploration of how ideas and knowledge are tied to power and influence. We need to contemplate poverty in the midst of riches, subjectivity and neutrality, public power and the linkages between meaning and power, and the social construction of knowledge (What counts as “knowledge”? Who has/lacks access? Who gets to create it?). We need to reflect, with a feminist perspective, on our lives as sociologists and human beings.

You can learn more about Tristan Bridges, another regular contributor, in this week’s fascinating Office Hours podcast on masculinities and sexual aesthetics. You’ll also find such scholars as Meika Loe, Trina Smith, and Amy Blackstone on Feminist Reflections. I’m personally excited to welcome Professor Blackstone to these pages, since few people have taught me more about the value and necessity of feminist perspectives in sociology. As we’ve coauthored seven pieces, I’ve felt fortunate to engage in the sort of productive back-and-forth that yields lasting insights as well as articles. We’re looking forward to engaging many more such collaborative conversations in Feminist Reflections.

Love and Lust is the cover story in the July issue of Psychology Today. And while the photos may be salacious, the writing is sagacious. The author, Virginia Rutter, is one of our favorite public scholars. On TSP, she’s known for her authoritative “Nice Work” contributions on Girl w/ Pen! and, more recently, Families as They Really Are and Council on Contemporary Families.

Apart from her formidable skills as a sociologist and writer, Professor Rutter’s work is distinguished by a characteristic all-too-rare among scholars: her generosity. To publish our work as academics, we often need to frame it in terms of the horrible weaknesses in everybody else’s work. This style might (or might not) work in the journals, but it undercuts us completely when we’re trying to reach a public audience — it makes it seem as though we don’t know anything at all. Virginia Rutter takes a different approach. Her Nice Work columns, like her new Psychology Today article, tell a much more coherent and cumulative story about the contributions made by different social researchers. Her new FATRA piece on the Equal Pay Act similarly offers a balanced presentation about what we know collectively and where we might go in the future.

So if you’re interested in writing successfully for venues like Psychology Today, Contexts, or TSP, you might take a cue from generous scholars like Professor Rutter. If you wish to be loved; Love!


Owned“Every school offers financial aid services, but listen to what the University of Minnesota is doing,” began Michelle Obama at a 2014 White House summit. “They’re committing to expand those services to include financial literacy programs to help students and their families manage the costs of college.”

In fact, all incoming students at the U of M now get lessons in credit and debt as part of the Live Like a Student Now So You Don’t Have to Later campaign. The website, Facebook, and campus posters offer a steady stream of practical advice on everything from buying generic ketchup to finding the free days at local museums. A Plan Your Debt page even suggests the maximum advisable debt limit for students planning careers as graphic designers, nurses, and accountants.

Such programs can be a great help to individual students, but they also obscure a bigger sociological story: structural and institutional changes place young people today at risk of enormous debt loads. When I started college at the University of Wisconsin, the annual tuition was only $994 per year ($2,442 in today’s dollars), which barely covers a course these days. So, it hardly seems fair to blame today’s students for accumulating more debt than I did—or to blame their debt problems on $4 lattes.

In C. Wright Mills’ famous terms, the sociological imagination reveals the link between our “personal troubles” with debt and the broader “public issues” that have placed us in this position. And it isn’t just students. For the past five years, headlines have shouted about all manner of debt—people, companies, and even cities declaring bankruptcy, families losing their homes to foreclosure, and, the Occupy Wall Street movement arising to challenge the “1%” who prospered in the Great Recession. That’s why we chose debt as the subject of a new TSP volume, Owned, due out this fall with WW Norton and Company.

In curating TSP and putting the book together, we’ve been learning a lot about the power and importance of a sociological approach to debt and inequality. Starting next week, we’ll be running a series to showcase some of these pieces.  We’ll have a real expert, Kevin Leicht, kick us off this Monday by explaining the development and depth of the debt crisis. With hard data and vivid description, he shows how middle-class families suffer when borrowing replaces earning. On Wednesday, Leicht offers a hard-hitting progressive critique of the “politics of displacement” that distract us from needed economic reform, while proposing three steps to reinvigorate the American Dream. We’ll conclude Leicht’s series on Friday with a cogent piece contrasting the old “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” success narrative with the current structural realities. In the weeks to come, we’ll be running more new features, including interviews and articles with contributors like Dalton Conley, Bill Domhoff, Rachel Dwyer, Erin Hoekstra, Karyn Lacy, Rahsaan Mahadeo, and Andrew Ross. And don’t forget earlier pieces such as Out of the Nest and into the Red, where Jason Houle shows exactly how debt has shifted across the last three generations, Alexes Harris on the Cruel Poverty of Monetary Sanctions, David Schalliol’s Debt and Darkness in Detroit, and Rob Crosnoe on the Hourglass Economy.

The best sociology has long been critical of existing social arrangements and idealistic about the alternatives. And the new sociology of debt (reflected here and in projects like debtandsociety.org) is no exception. In detailing the grand society-level problems of the debt crisis, these TSP features point to social solutions on both ginormous (global climate reparations) and modest (a lone shopkeeper lighting his street) scales. And making small reforms to alleviate human suffering is hardly incompatible with changing the structural conditions that create or sustain the problem. So students can simultaneously rally for lower tuition and loan rates for everyone as they learn about personal finance to manage their own debt. Some might dismiss the latter efforts as “Band-Aids” for the structural issues, but we wouldn’t discount them completely. A well-applied Band-Aid can sometimes stop the bleeding while we pursue a more lasting fix to our problems.

CCF platform logoBig news! The Society Pages is absolutely delighted to welcome the Council on Contemporary Families to TSP. Over the past two decades, CCF has built an outstanding reputation as a go-to source for authoritative social research on family life. Much like the Scholars Strategy Network, CCF will work with our staff and students to post selected policy briefs and research statements on timely topics, all of which can be found here. In addition, the CCF’s peerless contributors, including Barbara Risman, Philip N. Cohen, Adina NackVirgnia Rutter, and others will soon be blogging in TSP’s Community Pages (several already write for Sociological Images, Girl W/ Pen!, and more). We look forward to great conversations, cutting-edge research, and an ongoing examination of American families—as they really are. You can follow CCF on Twitter at @CCF_Families.

Follow tip #2 to banish keyboard dust bunnies. Photo by Kiran Foster via Flickr.
Follow tip #2 to banish keyboard dust bunnies. Photo by Kiran Foster via Flickr CC

Last week I danced in my first flash mob, saw a powerful set of storytellers at a live Life of the Law event, and pontificated on public outreach with super sharp friends from JustPublics, OpenDemocracy, and LOTL. In my #LSAMN14 session for graduate students and new professors, I offered 5 bits of advice for those eager to write for a public audience.

1. Use your expertise. Make it about your expert knowledge as a social scientist rather than your views as a citizen. Use the command and authority you’ve developed on a project to really break it down for the rest of us.

2. Don’t wait for tenure. Graduate students and assistant professors today should develop an online presence. And writing short pieces for the public can often offer accessible calling cards to your work and interests.

3. Timing matters. Don’t just react to the news by beginning a new piece. Have some ideas and drafts that you can work up quickly when the time is right. Many events are seasonal or predictable (e.g., back to school season, election season, release-of-crime-statistics season), so write now for August or December.

4. Avoid zero-sum thinking. Public work need not detract from your research. In my experience, my journal articles and public posts tend to be mutually reinforcing and complementary rather than competing substitutes for one another. Staying in touch with journalists, for example, helps me stay on top of new developments in my field. And the more you write, the easier writing becomes.

5. Use your editor! There’s a premium on brevity & clarity in public writing. My first op-eds were a sea of red ink, as sharp editors reduced both my word count and my syllable-per-word count by at least 50 percent. And, in my experience at TSP and Contexts, the most famous and highly regarded experts in the field tend to be most amenable to smart editing. They get it.

In the spirit of brevity and humility about the limits of my own expertise, I’ll close by repeating the best bit of advice I learned in school — what I’ve come to call the Wu Admonition: “Remember, Chris, that not all advice is good advice.”

a 2013 CNLG workshop
a 2013 CNLG workshop

My spring break involved an intense research trip to Rwanda with Hollie Nyseth Brehm, but we reserved the last day for something fun:  a methodology workshop for researchers at The National Commission For The Fight Against Genocide. We gave a whirlwind presentation from 9-12, then held office hours to address specific projects. I worried we wouldn’t get much traffic, but the researchers had so many sharp and important questions that they kept us hopping all afternoon.

With so much recent hand-wringing over the relevance and impact of social research, it was inspiring to connect with researchers squarely addressing problems of unquestioned importance —  understanding a genocide that took a million lives, investigating and ameliorating its effects on survivors,  and working to prevent its recurrence within and outside Rwanda. So I began by asking, “Whose research is more important than yours?” and then stressed the central role of design and methodology in getting it right.

The researchers were super-smart and accomplished but came to us with varying levels of methods training. We therefore emphasized building a strong foundation: posing tight research questions, theory and conceptualization, levels of analysis, data and valid measures, sampling difficult-to-study populations, criteria of causality, research ethics and positionality, publishing and dissemination, and specific issues in interviewing, comparative and historical analysis, and univariate, bivariate, and multivariate statistical analysis. That’s a lot for a semester, let alone a half-day workshop. Throughout, we discussed the importance of humility in doing good research — listening, learning, and keeping an open mind. As is often the case in teaching, we were humbled by the collective expertise and dedication among the researchers. On the subject of “sensitive interview questions,” for example, I turned the microphone over to a participant who had just finished a set of interviews that were an order of magnitude more sensitive than any I’d conducted in my research career.

We can’t say whether or how our little methods session might affect the Center’s research, but Hollie and I certainly gained much from the experience. Yes, we “know stuff” as social scientists, but we have also developed a wonderfully useful set of tools for acquiring this knowledge. And once researchers understand the basic idea of something like multistage cluster sampling, they can often make thoughtful design choices that yield better research with fewer resources. It may seem too obvious to mention, but many of our methods discussions within the field seem devoted to “tweaking and critiquing” more esoteric designs and models. So it is both refreshing and empowering to share some of the methodological foundations of our field with such sharp and motivated researchers.

Photo via Marina Noordegraaf flickr.com CC.

Social media feeds are like carnival money booths: we snatch away greedily as the links swirl past, but we’re rarely enriched by the experience. In the rush to process so much so quickly, we’ve become lousy filters for one another – recommending “great articles” that ain’t so great by social science standards.

Many rapidly-circulating stories offer grand assertions but paltry evidence about the social world. It seems silly to direct much intellectual horsepower at every li’l item whooshing past (why, that Upworthy post needs an interrupted time-series design!). So people just hit the “thumbs up” button if they like the sentiment and send it down the line. Passing along such blurbs can seem like a modern equivalent to the kindly/nosy relative who sent us Dear Abby clippings in the newsprint era. Yet there’s a danger to indiscriminate recommendations that can subvert our authority as experts. In my case, I’ve developed a set of policy preferences on crime and economic issues, which I adjust in response to new evidence. If I start endorsing weak studies just because they affirm my preferences or prejudices, then I’d rightly be considered a hack.

As conservatives like to remind progressives — from the comfort of their thin-paned glass houses — there’s a big honking gap between the truth about the world and the truth we’d like to believe about the world. Accordingly, there’s a big honking gap between a “great study” and a “great sentiment” that neatly aligns with our views. And, unlike your kindly/nosy relative, good social scientists have a real responsibility to evaluate the quality of the evidence we cite – especially when we claim to be experts on a matter.

Sometimes we forget that social science provides mighty tools and deep training in evaluating evidence. For example, any good sociologist should have a pretty good sense of whether a given sample is likely to be representative; whether a design is best suited for making causal, descriptive, or interpretive claims; whether to gather data from individuals, groups, or nations in making such claims; and, how to make sense of complex processes that unfold dynamically across all these levels. But while we might closely and carefully scrutinize research methods in our professional work, we seem to get beer goggles whenever a sexy story flits past on Facebook.

When I suspect I might be playing too fast and loose with such stories, I use a three-step approach to consider the evidence:

  1. Restate the central empirical claim (e.g., raising the minimum wage reduces crime)
  2. Identify the theory and evidence cited to support that claim (e.g., a simple plot showing lower crime rates in states with higher minimum wage levels)
  3. Evaluate the design rather than the finding. Is the design so elegant and convincing that I would have believed the results had they gone the other way? Or would I have simply dismissed it as shoddy work? (e.g., a simple plot showing higher crime rates in states with higher minimum wage levels).

Depending on the direction of the wage-crime relationship, my reaction would have changed from “See! This shows I was right all along” to “Bah! These fools didn’t even control for income and poverty rates!” Of course, few of the stories flitting past can withstand the strict scrutiny of a top peer-reviewed journal article. But while I might still circulate them for descriptive or entertainment value, I’m now making fewer unqualified personal recommendations. I’d rather reserve the term “great study” for designs that are so spine-crushingly beautiful that they might actually change my mind on an issue. Researchers know that winning over skeptics is way more fun — and way more important — than preaching to the converted. At TheSocietyPages, this process always animates our board meetings, in lively debates about the research evidence that merits highlighting in our podcasts, citings, TROTS, reading list, and feature sections.

As Clay Shirky says, “It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure.” At TSP, we’ll do our best to screen for solid evidence and big ideas about the social world, in hopes that we can all grab something worthwhile from the information swirl.