Criminologist or sociologist? (Or, on the difficulties and limits of labels, whether self- or other-oriented)
By Robert Werth, Rice University
Am I a criminologist or a sociologist? The prompt I was given for this brief piece was more nuanced than this. But, as I interpreted it, this question is at the heart of the prompt. I’m going to provide a few answers (or thoughts really) to this question, but I will then proceed to both critique and complicate my answers. As this suggests, I have several responses to this question, and I find none of them especially satisfying or final.
Returning to the question, “are you a criminologist or sociologist”, I would like to respond: “yes”. This feels somewhat unsatisfying, however. At first glance, it seems as if my response side-steps the question, although I don’t think it does. But, I think a real problem with an answer of “yes” to this question is that it is a response of someone who wants to eat their cake and have it too, as the saying (sometimes) goes. Sociology and criminology, while overlapping and even entangled, are not isomorphic with one another. Further, I can certainly think of myself as both sociologist and criminologist – and I do tend to think of myself as both – but is this how I am always going to label, present and (dare we say) market myself to others? And is this how I will be perceived and understood by others?
Another possible response, and one that I have used on occasion: “I think of myself as a law and society scholar who studies issues of crime and punishment.” This response also appears as if it is attempting to side-step the prompt. Although, as before, I do not think it does. Rather than circumvent the question of sociology or criminology, I’ve actually added another element to it – law and society – thereby making the question even more complicated and difficult to answer.
So, three paragraphs into my reflection on this question, and all I’ve managed to do is add the matter of law and society to it, leaving me with a response of: “well, I am a sociologist, criminologist and law and society person”. Furthermore, I would probably need to add another element to it, as I am getting increasingly interested in, and thinking with, Science and Technology Studies. However, labeling myself as a sociologist, criminologist, law and society person, and STS person is prohibitively long and perhaps confusing; or, at the least, is likely to produce the idea that I am confused, undecided or just greedy.
However, the way I most often think and talk about this issue (what do I study? how can I describe myself in a way that is concise yet accurate?) is by emphasizing the topics, phenomena and questions that I focus on and, hence, deemphasizing the disciplines/fields/areas that presumably frames those interests. Thus, my most common, albeit broad, description of myself is: An interdisciplinary scholar interested in crime, punishment, and law. (Or, an interdisciplinary scholar interested in the ways in which societies understand and attempt to govern crime, ‘criminality’, and dangerousness.) Although I sometimes replace interdisciplinary scholar with sociologist. This is, I suspect, partially a product of my departmental locationality; since graduate school my two academic positions have both been in sociology departments (Quinnipiac and now Rice University), so it often makes sense and seems easier to refer to myself as a sociologist.
However, I think that ultimately, I consider myself an interdisciplinary scholar. This stems from the fact that my Ph.D. is not in sociology, rather it is from the interdisciplinary Criminology, Law and Society program at the University of California, Irvine. But this also stems, as this overly convoluted reflection suggests, from regularly interacting with and drawing from multiple academic arenas. Sociology, criminology and law and society are the most prominent ones, but, to a lesser degree, I also draw from STS, anthropology and philosophy.
While I do think of myself as an interdisciplinary person, if pushed (for instance, by a prompt about this topic), I would say that within my interdisciplinarity, sociology is the discipline that I have been most influenced by. However, this statement necessitates a final caveat. It depends on making a distinction between discipline and field. That is, I am thinking of disciplines as traditional, long-standing academic disciplines – such as sociology, anthropology, political science, economics, etc. And I am thinking of fields – such as criminology, law & society, and STS – as more recent areas that cut across and complicate these disciplines. This distinction, shaped by perceived tradition (and, of course, authority), perhaps muddles as much as it clarifies. And it may well be in the process of obsolescence. I am certainly in favor of complicating disciplinary boundaries through cutting across, experimenting with, and stretching/moving them.
As such, I prefer to orient my descriptions of what I am/do around the topics, issues, puzzles and questions that animate my research and teaching, rather than through the prism of academic disciplines or fields, whether they be long-established, comparatively new or emergent.