Friday, February 8, 2019

Are you a criminologist or a sociologist? Rob Werth Responds

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.  

Are you a criminologist or a sociologist? Michael Walker Responds

I've never considered myself anything other than a sociologist, but that's not in opposition to how criminologists or criminal justice scholars might think of themselves. My graduate training is in sociology, and my general approach to crime, crime control, and the criminal justice system is to see all three as opportunities to investigate the kinds of matters that interest me anyhow: stratification, social control, identities, emotion, and so forth. In fact, I only recently became aware of tensions between some criminologists, sociologists, and criminal justice scholars. Part of the issue, as I understand it, has to do with increases in specialization: the generalist is a dying breed of scholar. On this point, perhaps more interdisciplinary work like that of law and society scholars will help to bridge the divide between sociology, criminology, and criminal justice.

Are you a criminologist or a sociologist? Sara Wakefield Responds

1. the tensions surrounding how a person is labeled (sociologist or criminologist), especially for people who could be labeled both

I have no idea how I am labeled. Or put better, if I conducted the most narcissistic nationally-representative survey ever of sociologists and criminologists in order to ask, I’m not certain a clear answer would emerge. Aside from a healthy number of “Sara who?” responses, I suspect the sociologists would split a bit, the criminologists would call me a sociologist, and age of reporter would matter. I remember a time when I cared about the label – I strongly identified as a sociologist early on – but I no longer have a stake in being one or the other. Both is probably right but the best answer is that it depends on who else is in the room (context matters, who knew?).

That I’m not worried about it anymore is a function of tenure, an idiosyncratic set of opportunities and constraints as one half of an academic couple, and some fairly large changes in my areas of interest since I received my PhD. That said, it is clear to me that some heterogeneity in how other people define me probably limited me early in my career but now benefits me in demonstrable ways. Clear ‘branding’ seems important for junior scholars but it becomes limiting pretty fast.

Right before tenure and certainly after it, I noticed my tendency to put the criminology hat on among sociologists and socio-legal scholars and to put the sociology hat on among criminologists and economists. [It’s a tossup with psychologists, no idea why.] A charitable interpretation of this tendency is that I’ve been lucky through the windy path of my career and friendships to be exposed to a variety of scholars, projects, and literatures and that I most enjoy learning from those who form a core in their own areas/disciplines. The less charitable interpretation of this is that I’m a (hopefully kind) contrarian at heart, that I lack the discipline (pun intended) to become part of any core, or that I really and truly hate working alone. I’m okay with any of those interpretations.

2. what other people make of these tensions and how they navigate them

The labels are important – after all, someone has to form the core and police the boundaries, yes? There is also a place for criticism of those boundaries and upending long-held assumptions. Especially for junior scholars, ‘branding’ yourself as any one thing is hard enough, without adding in multiple audiences, constituencies, and fields. I’m less certain that remaining in your core after the first few years is required for career success everywhere and I harbor suspicions that it is not good for social science, especially if your interests clearly cross-cut a number of fields. One of the things I like about criminology, criminal justice, and socio-legal studies (broadly defined) is that they are much less invested in policing boundaries because we’ve always borrowed from many other disciplines – this is why generalizations about these fields more often than not scream ignorance to me. Sociology is much the same though – it’s everything and nothing so good luck figuring out where it stops and starts. It strikes me that the main challenge for those of us in between is to consistently spend enough time in each space so you can talk like an insider without anyone laughing too hard.

I now think less about how to navigate these minefields (or worse, planting my flag in them) and instead I’m simply trying to be a person who sees them clearly. Once you see them, you can quietly navigate around them (and, if you’re lucky, say something useful by pointing them out). I don’t think this necessarily means you can’t stick to a topic or you constantly have to reinvent yourself – I’ve been unsuccessfully trying to stop writing about incarceration for at least four years now – but if you wouldn’t re-write everything you wrote five years ago a little differently today, you’re doing something wrong. The main benefit of straddling multiple fields is you’re less likely to get stuck and miss the important stuff.

3. context of the job market, publication, or other opportunities like speaker series or field-level service

JOB MARKET: I struggled with these questions because I think the world has changed a lot since I was on the market out of grad school. I’m also less certain that the idiosyncrasies of my current situation translate well to others, especially junior scholars. Suffice it to say, I’ve applied to both crim and soc programs (out of grad school and since) and received offers from both (out of grad school and since). I spent a long time trying to write about this well but I ended up cutting all of it and would simply say that I am always happy to talk to people about applying to crim programs and you don’t have to know me in order to set up coffee or a call.

Here’s what I will say: Crim programs are as heterogenous as sociology. The question I get most often from sociologists/law & society scholars applying to crim programs is some version of “Will they make me be a ‘C’riminologist or only publish in crim journals?” The short answer is no. The long answer is it depends (see below).

PUBLICATIONS: I seem to specialize in writing things published in weird places that some people read. Writing a book was great – I found writing one simply solidified the perception that I occupy some sort of interstitial space between criminology and sociology, thereby freeing me from the constraints of both. I wish I could say I planned that – I didn’t and am astonished to find myself writing a second one – but it’s fantastic. I have watched colleagues and friends in Crim/CJ and in Sociology get pressure to publish in Criminology or ASR or whatever but I’ve never been subject to the same pressures overmuch (or I’m so obtuse that I failed to notice it). Some departments really care about this but it seems like they only care about it for some people. I try and think broadly about who to work with and what I can learn from them – insofar as people may think of me as both a sociologist and a criminologist, I suspect it reflects 1) a lot of effort to stay involved in sociology while working in a crim program and 2) collaboration and friendship networks across both fields because it sure isn’t where I publish or don’t.

TALKS AND SERVICE: This is the one context you asked about where I have been planful, rather than just doing what I do and being relieved it worked out. I give a fair number of talks and I spend a lot of time at conferences. I navigate conferences very differently based on how close or far they are to my “home” areas, however. At ASA and ASC, my “home” conferences, I do not often attend panels beyond my own and those of my students – I’m there to do core work and I’m usually swamped. These are unfortunately the last places where I will learn new things or challenge my assumptions. I am involved in my groups and, as a result, I am fairly active in volunteer and elected service positions in both organizations.

About every three years, I start feeling overly narrow, out of date with advances in other areas, and bored/disagreeable. As a solution, I make sure to get out of my bubble. Six years ago, I solved this problem by diving in to a massive new data collection with a bunch of people I’d never worked with before and who do work really different than my own. Three years ago, I solved this problem by going to Oxford for a semester. This year I’m solving it by attending PAA and LSA. At LSA and PAA, I’m there to learn, attend panels, challenge what I think I know, and go as far afield as possible. In none of these spaces do I expect to run the show, get elected to something, or drive the conversation but I always learn and you’ll usually see it in my work a few years later. All this to say, there are benefits of getting out of your space, with some humility.

Are you a criminologist or a sociologist? Chris Smith Responds

During one of my first American Society of Criminology meetings, I attended a “Students meet Scholars” session. It was a great session, a fascinating conversation, and the graduate students (myself included) were asking a lot of questions about the intellectual trajectory of the topic. After the session, I was waiting in line for the restroom with one of the eminent scholars from the panel, who said to me, “You must be a sociologist.” (I assumed her declaration was based on my questions from the session.) I awkwardly laughed and affirmed that I was getting my PhD in sociology. Since that interaction, I have been a bit stuck on what the “you must be a sociologist” versus “you must be a criminologist” labels mean, what they are good for, and why we can’t be both. 

I study crime and inequality, some version of the word “crime” appears in almost every class I have ever taught, I publish in criminology and sociology journals, and I attend the ASC and the ASA. The ASC is cheaper and has more free wine, so I like it better. The late criminologist Bob Bursik (PhD in sociology) once told me, “ASA is a bunch of snobs.” I often agree with his sentiment. I tell my sociology graduate students to study crime because there are more academic jobs. The National Science Foundation and the Department of Justice funded my dissertation research. When I first applied to jobs as a PhD candidate, I applied to sociology and criminology departments. I got offers in both, but I took a sociology job. Being in a sociology department became important to me because I get excited about the breadth of the intellectual conversations that happen in sociology and because some of my classes don’t have the word “crime” in them. Being in a sociology department also helped me realize that I don’t want to do research that is not about crime and inequality.

The biggest distinction for me between the labels of criminologist and sociologist is in the orientation to theory. It is hard to publish in sociology without strong theoretical frameworks and/or contributions. To achieve this, often our studies of crime and inequality represent a case of some larger social process. It is hard to publish in criminology without any theory, but there are fewer theoretical toolkits to draw from in criminology. Plus, criminology includes a lot more theory testing than theory developing. This slightly different orientation toward theory can come at a cost. Criminology has the space to be more applied than sociology and can be more relevant to policy. Sociologists often want their research to be applied, but the reality is that our long theoretical frameworks can be a burden to generalist audiences. Long, complicated understandings of inequality or other social problems don’t often lend themselves to digestible suggestions for change.

Historically, criminology was a part of sociology – a lens through which to study society. The label of criminologist has become more divisive because of the growth and funding of criminal justice departments across the US academy. Criminal justice emphasizes solving crime (or lowering crime rates) more so than the broader study of crime. The merger of criminology with criminal justice has meant that criminology is seen as more conservative, but the merger has also meant that some outsiders miss the strong sociological methods and theoretical orientations happening in the work of great criminology. 

My forthcoming book, Syndicate Women, is on gender inequality in organized crime networks from Prohibition Chicago. I have received positive and negative feedback from sociologists and criminologists on the research. A few criminologists have asked me why I want more women in organized crime. A few sociologists have asked me how the book’s theoretical explanation can be applied to any case other than crime. Both of these questions reveal the worst of these labels. My book will be classified as criminology and sociology—probably in alphabetical order. I hope criminologists and sociologists (as well as gender scholars, legal scholars, historians, and network scientists) will read it and find something interesting and useful. My research is better because I read broadly and because I try to do both criminology and sociology well. 

Chris M. Smith, Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of California, Davis
January 21, 2019

Are you a criminologist or a sociologist? Joachim Savelsberg Responds

A brief personal reflection on the sociologist versus criminologist identity debate
Joachim Savelsberg, 
University of Minnesota

Ashley Rubin invited me to write a few paragraphs about my identity as a sociologist and/or criminologist, and I am grateful for that opportunity. Time has almost run out during somewhat hectic past weeks, and a few brief sentences with personal reflections will have to suffice.
Before coming to the United States in 1989, I was the associate director of a Criminological Research Institute (KFN in Hanover, Lower Saxony). I am a member of the ASC. Google scholars categorizes the relative majority of citations to my work as criminological. All of my books and most of my articles relate to issues of crime, more precisely to the definition of, and reactions to, crime. It may not be surprising thus that I have referred to myself as a criminologist. Yet, most often, I identify myself as a sociologist. Typically, I feel more comfortable doing the latter. Why?
The simple answer may be that I hold sociology degrees, and that my academic home is a sociology department. In addition, I am not just a member of the ASC, but also of other associations, primarily sociological ones, the ASA (and its German equivalent, the DGS), the SSSP, at times the ISA, and of other multi-disciplinary associations, especially the LSA whose journal I edited for a while. 
This simple answer, however, is unsatisfactory. If a criminologist is someone who deals with issues surrounding crime in some scholarly way, then I am indeed a criminologist. Why does discomfort remain about the identity of a criminologist? Four preliminary answers come to mind.
First, it seems to matter that I address issues of crime from a sociological perspective, not from a legal, psychological, biological or psychiatric one. I am thus a sociologist who happens to address issues pertaining to crime, whatever biographical contingencies might have lead me down this path. That is in fact how I often identify myself.
Second, I do not quite know what a criminologist is. The field has identified itself as a multi- and more often as an interdisciplinary field. Yet, what beyond crime, which is not even a phenomenon but something defined by the state, is its common core, what its theoretical basis?
Third, there is a distance between sociologists dealing with issues of crime and other sociologists. I have heard graduate students in my department distinguish between sociology students and other graduate students whom they identify as criminologists. Why do these sociology students draw a boundary between themselves and their colleagues who deal with issues of crime? They are in the same degree program, and criminologists teaching in my department are most certainly sociological criminologists. Students after all do not draw boundaries between themselves and others who work on issues of the family, life course, organizations, race or social movements. Maybe those students sense what cluster and citation analyses of the sociological profession showed even a few decades ago -- and what they might show more clearly today: that sociologists dealing with issues of crime appear closer to the margins of their discipline. They interact less with other sections (and with the “core”) than do members of other specializations within their discipline. I am not sure if that would always have been the case. Maybe it is a reaction to the specializations of criminology as a field with its own associations, journals, and funding sources.
Fourth, it seems that there is stigma attached to “criminologist” among sociologists, some sort of suspicion, risk of a spoiled identity. Reasons may be multiple, and I have to speculate here. For one, the history of criminology is murky, at times associated with biologistic and even racist movements (but sociology’s is also not without dark spots). Another reason may lie in the closer affiliation of criminology with the state and its control institutions. The massive growth of criminology in the United States does not accidentally coincide with the increase in crime as a phenomenon and, especially, as an issue of the 1960s and subsequent decades. It is certainly not by chance that it coincides with the massive expansion of the penal system, with the substantial flow of state resources into the field of criminology and the field’s expansion as an educational opportunity for law enforcement personnel. Closeness to the state runs the risk of declining critical distance, and I have shown in some of my work that that risk is real. In its most extreme form, lack of critical distance may lead to an embrace of Hobbes’ Leviathan, who may indeed have advanced the civilizing process, but who – when checks and balances were missing – has abused the power and authority entrusted in him, becoming criminal himself. Crimes against humanity and genocide are extreme forms of abuse in which Leviathan has engaged over the centuries; penal state excesses, over-incarceration, the death penalty and its discriminatory use, the isolation of human beings over decades in sterile environments are contemporary examples in the United States. I am writing this as a scholar who is not at all adverse to – but obviously cautious about -- policy-oriented scholarship.
In conclusion, I embrace living with unease, with a conflicted identity, as a sociologist who addresses issues related to crime, but who occasionally identifies as a criminologist. I take comfort from the fact that such conflicted identity can be a source of sociological imagination.

Are you a criminologist or a sociologist? Danielle Rudes Responds

As a trained sociologist, I distinctly remember the feeling of discomfort and perhaps even betrayal as I embarked the academic job market many years ago and pursued tenure-track positions in both sociology and criminology programs. A part of me felt grateful that my work and interests bridged the two disciplines so well that I was able to expand my market search to include positions in both. But, a part of me felt like if I ultimately accepted a criminology position I would be betraying my discipline and my field. Then, I would be (and remain, as many advisers and colleagues constantly reminded me) an outsider in both worlds…a traitor to sociology and an interloper, wanna-be in criminology. My number one criteria for accepting a job was that the department have a doctoral program as I wanted to work with advanced graduate students and mentor them through the phases of their academic career…returning the gift of mentorship my adviser had amazingly bestowed upon me. When I accepted my current position in Criminology, Law & Society the bittersweet reality of landing a tenure-track position at a prestigious (although then, still up-and-coming) university with a growing doctoral program painfully mixed with the anguishing loss of my affiliation with a sociology program. 

In the years since, I navigated the boundary between these two worlds, both of which and neither of which, feel like home to me. I love the broad-based theoretical sociologist in me, I adore the indelible lessons in culture, symbolic interactionism, organizational theory and qualitative methods that both shaped and created the scholar I am today. I also love that my work in criminology, law & society roots in broader social problems and presents both theoretical/conceptual and policy/practice relevance. When asked to introduce myself at departmental events I always said I am a trained organizational sociologist who studies social control institutions working in a criminology, law & society program. Yet, despite my self-description and the benefits of my current position, I always felt a bit like I was on the outside looking in at two disciplines where I belong, but that do not have a formal mechanism for including me. 

Then, sometime last year—a decade into my career—I had a bit of an epiphany about my academic label. In the same year, several criminology-connected editors from journals and books requested articles and/or chapters from me as an expert in organizations. These scholars wanted me to bring the sociology of organizations and organizational theory to life within the context of criminal justice settings. And, to my surprise, they thought I had already been doing this for years! While it is true, I considered myself an organizational sociologist working in a criminology program, now I was aware of my new label, and I love it! I am an organizational criminologist. 

As I reflect back on my re-conferral of self-identity, I sit peacefully with the thought of labels and my place among them. Maybe it is my post-tenure gaze, maybe it is my years of experience, or maybe it is just my calm space in the stormy seas, but I truly do not care how people label me within, between or outside the parallel universes of criminology and sociology. I know where I belong, I know what I contribute to both disciplines, I know there is value in my work and I know above all else, that is all that truly matters. 

Danielle S. Rudes
Associate Professor, Criminology, Law & Society
Deputy Director, Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence (ACE!)
George Mason University,

Are you a criminologist or a sociologist? Michelle Phelps Responds

Depending on the context, I introduce myself as a sociologist, a professor, a criminologist, a law and society scholar, a punishment and society person, or, if I'm feeling particularly feisty, a sociologist with a specialization in criminology in the tradition of law and society scholarship. I think part of this comes down to context--how much detail does the audience want/need? And some of it is about the institutional homes of our training and current job--my Ph.D. was interdisciplinary, but housed in sociology, and I currently work in a sociology department, so that feels like it ought to be my primary identification. Sociology also best describes my general intellectual orientation in how I approach social science questions. Yet that label sometimes chafes because "mainstream" sociology often pays so little attention to the kinds of topics I tend to pursue.

Criminology should be an obvious label, and yet I hesitate to use the label of criminologist in isolation. I think this is in large part because criminology has become a discipline more interested in predicting crime and the individual-level correlates of criminal justice contact, instead of punishment as a social institution. In addition, as criminology schools increasingly became training schools for professionals working in the criminal justice system, professors (and graduate students) in those programs increasingly pursed research about how to best operate that system rather than more radical critiques. You can see these trends reflected in the annual meetings of the American Society of Criminology, papers in the flagship journal Criminology, and the research interests of faculty at criminology programsAlthough there is a new generation of scholars working to place sociological punishment research back into the core of criminology, they still are a minority (albeit a high-status minority in many cases).

Which takes us to law and society. Bringing together legal scholarship and social scientists, the Law & Society Association and related interdisciplinary socio-legal journals have become the favorite home for many punishment folks. Indeed, what I recognize as my core subfield--punishment and society--explicitly references this intellectual home. And so it is at those meetings, and in those journals, that I most frequently find the most interesting and relevant (to me) research. Yet if you tell the average person (or even sociologist) that you are a "punishment and society scholar," you are likelier to get a blank look than if you say "I'm a criminologist."

Sometimes I think all of us working in sociology on questions of social control and punishment ought to loudly proclaim ourselves "criminologists" to wrest back that label. The study of crime and punishment always needs both perspectives--understanding patterns of criminal behavior should not be separated from the broader history of how we came to call certain acts criminal and how we adjudicate and punish such behavior. Like the loose collection of topics organized under the banner of law and society, I would like to see a criminology that was less a firm discipline and more a big tent of people working from different intellectual starting-points.