A brief personal reflection on the sociologist versus criminologist identity debate
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.