Friday, February 8, 2019

Are you a criminologist or a sociologist? Erin Kerrison Responds

Erin’s 2¢ on Crim/Soc Labeling

Hello, heroes!!

When asked to contribute to this conversation about the tensions that emerge regarding a “mismatched” or “uncommon” disciplinary home base, I jumped at the chance.  The question of “Wait, where do you come from, Erin?” gets posed often enough that I’ve grown perfectly comfortable answering it, but I realize that the question might feel like an interrogation for folks who aren’t as blasé about the academic community’s need to classify them in such a way.  

Since my guess is that different readers who are also grappling with versions of that question might appreciate advice for different contexts, I’m going to try and hit the domains that I think would peak the majority of folks’ interests (and where I’ve most often had to defend, justify, or explain a training history that differed from the setting’s norm): job searching, publishing, grant-writing. 

To begin, I’ll share that I study the myriad of ways that punishment meted out by the criminal legal system, in its many manifestations, is overwhelmingly toxic in general and is specifically harmful to the health of a range of stakeholders who must engage it – victims, alleged criminals, convicted folks, and personnel operating in these spaces.  I started out majoring in Sociology and Philosophy while an undergraduate, moved on to study Criminology and Law & Society in graduate school, split my time between an Arts & Sciences department of Criminology and the Law School during my postdoc, and am now an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Welfare at UC Berkeley.  

The road from Philosophy to Criminal Justice to Social Work is very clear to me, but I realize how it may look to others and why the disciplinary-home-base question gets asked as often as it does.  So to that end, I’ll speak to how I navigate that ask authentically and strategically on the job hunt for a research university tenure-track position, while producing inter/trans-disciplinary scholarship, and in my efforts to secure funding to keep all the trains running. 

Job Market
I don’t think anyone needs to be anchored in a discipline as much as they need to have a very clear and feasible research agenda. While we would all like to claim otherwise, a lot folks are doing just fine professionally without doing work that is objectively earth-shattering. That’s 100% okay!! Because what matters is that they do their thing and they do It well.  

For example, if you’re training is in epidemiology and you’re committed to understanding the spread of disease of immigrant detention centers, the world (and the academy) needs you!!  The study of the spread of disease is not a new research focus. Getting to the bottom of what’s going on in a space that’s swelling exponentially, during an extremely fraught political moment, to people who leave onlookers polarized about their right to live, and in a country where protections provided by the state range from meager to absent to destructive… now that’s something about which folks in a number of social science contexts would be interested to learn.  

Yes, it’s important to demonstrate your ability to mentor students and teach courses in the department/unit/school to which you’re applying.  However, I have applied to and been offered positions in a variety of programs because I designed a strong research program with implications germane to the collective agendas of a number of different disciplinary stakeholders. 

Write to the readership!! Write to the readership!! Write to the readership!! 

So, let’s back up… admittedly I feel comfortable sending manuscripts to Criminology, Criminal Justice, and Sociology journals, simply because I speak those languages.  What I’ve found from working with colleagues in other disciplines, however, is that while some of their constructs aren’t immediately obvious to me, I know that they’re definitely talking about the same issues and questions that I’m thinking and writing about, too.  

Now I’m not itching to run out and earn another PhD, but in order to help facilitate interpretation and engagement with these folks, I have committed to learning some canonical fundamentals from Public Health, Anthropology, Law, and Psychology.  This has taken a lot of time for me as I’ve never been able to cut corners on just sitting still and doing the reading.  I can promise you that it was worth every effort, though, and will likely be an endless pursuit of mine.  

The bit of thematic familiarity that I’ve been able to assemble from those discourses has allowed me to meaningfully cite the existing debates in those disciplines and publish manuscripts in those outlets. And, it’s not enough to just pepper in a couple of citations from the “foreign” journal if you want to publish your work there.  Editors and reviewers can see right through the lip-service and will likely (and fairly) dismiss tourist scholars.

Fear not, though.  If you prefer not to write to a readership that engages terms or methods outside of your scope, that doesn’t preclude a conversation with thinkers in that space. I encourage everyone to shamelessly promote their work wherever they want and in front of as varied an audience as they possibly can.  You never know who will pick it up, plus you’ll get reps in understanding how your work is received by a diverse audience. 

When you’re asking people to give you money to do a thing, I venture that one of the biggest questions reviewers ask, is whether you can pull off what you it is you’re proposing.  

This may not mean that you need to have a specific disciplinary training as much as you will need to have team members and key collaborators who do.  That also doesn’t mean that you can’t still be a PI on the proposed study that diverges from your scholarly norm. Partnering with someone who offers complimentary training, perspectives, and networks can actually be very attractive to funders who want to see more interdisciplinary research projects anyway.  

The way I was able to secure funding from the National Institutes of Health was to apply for a training grant.  An existing multi-year randomized controlled trial that explored women’s engagement with a residential mindfulness drug treatment curriculum was already funded, underway, and staffed by researchers trained in Psychology and Medicine.  I applied for funding that would support my (1) sociological contributions about the influence of social networks on recovery outcomes (a phenomena that wasn’t included in the PI’s original scope of work) and (2) my training in biomedical substance abuse research.  This was a fantastic opportunity to explore the methods of a completely different intellectual arena and my hailing from an entirely different discipline is the very thing that was most attractive about my candidacy.  I encourage every one of you to look beyond your immediate environments to identify networks and efforts that are just waiting to be enhanced by your brilliance and inimitably fresh perspective.


Frankly, a nontrivial proportion of the “where are you from?” line of questioning reminds me of the discomfort that folks feel when your phenotypical race or gender expression, for example, is somehow ambiguous. They like, neeeeed to know “what you are” in large part because it helps them to calibrate their expectations of what you’ll say or do and what kind of power(s) you might wield.  Nobody has time for that.

What’s nice about disciplinary fluidity is that you get to disrupt assumptions, own your narrative, and present the most authentic and effectual version of yourself.  I think it’s a plus and I encourage folks who find themselves without an obvious disciplinary home, to craft their own.  Nimble is good. Proud and nimble is even better. 

Tell the truest story that you’d want to hear and then to treat yourself to it. 

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