Friday, February 8, 2019

Are you a criminologist or a sociologist? Introduction

Punishment and Society (P&S) is an interdisciplinary field of social science inquiry into punishment as a social institution. P&S scholars seek to understand where punishment comes from (why it is the way it is) and what its consequences are for society. We draw primarily from criminology, history, sociology, and political science, but also other disciplines like anthropology, geography, and psychology (very little econ it seems). Many of us also identify as Law and Society scholars, itself an interdisciplinary field.

As a group of interdisciplinary scholars, working in other interdisciplinary communities of scholars, we still live and work in a largely disciplinary world. For most of us, our primary academic appointments are in a single, traditional discipline. Consequently, we are expected to publish (at least some of the time) in disciplinary venues, and ideally the top journals in those fields (Criminology, AJS, ASR, etc.). Likewise, we often attend conferences and do service work in those disciplines---not just LSA (L&S), but also ASC (Crim) and ASA (Soc), for example. Finally, when we or our students go on the job market, we often seek jobs in disciplines, using the disciplines' professional association job banks. 

P&S's identity of interdisciplinary scholar situated within a disciplinary context sometimes breeds tensions in our identity--how we see ourselves, how we try to position ourselves (for resources, jobs, publications, etc.), and how others see us. Sometimes these tensions work in our favor---our ability to "pretend" to be X or Y at various times can open up more job (or publishing) opportunities. Sometimes, they work against us as when gate keepers (search committees, reviewers, editors) view us narrowly and as an other and therefore exclude us. 

Over the years, I've experienced this tension in a number of ways many times and have been somewhat fascinated by it. Coming through UC Berkeley's Jurisprudence and Social Policy PhD Program, I was trained to be particularly aware of it. Few people outside of the Law and Society world know what "JSP" is, or what jurisprudence means, so our faculty advisors---aware of the difficulties we could face on the ever-looming job market---drilled it into us that we essentially had to perform our disciplinary credentials. This means showing up to the conferences in our discipline and publishing in journals that have our discipline's name in the title (i.e., not just "subfield journals"). It means listing your research interests in your CV in terms familiar to your intended audience---the "sociology of punishment," not "punishment and society." Go to job talks in that other department (or departments) and see how job candidates present their research and the types of questions they get. Frankly, this is good advice for everyone to follow for going on the market, but our faculty were particularly attentive to making sure we got it---and since then I've definitely heard from folks in other programs that didn't get similar training. 

This training was especially helpful for me because it contextualized the negative side of being an interdisciplinary scholar. I've had it happen several times when I submitted an article to a top sociology journal and even to law and society journals where one or more reviewers write back, "This article belongs in a criminology journal." It's worth noting that in each case, I'm pretty sure that at least the topic fit since there were similar studies published in these journals and I'd done my best to frame it appropriately---although since then I've gotten much blunter about framing my work for a broader audience so that doesn't happen anymore. I've also had it happen when I've been on the job market that I've been rejected (at one stage or another), I later found out, either because I was a criminologist, I was not a criminologist, or I was a law and society scholar---in each case because that wasn't what the department (mostly soc departments, but some crim) was looking for. (This has been true even when I was coming from a sociology department.) Getting rejected in the same cycle because I was and was not a criminologist seemed somewhat comical, but it also illustrates the liberties people take in identifying us in various ways. 

I do think as punishment scholars, we face added benefits and disadvantages beyond the standard challenges and rewards of being interdisciplinary. On the one hand, punishment is pretty popular right now---it's always on the news, on The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight, and there is frequent political and legislative activity about punishment. On the other hand, the tendency for scholars studying unsavory, dirty, or stigmatized topics seems alive and well. When I was in grad school, seeking out an external dissertation committee in sociology, I went to one professor's office hours. This professor seemed like a friendly enough person (they were good participants in the seminar series) and their interests were different but similar to mine, so they seemed potentially useful. When I explained my research interests and intended dissertation topic, this professor waved their hands and made a face, exclaiming, "Prisons! I don't even like prison movies!" Well, I don't either, truth be told, but that seems neither here nor there. I really would have thought their interests in Foucault would have been enough to indicate why prisons could be important, so I tried that tact---and failed. Ultimately, they declined serving on my committee.

There is also a unique challenge we face as punishment scholars who seek disciplinary appointments when criminology exists as---what is often perceived, rightly or wrongly---as a separate discipline from its related fields like sociology. This is part of what is going on when I got the rejections from journals because my article belonged in a crim journal or when I got those rejections on the job market because I was or was not a criminologist. There is this sense that we belong somewhere else. And yet there is sometimes a perception (again, perhaps right or wrong) that you must choose. When I was a graduate student going on the job market and trying to decide what jobs to pursue, I was told by various sources that if I ever wanted a sociology job, I needed to start off in a sociology department; if I started off in a criminology job, I was "stuck" on that track (this was sometimes intended in the pejorative way it sounds). At least for me, this did not seem to be the case--I was able to interview for several sociology and criminology jobs after my first job in criminology at Florida State University and ultimately landed in sociology at the University of Toronto. Going back to my grad school experiences, I also received advice from a very nice leading criminologist that once you publish in a disciplinary journal, that also kind of locks you in (at the time, I'd only published in interdisciplinary journals (P&S and LSR). They'd said once you publish in a soc journal, you would not be attractive to crim departments, and vice/versa. Having been part of several searches in crim and soc, I don't think that is universally true, but it is interesting advice nonetheless. It's also possible that in the last several years, things have changed. I've certainly noticed a lot (relatively speaking) of sociology jobs looking for hires in their "criminology" subfield during the last few job markets. 

So these have been some of my experiences. But I've never had a very good sense about how representative my experiences have been. Not only did I come from an explicitly interdisciplinary program (with training explicitly in soc, poli sci, econ, philosophy, and history), but I also very much identify as an interdisciplinary scholar. I variously masquerade as an historian, a criminologist, and a sociologist. I mostly see myself as a law and society scholar, although, admittedly, I often feel on the margins of that field---it seems like we need to take extra steps to remind mainstream L&Sers why punishment matters as much as lawyers, courts, and disputing or legal mobilization, for example. Most of the time, I'm not entirely sure how to present myself, and I've definitely changed how I self-identify over time---and I sometimes strategically identify differently for different groups. Likewise, people label me in a variety of different ways, some of which I get really excited by (like when people call me an historian, because there I feel the least confident in my ability to make such a claim). 

Living in Canada has also put a new spin on this for me. Moving to Canada, and also having a stronger connection with British academics, very quickly helped me realize something that should have been obvious but for my #AmericanPrivilege, which is that sociology, criminology, law and society, and other fields look different in different countries. Not only are reigning methodologies and theories somewhat (and sometimes very) different, but they also have different identities. For example, some people in Canada see law and society as a subfield of criminology---something that I think most US scholars, whether criminologists, law and society scholars (esp. those studying the civil realm), and others would have a hard time agreeing with. 

Moving here also made these questions more urgent for me because I was officially hired within a sociology department as a criminologist slated to teach "Criminology, Law and Society" undergraduates. As part of my "portfolio," I was asked to teach criminological theory (i.e., causes of crime). Of course, I've never studied the theories of crime (my comp exam was actually in "criminal justice," the only crim option in my program and still something I had to fight for---or rather my advisors helped me fight for). I definitely felt like the wrong person to teach this class, but I was heartened by the fact that my colleagues who also taught the class weren't folks whose research really came from this area---they were, like me, punishment and society scholars, although they did have more training in criminology proper. I usually feel like a fraud teaching that class, but not for the whole time. Because I'm in Canada, and criminology is a bit different here, for about half the class we depart from what might be seen as mainstream US criminology and move more into critical criminology and punishment and society, both of which are essentially mainstream in Canadian criminology. 

So, given this variability---not just across disciplines but also across international norms about disciplines---I think I might be on the far side of the spectrum of interdisciplinarity and unsettled identity. To what extent does that shape my perceptions---and my advice to students and colleagues about framing themselves and their research? 

These questions have been forefront in my mind over the last year or so, and I finally decided rather than simply thinking about my own experiences, I should ask other people, in a somewhat systematic manner, what their experiences have been. So I did.

In late December and early January, I sent emails to several dozen scholars asking them to engage with this question: "Are you a criminologist or a sociologist?" (I explain my methodology in more detail below.) I started off with people who could easily be seen as both a criminologist and a sociologist. I wanted to focus on these two disciplines because criminology is very much (or at least is seen to be) an offshoot of sociology, even though it is an increasingly interdisciplinary discipline (see the UPenn crim department, for example). The soc v. crim distinction seems to be the strongest and most troubled, whereas I get the sense that the same is not true for historians or political scientists, although they have their own identity challenges. 

Many of the folks I contacted are self-identified Punishment and Society scholars, some would also or instead identify as Law and Society scholars, and plenty of the folks I contacted would identify with neither of those categories. I wanted a range of responses, not just limited to what will be typical for P&Sers. I also tried for various kinds of diversity in terms of research as well as demographics and national location. While I tried to balance my initial list, I also asked people I contacted to recommend others they thought I should contact, to ensure that I did not just replicate my own network.

I was really curious to see variation in responses: What did people think of the question? Did they take it seriously or think it odd? (Would some dismiss it as insipid naval gazing?) Did they seem enthusiastic? How did they respond substantively? While my response rate was not 100% (it was about 50%), I was heartened that a lot of people eagerly accepted my request to reflect on this question, as is clear from the number of responses following this introductory post. What is more: a lot of people (certainly not everyone) reported enjoying the process and/or finding it useful to think about. Indeed, a number pointed out that this was an important question (in general or for people in our subfield), echoing my own thoughts and motivations for assembling this post. Certainly, some also pointed out that the issues around labelling or thinking about your disciplinary identity is overdone and that the debates about who someone is or is not is somewhat silly; some have also been able to stay above the fray. 

Initially, my plan was to post a single blogpost with the responses embedded as extended quotations. However, because so many people were kind enough to contribute, and a lot of them took me up on my invitation to send in several pages, I've decided to present these responses as a part of a series of blog posts. Below, I list the contributors and hyperlink their names to their posts. (If you wish to read this in one sitting, I recommend right clicking on each link to open it in a series of tabs, or you can just go to the homepage for the blog and scroll down---the posts are not in a substantive order.) I anticipate receiving some more responses in the coming weeks, as some people were busy with the start of the semester, and I will update this list as they come in.

Before closing this post, I want to express my appreciation to everyone who took the time to write down their thoughts on this question. I am so grateful for the enthusiasm and generosity they showed. I believe this conversation will be a fruitful one, not only for P&S scholars to think about as a field, but also for scholars in other fields who face challenges relating to their interdisciplinarity. I also think it will be an important conversation for junior scholars---graduate students and early career researchers---to witness and take part of, since these tensions are not always made explicit and sometimes you learn the hard way. Finally, although I've mostly framed this discussion as a one of challenges and tensions, I hope this conversation also gives us all the chance to reflect on the benefits of and creativity enabled by interdisciplinary research---basically, it's worth it.

Contributors (with links to their posts)


I initially asked 27 people. My goal was to try to balance gender as much as possible, but also get some international variation; variation in which departments people work in (mostly soc and crim, but also other types of departments); variation in PhD discipline (incl. those without a soc PhD who are working in soc departments); some variation in people who study just crime, just punishment, or both; and variation in career stage, starting with people in grad school who have jobs lined up all the way through to super well-established Big Name people. Then, at my request, these folks also recommended others for me to email (and sometimes I asked that group for recommendations, but between the repetition of names but also the growing number of respondents, I stopped asking for more recommendations). In total, I reached out to 40 people, and I received substantive responses from 20. (In terms of what type of selection bias we might see from this, I had a worse response rate from non-Punishment and Society folks, especially sociologically trained folks who are more squarely located in mainstream U.S. criminology. Interestingly, that has happened before; see Bosworth and Hoyle's Introduction to What is Criminology.)

One observation I had in the process of coming up with folks to contact was how many people I came up with as potentially useful respondents. I came up with a lot---even just limiting my focus to people at the boundaries of criminology and sociology. Meaning, I think this question of disciplinary labelling can be a broad issue that many folks in P&S, and beyond, face. (And then, of course, people came up with other names of folks they thought would also have interesting identity issues!) 

What did I actually ask people? In my email asking for participation in the form of contributing text for me to reproduce as part of this post, I explained: 
"The motivation for the piece is to explore the tensions surrounding how a person is labeled, particularly for those of us who could equally well be characterized as a criminologist, a sociologist, or a criminologist and a sociologist. For example, sometimes people are included or excluded on the basis of which label they use or others impose on them, whether this happens in the context of the job market, publication, or other opportunities like speaker series or field-level service. I'm interested in understanding what other people make of these tensions and how they navigate them. I think this post will resonate with a lot of punishment and society folks and seeing how other (especially successful) folks navigate these tensions should be potentially useful as people (especially junior people) seek to navigate these tensions on their own... I am intending for these questions (what you make of these tensions and how you navigate them) to be broad so you can take it in whatever direction makes sense to you, but I’m happy to elaborate if that would be helpful."
In terms of length, I gave people free range: a few sentences, a few paragraphs, a few pages---whatever they felt appropriate and felt like doing.

Finally, I gave folks the option to include their name or not---most said I could use their name, and only a few wished to keep it anonymous, so I include their responses as "Anonymous" with no other identifying information beyond what they provided in their response.

All responses are posted in their entirety and unchanged from their original submission (except sometimes some formatting things to fit with the blog page layout). 

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