Chris Uggen's Blog

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Buzzo on Chemicals and Creativity

A promising student recently told me that s/he found drugs and alcohol "necessary" to do really creative work. "That's bovine excrement," I explained (though a bit more emphatically and not exactly in those words). 

Elaborating, I suggested that any short-run benefits to such a strategy quickly morph into much larger long-run liabilities. Plus, there are far healthier ways to address the underlying problems that the chemicals purport to solve -- try running or blogging, for example, if you want to overcome inhibitions, anxiety, or writer's block. I'm not sure whether my li'l lecture got through to the student, but I'm glad I've now found a more authoritative expert to cite on this subject: Buzz Osborne, a fine musician with a three-decade track record. In an Onion A.V. Club interview this January, King Buzzo lays it on the line.
Buzz Osborne: He had it all. He was a great singer, a great songwriter, and an unbelievable guitar player. And now he’s dead. So that’s how he blew it. It’s the biggest blowing it of all. What a dumbass. 
Onion AV Club: There are some people that argue that it was the drugs that made him artistic.
Buzz Osbourne: So, let me get this straight, if I take LSD and heroin, I’ll play like Jimi Hendrix? Really?! I beg to differ. I guarantee there are guitarists down at Guitar Center without a record contract that are on LSD and heroin and will never make any money playing music. They’re putting that little theory to the test every day. I don’t buy it. I don’t care what you do, but I don’t see alcohol and drugs as being anything other than a way to make whatever problems you have in your life bigger. There’s not a problem in the world you can’t make bigger by drinking a fifth of whiskey. If it worked the other way, they would market it as “problem solving whiskey.” But I believe in personal freedom, and you should be able to do what you want, but you should understand that when you kill yourself with booze and drugs, I’m going to think you’re stupid. That’s just how it is.

Had my student approached Mr. Osborne, he might've replied by paraphrasing Lloyd Bentsen's response to Dan Quayle in '88. "I knew Kurt Cobain. Kurt Cobain was a friend of mine. Kid, you're no Kurt Cobain." The rest of the article is a good read, as Buzzo identifies the precise moment when your favorite band "blew it." 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Screens for Glass Houses

strainerSocial media feeds are like carnival money booths: we snatch away greedily as the links swirl past, but we're rarely enriched by the experience. In the rush to process so much so quickly, we've become lousy filters for one another – recommending “great articles” that ain't so great by social science standards. 

Many rapidly-circulating stories offer grand assertions but paltry evidence about the social world. It seems silly to direct much intellectual horsepower at every li'l item whooshing past (why, that Upworthy post needs an interrupted time-series design!). So people seem to hit the “thumbs up” button if they like the sentiment and send it down the line. Passing along such blurbs can seem like a modern equivalent to the kindly/nosy relative who sent us Dear Abby clippings in the newsprint era. Yet there’s a danger to indiscriminate recommendations that can subvert our authority as experts. In my case, I've developed a set of policy preferences on crime and economic issues, which I adjust in response to new evidence. If I start endorsing weak studies just because they affirm my preferences or prejudices, then I’d rightly be considered a hack.

 As conservatives like to remind progressives -- from the comfort of their thin-paned glass houses -- there’s a big honking gap between the truth about the world and the truth we’d like to believe about the world. Accordingly, there’s a big honking gap between a “great study” and a “great sentiment” that neatly aligns with our views. And, unlike your kindly/nosy relative, good social scientists have a real responsibility to evaluate the quality of the evidence we cite – especially when we claim to be experts on a matter.

Sometimes we forget that social science provides mighty tools and deep training in evaluating evidence. For example, any good sociologist should have a pretty good sense of whether a given sample is likely to be representative; whether a design is best suited for making causal, descriptive, or interpretive claims; whether to gather data from individuals, groups, or nations in making such claims; and, how to make sense of complex processes that unfold dynamically across all these levels. But while we might closely and carefully scrutinize research methods in our professional work, we seem to get beer goggles whenever a sexy story flits past on Facebook. When I suspect I might be playing too fast and loose with such stories, I use a three-step approach to consider the evidence:
  1. Restate the central empirical claim (e.g., raising the minimum wage reduces crime)
  2. Identify the theory and evidence cited to support that claim (e.g., a simple plot showing lower crime rates in states with higher minimum wage levels)
  3. Evaluate the design rather than the finding. Is the design so elegant and convincing that I would have believed the results had they gone the other way? Or would I have simply dismissed it as shoddy work? (e.g., a simple plot showing higher crime rates in states with higher minimum wage levels).
Depending on the direction of the wage-crime relationship, my reaction would have changed from "See! This shows I was right all along" to "Bah! These fools didn't even control for income and poverty rates!" Of course, few of the stories flitting past can withstand the strict scrutiny of a top peer-reviewed journal article. But while I might still circulate them for descriptive or entertainment value, I'm now making fewer unqualified personal recommendations. I'd rather reserve the term “great study” for designs that are so spine-crushingly beautiful that they might actually change my mind on an issue. Researchers know that winning over skeptics is way more fun -- and way more important -- than preaching to the converted. At TheSocietyPages, this process always animates our board meetings, in lively debates about the research evidence that merits highlighting in our podcasts, citings, TROTS, reading list, and feature sections.

As Clay Shirky says, "It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure.” At TSP, we'll do our best to screen for solid evidence and big ideas about the social world, in hopes that we can all grab something worthwhile from the information swirl.

- originally published on The Editors' Desk at TSP

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Productive Addicts and Harm Reduction

In the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman's sad death, many are calling for various "harm reduction" approaches to substance use. Proponents of harm reduction have identified lots of ways to reduce the social and personal costs of drugs, but they often require us to shift our focus from the prevention of drug use itself to the prevention of harm. Resistance to such approaches often hinges on the notion that they somehow tolerate, facilitate, or even subsidize risky behavior.

This tension emerged clearly in my new article with Sarah Shannon in Social Problems. We re-analyzed an experimental jobs program that randomly assigned a basic low-wage work opportunity to long-term unemployed people as they left drug treatment. In some ways, the program worked beautifully. The job treatment group had significantly less crime and recidivism, especially for predatory economic crimes like robberies and burglaries. After 18 months, about 13 percent of the control group had been arrested for a new robbery or burglary, relative to only 7 percent of the treatment group. Put differently, 87 percent of those not offered the jobs survived a year and a half without such an arrest, relative to 93 percent of the treatment group who were offered jobs.
A randomized experiment that shows a 46 percent reduction in serious crime is a pretty big deal to criminologists, but the program has still been considered a failure. In part, this is because the "treatment" group who got the jobs relapsed to cocaine and heroin use at about the same rate as the control group. After 18 months, about 66 percent of the control group had not yet relapsed, relative to about 63 percent in the treatment group. So, there's no evidence the program helped people avoid cocaine and heroin.
From an abstinence-only perspective, such programs look like failures. Nevertheless, even a crummy job and a few dollars clearly helped people avoid recidivism and improved the public safety of their communities. So, did the program work? From a harm reduction perspective, a jobs program for drug users surely "works" if it reduces crime and other harms, even if it doesn't dent rates of cocaine or heroin use.  
Productive Addicts and Harm Reduction: How Work Reduces Crime – But Not Drug Use Christopher Uggen and Sarah K. S. Shannon Social Problems Vol. 61, No. 1 (February 2014) (pp. 105-130) 
From the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal to the Job Corps of the Great Society era, employment programs have been advanced to fight poverty and social disorder. In today's context of stubborn unemployment and neoliberal policy change, supported work programs are once more on the policy agenda. This article asks whether work reduces crime and drug use among heavy substance users. And, if so, whether it is the income from the job that makes a difference, or something else. Using the nation's largest randomized job experiment, we first estimate the treatment effects of a basic work opportunity and then partition these effects into their economic and extra-economic components, using a logit decomposition technique generalized to event history analysis. We then interview young adults leaving drug treatment to learn whether and how they combine work with active substance use, elaborating the experiment's implications. Although supported employment fails to reduce cocaine or heroin use, we find clear experimental evidence that a basic work opportunity reduces predatory economic crime, consistent with classic criminological theory and contemporary models of harm reduction. The rate of robbery and burglary arrests fell by approximately 46 percent for the work treatment group relative to the control group, with income accounting for a significant share of the effect.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

We Are All Criminals

purseFew (if any) of us have abstained from crime completely. And recognizing our own criminality is often an important first step in understanding the situation of those who are caught and punished for crimes. I use self-report delinquency surveys to show this commonality to my students, but the traveling exhibit We Are All Criminals makes the point far more emphatically. The multimedia project tells our stories -- the millions of people who have committed felonies and misdemeanors but managed to avoid the stigma of a criminal record. Its architect is Emily Baxter, a visionary Minnesota attorney and Director of Public Policy and Advocacy at the Council on Crime and Justice. From the site:
Participants in We Are All Criminals tell stories of crimes they got away with... The participants are doctors and lawyers, social workers and students, retailers and retirees who consider how very different their lives could have been had they been caught. The photographs, while protecting participants’ identities, convey personality: each is taken in the participant’s home, office, crime scene, or neighborhood. The stories are of youth, boredom, intoxication, and porta potties. They are humorous, humiliating, and humbling in turn. They are privately held memories without public stigma; they are criminal histories without criminal records.  
We Are All Criminals seeks to challenge society’s perception of what it means to be a criminal and how much weight a record should be given, when truly – we are all criminals. But it is also a commentary on the disparate impact of our state’s policies, policing, and prosecution: many of the participants benefited from belonging to a class and race that is not overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Permanent and public criminal records perpetuate inequities, precluding thousands of Minnesotans from countless opportunities to move on and move up. We Are All Criminals questions the wisdom and fairness in those policies.
You can see much of the project online, attend one of the public events, or attend Ms. Baxter's presentation at the American Society of Criminology meetings in Atlanta this November 23rd.

Saturday, October 26, 2013


We've lost a true friend and remarkable colleague. Tim Ortyl was an extraordinary young sociologist and TSP grad board member. His countless friends are shocked and saddened by news that he'd passed away yesterday of natural causes due to epilepsy. It is too early and too damn painful to post personal recollections or pictures -- especially when Tim's joy, sly wit, and vitality seem to leap from every image. But his talents and range as a sociologist are amply displayed in the publications he leaves behind, his public writing and podcasts for TSP and Contexts, and in the care and commitment with which he taught hundreds of students about statistics, gender, family, and sexuality. We mourn Tim Ortyl as a young friend with limitless potential, but we also recognize him as an accomplished and respected sociologist.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Politics as a Vocation

HodgesI've long believed a graduate degree in the social sciences provides excellent preparation for elective office. We learn to critically analyze data, to abstract from individual cases to broader social processes, and to understand how both powerful institutions and grass-roots movements shape the social world.

Though few U.S. sociologists have entered the fray since Pat Moynihan left the Senate, our training and experience should prepare us well for many aspects of the political arena. Consider today's Star-Tribune  profile of Betsy Hodges, who is making a strong run to become mayor of Minneapolis. Ms. Hodges, who did her graduate work in sociology at Wisconsin, is characterized in the following terms:
  • "numbers-oriented and careful with her words"
  • "adept at untangling complicated financial matters"
  • "a theme of activism around social justice"
  • a concern with "people being separated from one another by things that don't matter"
  • showing "leadership above and beyond her own stated personal views and keeping people together"
Ms. Hodges certainly possessed many of these skills and orientations before entering graduate school (though I believe that Wisconsin implanted a "numbers-oriented and careful with words" chip in all graduate students throughout the 1990s). So why don't more of us pursue politics as a vocation? I got a glimpse of the answer when I chided a legislator for not "demonstrating courage" on a crime policy. He said, "its a helluva lot easier to be courageous when you're not running for reelection. Give me your university tenure and I'd demonstrate courage up the [wazoo]." Good point, that -- and all the more reason to appreciate courageous sociologist-politicians like Betsy Hodges.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Gates Brown and Desistance

GatesBrown2If I wrote a novel about an ex-prisoner who became a successful major league ballplayer and Detroit legend, I'd probably name him "Gates" Brown.

Nah, too obvious.

William "Gates" Brown died Friday at 74. Mr. Brown was among the greatest pinch hitters in baseball history, batting an absurd .450 in 40 pinch-hitting appearances (and .370 overall) for the Tigers in their 1968 championship season. As a kid, I admired him for his cool demeanor at the plate, the fine career he fashioned from a very specialized skill, and a near-Ruthian story about toting hot dogs on the basepaths. What's not to like?

On the backs of baseball cards, they generally list information like "Bill enjoys bowling in the off-season!" rather than "Bill did 22 months for B&E!" -- and athletes of the day were quite content to keep their criminal histories in the closet. Still, even as a little leaguer, I knew something about Mr. Brown's past.  His 1974 Topps card, which I happen to have in my office (don't ask) says, "Gates makes public appearances for the Tigers." And he did just that, according to this 1974 piece from The Argus-Press, which details his efforts to get kids "on the right track" and his television appearances discussing his prison history. He'd done 22 months in the Ohio State Reformatory at Mansfield -- an iconic prison used in certain Shawshank Redemption scenes.

Mr. Brown was also forthcoming about the racism he endured coming up the ranks in the Jim Crow south of 1960. Because the first year of his career was spent on probation, he knew that reacting physically to racist fans and coaches would quickly put said career to an end.  Nevertheless, Mr. Brown progressed quickly through the minor leagues, playing 13 years in Detroit and then serving as hitting coach from 1978 to 1984.

So, while baseball fans will remember Gates Brown as the consummate pinch hitter, the matter-of-fact and compelling manner in which he told his desistance story is also well worth remembering.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

TSP @ White House

hagan_foster13I was surprised to receive an invitation to speak at the White House this August, as part of a parental incarceration workshop sponsored by the American Bar Foundation and National Science Foundation. Though I'd written a bit on the subject and had followed the research closely for a decade, I could not claim any great expertise. Fortunately, they didn't need me for that. They'd already assembled an impressive roster of experts to speak on topics such as demography and family dynamics, behavioral and health problems, education and exclusion, justice policy, and caring for children. My job, according to the draft agenda, was to offer "concluding comments" in the final half-hour session. Or, as John Hagan put it, "Just do what you do."

Riiiiight. Do what I do.

Well, I couldn't just come out and ask what I do, so I decided to do TSP. Here's a short version of my email response:

My plan is to come in with a few minutes of my own material, but to really spend the time synthesizing and connecting across the presentations and discussants. I'll have to do some of this on-the-fly, but I'd be delighted if you could provide the available slides in advance. If that's not workable, that's ok too. I'm not planning to talk for the full half-hour, but to offer some take-home points of consensus and dissensus, inviting reactions from the experts assembled. This sort of thing might be useful in a policy group (especially reprising points made in the morning sessions that get lost by afternoon). I'll then speak briefly about points of contact with my own research.

uggen_whitehouse_13So, after a strong kick-off by Bruce Western and a full day of panels by real experts, I took this approach at the podium. Seeing the slides in advance, it started to become clear how the research evidence fit together. The organizers had done a terrific job recruiting the experts. The experts, for their part, had made powerful new contributions to knowledge. And, throughout the day, an audience of policy leaders, practitioners, and political actors had been offering incisive commentary and questions.

As you might imagine, my notes were a hopeless mess, since I was constantly either crossing things out (when thunder was stolen) or reframing them in light of what the speakers actually said (when the best stuff wasn't on the slides). But thinking about the talk as a TSP article, I tried to draw out five jargon-free social facts from the evidence presented -- and then to connect them with the social choices and policy levers each implied.

I'm pretty sure I didn't say anything brilliant, but I hope that I communicated something useful. Editing Contexts and TSP, I've learned that social scientists can sometimes be especially useful when we examine and call attention to work that is closely related but not identical to our own. And that when we take the role of reporters rather than experts, we're pretty well positioned to identify and explain the impressive accomplishments of our colleagues.

Friday, August 02, 2013

If You See Something, Say Something

apple_Doug88888A shedload of sociologists descends on New York next week for a big annual meeting. As we scuffle for jobs and book deals or steel ourselves for presentations, the vibe can be a bit tense in the hotel lobbies. It isn’t easy to present new ideas to an audience that prides itself on the critical analysis of new ideas.

But there’s a small move you can make to improve said vibe, whether you’re a professional academic or a civilian reader who just enjoys sociological writing. Has anyone's work inspired or influenced you? Did a writer turn a particularly memorable phrase in an article or post on TSP or elsewhere? If so, tell them about it! Send a quick note or strike up a conversation with someone whose work you’ve enjoyed and tell them so.

A good compliment is an amazing restorative – enough to sustain most of us for a year. But there’s a strong professional bias against giving and receiving compliments, as sociologists take a jaundiced view of the practice. A 2012 study is titled “apple-polishers, butt-kissers, and suck-ups” and most research on compliments points to class, race, and (especially) gender disparities in ingratiation. But there’s also a grain of truth in Oscar Wilde’s admonishment in Lady Windermere’s Fan: it is a great mistake to give up paying compliments, “for when we give up saying what is charming, we give up thinking what is charming.” 

Compliments can be an unexpected delight -- people noticing your name tag or sending an email out of the blue (especially when you're not chairing a hiring committee). And the more obscure and left-field the compliment, the better. Kind words about a newsletter piece, a talk for a community organization, or a small contribution to a book that sold 5 copies are especially appreciated. Looking over the past year, did you find something charming or true in one piece you read? Or, perhaps, in a piece of a piece you read? If so, the author would like to hear about it.

If you’re so inclined, here are a few general characteristics and specific examples of good compliments, as distinct from simple schmoozing. The first is the most important; if you’re not feeling it, the recipient won’t either. And do try to avoid backhanded compliments (saying something positive, and then bringing the nasty).

 1. Genuine
  • Good: “I was struggling with the method until I read your description in that AJR article – it was so clear! I can’t tell you how much that helped me.”
  •  Less good: “I saw your new article in AJR. It must be so nice to be friends with the editors!” [tip: resist all temptation to follow-up a compliment with an “it must be nice to…” or “I wish I had…”].
2. Personal
  • Good: “As an ethnographer, I rarely find quantitative research that taps into what I’m doing. But you really seem to ‘get’ the processes I’m seeing in the schools.”
  • Less Good: “Your work has decent face validity.”
3. Acknowledge Effort
  • Good: “Please tell me it took you all day to write that last paragraph – you completely nailed that civic reintegration idea.”
  • Less Good: “I’ve seen your blog. I wish I had so much extra time on my hands!”
4. Specific
  • Good: “I really liked your health disparities review piece, especially how you pulled in public health stuff – it was great for my prelim.”
  • Less Good: “I’ve read a lot of your articles” [As an old friend once said, “that’s how I know they’re lying – there aren't that many of my articles to read!”]
5. Memorable
  • Good: “Smashing network diagrams!”
  • Less Good: “Nice slides.”
Don’t be surprised if the recipient of your compliment doesn’t know how to respond (usually, a simple “thanks” will do). We’ve been socialized to expect ulterior motives or to think our work isn’t worthy of kind words. But don’t worry about embarrassing those you compliment. As Erving Goffman pointed out, when a person receiving a compliment blushes from modesty, she may lose her reputation for poise but confirm a more important reputation for modesty.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Sesame Street on Incarcerated Parents

I don't recall any "So, your dad's in prison" discussions on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood or Captain Kangaroo, but United States criminal punishment has increased greatly since my preschool days. Arturo Baiocchi sends along this powerful Sesame Street clip addressing parental incarceration in their "Little Children, Big Challenges" series. The short video is heartbreaking in concept and in execution, but I'm glad to see more people and institutions reaching out to support the children of incarcerated parents. For those interested in the numbers and the effects of parental incarceration, I'd recommend the excellent series of articles and upcoming book by our friends Sara Wakefield and Chris Wildeman.


Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Kieran Healy on Paul Revere and Social Networke Analysis


An elegant design, compelling evidence, and a timely story rendered exceptionally well. Sociologist Kieran Healy's wonderful post on using metadata to find Paul Revere (and/or Jack Black) is now attracting megareaders at Slate. The opening lines:

London, 1772. I have been asked by my superiors to give a brief demonstration of the surprising effectiveness of even the simplest techniques of the newfangled Social Networke Analysis in the pursuit of those who would seek to undermine the liberty enjoyed by His Majesty’s subjects. This is in connection with the discussion of the role of “metadata” in certain recent events and the assurances of various respectable parties that the government was merely “sifting through this so-called metadata” and that the “information acquired does not include the content of any communications."


I cannot show you the whole Person by Person matrix, because I would have to kill you. I jest, I jest! It is just because it is rather large. But here is a little snippet of it. At this point in the 18th century, a 254x254 matrix is what we call Bigge Data. I have an upcoming EDWARDx talk about it. You should come.

I won't spoil the ending, but Dr. Healy's explication is masterful, engaging important civil liberties questions while bestowing some serious geek cred to social network analysis. A good methods piece both intrigues and inspires, inviting the reader to pick up some new tools while reducing the real or imagined barriers to doing so. Why'd he write it? From today's update:

I wanted to give non-specialists a sense of how the structural analysis of what’s being called “metadata” works, and to show in a fun but hopefully telling way how much you can get out of that approach. So I tried to emphasize that I was using one of the earliest, and (in retrospect) most basic methods we have, but one that still has the capacity to surprise people unfamiliar with SNA. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Ban the Box Now Law in Minnesota

mnloveYou might have heard that Minnesota Governor Dayton just signed Freedom to Marry legislation, but he also made Ban the Box the law-of-the-land-of-10,000-lakes.  Megan Boldt describes it succinctly at

Gov. Mark Dayton this week signed a bill that would ban employers from considering a job applicant’s criminal history until the applicant has an interview or is offered a job. Supporters of the bill, dubbed “ban the box,” have argued the change allows people who have made mistakes to be considered for a job on their merits and skills, instead of having their application immediately discarded. Since 2009, Minnesota has required all public employers to wait until a job candidate has been selected for an interview before inquiring about criminal history.

I can claim no credit (or blame, I suppose) for this development, but I can brag a bit about amazing Minnesota graduate students like Sarah Walker and Rob Stewart, community leaders like Mark Haase at the Council on Crime and Justice, and many formerly incarcerated men and women who came forward to tell their stories and build support for this legislation.

Yes, employers can and will still discriminate on the basis of a criminal record, but the research literature suggests that ban the box is a tremendously important step. In my Minnesota audit study on low-level records, for example, 25% of the hiring authorities we interviewed told us they wouldn't consider any (hypothetical) applicant with a record, but they were much less likely to discriminate on that basis when confronted with a real human being applying for a job. And in Devah Pager's important audit studies (and my own as well), personal contact with a hiring authority is a powerful, powerful predictor of "callbacks" from employers. So, I'm optimistic that Ban the Box won't simply waste applicants' time -- or that of employers. 

For a national perspective on these laws, check the recent EEOC guidance on the topic and a useful page from the National Employment Law Project. And, yes, I'm already scheming to evaluate implementation and outcomes...

Monday, May 13, 2013

Sociological Science

creative commons photo by brad stabler Well, our TSP offices are buzzing about the announcement of Sociological Science, an exciting new open-access research publication. There's a very accomplished editorial team in place, with a clear commitment to "speed, access, debate - and a light touch" -- fine attributes for journal editors, as well as guitar players. To keep everything free and open-access, the project will be supported by submission and publication fees charged to authors, rather than subscription fees or association dues.

Sociological Science is distinctive in positioning itself as a rigorous peer-reviewed outlet for primary research. Our friends Jenn Lena, Brayden King, Mike3550, and many others have already offered thoughtful posts and comments. I too have loads of advice for the editors, but I suspect they're getting enough advice already (and the really useful stuff is best conveyed off-line). Instead, I'll just offer a few words for the new journal's prospective authors and readers.

Try to remember that editing any sort of publication is a labor of love, since the ratio of effort to reward (however defined) is usually pretty high. I can see that the team has already invested a lot of thought and hard work in the venture already. This is especially the case with a DIY effort, so let's cut the new editors a little slack as they get off the ground. It is always easy to find fault with something in a publication (you call that kerning? how could the first issue completely *ignore* the Freedonian situation?), but initiatives like this are almost always undertaken with a civic-minded/public-goods orientation. I guess I do have one suggestion to pass along to the editors: celebrate each milestone, well and often!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Weaver & Uggen Event TUESDAY 4/30

UPDATE: Doh! This event is on Tuesday, rather than Thursday.

Join me and the incomparable Vesla Weaver this TUESDAY Thursday, for a spirited conversation on crime, punishment, and democracy at the Hubert H. Humphrey Forum.  As moderator, I'll either be channeling Charlie Rose or Axl Rose, depending on the crowd. All are welcome and admission is free, but advance registration is appreciated.

Is justice blind? Vesla Weaver reveals racial disparities in the American criminal justice system and their implications for undermining full democratic citizenship. Professor Christopher Uggen will moderate the discussion.  Find more information here:

April 30, 12 p.m. | Humphrey Forum
Humphrey School of Public Affairs, 301 19th Ave S Minneapolis, MN 55455

Monday, April 01, 2013

social sciences as STEM disciplines

stemSally Hillsman of the American Sociological Association makes a strong and timely case for sociology as a "STEM" discipline in the February issue of Footnotes. Though STEM is an acronym for "Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics," the social sciences have struggled to find a place at the STEM table.

In response, Professor Hillsman offers three compelling points:

1. Sociology is part of the national science community.
2. Sociology is a core part of applied science.
3. Sociology is a gateway to science for undergraduates.

Not every sociologist self-identifies as a scientist, though it is difficult for me to conceive of my research and teaching as anything but social science. Yet even friendly colleagues in the natural sciences seem surprised to learn that a sociologist like me spends time specifying and testing hypotheses, writing and reviewing National Science Foundation grants, attending the American Academy for the Advancement of Science meetings, and thinking about how my work might contribute to the systematic understanding of the (social) world. By spreading the word about the great diversity of good work being done by our colleagues, I'd also like to think that our Society Pages project can play some role in raising the profile of the social sciences.

The most recent wave of social science legitimacy issues are likely a product of internal conflicts as well as external attacks, but it isn't all doom and gloom. In our view, sociology offers a near-ideal setting for teaching and learning scientific thinking -- the phenomena we study are immediately engaging and accessible, yet their complexity demands critical analysis and sophistication in conceptualization and method. What better setting for educating our students and publics about science?

Friday, March 15, 2013

Restoring Gun Rights to Felons?

When I discuss voting rights for people convicted of felonies, I'm often asked whether I'd favor restoring gun rights as well. Hostile talk show hosts sometimes take this tack, perhaps anticipating a knee-jerk liberal response that will lay bare the contradictions in my position. But I always respond that I haven't done enough research on restoration of firearms privileges to offer any sort of expert opinion on the issue.

Fortunately, others are doing such research. For example, Brandon Stahl of the Star-Tribune examined the 114 people whose gun rights were restored by Minnesota judges over the past 8 years. He found only one new gun crime, a 2011 conviction for carrying-under-the-influence and fifth-degree assault. Of the 114, Mr.  Stahl also uncovered 3 new drunk driving cases and a conviction for violating a protective order by sending a hostile text message. I can't vouch for the rigor or comprehensiveness of the analysis, but it does not appear that judges are routinely giving guns to people at high risk of reoffense. Getting such basic facts is timely and important, as Minnesota State Senator Barb Goodwin of Columbia Heights has introduced a bill that would make it more difficult for former felons  to regain gun rights.

Researching Locked OutI got a glimpse of the issue when I asked Minnesota prisoners about firearms rights. Losing gun rights seemed especially important to the hunters I interviewed, some of whom relied heavily on firearms to put food on the table. Here's an excerpt from my conversation with Daniel, a young American Indian man from northern Minnesota who was incarcerated for burglary. His story didn't necessarily change my mind on the issue, but it helped me see the stakes involved.

Daniel: I believe if you’re a violent felon with gun charges or anything else, you should not be allowed to own or use a firearm. But for those of us that aren’t into that kind of thing, I believe you should be allowed to hunt because it is a means to support your family.You know?

CU: Yeah. So loss of that right is especially important to you, the hunt-, or the firearms?

Daniel: Yeah. Because it’s hurting my family. I mean they look at it, “Well, he’s a felon, he doesn’t get to use a gun. The community will be safer.” Yet they don’t look at it like, “Okay. We won’t let him hunt. We’re taking food out of his kids’ mouths.”

CU: Yeah. So when you say that- So you’re someone who would go out and get a deer or get something-

Daniel: I was born and raised like that. And, you know, it’s not the sport of it. I was never raised like that. It’s not a sport to me, it’s a way of life. Means, you know, to feed my kids.

CU: Yeah. Yeah. So you hunt year-round?

Daniel:  I can’t hunt. I can’t hunt ‘til I don’t know when I get my rights back....

CU:  See ‘cause to me, I think of hunting as like something, you know, one week of deer, and you go and do that. And I don’t think of it in terms of the food. But for you, that’s a big part of it.

Daniel: Right.

CU: And that ha- And since a gun- Let me just make sure I’m tracking. So since a gun had nothing to do with your crime,

Daniel: I should be allowed to own one. ‘Cause you know, even, even if it’s I gotta go in and get a permit once a year, say, to use a firearm, a rifle. Fine. You know, I’ll go in, I’ll pay the extra money for a permit. Plus you know, it’s income the state could be collecting, for whatever.

So hunting and guns were a much bigger deal to Daniel than they were to me -- for reasons that had nothing to do with criminal activity. But it isn't just men. Here's how Mary, a White woman from greater Minnesota who was incarcerated for a drug-related offense, described the importance of hunting in her family:

I can’t hunt. I can’t carry a firearm. And in my family, I have two young boys so, you know, we take [them] out hunting. My husband and I hunt, I hunt with my father, and so on and so forth. We go deer-hunting every year. Well, now all I can do is walk in the bush. I can’t carry a gun. And it makes it difficult. [We’ve been going] ever since I was twelve years old, and I’m forty. That’s an awful long time. 

Diana, another female hunter, offered a similar account. I love deer hunting. I love goose, I love bear. I’m a country girl- that’s the way I was raised. And I am a member of the NR-, well I was a member of the NRA. My father was, I mean, my brother, the whole bit. 

I haven’t done much research on this issue outside Minnesota, but I found that gun rights were also important to former felons in a random sample of Florida clemency applications I examined a decade ago. There, White ex-felons were especially likely to seek restoration of firearms privileges (while African Americans were especially likely to be seeking restoration of voting rights).

Given the potential risk to public safety, I'd likely oppose any sort of blanket restoration of firearms rights -- despite the salience of the issue to those I interviewed and the reassuring absence of gun crimes among those who've had their rights restored. That said, I'd likely oppose the bill presented by Senator Goodwin, which create further barriers for people like Daniel, Mary, and Diana to regain these rights.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Two Ways to Reduce Crime

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe all want lower crime rates, but "how we get there" matters. Rick Rosenfeld and Steve Messner see two basic approaches: (1) we can lock down criminal opportunities through surveillance and control; or, (2) we can reduce criminal motivations by building up the social safety net. Their new Social Welfare Critique of Contemporary Crime Control makes a strong case for the latter approach.

The argument is based less on the relative efficacy or efficiency of these approaches than on our collective vision of the society we'd like to inhabit. Further reducing criminal opportunities will place increasingly onerous restrictions on freedom of movement, association, and other liberties -- and further extend the disciplinary practices of the prison to public life.

Consistent with their institutional arguments in Crime and the American Dream and elsewhere, Professors Rosenfeld and Messner argue that a more robust welfare state can help compensate for the weaknesses of a market economy in promoting and sustaining a viable moral order. They recognize that any (reality-based) crime policy must limit criminal opportunities, but the challenge is to enhance public safety without sacrificing individual liberties and democratic values.  On this count, "welfare state" policies to reduce criminal motivations have much to recommend them over "security state"  policies to lock down opportunities.