I seek to understand why we (societies) punish in the ways we do at different times and places in history. In particular, I am interested in how penal change is possible—what causes a society to adopt new practices or abandon old ones, and what limits are placed on individuals’ efforts to effect change. I approach these questions through two lines of inquiry.
First, I examine punishment historically focusing on particular periods and “moments” of change. My recent research primarily focuses on the period considered the “birth” of the prison in America (1776-1865)—the period during which the prison became most entrenched in our penal imagination—but my work extends from 1682 to ~1920. Increasingly, I have become less interested in social contextual explanations for penal change and more interested in the factors internal to the penal system, including the organizations, administrators, and front-line workers charged with meting out punishment and the technologies of punishment themselves. My research examines the lasting consequences of these internal factors, not only for penal practice, but also for penal policy and change.
Second, I examine prisoners’ adaptations to prison life—especially those activities that have been or may be labeled as resistance. My research on prisoners’ frictional activities and political resistance seeks to understand not only why prisoners engage in such activities but also under what circumstances this behavior leads to significant policy change. A major theme underlying these projects is an interest in how this behavior is interpreted by the prisoners themselves and others and with what consequences.
Understanding why we punish how we do—whether at the policy level or behind the scenes in practice—is incredibly important, particularly in the current context of American mass incarceration. Punishment is a powerful social institution that reflects and shapes important realities about a society, especially that society’s social ordering along class, race, and gender lines. Consequently, punishment affects not only those experiencing punishment, but also those beyond its technical reach.
I approach the sociology of punishment by examining penal philosophy, policy, and practice at the individual, organizational, and societal (state/national) levels. As an interdisciplinary scholar, I embrace variety, always searching for the best tools to answer my research questions. I employ both qualitative and quantitative methods and utilize both historical and contemporary data. My research spans micro- and macro-levels of analysis. I draw from organizational theory, law and society, penal history, and prison sociology.
I am a member of the Law and Society Association, American Society of Criminology, American Sociological Association, Society for Empirical Legal Studies, and the American Society of Legal History. With Hadar Aviram, I co-organize the Law and Society CRN 27 Punishment & Society. I am also a member of the Board of Trustees for the Law and Society Association, a member of the Section Council for the American Sociological Association Section for Sociology of Law, and a member of the editorial board for the Howard Journal of Crime and Justice.